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Picture Perfect Peru: 4 Weeks of Slow(ish) Travel

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Dec 9th, 2018, 10:06 AM
  #21
 
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Thanks for this fabulous trip report. I'm awaiting your take on MP, which for me was a sublime experience.
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Dec 9th, 2018, 03:36 PM
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Yes, I will continue to write but I'm currently bogged down by massive pre-holiday cleaning before our guests start arriving on the 13th. It's going to be a loooooong season.>>

we'll be here waiting whenever you need a rest from cleaning/guests. Better still get them to do the cleaning and you write your TR.
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Dec 13th, 2018, 08:18 PM
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I love your thorough review as we are going to Peru in January for an undetermined amount of time. I will be starting off on the right foot thanks to you!
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Dec 13th, 2018, 08:21 PM
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We will definitely be using them for our trip in January!
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Jan 11th, 2019, 11:58 AM
  #25
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Hi all! Holidays are over and our non-stop hosting season ended on the 5th when we said goodbye to the last guest. Never again (always say this and then I forget and do it all over again). Even the kitten that decided to adopt herself into our family has settled in and begun to relax (not so much her siblings yet). All this to say that I'm ready to sit down in front of the keyboard and relive our wonderful trip to Picture Perfect Peru.
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Jan 11th, 2019, 01:43 PM
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Yay!
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Jan 12th, 2019, 06:27 AM
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Day 3 – Lima (Continued)

We woke up early but well rested after soundproofing the room by closing windows (duh!). The plan for the day was to tackle the center of Lima. After enjoying one of the 3B custom breakfasts the very helpful staff got us a taxi/Uber (not even sure now) to Plaza San Martin. This was a good 20-minute drive at 9-ish in the morning. The hotel said if it had not been a ‘bridge holiday’ (Thursday was a holiday, so most people took Friday off) they would have recommended going into the city by bus as it has a dedicated lane and we would have been standing in traffic for over an hour.

The Plan for the day was to follow Lonely Planet’s walk through downtown Old Lima. As soon as we got out of the car, we saw the money exchangers and got enough soles to get us through the next few days. We dove into Hotel Bolívar but is was wayyyyy too early (even for us) to have a Pisco Sour at their famous bar. Our route took us along Jirón de la Unión and the Iglesia de la Merced.

I must admit that I subscribe to the ‘leave-no-church-or-cloister-unvisited’ philosophy. Since any of trip report of mine is bound to be church-heavy I should clarify that was born and raised Catholic, but I do not practice or participate in any organized religion. C was raised very mildly protestant. He worries that I will revert to practical Catholisim in my post-menopausal age. Not happening.


Having said that, I love visiting churches or any place of Faith for that matter. Also, I love art. And there is a LOT of worthwhile art in churches. All this to say that if we see a church open, we go in. Period.

The Iglesia de la Merced is of the oldest churches in Lima. It has some outstanding mahogany altars. A lot of people were coming in to pray by a silver cross that has been worn smooth by countless hands and to ask St. Jude for favors. It might not be a ‘destination’ church but to me it was a worthwhile visit.

We continued along Jirón de la Unión until we reached the Plaza de Armas. Somehow, this unique open space made me really internalize the fact that we were in South America and not anywhere else in the world. Of course, the 200 tour operators wanting to get your business simultaneously also drives in the point, lol (though Cuzco was the most intense hustling for tours and massages).

The beautiful plaza is bordered by monumental buildings and intricately carved wooden balconies which are traditional to Peru's colonial towns.

We went into the Cathedral, a not so interesting neoclassic temple which is the end-result of multiple post-earthquake reconstructions. The choir’s mahogany ‘sillería’ is exquisite. The church’s main attraction is the tomb of infamous (at least in South America) Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the somewhat bizarre story that goes along with it. There is a skeleton body exposed in a glass coffin which was believed the be the conquistador’s for a long time, but then a lead box with a severed head was found in the 1970’s with credible evidence to support it was Pizarro’s.


Having traveled extensively in Spain -where the conquistadores are still hailed as heroes of the country’s Golden Age- it was somewhat of a surprise to see first handed how (understandably) despised Pizarro and his elk are in Peru. As a curious trivia note, the face of Pizarro is used in many Last Supper paintings to portray the image of Judas.

OK, I think this stuff is interesting, but I know its not for everyone. Though I will reiterate that for me it was a very worthwhile visit. Our next stop was the Bishop’s Palace next door. To be honest, the most interesting thing to this building was that outside. The painted Art Nouveau glass ceiling reminded me of the one at Casa Lis, the Art Deco museum in Salamanca. Worthwhile only if one has purchased the combined ticket.

Next thing on the schedule was the changing of the guard by the Palace by the Plaza de Armas. It was 11:30 and this was supposed to happen by noon. So we sat by the stairs in front of the Bishop’s Palace to observe the comings and goings of the world as we waited for this thing to happen. We figured we were also a little higher than street level so we would be able to see the entire thing from above.

Not.

We saw the barricade go up, the tour groups came in and a crowd gathered in front of the fence shortly before noon. Suddenly it was over and everyone dispersed. We did not see a thing. Nada. Zero. We were 100m away and we missed the entire event. Reportedly there is even some music to this and theoretically it should be hard to miss. But we did. If there is anything to see (which I cannot give witness to) one must stand with one’s nose stuck between the fence’s bars. Great.

