Tom & Cathy's South America Trip

Puca Pukara
Puca Pukara, Cusco

April 17 - Lima

After our Galapagos cruise, we had a smooth and uneventful flight from Quito to Lima.

When we exited the secure area at the Lima airport, there was no one there with a sign for us. We were not happy. We waited 10 minutes, checked the gaggle of signs again and went looking for a phone. A guy who seemed to be king of the taxis took pity on us and called the two local numbers we had, to no avail. After 20 minutes since we cleared customs, we decided we needed to just take a cab, but scanned the smattering of signs and that time there was a "SAXTON" sign. Our transfer agent, Joana was late and tried to act puzzled that she didn't see us when we came out. What does that even mean? How would she have known it was us? Was that an indirect way of saying we missed seeing her? We think our flight landed a few minutes early and we breezed through baggage and customs because we had no checked baggage, so maybe we just got out much earlier than she expected.

artwork in our Lima hotel room
artwork in our Lima hotel room

Driving in Lima is insane. Crazier than Paris, more like Turkey. The roads carry everything imaginable from bicycle-propelled carts stacked 12 feet high with furniture, to tiny cars, to sedans, buses and trucks. Traffic laws and lane dividers are suggestions for the naive and uncreative. Pedestrians get about an inch of clearance from the traffic speeding by. Cathy notes that all of the cabs are dented. More on that later...

Much to our amazement, we made it safely to the hotel, a new hotel opened just a few months ago, and a member of the Casa Andina family. We checked in, unpacked, off-loaded some gear we wouldn't need (there's no snorkeling at Machu Picchu) into a bag we could leave at the hotel until our return to Lima, and went to bed.

April 18 - Cusco

An early morning departure and amazingly safe trip back to the airport put us on our way to Cusco. Again, we had the threat of strict carry-on limits but had no problem with our bags. Like the flight to Galapagos, we were told the flight to Cusco would only allow one small carry-on per passenger, so we were prepared to reconfigure to check our big bags and just carry on cameras and computers, but it turned out not to be a problem. There were plenty of other passengers with comparable bags.

At the Cusco airport, we found a Wilderness Travel agent waiting for us and were soon on our way to our hotel. Only Joanna from the Galapagos tour (not to be confused with Joana, the late transfer agent in Lima) signed up for the Cusco/Machu Picchu extension, but she selected a slightly different variation, so we had our set of guides and hotel and she had another, only spending one night in the same hotel. So, she was off on her itinerary and we on ours.

courtyard at Hotel Monastario, Cusco
courtyard at Hotel Monastario, Cusco

Our first hotel was the Hotel Monastario, a quiet, peaceful oasis in a small but bustling colonial era city. The hotel has beautiful garden courtyards with views of the hills of the city, but with none of the traffic noise.

We got a cup of Coca tea and a whopping three hours to acclimate to the 11,000+ foot elevation before starting our tour a half hour early on the recommendation of Cristian, our guide. Soon we were tromping around Inca ruins in the hills around Cusco, learning about their architecture and culture. We did OK with the altitude, but definitely felt it hiking up steep trails and steps. Cristian was a great guide and quickly adapted to our photography habits, like stopping at seemingly random times to take a photo, or wanting to delay an explanation so we could take a photo with the shadows briefly cast by the setting sun.

cellular rock construction and drainage holes
cellular rock construction and drainage holes

Our first stop was Puca Pukara, a military structure. We learned about the "cellular" rock construction where rocks are carved precisely to fit together without mortar. This was also our introduction to the Incan drainage technology, a concept that we saw repeatedly at Incan constructions.

After touring the various ruins, we stopped at a textile factory where we learned about how they make sweaters and scarves from llama and alpaca and how to tell the difference between the best, the good, and the poor quality stuff. We made a purchase and got to haggle. Haggling is so built into their culture, they don't tell you the price, they tell you the "first" price.

Everywhere we stopped, whether at the hotel parking lot, at the entrance to a ruins site, way up at the top of a site, or on the road next to an alpaca pasture, we got accosted by locals (often children) trying to sell us trinkets, ask for money in exchange for being allowed to take their photo, or asking for money for taking a photo of the alpacas (she wasn't even the owner, according to Cristian). Cristian discouraged us from rewarding that behavior because the kids learn they can make good money doing it and then want to skip school to practice their "trade," plus it's really annoying to tourists who comprise Cusco's primary industry.

