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Home on the Range September 24, 2009

Posted by Jen Pappas in Arequipa.
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Locals sometimes say “when the moon separated from the earth, it forgot to take Arequipa”. And while this may be somewhat of a stretch, (Volcan Arenal in Costa Rica for example, was much more moon-like in my opinion) it certainly sounds romantic.

      Yesterday Steve and I got up early, scarfed down our free morning cup of tea, bread and jam and went horseback riding. The day before, a tour company had arranged for a taxi to meet us outside our hotel at 9 am and take us out to the ranch, twenty minutes outside the city center.

      When we arrived, we were handed over to Julio, who would be our guide for the next two and a half hours. Maybe it’s some kind of joke put in motion by the universe or revenge for all those tricks I used to play on my sister, but I ended up with an ornery albino horse named Yuma while Steve was given the good-natured Princessa.

      Initially, we were skeptical, following Julio through town and across the highway on horseback did not seem like the beautiful canyon tour we were promised. But soon enough we began the steep climb up from the valley past plots of Inca-age agriculture and amazing scenery. El Misti Volcano and the snow-capped Chachani mountains acted as the backdrop as we meandered through the canyon, past men herding sheep and plowing tiny fields with a single team of oxen. We crossed rivers, galloped through passes, (much to Steve’s delight and my fear) pausing every now and then so Julio could point out one of the many “fighting bulls” chained up inside their paddocks.

Inca-inspired agriculture, aka scenic countryside

Inca-inspired agriculture, aka scenic countryside

      The entire trek, we were accompanied by three black dogs from the ranch, our favorite being Paco, a six-month old Lab who’s favorite past time was punking sheep. We must have looked pretty odd to all the farmers we passed on our way: two gringos and a Peruvian cowboy on horseback, with three wily dogs, causing all sorts of ruckus.

All hell broke loose when a herd of sheep came up the road, completely unafraid of our dogs or the horses.

All hell broke loose when a herd of sheep came up the road, completely unafraid of our dogs or the horses.

      Thanks to my inability to gallop without being bounced into oblivion, my ass is sore as hell and God only knows how many random bruises I may have picked up. Steve is a hopeless country boy at heart, so he loved every minute, especially watching me bounce up and down like a pair of psychotic cymbals.

      When we finally returned to the ranch, we were told we’d be hitching a ride back into town on one of the double-decker tour buses making a pit stop at the ranch. Talk about luck! Not only did we land a private guide for our horseback tour of the canyon, but now we were also getting a free trip on one of the tourist traps? Perfect. And for only $22 a piece. We couldn’t have fabricated a better ending to our already surreal day: cruising back into Arequipa atop the second floor of a bright, red tour bus.

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Happy Birthday September 19, 2009

Posted by Jen Pappas in Nasca and Cusco.
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Yesterday was Steve´s 34th, ahem, I mean 29th birthday, and we celebrated around town at a few of our most favorite haunts. We ended up having a really nice dinner with an older British couple who shared our large table in the outdoor courtyard. It was a good time for all.

jen´s makeshift attempt at getting festive for steve´s birthday.

jen´s makeshift attempt at getting festive for steve´s birthday.

Machu Picchu September 16, 2009

Posted by Jen Pappas in Machu Picchu, Peru Posts.
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It’s rare for an experience to come along that virtually renders language useless. Yesterday, Machu Picchu did just that, so please bear with me throughout this post…

            We traveled to Machu Picchu by train, arriving in the small town of Aguas Calientes three hours outside of Cusco. Immediately beyond the train station lies an enclosed maze of shop stalls selling the usual tourist fare. After weaving through these, we found ourselves in the middle of a makeshift town, flanked by monolithic mountains on all sides. It was unbelievable: sheer, massive cliffs towering over a minuscule smattering of restaurants and hotels in the middle of nowhere.

            We purchased our (expensive) entrance and bus tickets in town before getting in line for the shuttle that would be taking us straight up the mountain with the rest of the tourists. Before I go any further, however, a quick history lesson.

            Machu Picchu means “old mountain” in Quechua, is thought to have been built around 1460 and was only inhabited for less than the 100 years the Incas were in power. To be honest, not much is known about how or why the city was built. It was only re-discovered back in 1911 by an enterprising American, Hiram Bingham, who was actually in search of a different set of ruins. Whatever it’s purpose, one thing remains abundantly clear; Machu Picchu is a magical feat of engineering, still standing high and proud above the Urubamba river chasm some 550 years later.

            Upon reaching the top of the mountain, we were left wondering why in the hell anyone would choose to build a city here. Remote does not describe it, nor does impenetrable. Basically, Machu Picchu is a citadel in the sky. A mysterious fortress built on the apex of the natural world. For anime fans, think “Howl’s Moving Castle” meets South America.

The Machu Picchu money shot

The Machu Picchu money shot

          We spent the next three hours hiking up and down the tiers that make up each level of the city. This place is not for the faint of heart, there are some serious, steep climbs to navigate and very few guardrails or signs. We started out at the guardhouse, definitely the best place for those panoramic, inspirational-type photos the city is known for before detouring off on a small hike that led to an old Inca drawbridge. Very precarious stuff. One wrong step and seriously, down the cliffs you go. (Sorry, moms). We returned to a grassy overlook to rest before braving the tour groups down in the heart of the city.

hike to the Inca Drawbridge at Machu Picchu ...not a good time to trip

hike to the Inca Drawbridge at Machu Picchu ...not a good time to trip

      I can’t be sure, but I think Steve snapped upwards of about 200 photos while we there. Machu Picchu is known for its intricate stonework, so he had a lot of fun playing with the strange juxtaposition of ancient architecture framed within the unreal setting. Alpaca and llamas grazed in happy oblivion among the throng of chattering tourists, only adding to the surreal quality of the entire day.