Time to head to the next destination for the day: The Monasterio de San Francisco. Group visit only and no pictures (strictly enforced) allowed. I will be honest, without pictures I have a hard time remembering what we saw. But after reading the descriptions in the guide books a few times I finally remembered an outstanding Moorish dome crowning a spectacular staircase and a beautiful extensive library. I do remember the visit being too hurried. At least for people like me, who need time to focus on details.

When the visit was done we were stuck in the lunch time void. Visits to anywhere in my agenda were in limbo until after 2:00pm at the very least. Nothing to do but head across Avenida Abancay into ‘modern’ Lima and onto the Mercado Central.

Time for another disclaimer: I love markets. Not true, actually C is the one that likes markets, I adore markets. I am obsessed with cooking, markets, and all the wonderful things that happen in order to get our food to the table. This is an interest shared between C and I; we are willing to make long detours and spend a lot of prime vacation to visit markets.

Just getting to the Mercado Central was an experience by itself. The street vendors offer anything from pots and pans, any imaginable cell phone gadget, plumbing hardware, underwear to bed mattress. Not to mention the food carts selling ripe slices of pineapple, boiled quail eggs, soups, juices, or sandwiches! The smells were enticing. And then the market itself: an explosion of colors, aromas and shapes.

I know that this kind of market experience is not for everyone. Since most of us have become desensitized to where our food actually comes from, seeing butchers and fishmongers do their thing up close can be shocking and even disgusting to some.

I could go on and on but
I will only briefly rave about the multicolored cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and tubers. A cook’s playground. No wonder the food is so amazing if chefs have access to this bounty of fresh ingredients.

We slowly made our way to the lower level where the prepared food stands are. The place was packed with locals from all sorts of life eating cebiches, fried whole fish, rice, French fries, sandwiches, and soups. It was also our introduction to pro-level Peruvian hawkers.

In all the cities we visited, every store, kiosk, restaurant or stand will have at least one person trying to obtain customer for the business they represent. Some are very aggressive and insistent. It can be overwhelming. I’ll openly admit that by the time we were in Cuzco (‘massage madam?’ every 5 steps) I was definitely tired of this practice and by the end of the trip in Trujillo (every other car asking‘taxi sir?’) I was soooooooo done with it.


Neither of us has a problem saying no, but really? Every 90 seconds walking down a street some thing or service will be offered. C just ignored the hawkers but I had a hard time to go by without at least saying a polite ‘no, gracias.’ This is the ONE thing I did not like about Perú. Now that I got that out I can go back to raving about this wonderful country.

We debated whether to risk eating here or not. On the plus side, everything looked delectable and very fresh. One the con side, my Americanized sensibilities were somewhat alarmed by the overall lack of refrigeration and I had been repeatedly warned (in ALL CAPS) by the Inka Trail operator to not have street food or ceviche before the trek. Going back to the plus side, I still had a week before the hike and we did have all the necessary meds back in the hotel if something went wrong. We went back and forth discussing this as we walked past crazy busy lunch counters.

The last items on the con column related to the questionable hygiene of the silverware and dishes used to serve the food, the somewhat visually unappealing internal organs hanging across the hall.


Of course we ate at the first place that had two (tiny) stools available for seating.

For 10 soles (~$3) we had a very tasty thick soup (Peruvians take their soups very seriously), a mixed plate of seafood rice with ceviche and sweet potato, and a glass of chicha (the ubiquitous corn drink that Peruvians imbibe with every meal).


Maybe I should mention another thing which I did not like but happens to be one of C’s main pet peeves: lukewarm food. Almost everywhere we went the food was barely warm. I guess if the food is not really cold from refrigeration then there is no need to dry it out by reheating? C loves his food piping hot, so it took away significantly from his enjoyment of food in Peru. ‘Yeahhhhh…. It tastes ok but it would be so much better if it was hot’ became a frequent phrase. OTOH, we prefer our drinks cool but not cold so not having to specify that was good.

In case anyone is wondering we did not have any GI problems later that evening. I’ll add now, in case I forget later, that we DID have GI distress at different times during the trip BUT I’m convinced that these were secondary effects of altitude and not of the things we ate.

Halfway through lunch we were interrupted by a small procession, marching band and everything, making its way through the market. The vendors all ran out of their stalls to go kiss St. Martin and take pictures. It was such a unique moment!

After lunch our next destination -and one of my Must Do’s in Lima- was the Iglesia de Santo Domingo with its beautifully colorful convent. Here lie the human remains of the three Peruvian saints: Santa Rosa, San Martín and San Juan Macías. The first is dear to me not only because my Catholic High School was named after her but also because it is a very common family name on my mother’s side with a few namesakes in each generation. I remember watching movies about Rosa de Lima and having a graphic novel as child about her life. I loved that book. My grandmother and her sister was devoted animal lovers so, besides Saint Francis, they both held San Martín in high regard. I’ll honestly admit that I had never heard of San Juan Macías before.

Anyway, the Covento de Santo Domingo is an outstanding example of the Peruvian colonial style and an absolutely worthwhile visit independently of one’s religious affiliations or lack thereof. I must have taken 100 pictures of the bright red cloister/courtyard with its fountain. Loved the place. Go there if you have a chance. Only guided visits allowed but I found the pace of this one to be slow enough to absorb leisurely what we were seeing. Or maybe I had visual fatigue by then and was not paying as much attention. Who knows?