April 19 - Cusco

three women weaving
three women weaving

Our first stop of the day, again 30 minutes early on Cristian's suggestion, was a weaving demonstration at a multi-family co-op. They explained the fascinating pre-industrial process they use to take raw wool, clean it, spin, dye it and weave it into end products. They were very sweet and gave us little hand-woven bracelets. The demonstration was so interesting and the work they do so labor intensive, Tom couldn't really get into the haggling and felt bad about how much he did manage to drive down the price (which was less than $100 for a table runner that we're told takes four weeks to weave).

We toured the countryside and saw more amazing ruins. We also saw how the villagers live now, with no running water, no sewage system, and dirt floors. The home we toured (for a $1 tip) was raising a couple dozen guinea pigs running loose (and doing what guinea pigs do) in the same dirt-floor room where the family cooks, eats, and sleeps. Their sewage removal system is a stone channel that runs straight into the glacier-fed river that runs through town. The river is the Sacred River. Obviously, it's not safe to eat fish from the Sacred River or the lake it feeds into, but that doesn't stop the locals. Safe fish comes from fish farms.

It seemed horrible that they dump raw sewage into a river, but it's the same story back home. Whether it's a river or the atmosphere, we dump our waste wherever is convenient until it causes a big enough problem that we can no longer ignore the mess we're making.

After that we had a wonderful lunch at an exclusive restaurant with a beautiful view of the Sacred River and Sacred Valley. On the dirt road to the restaurant, we were behind a van that nearly got stuck in the loose gravel on the steep one-lane road; the van turned out to be carrying Joanna with her guide and driver. We ate lunch with Joanna and compared notes.

narrow tunnel on the Inca trail
narrow tunnel on the Inca trail

Next up was more ruins, even larger and more amazing than what we'd seen before, including a harrowing hike up a narrow trail and steps, around a corner with a sheer drop to certain death, and a tunnel through the mountain rock barely one person wide, with a girl at the very end selling trinkets.

We closed the tour with a trip to the Pisco Market, a grim gathering of merchants selling better stuff than the street urchins but using approximately the same sales techniques. The best part was that the market was closing down when we arrived, so by the time we paid $1 to use a claustrophobic restroom in a weird little shop, the market was pretty much shut down for the day. There was also a test of our math abilities -- the conversion rate to the local currency, soles, is roughly 2.65 soles per US dollar; a youngster offered to sell us finger puppets, 1 for a sol, or 2 for a dollar.

At that point, Cristian had to head back to town, so the driver took us on a harrowing night-time drive to our hotel in Ollantaytambo. With the dark roads, the wild drivers, and a steady stream of unlit bicycles, pedestrians, livestock, and feral dogs, it seemed to define a new flavor of insane driving; totally different from Lima but just as scary. We got passed by a police car and eventually drove past a vehicle/motorcycle accident. Out in the middle of nowhere, hell and gone from any hospitals, there was no reflex to try to see what happened.

We were safely dropped at our hotel, another in the Casa Andina family, an opulent oasis hidden at the end of a dirt road in a mud-caked town. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant and enjoyed local musicians playing (presumably) traditional music along with covers of "Yesterday" and "If I Could."

April 20 - Machu Picchu

Buffet breakfast at the hotel included the usual eggs, granola, fresh local fruit, and individual serving yogurts. Tom opted for the deluxe breakfast: granola with raisins, plus fruit and a yogurt. The labeling on the yogurt was a bit ambiguous, so instead of the usual yogurt, he got a plain yogurt labeled "Natural." It tasted a little odd, but he was used to the fruity kind and yogurt flavor varies from country to country, so he gobbled it down in anticipation of a lot of walking and climbing. Big mistake. Nothing solid made it past his stomach for the next 48 hours.

We had a quick ride to the Ollantaytambo train station, then about 2 hours to Machu Picchu. We were concerned about having our bags with our computers heaped in with all the other bags on the train, but Cristian took care of us and arranged things so we could move to an unoccupied row and keep our bags with us.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we entered the Machu Picchu ruins. They were covered by vegetation for hundreds of years from when the Inca realized the Spaniards were going to take everything and hid all access to the area until rediscovered by a Yale researcher, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. The ruins were huge and amazing, demonstrated a variety of construction methods, showed a knowledge of astronomy, and boggled our minds with the effort require to build something from the stone of the mountain by a civilization that had no written language or records.

