Monthly Archives: February 2012


Train to Aguascalientes

Rio Urubamba at Aguascalientes

Train through Aguascalientes

First view of Machu Picchu (zoom in!)

Machu Picchu cloudbound

(This post arrives out of chronological order, having been delayed a few times by diabolicly slow internet connections.)
Aguascalientes is now officially known as Machupicchu Pueblo, but travellers still call it Aguascalientes. There are only two ways to get there – on foot, or by train. This (and the fact that most visitors are foreigners with dough) means that the train, and most everything in Aguascalientes, is expensive. The crowd on the train is different than the crowd we have been hanging out with at hostels – richer, heaver, older, whiter. But the train is pretty fantastic. Even at the cheapest level, the cars on PeruRail have windows in the ceiling which are necessary to see most of the mountaintops we pass under. A few days ago the trains did not run for two days due to high water on the Rio Urubamba, and the river still is an impressive brown churning mass. The tracks hug the river the whole way, and in 40 kilometers the river drops about 2000 feet. Some of the rapids along the way and in Aguascalientes seem more like volcanic eruptions.

The only vehicles in Aguascalientes are the train, the shuttle busses that run back and forth to Machu Picchu, and contruction equipment. Thus the town is really a walking down. It is, though, completely dedicated to tourism, and many restaurants have people out in the streets trying to lure you in with menus and pictures of food. We decided to walk the 2 km along the river out to the site museum, more than halfway to the ruins but before the ten or more switchbacks needed to get up the mountain. Even without Machu Picchu near (and it is not visible from town), Aguas Calientes is in a breathtaking location, with the Urubamba thundering by and ridiculously steep mountains towering above in all directions. Two years ago there were serious floods here, and all over town are signs saying “via de salida” (the way out, basically). These lead to steps that, I suppose, head up one of the steep steep mountainsides. The road to Machu Picchu follows the river, and after a few bends, one can look up – way up – and see the silhouette of Machu Picchu on the mountaintop. Here at 7000 feet high, it is much warmer than in Ollantaytambo or Cusco. We are in the ceja de la selva (eyebrow of the jungle) and plant life is lush and dense. Tomorrow, we go up the mountain.

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Cusco to Puno

mountains rising from valley


more snowcaps


railroad and mustard?



Nearing Puno

Zeke at hotel

After a couple of days in Cusco, yesterday we bought bus tickets from Cusco to Puno for today. I admit that in looking at our transportation options a forty-five minute flight looked better than 7 hours on the bus but luckily our budget indicated that we travel by land. We were fortunate enough to have a clear day for travel and the views along the way reminded me why I love to travel by bus. I like to watch a landscape slowly change and to think about what those changes mean for the people living in different areas. I also like to daydream about what it would be like to explore different areas along the way on foot. Since I want to head to sleep soon I won’t write about much of the trip today and will let photos suffice. Unfortunately Paul was asleep with the camera in his pocket so what isn’t in photos that was remarkable was slowly watching crops change as we rose. The road wound through a broad flat valley that seemed to interrupt the mountains that came down into it. The valley seemed fertile and wet and progressed from what looked like rice paddies to me to corn and potatoes and then to grazing land for cattle followed by sheep and llamas. On the way down the other side of the high pass the first field I noticed seemed to be amaranth with nearly every plant waving a plastic flag. A few more minutes down the road similar fields had one to three flags per field so it seems that the highest successful grower not only had a more challenging climate but also had to work harder to protect their crop from thieving birds.

We are happy to be in Puno and excited to explore around Lake Titicaca in the coming days. We are also looking forward to getting into Bolivia and seeing how different that feels for us. Peru has become very comfortable for us and I am grateful we get to return here at the end of our trip.

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The Inca Time

Zakarias and us


Machu Picchu

I have a question. Do you know anybody that is named Pachacutec who is an Inca? Incas are fun. I sometimes worship the moon like the Incas. Machu Picchu is ruins. Machu Picchu is big ruins. We took a bus that zigzagged up to Machu Picchu. We went through a passageway. Llamas, llamas, llamas, we saw llamas. The end.

