March 23, 2008

Alternate to Taking the Rip Off Train to Machu Picchu

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:57 am

There’s a back way into and out of Machu Picchu that’s cheaper than the train, but it takes 8-12 hours. We had the time to go this route one way so we took it heading out. The Lonely Planet describes it as the “Jungle Trail”, but a lot has changed since that info was written.

We started out along the train tracks from Aguas Calientes at 8:30 after eating an overpriced pizza for breakfast. Another option that may be preferable since you’ll be on tracks for a long time is that you can walk along the road toward Machu Picchu until you get to the train station outside town, then cut up to the tracks from there. You pass through a few tunnels, not too long, but if you know the train schedule (contrary to what lonely planet says, the train does run from Aguas Calientes to the power plant) it won’t be so scary going through. Ideally you’ll want to know the train schedule anyway since if you get to the power plant at the end about the same time as the train you’ll be able to catch a ride into town. Anyway, walking the tracks is pretty, there’s a few little tourist gardens on the side, and it should take you 2-3 hours depending on how fast you walk. We took 2.5 hours with stops to look at things, but we walked pretty quickly using a technique where we each walk on a rail and put our hands on each others shoulders for balance.

Once you get to the power plant there’s signs to direct you where to go. There’s combis (small vans) waiting to go to Santa Teresa, but they only leave when full, which will probably be whenever the train gets in. We got there about 11, but the train didn’t arrive until 1 so we started walking. The walk looks like it would take about 2.5 hours also and walks through jungle and some cool waterfalls. We walked most of the way, but then a passing truck picked us up and took us the rest of the way. One thing the guidebook says is that you have to do a river crossing in a cable car, but there’s a new bridge just finished last year that makes this not the case. We were actually looking forward to the crazy river crossing, but we were across the new bridge and into town before we knew it was possible to go straight there. We though about walking back and doing the crossing for fun, but our next transport was leaving soon and the crossing can be a bit dangerous, so we skipped it.

From Santa Teresa to Santa Maria is a couple hours, but by the time you read this they’ll have opened a new highway between the two towns that should cut the journey to around 45 minutes. This area is developing for tourism too. The combi drivers will probably hand you pamphlets for a hot springs nearby which looks pretty nice. There’s also some more ruins nearby, but honestly how many ruins can you see?

From Santa Maria back to the Sacred Valley is 4-6 hours depending on the road and whether you take the big bus. The road is mostly paved, but it climbs over a crazy mountain pass that has frequent, scary looking rock slides that leave piles of debris all over the road. There’s switchbacks galore, so if you’re prone to carsickness, there’s a good possibility of that. We got back to Ollantaytambo around 7:30 PM so it’s a full, long day of traveling that’s less than half the cost of the hour and a half train ride.

March 22, 2008

Machu Picchu Lives Up To The Hype

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 9:22 am

We had a few days off from our volunteer work at Willka T’ika so we headed over to Machu Picchu. Finally. After 5ish months in Peru we’ve been asked a gazillion times if we’ve been there, and now we can say we have. Happily, it lived up to all the hype. After seeing plenty of ruins like Kuelap, Chan Chan, the temples of the sun and moon, and more I was half expecting to be disappointed by Machu Picchu. However, the amazing views, exquisite craftmanship, and unique location make it a highlight of any trip to Peru.

We took the train in to Aguas Calientes from Ollayantambo, which is an incredible rip off at $31 (more from Cuzco) per person for and hour and a half ride, but if you’re at all limited on time it’s really the only option. We got in around 10pm and found a private room for 20 soles (about $6) before going to bed. Our plan was to get up before the sun and hike to Machu Picchu, but we forgot that you had to buy tickets (40 fricking bucks per person!) in Aguas Calientes beforehand, and the ticket office is open from 5AM to 10PM. So we got up to buy tickets at 5AM which gave us a few more hours of sleep than planned, but didn’t allow us to get up before almost everyone else. The upside to this is that there was a woman selling delicious avacado, tomato basil sandwiches for 3 soles, which is an incredible deal in this town of gouged food prices.

The bus to the top costs $6 each way, again, a travel rip off for a distance that anywhere else in peru would cost less than $1. Fortunately walking up is easy if you’re in any kind of shape and takes between and hour and 1.5 hours. We did it in 1 hour 15 minutes and so arrived about 6:30. I read about another route just off one of the switchbacks that allows you to sneak into Machu Picchu, which with all the ridiculous costs makes it very tempting, but then you can’t go up Huayna Picchu and have to wait till the crowds roll in, and man do they roll in.