Anyway, I enjoyed it very much. It was time to head back to Barranco for happy hour so we headed towards the taxi line. The first cab we approached wanted what we thought was an outrageous amount, so we kept walking. The next cab was in the line but was not as clearly identified as a taxi, but since he still quoted way higher than our ride in the morning we kept walking (though we had been told that this would be the case). We finally got asked by an identified taxi where we were going and the driver said he would takes us back to Barranco for just 5 soles over what we paid the uber ride on the way into town. Price and destination firmly pre-negotiated, we got in and got back to Barranco without problem.


It was still to early for dinner, so we stepped into Ayahuasca bar for a round of Pisco Sours and enjoy the bartenders practicing their flair pours before the hip crowd arrived later in the evening. I think that these might have been the best Pisco Sours of the trip, thick and tart. But when I discovered Chilcanos I entirely stopped ordering them, so it is not a fair comparison. (Best Chilcano Award goes to the Lemograss Chilcano at Fallen Angel in Cuzco…OMG, I wish I had had another one but I was running on a completely empty stomach and it would have flattened me. The hallugenic décor probably helped towards the enjoyment of that drink, lol)

We had made reservations the night before at Isolina and I was eager to try their fare. We were taken to the upstairs (more quiet and relaxed than downstairs but large groups can get loud here too). Thank God we saw the huge portions before we ordered and stuck to the items offered in half-portions. We still had way too much food (and we are big eaters).

I picked stewed chicken mollejas -a traditional dish of Lima- as a starter to share (I think in English they are called gizzards) and they were delicious! Tender and very tasty. Gizzards are fairly common in Puerto Rico so it’s a dish I know and love. C was highly skeptical but he liked them as well.

Then as mains to share I ordered a beef chaufa-style rice with an egg on top with a ripe plantain on the side. Once again, and not for the last time, I was surprised with the familiarity of the flavors. If one would take away the Asian/soy notes, it would have tasted of my childhood. C’s selection was a dish which we are still trying to remember, I’m 75% sure it was stewed kidneys. It was also very good but we were so stuffed from having lunch (we seldom do) and the food we had already had that we could not really enjoy it. With wine and water the bill came to $55 according to my credit card statement.

Our stretched out stomachs very much appreciated the 10-minute stroll back to 3B. This time I closed the windows to isolate the street noise and we slept like babies.

--------
Next: We are off to the Sacred Valley
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Jan 12th, 2019, 07:50 AM
  #28
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Day 4 - A Note on Flying with LAN

We enjoyed one more leisurely breakfast at 3B before heading to the airport for our flight to Cuzco. This would be the second out of five times we would go through this airport. This would be the time to discuss LAN, its baggage practices and my blunder in selecting the type of airfare to purchase.

LAN offers 3 types of fares for the same seat on a plane. The cheapest - the one I purchased- is ‘Light’, you are allowed to bring onboard an 8kg personal item and a 16kg carry on. Each of us traveled with a ‘normal’ backpack, I had a standard size but expandable carry on and C had a slightly smaller suitcase.

We knew in advance that every bag we carried was over the allowed weight. But I had a plan. A good plan.

As a million-mile flier, C has perennial gold status with American Airlines and gets to check in luggage for free. I had been betting on the fact that since LAN is part of the One World Alliance we could check in the overweight carry on and then board with the backpacks which would meet the under 16kg weight.


Not happening. Every time we tried to use a One World perk, LAN blocked us.

To the point where once C was allowed to check in using the Preferred counter but I was not, even though the tickets had been purchased together. Never ever have we encountered this situation with Iberia, British Airways or any other affiliated airline. Not even with Air Nostrum, Iberia's budget airline.


Anyway, we decided to check in the 2 carry-ons, each for $50 (USD) because being forced to do so at the gate would be even more expensive. I take full responsibility for this blunder, though spending the $100 might have still been cheaper than paying the 2nd Tier fare for two. I'm not sure anymore.

With more flights in our future, these charges were going to add up quickly. To make matters worse, I had purchased two separate segments for our flight to Trujillo (ARQ>LIM and LIM>TRJ) so I would not be able to combine that either! Internal Airfare during this trip was already the most we had ever spent during a vacation and it was going to get even more expensive.


We made our way to the gate and observed the boarding process like hawks to see if we could somehow avoid checking in the luggage when we had to fly again.

LAN sets up 3 lanes independent of assigned seat: Priority (the most expensive tickets) boards first and it appeared to us that every single person got to take into the plane every piece of luggage they wanted, next up were the people in the ‘No Luggage’ line (including several large backpacks but no rolling bags), the last group boarding was the ‘Luggage’ line.


A rep constantly walked up and down the 'Luggage' the line, counted luggage and then handed out tickets to people that would have to check in the carryons at the gate at no charge. When they suspected a bag was visibly grossly overweight, they came out with a set comparison ‘official’ weights and the person was taken to the counter. This only happened with rolling suitcases, I’m sure a few hiking backpacks allowed in were over 30kg.

We decided to risk it in our future flights, and not check-in the carryons. We successfully boarded every flight without paying extra (I had my carryon checked in at the gate twice) but I did worry over this on every segment. Was this stress worth the $300 we saved? C says absolutely, he is not very much impressed by rules. Me? I was born a rule-stickler, so I'm not convinced. Please note the irony in this: he is Swiss. I'm Puertorican.