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Machu Picchu

Temple of the Sun

Me and Zeke with a llama

Trail from the Intipunku (Sun Gate)

I liked Machu Picchu a lot. It was so fun. I really liked the Temple of the Sun because it had rounded walls and you don’t usually see round Inca walls. Underneath there were carved rocks. We all took a walk and we were going to go to the gate of the sun, but Ticia and Zeke stopped about halfway there and Paul and I kept going. The last few minutes going there was narrow and a little bit scary for me and Paul. It wasn’t really really exciting but the view from there was wonderful once the clouds went away. When we came all the way back from the sun gate we walked around Machu Picchu one more time. That was great because it was so empty. I was sad to leave Machu Picchu.

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A run from Ollantaytambo

Before we left Pennsylvania, I had imagined myself returning after months of running at high altitude as some kind of cardiovascular superman, flying along effortlessly in the newly rich air. At the same time, I knew that chances to run would be few and far between. Sure enough, between figuring out the logistics of where we are going, how we are getting there, where we are sleeping and what we are eating, parenting and homeschooling Anna and Zeke, and merely processing everything we have seen and done, I only got around to running twice in the first three weeks. Then came our crash, and I had not run since then.

Lately my elevated heart rates have come while trying to get myself along Inca-made mountain paths described in the guidebooks as “cliff-hugging” or  “steep and exposed to heights, but safe.” I am convinced that I would have been one of the worst Incas ever. Leticia has had to hold Zeke’s hand for long stretches at a time, mostly for Zeke’s sake, but at least partly for mine. Thankfully Anna is as steady and calm as her mother, and I tell myself that if Zeke weren’t along on these hikes I would be breathing a little less deeply.

Today, though, I had a free afternoon and hence a chance to run. I decided to head up the Patacancha river valley which heads out of town on the west side (it is the river we hear at all times at Casa de Wow). The road is a lane and a halfwide and currently fairly muddy, and, as suits a river valley in the Andes, it drops quickly. I had half an hour, so I planned on 17 minutes out, and I could probably get back in 13. A few minutes in, though, I was passed by a taxi. I realized it wasn’t going much faster than me, and with a little acceleration I was holding even with it. Then it reached a high concrete berm in the road and had to ease over it. This gave me a chance to pass the taxi. By now we were in the village of Munaypata, and a few people were around. One guy noticed us and yelled “Estas ganando! (You’re winning!)”  I had enough breath to call back “Ahorita, si! (Right now, yes!)” This also meant I couldn’t really let up.

(At this point while I was writing, Leticia, Anna, and a soaking wet Zeke got back. Zeke had fallen into one of the ditches that line many of the stone streets here. So we tried to get him and me in the shower, but the hot water will be ready in half an hour. So for now Zeke is dry and I am finishing this.)

Soon we were out of Munaypata, the road opened up, and the taxi passed me again. By now the passengers, including the three guys crammed into the way-back, had taken an interest in the race. I held with the taxi a little longer, but the road got better and he pulled away. My heart was pounding and I could barely breathe. I looked at the watch, thinking that 17 minutes would surely come soon. It was at six and a half. So I eased up, and a minute or two later I caught up to the taxi as it was slowing to let off its passengers. The rest of the way I took it easy, passing pigs, donkeys, sheep, and dogs, all by the side of the road. The dogs, like most in Peru, barked and/or chased a little, but were defensive rather than offensive in nature.

When I turned around, Ollantaytambo was out of sight, and the ruins and terraces, which rise a few hundred feet above town, barely appeared below and around a bend in the valley. The valley sides were steep and rocky, the river just as fast beside me. I saw many of the same people I had passed going up, including four boys who asked “agua?” as I went by. Going down was much easier than up, and I could cruise without much work. “Bien, bien!” yelled the guys in Munaypata, and I raced a van back into Ollantaytambo, finishing in 29 and a half minutes. It was a good run. It was probably less than three miles.