            All in all, yes, we were amazed and yes, it was impressive, but I think the most lasting impression was how much Machu Picchu plays to the imagination. It’s just a magical place, one that no longer seems possible in our modern time. Steve and I both agreed we could have sat for hours just looking at what lay before us without any need for conversation or cameras.

            We also agreed that llamas are hilarious, old people with health problems should stay at home, and Americans are control freaks. Proof in point: people can pretty much walk wherever they please in Machu Picchu, you could fall off a cliff or die from heart failure and no one would care. The only possible repercussion is being reprimanded by a man with a gym class whistle, and only if you decide to take a nap on the ruins or mess with the llamas.

            Disneyland, this was not. Thank God.

From Nasca to Cusco September 13, 2009

Posted by Jen Pappas in Nasca and Cusco, Peru Posts.
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Well, after our overflight adventure of the Nazca Lines last Monday, it was a good thing we didn´t end up leaving for Cusco until Tuesday evening because we were both fighting some serious nausea after 35 minutes in a 6-passenger Cessna. In order for both sides of the plane to have equal opportunity and see each different figure, the pilot did a series of circles and loops around every single one… Ugh! Steve was okay just looking out the window but staring thru the camera lens and trying to focus the shots ended up getting to him. He was positively green once we landed. Other than that, the flight went smooth. We found the huge trapezoids to be the most impressive because of their sheer size and precision.  The figures were also pretty neat and every time we approached a new one, a voice through our headsets would slowly announce its name in Spanish followed by English: “Mono. Mon-key” It was very sunny out when we were up in the air so a lot of the photos look a little washed out. However, Steve was able to get a good one of “The Astronaut”, one of his favorites. 

We went to a small planatarium at the Nasca Lines Hotel the night before our flight to fill our little brains with some more information. Sounds like they really know absolutely nothing about them for sure. One theory thinks the lines are a marking for water sources, one thinks they were for ritualistic walks, and another feels they were astronomical markers. They gave us all the data they had, and all of them still seem like big guesses. The alien theory wasn´t mentioned but seems like as good an explanation as any. The most interesting thing about the lines is how much total area they collectively cover, and that there’s proof their construction spanned over 800 years! All in all, they were definitely worth seeing. The guy who owns and runs our hostal went on and on in Spanish about them but when we mentioned we were heading to Machu Picchu next, he made it seem like they will pale in comparison.

Nasca in itself is hard to explain. If I describe the physical appearance of the town itself, it would sound like a total dump… it’s a lot more than that really but it is kind of a dump by our standards. At the same time, on the bus ride from Lima we saw areas of towns that would make Nasca feel like paradise. You want to feel sorry for the people living here but when you look at them it’s easy to tell that this is their home, most probably don’t wish for anything else.  If we took Mario, our hostal owner back home with us you’d think Nasca is filled with energetic people full of life and laughter.

We made it safe and sound to Cusco Wednesday morning after a 15-hour bus ride. We had no idea, howver, that we’d have to go up and over the Andes to get there. In Peru, most of the Andean peaks are over 19,000 feet, with one that’s measures in at 22,000! We now know what altitude sickness feels like. Once we got to the top and began heading back down the mountain, bus attendants started handing out cotton swabs dipped in alcohol so you could rub it under your nose and mouth to inhale it. It helped a little but we still felt crappy. After that plane ride over the Lines, the winding bus ride, and the altitude nausea, our bodies were not too happy.

Luckily, Cusco has been more than worth it. The city is the beating heart of the ancient Incan Empire and the archeological capital of Latin America. For us, it’s by far the most European city, with sprawling plazas and narrow cobblestone streets barely big enough for a taxi to fit through. The streets are lined with artesan shops, restaurants, hostels, internet cafes and costumed women hawking everything from jewelry and blankets to pastries and finger puppets. Llamas walk by like its nobody´s business. Behind every nook and cranny is a courtyard or shop.

We are staying in a lovely little hostel at the top of a hill in the Plaza San Blas, a bohemian barrio of Cusco. Somehow, we scored an attic-like room with 4 (?) beds, private bathroom and six nightstands for $25 a night. Breakfast is included but even better is the panoramic view of the city from our rooftop. A short, steep walk down the hill is the Plaza de Armas, Cusco´s city center, and an excellent place for a meal or a drink on one of the balconies overlooking the square.

Our first day here, still fighting altitude sickness, (Cusco´s elevation is 11,000 feet) but intent on exploring, Steve got suckered into holding a baby lamb by a woman in traditional costume who charged 5 soles, ($1.75) just for me to take their picture. So worth it to see Steve with a baby lamb in his arms. We also stumbled upon a parade of kindergarten-aged kids dressed up in various costumes made out of newspaper. Each get-up was so ornate, right down to the very last detail. The pirate, for example, not only had an eye-patch and hook, but belt buckle and swashbuckler boots, all made out of newspaper! Other favorites included a rosy-cheeked, mustached police officer, a gladiator, dinosaur and a cowboy.

Later that night, we shared dinner and drinks on the second floor of an impossibly small artsy cafe. Downstairs, a band kept tuning their instruments as more and more people tried to cram themselves in. It was Pete might describe as “quirky” or “weird”, aka very San Francisco.

Yesterday, we took the majority of our clothes in to be laundered, (thank God) shared what might be the world´s best $2 egg, avocado and tomato sandwich and booked our train tickets into Machu Picchu for Monday, September 14.

The train will wind through some amazing scenery on it´s way to the Lost City, taking about 3 ½ hours to get there. We are anxious, excited and ready to see what many describe as the defining moment of their time in Peru.