Another thing on flying in Peru: there is no way (as far as I know) to connect between internal flights in Lima without exiting the terminal. One has to go all the way out through baggage claim and hen back in through the regular 'Departures' entrance. I was glad that we had a long enough layover between the Arequipa and Trujillo flights.

Now back to regular Trip Reporting.....
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Jan 12th, 2019, 10:32 AM
  #29
 
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<<I must admit that I subscribe to the ‘leave-no-church-or-cloister-unvisited’ philosophy. Since any of trip report of mine is bound to be church-heavy I should clarify that was born and raised Catholic, but I do not practice or participate in any organized religion. C was raised very mildly protestant. He worries that I will revert to practical Catholisim in my post-menopausal age. Not happening.>>

I am very much of the same mind, Marigross. I love visiting churches though I long since ceased to believe in anything the Church of England tried to inculcate in me when I was a child. Ditto markets, come to that. And I have absolutely no problem with displays of innards. And I find the hawkers oppressive after a while, so much so that I would positively seek out the place that doesn't have them.

Hence I am enjoying your resumed TR very much, though I feel your pain at the airline shenanigans. As with so many of these petty rules, the traveller cannot win. You'd think that we existed to serve them, not vice versa.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 11:02 AM
  #30
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Clarification about the last post, all of our internal flights were with LATAM, which is also LAN but not quite the same. The international flights were codeshares between American Airlines and LAN.

I thought there was an editing function for a while, is that now gone?
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Jan 12th, 2019, 11:43 AM
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LAN became LATAM when they merged with TAM airlines of Brazil... the service and particularly the onflight meals have declined since a few years ago. Although the reservations staff was always terrible it used to be pretty good onboard. But nearly all airlines in South America are strict on carryon luggage and especially strict on flights to Cuzco because of the difficulties with that airport. I've sort of given up trying to carryon a rolling suitcase on domestic flights in South America.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 12:34 PM
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Day 4 – Arrivng in Cuzco and Into the Sacred Valley

We enjoyed one more leisurely breakfast at 3B before heading to the airport for our flight to Cuzco. This would be the second out of five times we would go through this airport. We boarded our flight from Lima to Cuzco. I wished it was a clear day so I could see some snowy peaks but it was not to be.

As a side note, the November sky was overcast for our ENTIRE stay in the highlands. We did not get to experience even a single of the reportedly jaw-dropping starry night skies where you can see the Milky Way, not even in the Colca Valley. Major bummer as I had really been looking forward to this. I guess we will just have to try again.

The descent into Cuzco was not nearly as abrupt as I thought it would be (no idea where I got this notion).
As we deplaned I kept reminding C to slow down and take it easy. He felt fine and I just felt some pressure on my forehead but that might have been more related to dry sinuses than to altitude itself.

OK, diverting again from the main subject. Contact lens wearers: don’t even bother bringing them to Peru unless you are a diligent enough eye-drop user so that you can fight off the dryness. I’m not. I was careless and wound up having to (a) go to a pharmacy for meds and (b) wearing my bottle-bottomed glasses most of the time anyway.

Another major digression, OMG the pharmacists! We walked into a pharmacy in Cuzco, I explained my problem to the pharmacist, he looked into my eye and announced that it was a very common affliction for people not used to the dryness. Then he pulled out small droppers of garamicin antibiotic and de-sensitizing drops, and finally charged me for all this a whopping $7.41 according to my credit card bill. I won’t even go into how much this would have cost back home, but it would have entailed a visit to a doctor with an entire day shot.

I need to learn how to stick to the subject.

We found our Taxidatum driver just outside the baggage claim area and were on our way to Ollantaytambo less than an hour from landing. The drive out of Cuzco is not for the faint of heart. I thought that Lima was crazy, but this was madness and mayhem on an inclined plane. I focused on breathing as I repeated my taxi/bus mantra: ‘Driver is a professional, he probably does not own the vehicle and needs to protect it, he will not jeopardize his source of income.’ There are several logic faults with this mantra, but I choose to ignore them. It has served me well during many, many rides.

What follows is technically not another digression but
I debated whether to write about it or just omit for a while, but it feels wrong to leave out something I was not entirely prepared for and made a profound impression. I also think that trip reports worth anything need to include the not so good things that are bound to happen as well as the things that make us grow up and mature as citizens of this big blue planet.

Exiting Cuzco into its suburbia was a visual shock and an eye-opening experience to say the least. First, most of the buildings seem to be unfinished, with rebar sticking out the roof. This is done purposely to avoid paying full taxes until the property is deemed ‘finished’ so it kind of makes sense, but entire blocks look like shelled-out war zones.

Second, garbage management -specially of plastics- is a serious problem throughout Peru. The outskirts of Cuzco have piles upon piles of garbage just laying around. We saw the pickup service multiple times but not everything is packed so that the collection is efficient, a lot of stuff is left behind. Where there is garbage, there will be indigent people (nope, not going there right now!) and dogs rummaging through it, making the mess even worse.

This brings me to the third point, there are a lot of stray dogs in the suburban areas; they do not seem feral and behave like they are very used to people. Though I did not see famished-looking or severely sick dogs, these animals live, die, and lay their waste on the street. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that except to make my last point.