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Doorway in town of Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo street

Ollantaytambo is charmed. Like Pisac, it has spectacular Inca ruins above it, and so it is a stop on many bus tours of the Sacred Valley. Pisac, though, in addition to ruins, has a huge artisan market, so most people in town have something to sell. Even so, it is a much softer sell than you get in Cusco. It is interesting to consider the way we gringos are treated as a function of the behavior of previous gringos. Cusco is a stopping point for everyone headed to Machu Picchu, and many people blow through Cusco, stopping at a few sites and buying some stuff (perhaps from whomever approaches them first or most aggressively) to take home before hopping back on the bus. The busses stop at the market at Pisac and the gringos have 30 to 45 minutes to make their purchases before departing. I noticed that we were treated differently – smiled at, but not asked to buy anything – when we walked through loaded with our backpacks. The people who spend the night are already one step closer to the locals than those off a bus for a few minutes.

In Ollantaytambo, people spend the night (or more nights) for different reasons. Many are on the way to Machu Picchu. Some, like us, get sucked in and stay longer. Ollantaytambo has been continuously occupied for 800 years, we have read.  The older part of the town (where we are staying) has almost no vehicle traffic. Many of the streets themselves have the famous Inca walls, and a simple private courtyard have a doorway with fine Inca stonework. We are told that Ollanta (as it is often called) was a city where nobles and priests live. Around the town are incredible mountain views, and above it on two sides are ruins. There are more hikes from town or nearby than we can take – hikes that pass by ruins, or Inca quarries, or isolated indigenous towns, or just spectacular scenery. There are good (if pricy, for Peru) restaurants and a relaxed vibe. It could be hard to leave.

Blurry dancing, but it gives you an idea...

Over the last few days, the population has been swollen by travellers trying to get to Machu Picchu. The River Urubamba has been high (this is the rainy season) and the train to Machu Picchu did not run for two days. Those who were on a tight schedule did not make it at all. Luckily for us, these travellers included Jorge, our friend from Lex Luthor’s house, his partner Marie, and two Belgian friends, Jean-Philippe and Letizia. We had an unexpected fun time with them Friday night on the plaza, where there was a local festival featuring local dances, and then again last night, when they joined us at Casa de Wow. Thankfully for them, the trains are running again today and they will be off to Machu Picchu and back to Cusco.

Ollantaytambo ruins

Two different couples had told us we had to stay at the Casa de Wow, and they were right on. It has been a lovely place full of friendly people, starting with the managers Win and Wow. We plan to head to Aguascalientes and Machu Picchu in a few days and then return here. What comes next is still in the air.

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Cusco photos

from our hostel window, San Blas, Cusco


Anna, Zeke, big stones

Plaza de Armas, Cusco, from Sacsayhuaman

gringos at Sacsayhuaman

llamas at Sacayhuaman


Inca playground at Sacsayhuaman

fairly typical street in old Cusco

Inca baths at Tambomachay

Plastic poncho saleswomen of Pukapukara, mostly

Pukapukara, above Cusco

carved rock at Qenqo

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Inca doorway - Pisac

Rio Vilcanota from Pisac ruins

Intihuatana (Hitching post of the sun)