Tom was in pretty sad shape, but managed to drag himself up and down the ruins to listen to Cristian explain what was known about the architecture and the theories and conjectures of what the site was used for.

After the tour, we had lunch and Cathy went back for some more photos while Tom curled into a ball in the room. We had dinner and enjoyed more local musicians with a thing for mixing Simon and Garfunkel with (presumably) traditional music and bought a CD.

April 21 - Machu Picchu

We had ambitious plans to climb to the Sun Gate, a gap in the ridgeline marked with stones that lines up light from the sunrise on the summer solstice through an opening in the Temple of the Sun (Torreón) at the center of Machu Picchu. Even after his Gatorade breakfast, Tom was not up for that and the rain dissuaded Cathy from trying it, so we lounged around the hotel until it was time to head to the train station. Tom had a Sprite for lunch, while trying to use the wireless Internet in the bar, which didn't work out probably because they had four base stations all transmitting on the same channel. Tom was totally not in the mood to try to explain the subtleties of 802.11 configuration to the guy at the front desk through a language barrier.

The bus ride down from the ruins to the river, town, and train station was a 1000 foot drop down narrow, now muddy, switchbacks, with at least 10 buses making the roundtrip as quickly as they could load tourists. It was an amazing driving demonstration, especially when our driver saw an oncoming bus, popped into reverse and zipped backwards up the narrow track without dropping us all over the edge, not even once.

We met a nice Canadian couple on the train. He worked for the department of fisheries in Canada and talked non-stop (or so it seemed to Tom who was intently focused on the path between his seat and the baños in case of a sudden reversal).

Strangely, the train we were on goes all the way from the town below Machu Picchu to Cusco but we had tickets only to Poroy, one stop short of Cusco. Cristian explained this to us at least four times, until finally Cathy showed him her notes which proved we understood the point. Cristian's English was great, there was no language barrier, he clearly just wanted to make sure we didn't screw up and go to Cusco when our driver was waiting in Poroy to drive us to Cusco.

We wondered about this and thought maybe the train didn't really go all the way to Cusco despite what all the maps showed. On the train we found out the answer: between Poroy and Cusco the train has to do a series of elaborate switch back maneuvers that makes the trip take an hour. By car it's only about 20 or 25 minutes. So Wilderness Travel sent out two people and a van to shave 40 minutes off of our journey. That's also presumably why we switched hotels on the 19th, so we would start the morning closer to the train station and not have to get up crazy early to catch the early train to Machu Picchu.

By the time we got back to the room, we were wiped out. Or, more to the point, Cathy was wiped out and Tom was still wiped out. Cathy ordered a salad from room service for dinner, while Tom hid from the sight and smell of food.

April 22 - Cusco

Tom felt better in the morning and ate some actual food for breakfast. To keep our near-continuous streak of ill-health going, Cathy had a headache. We had the day to spend exploring Cusco, but neither of us felt like venturing out, plus it was raining in the morning. We had arranged with Joanna that all of us who were able-bodied would meet for a local show at 7:00, so we took it easy and hoped we'd both be able to make it.

We found WiFi in the bar and paid our $10 for access. We used Tom's iPhone because neither of us wanted to risk running our hard drives above 10,000 feet.

We had an early dinner, both of us feeling better, and touched base with Joanna. The show was interesting, the standard epic tale of the young villager (a girl in this telling) being pressed into service to make a journey, face danger, find her destiny, and beat the unbeatable odds to save the day. It was a good production with a lot of flying. It was challenging to follow the story in another language, but fortunately we spent some time reading the synopsis before the show so it worked out.

April 23 - Lima

We managed to repack and get in a quick email check before our 7:20-ish pickup. The flight back to Lima was uneventful. When we cleared customs, there was guy, Martin, with a Wilderness Travel sign. He seemed puzzled when we walked up to him and introduced ourselves. He explained that (flakey) Joana was supposed to pick us up but she wasn't there. Shocking! He said he could give us a ride with (Galapagos) Joanna, since we were going to the same hotel.

On the ride to the hotel, he explained that (flakey) Joana had been delayed by an accident and the police had closed the road. The accident story was very complex and detailed. It somehow involved a bus, but more it was about a truck carrying a cargo of bottles of beer that had veered too near the edge of the road, its wheels fell into some sort of drainage openings, and overturned spilling beer and glass all over the road. So the police stopped all traffic until the mess was cleaned up. It sounded to us like a weak lie from a farcical sitcom.