A lot of people come from the country to live in tiny shared apartments/rented rooms so that they can work in the hospitality business in the city and have no personal space to relax or even cook. In more affluent cities, these apartment dwellers would hang out in neighborhood bars or parks, but in Cuzco there are tons of people just hanging out in the street.

All this to say that small children happily eat, play, and run around garbage piles and animal waste. This made my heart hurt, making me realize how privileged of a life I have always had.

I’m sure this experience is not different from what can be observed in any area outside ‘First World’ or ‘World Class’ (for lack of better terms) destinations and travelers who have ventured further off the beaten path more than I have are probably rolling their eyes at my naiveite. I thought it would only be honest to share these thoughts.

Now, back to the story.
As soon as we left Cuzco behind, the incredibly beautiful countryside opened up. It did not take long before our first alpaca sighting. Getting a chance to observe these gorgeous animals never got old! The road took us along ravines and gorges which somewhat reminded me of the drive up to Estes Park in Colorado (sans evergreen or aspens).

The views were so beautiful that the 3 hours just whizzed by (I might have nodded off a time or two, I always get sleepy riding in cars and altitude makes this worse).
Our hotel for the next 4 nights in Ollantaytambo was the Sol Natura. They really need to get a better photographer because the pictures they post on Booking . com do not make justice to their beautiful property and gardens.

We checked in and immediately had our first cups of coca tea of the many (many!) we would have during the trip. The corner room was huge, with a separate seating area that came in handy when my sister arrived two days later. We even had a partial view of the ruins from our bed! The only (nitpicking) negative thing I can say about the hotel is that I was under the impression that it had a full restaurant, and it was no so. The eating area is only open for breakfast; at least during off/shoulder season.

The location of the hotel is also great. Halfway up from the train station to the center of town, you manage to avoid the not-terribly steep but still uphill and longish (on short breath) walk to the center where most restaurants are.

It was just around 4:00pm when we set out to explore. We went up into town and with minimal yet persistent huffing and puffing, caught our first glimpse of the very impressive ruins of Ollantaytambo. Sadly they were already in the shade to take any decent pictures. Having missed lunch, we were slightly hungry but did not want to spoil our appetites for dinner. When we walked by a busy and delicious smelling ‘anticucho’ stand we knew we had to try them.

Traditional anticuchos (skewers/kabobs) are made with grilled beef heart but these were some sort of mystery meat it was best not inquire much about. The skewer was topped with a small roasted potato. They tasted as good as they smelled.
I will shamefacedly admit that I never got to try the real anticuchos, not because of pickiness but just because the hunger/opportunity combination never materialized. I guess we’ll just have to come back to Peru and try again. Oh well.

Just then an entire wedding party attired in traditional garb walked past us. We tried to catch up with the bride and groom but narrow streets and lack of oxygen interfered. It was a magical moment. I was loving this beautiful town! We wandered aimlessly, taking pictures of the gigantic stones that made up the street walls and the waterways that channel snow melt and rain water along them in the soft late afternoon light and the silver twilight.

When it started drizzling we dove into a coffee shop and nursed two glasses of red wine while we tried and failed to use their wifi. It soon became obvious that Ollantaytambo is not a party town and one should not wait too long to go out for dinner. Empty restaurants started closing up shop after 7:00PM. We randomly picked a restaurant offering trout (C had a taste for it) along the river and on the way back to the hotel for our dinner, a place named Kutimuy.

For 10 soles each, we had a hearty quinoa soup as a first, followed by roasted trout served with French fries, rice and salad. I am still amazed at the quality of the food we had everywhere in Peru at incredibly low (at least for us) prices.

It was still early but we were tired from the traveI day and determined to follow altitude-adjustment advice of limiting the alcohol intake (well… it really says one should entirely avoid alcohol but we can be reasonable here) so we headed back to the hotel back to the hotel. We took two more big cups of coca tea up to the room to drink while we relaxed. Coca tea is stimulating so some people might have trouble sleeping if they drink it late in the evening, just like coffee. But neither of us have a problem with this, we can have an espresso after dinner and sleep anyway so we risked it anyway.

I’m happy to report that we slept well and altitude adjustment was progressing satisfactorily.

---------

Next: The first full day in the Valley turns into a lazy day in the valley.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 04:33 PM
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Thanks, Mari.
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Jan 13th, 2019, 10:18 AM
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Day 5 – Ollantaytambo

We slept in a little and went for breakfast. What a nice spread! It had enough options to provide variety over the next few days. They also offered eggs cooked to order.

Should we talk about hotel breakfasts in Peru?

First the bad to get it out of the way: next time I go to Peru, I’ll detox/wean myself away from coffee beforehand (easier said than done) and just stick to tea. I know that hotel coffee is NEVER good, but most of the ones I tried were plain bad. I drink my morning coffee black and without sugar (I save my calories for wine) so I do get the full taste of the brew. These buffet coffees are made extra strong and one is supposed to cut them down with hot water. I was never successful at getting this right.

Peruvians do not seem to be too much into coffee so the brew stays in the big thermos forever and burns.
In some places I might have asked for ‘specialty’ coffee like a brewed-to-order cappuccino but I never did.

To my surprise several small/roadside restaurants we had lunch in did not offer coffee at all; yet had multiple herbal tea options. The nicer or touristic restaurants where we had dinner all served a decent cuppa on the few occasions we partook.