Descending from Intihuatana

Terraces below Pisac ruins

Tuesday morning the kids and Paul did some paper and pencil style schoolwork and I shuffled and repacked our belongings. We are storing half our stuff in Cusco for this leg of the trip and so we are carrying one big backpack and one small one for now. It is nice to be packed lighter and we may decide to leave quite a few books in Cusco…This is a hard decision – books are heavy and are a significant part of our luggage, but they also make schooling easier. We have not found children’s books in English here and the kids are not reading in Spanish yet but maybe that is the solution…. Anyway by noon we were on a bus with some peanuts and cracked corn for the hour long trip to Pisac.
As I write this in our hotel kitchen, drinking water is boiling on the stove, dogs are barking in the street, and an Andean flute and drums are playing in the plaza about a block away. Paul is putting Anna and Zeke to bed which should be a quick chore tonight if he manages to stay awake himself.
Pisac is a small town with narrow cobbled streets. The town is surrounded by mountains and above it are terraces and Inca ruins. One of the largest tourist markets of South America takes over the plaza and several surrounding streets daily.
This morning we had an excellent breakfast of pancakes, granola with yogurt, coffee, fresh orange juice, and another order of pancakes. Then we caught a taxi and headed to the top of the ruins about 20 minutes up the mountain. Our taxi driver walked about five minutes with us to make sure we were oriented before he headed down by road and we began our explorations and meandering down to town by trail.
It was a fun day of seeing Inca settlements, temples, looted cemeteries on crazy steep hillsides, trails and terraces, as well as views of surrounding mountains. Zeke had his first moment of being tired of ruins, but I think perhaps he was more tired of holding my hand since it was often easy for Paul and I to imagine the potential for great falls. So far the guidebook advice for traveling with kids of not dragging them through too many ancient sites has been contrary to our experience. The quickest way to get our kids ready for breakfast is to say we are going to ruins. Both of their imaginations have been captivated. Anna is convinced she wants to be an archeologist and Zeke thinks there may be treasure under every hill, finds good places to defend a location with his imaginary bow and arrow, and is making up his own Inca language.
We eventually arrived back in town and after an hour of rest and quiet work the kids were playing soccer in the courtyard, so it looks like we can take on more ambitious hikes in the coming weeks. (This was about 4 miles in as many hours of mostly downhill on challenging terrain.) Paul was relieved to all have less potential energy but I will let him give you details on that if he wishes. I feel like I should try to describe all the interesting things we saw but I can’t give them justice so when we have a fast enough internet connection I will put in a few pictures and simply say that I am tired and happy and grateful we have had the chance to explore a bit here.

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Around Cusco

Cusco is so unlike Lima that even putting them in the same sentence seems silly. In Lima, you can sometimes think you are in a North American city. Perhaps that can happen somewhere in Cusco, but we haven’t found it. We are staying in San Blas, a neighborhood just uphill from the Plaza de Armas, the main square. Many of the streets are walking only, because they are so narrow or because they have stairs. Many of the streets are one-way (at a time, meaning there is some backing up involved) with sidewalks about two feet wide on each side. Sometimes sidewalks are narrower or not there at all, which means that walking somewhere often means flattening against a wall with the passing of each car. Thankfully traffic is usually light.

Cusco lives on tourism, for the most part. This means that a walk near the plaza or down the main drag means saying “No, gracias” to person after person after person trying to interest you in food, textiles, jewelry, carved gourds, paintings, dolls, puppets, candy, massages, tours to machu picchu, the jungle, or somewhere else, shoeshines, horse rides, restaurants or bars, ponchos, and more I’ve forgotten. It does get a little old, but we try to keep these exchanges friendly. People in general are warm and friendly (Anna and Zeke are part of the reason) and the conversations not involving commerce (and many that do) are very nice.

I lament that the internet connection here is too slow to load pictures, for
we have spent much of the last two days at ruins outside town. Yesterday we went to Sacsayhuaman (say it like “sexy woman” but with a weird accent), the fort/temple above Cusco. I think everybody knows that the Incas are famous for building with huge stones that fit together so closely you can’t get a pocketknife between the rocks, but actually being among these things is mind-boggling. There are other tourists, yes, but this is the rainy season and the place is big enough that you have room to yourself. A pleasant surprise were the rock slides – thought to be part of a quarry – that one can slide down. While we were there the rain started, and the slides, which had been pretty benign, quickly became scary fast. The rain came down harder, the package tourists ran for their busses, and we and everyone else ran for the caverns and niches were it was thought that offerings, idols, or mummies were kept. The rest of the walk back was soggy, cheerful, and downhill.