Amazingly, we arrived safely at the hotel without incident. We had a few hours before our afternoon tour, so we retrieved the bag we left on the way out to Cusco and started working on repacking everything into our overstuffed bags. Our motto: there's always room for one more thing.

We chose the tour of the Gold Museum, and (Galapagos) Joanna chose the city tour. The Gold Museum is a collection of artifacts from pre-Inca time through the colonial period. It turns out that the museum is the private collection of a powerful local politician who rubbed elbows with the A-list of American-hating ruthless dictators from the 20th century: Castro, Pinochet, and Chairman Mao, with maybe a few odd Soviets thrown in. After he had collected rooms full of weapons, he kick-started the Peruvian black market for looted relics by paying good money for whatever was available. This set off a whole new industry of grave-robbing what little the very thorough Spaniards had missed.

Eventually, he decided to share his vast collection with the world and opened the museum. While the collection is impressive, the curation is not. Cathy observed that the museum is like the relative who comes back from a lengthy vacation and shows you every single photo they took. Three or four pairs of gold tweezers used by the Inca is interesting, 100 is not. Most of the items are labeled with nothing but a number, some items have a simple label in Spanish, and a small, seemingly random subset of those also have the English translation.

It was interesting, but I wouldn't put it on the top of your to-do list when visiting Lima.

The drive back to the hotel was interesting. As we were weaving in and out of lanes with traffic, we were treated to a front-row seat to what must be a very common Lima spectacle: the low speed, two vehicle fender bender. We were approaching a traffic light at the intersection of two crowded multi-lane divided streets. A BMW was directly ahead of us in a left-turning lane when he feinted a move rightward as if going straight. Our driver aimed for the gap that was about to open up, allowing him to flow through his left turn in the outer stream of left-turning traffic, while discussing what route to take with the guide. This was all good and perfectly normal until the BMW driver stopped. BAM!! We slammed into the back driver side corner of the beamer at about 5 mph with an impact that felt a little stronger than hitting the brakes really hard. (We were, of course, 100% fanatic about buckling up for these rides.) It totally smashed the taillight and the surrounding panels. Later we saw it just put a healthy dent in the van's front bumper. The BMW driver was pretty angry, but it was all handled civilly, or at least there were no shots fired.

We're pretty sure that in Lima it's not if you'll get into an accident, it's how often. Unfortunately, we didn't meet up with (Galapagos) Joanna to find out how many accidents she got to participate in on her city tour.

orange juicer at the Lima airport
orange juicer at the Lima airport

We were told to expect (flakey) Joana at 8 p.m. to take us to the airport. She was, of course, late, but only a few minutes and actually got there just as we were tucking the paperwork from the hotel check-out into one of our bags (there is always room for one more item).

Amazingly, we arrived safely at the airport without incident.

Once we cleared the four-step check-in process (airline check-in for boarding pass, go over there to pay the airport tax, then immigration, then security), we found the VIP lounge and waited it out. The lounge had this really cool orange-squeezing machine. First you load in three oranges (which were green), then you hold the start button while it takes each orange, cuts it in half, squeezes out the juice then deposits the rinds into the left and right storage areas while the juice trickles into your glass. Tom had 27 glasses of orange juice before they cut him off.

April 24 - the trip home

Our flight from Lima to Houston was scheduled to depart at 11:40 pm on the night of the 23rd. The captain was really cool, hanging out in business class and chatting with the passengers and explaining the situation. Basically we had to wait our turn for an inspection team to look at some maintenance issue, and that was expected to take 45 minutes. Then he got on the PA and explained the situation to everyone. Then one of the flight attendants got on and gave the short version in Spanish in about 20 words. The inspection crew arrived earlier than expected and we pulled away from the gate at 12:15 am, just 30 minutes late.

We had a 3-hour layover in Houston, so we weren't worried about our connection, but the captain told people with a one-hour connection that they would miss their flight. Since it would be so early in the day rescheduling shouldn't be a problem and he had alerted Houston to have agents ready to direct and reschedule as necessary.

The pilots managed to make up some time in the air, so we landed within minutes of original scheduled landing time.

The flight home to Seattle was on time and pleasantly boring.

We included just a few of our photos above. Please see our gallery of Peru photos for the rest of our favorite photos from our trip.

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