Now, the breakfast food is an entirely different story! Wow.

Even the cheapest hotel we stayed in had the freshest, ripest, and tastier cut fruits. Melons, pineapples, mangoes and papayas to die for! I do not have much of a sweet tooth, but I’m a sucker for savory pastries. Love those calorie laden little morsels of goodness! Most hotels offered at least one type.
I did try some of the homemade jams/marmalades when I saw them and found them to be consistently delicious and not overly sweet. C was very satisfied with the selection of bread, cheese and meats laid out everywhere we went. Tomatoes and avocados were also frequent finds.

All these breakfasts were included in the room rate.

Back to Ollantaytambo, we lingered over breakfast. And lingered. And lingered even more. We were definitely feeling lazy and not quite up to any big adventures. Eventually all this loitering around got ridiculous, so we got ready to go out and about. The plan for today was to take a driver and go one of the famous Sunday Markets in the valley.

Now, after all these years and more than a few blunders, I should know that I NEED to check my Super Spreadsheet every day before setting out. Or making any kind of reservation for that matter; The Infamous Rental Car Incident in Athens comes to mind…

So I approached the front desk and asked the price of a day trip to Pisac Market. The lady made a phone call and quoted me an outrageous (at least I thought it was) amount of money for a driver. Some of you familiar with the geography of the Sacred Valley might be laughing at me already. Had I looked at my Super Spreadsheet, I would have inquired after the CHINCHERO market (an hour drive away), not PISAC (sort of doable, but several hours drive). I did not even realize this mistake until late that evening.

Not wanting to pay that high price and not really motivated to take a long car ride on two consecutive days, we decided to walk down to the train station and look around before deciding what to do with the rest of our day.

Ollantaytambo is the gateway station for people traveling to Machu Pichu, where everyone needs to change from bus to train. It is a tiny station and gets crazy busy with locals going about their daily business, middle schoolers in excursions, and clueless tourists getting in everyone’s way. All around are vendors selling hats, hiking poles, insect repellant, backpacks, water bottles, sandwiches, chips... everything and anything you might want to purchase before going to Machu Picchu (except coffee, as I would find in a few days).

The real reason I wanted to go to the station was to scope out El Albergue restaurant and hotel. This place is highly recommended to overnight in before taking an early train to Machu Picchu because it is literally inside the station; one must tell the ticket collector that one is going to El Albergue and he will let you in through the turnstile.

The moment you go through the hotel’s door you leave all the madness behind you. What a nice place! We walked past the lovely flowerbeds but did not make it all the way into their vegetable garden. I would have been happy here for an overnight, or maybe 2 nights, but I personally prefer the Sol Natura location for a longer stay as it is closer to town (and all the happy hour places). Of course, one could just take one of the gazillion tuktuk-like motorcycles available in town for transportation up and downhill.

We looked at the menu and found it full of enticing dishes, so we made a reservation for that evening. Next we headed back up to town, stopping frequently to look into all the lovely hotel gardens and shops. Well, these stops might have also had something to do with allowing some oxygen back into our brains). We were not suffering horribly from altitude adjustment but some huffing and puffing uphill was taking place.

Though I do not consider myself a photographer and I only rely on my iphone camera for pictures, I do enjoy capturing images of a few recurring themes: people going about their business, food markets, and doors/door hardware. Ollantaytambo was a treasure trove of all these! I must have taken hundreds of pictures that day.

The hours slipped away unnoticed, lost in the absolute joy of not really having to do something or needing to go somewhere. The true magic of slow(ish) travel.

We browsed through the small but incredibly interesting (to me) food market, somewhat expanded on this Sunday by people from nearby villages coming to sell their crop or merchandise. These women, off the main drag, were all dressed in their colorful and beautiful traditional garb. I finally realized that they do it, not for tourists, but just because this is the way the dress all the time. I kept falling deeper in love with this small yet ever so quaint town.

The plaza at the center of town is surrounded by touristic pizzerias and sandwich places but they are more than adequate to sit outside to enjoy a drink and watch the world go by. We walked up to the ruins and purchased our Sacred Valley archaeological ticket but neither of us felt like going up (and up, and up). So yes, we did not ‘do’ anything at all this day.

Eventually it was time for dinner and we made our way back to the train station and El Albergue. I was really looking forward to this meal and came in with high expectations from reading all rave reviews about this place. This tends to be unfair towards the restaurant.

We were presented with an excellent amuse-bouche of ceviche and quinoa sprouts. C was not feeling like eating anything heavy so he ordered a grilled trout which was good but not dramatically better than others we had. Even the trout we had the night before (at 10 soles for the entire menu) was comparable to the one at El Albergue (41 soles). Plating of this dish was a bit careless.

I ordered a Meat Trio (beef, alpaca, and lamb) served with three sides and three sauces. Let’s talk briefly about ordering meat in Perú. We like our meat medium-rare. We do not mind rare, but it gets cold before we are done eating. Remember our issue with lukewarm food? We both agree that a well-done cut of meat will be consumed only if there is no other choice, but it is not really worth its calories or cholesterol content.

During our 6 weeks in Perú we ordered, described in detail what we wanted but never got that perfectly medium-rare steak or filet. It was always rare (preferable) or with only slightest shade of pink at the center on the far side of medium-well. A shame because the quality of the meat itself was consistently superb.