Today we took a regular bus about 5 miles out of town (toward Pisac) and walked back, visiting the ruins at Tambomachay, Pukapukara, and Qenqo. These all had different purposes but all have the famous Inca stonework, with varying degrees of fineness (depending on the purpose). Maybe the most fun was walking around on top of Qenqo Chico, a non-restored hill with a partial wall around it and lots of carved rock above, many seeming to befor some kind of ritual purpose.

There is much more to say about Cusco itself, but we will be back here in 10 days or so. Tomorrow we will head to Pisac, and slowly make our way toward Machu Picchu, visiting towns and ruins along the way.

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Lima to Cusco

Let us begin by saying that any bus ride that lasts 22 hours is bound to have its ups and downs. Let us also remove all suspense: The best part of this bus ride was the blessed lack of a) crashes b) vomiting c) ending up in a different town than we thought we would. After saying our goodbyes to Luis, Victor, and several others, we left Lima at 2pm yesterday. We had two of the three seats in front on the second level – the vista panoramica – and the two seats behind. From Lima we headed south on the Panamerica through miles of outskirts and sandy mountains. Somewhere along the way we passed Pachacamac, but it was obscured by fog from the coast.

Best seats on the bus

South of Lima are miles of empty sand broken up by tracts of beach homes for wealthy Limenos, fields of corn, watermelon, asparagus, and tomatos, and long stretches of towns-to-be in various stages – some only have lots marked with stone, others wood shelters, others the beginnings of concrete houses. Also along the way are piles of burning trash and people carrying heavy loads while above are billboards advertising luxury appliances and fashionable sunglasses.

the mountains approach

The sun sets before we are in the mountains. Zeke falls asleep around 8, shortly after supper is done, but Anna is awake for another two hours. By then we are on switchbacks high above the desert. From the front windows with the curtains mostly closed the view is disconcerting – nothing but tan cliff face swinging by, then 180 degrees of empty space before the whit line on the road becomes visible again below. Disconcertlingly, the bus is long enough that it often has to veer out toward the abyss to make the corner of the next switcback. My go-to mindset in times like these is to remember the drivers are professionals who have done this many times before and who, like me, want to live to see tomorrow. Sadly, this comforting thought has been undermined by the events of last month, and the visceral sensation of smashing into something is still fresh in my mind and body.

But we all do fall asleep eventually. At some point in the night we are coming down from some mountains when Zeke wakes up and needs the bathroom (thankfully, there is one). As I get up I see a sign announcing we are crossing the Nazca Lines. But it is dark. We all sleep surprisingly well, lulled asleep by (north american) movies we have never heard of, dubbed in spanish and subtitled in english. If you have ever been part of a film that did not succeed, take some comfort in the idea that surely your film is being watched on a bus somewhere in the world.

sunset over desert and ocean

We wake at 4 something, and again at 5 something. I don’t think Zeke slept after 4. Now the mountains are very green, and the rivers we see are grey-brown and churning, as this is the rainy season. By this point in the ride I am wondering who ever had the idea to put roads over these mountains. At some points the road (which has been a 2-lane road since hour 2) turns into gravel, and my North American mind keeps saying “this is the MAIN ROAD from Lima to Cusco!” THE MAIN ROAD! It is hard to tell if Zeke is about to throw up or really tired or a bit mesmerized by the Harry Potter film now on. It seems a bad sign when they put on another film (our fifth) ten minutes before our expected arrival time of 11am. 90 minutes later, though, we crest a hill, Anna and Zeke gasp, and there is Cuzco laid out below us, all orange tiled roofs and remarkably free of high-rises. By 2pm we are in the courtyard of our new hostel, drinking coca leaf tea (helps with the altitude) and enjoying being on solid ground. The idea of sleeping in a bed again seems like heaven. And with that thought, I will close.

Between Abancay and Cusco

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