So I happily ate my (slightly cold and rather bloody) Trio, also served with 3 sides. The vegetables were excellent, I would have been ecstatic with two more portions of them instead of the potatoes (I thought they were dry/mealy) and the (excellent quality pasta cooked perfectly al dente but completely undressed) fettuccini. The 2 of the sauces were great: one made of a local tart berry and the other a chimichurri. The third one was kind of peppery BBQ sauce which I completely ignored after the first taste.

These trios are ubiquitous in nice restaurants across Perú and we never had a bad one. (In case I forget to mention it later, the Meat Trio at Zig Zag in Arequipa was probably the best tasting and the closest to medium-rare that we got. It also helped that it was served on a hot stone.)

So El Albergue it was a bit of hit and miss for us, mostly due to my perhaps unreasonable expectations. With water and wine the bill came to a very reasonable (at least for those like us paying with a strong currency) $66 as per my credit card bill. We headed back to the hotel, poured ourselves some coca tea, and called it a night.

----------------------

Next: To Climb or Not to Climb and Baby Sis Arrives
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Jan 15th, 2019, 10:06 AM
  #35
 
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 59
I would love to see a map where you highlight all of these places. For those of us not as familar with Peru it would make your report an even more delightful read!
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Jan 16th, 2019, 02:02 PM
  #36
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Day 6 – Ollantaytambo (continued) but mostly Random Ramblings

I’m usually a very cool and collected, a rather Zen kind of person. But I’ll tell you a secret, I fretted endlessly about this trip both during the planning and execution phases. Why? Maybe it had to do with aligning 7 segments of air travel, 2 day-long bus/trip excursions, and 3 big and rather expensive packages I had separately bought through agencies (something never do as we always travel independently).

I also had a lot of insecurities about the physical aspects of THE Big Hike.
(Have I mentioned that I’m afraid of heights? That I have depth perception issues? That I do not do well in high altitude? Or that I had not really trained for uphill? But I’ll talk about this in detail when the time comes.)

And then there was the fact that I was also planning a parallel trip for my sister to join us from Las Vegas for a week and do the Inka Trail hike with me.

Now, the last time I planned a trip with her, it ended up wayyyyyyyx10^n different than we both expected. Understatement of the year.


It was to be a ‘closure’ trip, the last item she had on the bucket list with her husband before he unexpectedly sickened and passed away within weeks. Baby Sis and I were supposed to meet in Barcelona and then spend a few days in Granada before she went back and C joined me for our vacation in Málaga. I even had all the hard-to-get tickets (Alhambra at Night anyone? Both the Nazarí Palace AND the Generalife, thank you very much) and sought-after restaurant reservations. It was a beautiful plan.

I happily did all the planning and she did not even know the names of the hotels we were staying because she was too busy trying (and succeeding) to put her life back together. Given that I spent a significant chunk of my career analyzing systemic failures, at least -I- should have known better.

Five days before the scheduled departure, Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico and all [email protected] broke loose. I was stuck in the island dealing with Zombie Apocalypse-like conditions for the next few months. But she made me proud! She stepped up, put on her big-girl panties and went on her very first ‘real’ solo trip. Not only did she carry on, she had a blast!

She even managed to retrieve the impossible-to-get Alhambra tickets without any of the ID requirements, just with a WhatsApp message from me (for weeks the only mode communication intermittently working) with a few sentences explaining the situation, pictures of my passport and CC, and a lot of goodwill from the ticket office in Granada.

Baby Sis is 14-younger than I am. She is also the easier-going one out of a pair of twins. The other twin was (is) more temperamental and constantly demanded attention from our Mom, so this one had to settle for me, lol. I'm the one carrying her in all of our family pictures. All this to say that though she is not my firstborn, she was my first baby. And I was ecstatic to finally share a fun adventure with her.

Back in Ollantaytambo, I woke up early and eager, but mostly for one thing, lol: Baby Sis to arrive today! After another leisurely breakfast and imbibing copious amounts of coca tea we felt energetic enough to head into the ruins in town.

Should we talk about the Boleto Turístico? For C and I, it was a no brainer to get the full S/. 130.00 - aprox. US $ 43 combined ticket. We got our money’s worth as actually went 10 out of the 13 places it covered. For Baby Sis it was not as clear cut, but since I planned for us to hit Sacsayhuamán when we got to Cusco, she bought the full ticket as well. At the end she should have gotten the simple entrance for Circuito 3 (Pisac – Ollantaytambo – Chinchero) for S/.70 and left it at that.

Yes, you can see the ruins of Ollantaytambo from town. And yes, you can see how impressive they are for free. And they ARE impressive (especially if they are your first ruin, lol!) as they rise into the mountain, blending into its shape, defying time and gravity. So, I would understand why anyone would be tempted to skip going in. But don’t! They are just as wonderful up close in all their intricate details as they are magnificent from afar.

One will never comprehend the scale, the sheer massive size of these constructions until one sets foot on them.
C went in with me, but he declined to climb. He is still traumatized from the time I ‘made him’ (according to HIM) do the Samaria Gorge hike in Crete and his knees were shot for the rest of the trip.

BTW, if there is ever a not-worth-killing-you-knees hike, is that one. If I had a redo, I would hike into the gorge from the ferry landing and skip the 10kms of downhill/no view steps.
He stated that he was (understandably) saving his knees for Machu Picchu and I was on my own. What!?!? Free to climb wherever I wanted for as long as I wanted is what he said. He would wait for me by the entrance. All good. Except for one thing: I’m scared of heights.

Going up is not a problem but coming down big or uneven steps will make me break into a cold sweat unless I have something to touch. Which 99.9% of the time that ‘thing’ is C.
(Yeah…. Said by the person just about to hike a portion of the Inka Trail. The irony does not escape me.)

This fear of heights was one of a few which were paralyzing when I was a teenager. As a young adult coming into motherhood, I made a conscious decision to do my best to face my fears and not let them rule my life in order to break the cycle of handicapping anxiety so common in my family. The only way to achieve this is with frequent practice: being familiar with the sensation of being scared often enough to rationally know that I’m not going to die from it, and experiencing the fact that you did NOT die from being scared.

I train for being scared as much as I train for being strong (which has unexpectedly helped tremendously!). I call it ‘Flexing Fear’. Maybe I should trademark it, lol.


Anyone read Frank Herbert’s Dune? The Litany Against Fear? Google it if you haven’t. If I ever get a ‘text’ tattoo it will read: ‘Only I will remain’. Yes, I’m an unrepentant nerd. And yes, I grew up to be an engineer.

So anyway, I am committed to doing something scary a few times a year. Now, with my big milestone birthday coming up, I had decided to go all-in for doing something downright terrifying. Hence the Inka Trail hike. Also, the reason for doing the single-day hike and not the full trail; I couldn’t contemplate the notion of being willingly terrified for 4 days, I’m not into masochism after all.

So up the stairs of the Ollantaytambo ruins I went. All by myself, without the comfort of my husband’s shoulder or hiking poles (I LOVE hiking poles). As with most things you are scared of, it is seldom as bad as you THINK it will be.

Have I mentioned that hiking poles are not allowed in most sites? You will see them in Machu Picchu but only at the hands of hikers coming down from the Inka Trail. They will not be allowed to come through the entrance gate and no poles allowed in any other ruin we visited.

Since this has turned into a post full of unrelated ramblings without much actually happening, I’ll add one more thing: bring a hat. A wide-brimmed hat. Caps do not cut it. Sunscreen only slightly helps. Bring that awful hat you don’t ever want your picture taken while wearing it, people might even try to buy if off from you. And wear long sleeves. The sun is BRUTAL even when it is not hot. Me, the tropical, olive skinned girl, peeled in face, neck, shoulders and even arms during this trip. And I did apply sunscreen in copious quantities.

OK. Enough. I went up, was awestruck by the massive yet elegant solidity of the architecture and drop-dead gorgeous views from the top, managed to get back down without much problems and rejoined C for a walk through the flat part of the park. Overall we spent about 3 hours in the ruins.

Before we headed back to the hotel, we went asking around the town square for a driver to take us the following day through the main sites of the Valley. There are dozens of these guys every morning and afternoon hanging around. You allow them to approach you, you tell them what you have in mind, they make you an offer, and then you are expected to haggle out a price significantly lower than they quoted initially. Then you walk away and do the same thing all over with the next guy. The first guy must see you doing this because then he will come after you with an even lower price.

Except I can't do it. I [email protected] at haggling. I. Just. Cannot. I don't have it in me. C is slightly better at it than I am but he is not really a people's person and even more of an introvert than I am, so he would rather pay a few soles more than intervene in the negotiation himself. The joys of well balanced, long standing marriage.

We only asked 3 guys, just enough to get a good feeling for the going rate. We wound up reserving, not too far below the asking price, with the one guy that actually had his car nearby and could show us the vehicle we would be using for the tour the next day.


Then it was time for Baby Sis to arrive. JOY!!!! She made it to the hotel within 10 minutes of her ETA, another Taxidatum success story.

After she checked in and had her first few sips of coca tea, we relaxed catching up with the many things going on in the family. After that we had round of welcome Pisco Sours at a nearby restaurant.


To my surprise, she was doing so well that she wanted to go that same afternoon into the Ollanta ruins. We very politely inquired if C and I could go back in. The guy that had sold us the tickets the day before was there and he pleaded our case with the entrance person. We were able to go back in! I tell you, plain good manners will take you very far in Perú.

This time I waited down with C instead of going back up, lol.

Another round of drinks and we decided to just go for dinner before Baby Sis conked out from her 24hrs of travel (Las Vegas>Mexico City>Lima>loooooong layover>Cusco and then the ride). We went to Apu Veronica mostly for the view to the river and also over the busy, 1-lane intersection that is a constant source of entertainment for anyone observing the traffic shenanigans but not involved in them.

It was C’s turn to have a Meat Trio which was just as good though in different ways from the one I had the night before, he also thought it was a little too rare but that was fine with him. Baby Sis had the most deliciously tender fillet of alpaca with a gorgeous and wonderfully fresh salad and sweet potato puree on the side. Big hit. I had a duck leg, which I had imagined more as a confit than as fried to crisp, rendering too dry but very tasty.

With sparkling water and wine, the meal for three was a very reasonable $79 USD. We liked this place very much.


Then it was time to go crash for the night.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Next: We Actually DO Something Worth Writing About in the Sacred Valley
marigross is offline  
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Jan 16th, 2019, 04:10 PM
  #37
 
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It's all interesting to me!
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