We went straight to the Huayna Picchu entrance since they only allow 400 people a day up. Huayna Picchu is the peak in the background of most of the photos, and has great views back toward the city, and is a fun climb. From the top you can see how the river and railroad that pass by Aguas Calientes end up wrapping around the peak and go to the hydroelectric plant (which is the subject of the next post on how to get to and from Macchu Picchu without taking the train). There’s also a long hike to the moon temple and the grand cavern that we didn’t do.

We found a little peak between Huayna Picchu and the main section of Machu Picchu where there’s also some good views and took some fun photos doing yoga poses with the city in the background. Nobody came up while we were there. Just take the first trail to the left, whose name I can’t remember, after the checkpoint for Huayna Picchu.

Time for a big complaint about Machu Picchu: no easily accessible bathrooms. I wouldn’t care too much for myself (that is unless I had one of those oh so fun bouts of travelers diarrhea), but many people pooped either on or just off the trail. I know a porto potty would spoil something in the view, but so do steamy piles of poo. As far as I could see the only bathrooms were way back by the entrance, which is quite a way from Huayna Picchu.

The tour groups roll in sometime after 10AM since that’s when the first train from Cuzco arrives, and the places fills up. This can be annoying because it’s hard to walk past some of them and they can be noisy, but we took advantage and latched onto the groups to listen to what the guides had to say. We were fortunate to have amazing weather almost the whole day, mostly sunny with one small rain shower as a cloud climbed up over. We explored the ruins including the Inka bridge until around 5 in the afternoon, by which time all the tour groups magically disappear (seemed to be around 4) and it becomes peaceful again. Then we hiked back down into town for dinner.

Pay no attention to the prices on the menus during the low season. Ask for a discount and you’ll surely get it. Mostly meals started at 15 soles, but usually went down to 12 or 10 pretty rapidly. Or even better than eating anywhere in town, bring your own food with you and eat that. We wish we did. Everything’s a rip off and the quality isn’t even very good from what we saw. At least the rooms are hella cheap in the low season. We spent one more night, and the next morning started walking along the train tracks for an alternate route out.

March 19, 2008

Map Summary of South America Trip

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 6:33 pm

Here’s a general idea of where we’ve been the last few months in South America. I’m going to keep this at the top of my blog until we get back home, so scroll down to the next post for the most recent text. Our most recent location will be the red marker. All past locations will be blue. Click on a marker to find links to all our blog posts for that location and for photos.

You can get a sense of the distance we’ve traveled with the lines, but they can be hard to follow due to some backtracking, especially around Chachapoyas. We started in Lima, headed north, then back south, so you can try to follow the trip that way. I’ve also posted approximate dates that we were at each location.

View Larger Map

A Few Days at Willka T’ika

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 3:08 pm

Wow, we’ve hit volunteer Nirvana. We’ve entered a little garden of paradise where we can relax, eat, meditate and do yoga in luxurious comfort, and all we have to do is help out a few hours a day with people who are incredibly nice and welcoming. Kim’s having a blast teaching what she knows in the kitchen, and I’m doing English classes and helping teach some computer skills on Macs. Kim’s working more than me, but she’s loving the chance to play with new recipes after all our time away from having a kitchen. They even bought the new vegan cookbook she’s been dying to get our hands on since we left.

There’s gardens and hummingbirds everwhere. Outside our room is a 500 year old lucuma tree. Our bed is easily the nicest we’ve been in since we got here. There’s a library, multiple yoga rooms and solar heated baths. All in all it’s sweet. The staff takes care of us as if we were paying guests, and they’re friendly enough that they invited us to go play volleyball with them last night. I’m beginning to think a few more weeks here wouldn’t be so bad…

March 15, 2008

Cuzco, Cusco or Qosqo

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 2:55 pm

We’re finally here in the most popular tourist area of Peru: Cuzco.
In most of the rest of Peru one of the first questions people asked us if we had been to Machu Picchu and Cuzco, and finally at the end of our trip we’ll be able to say we have. Cuzco used to be the Inka capitol, and renewed interest in their language of Quechua, which is still spoken in the region, has caused the spellings of a lot of things to change or be a little ambiguous. One of the first things we noticed was the street names are sometimes very long and hard to pronounce, many Spanish names on the maps are now Quechua names, and street names change pretty much every other block anyway, so orientation can be a little tricky at first.

One thing about Cuzco to keep in mind is that it’s cold! It felt even colder than Puno to me, and Puno is about 500 meters higher. Most of the time here I’ve been wearing long john smart wool pants, regular pants, wool socks, shirt, sweater, jacket and hat. Burrrr! The final day was warm enough to go down to a t-shirt layer though, so maybe we just got a cold spell.

Fortunately for us, we’re already fairly well aclimatized to the alitutude since our recent travels have been on par with Cuzco for altitude. This meant the first day in the city we could get around without feeling woozy, so we went to a soccer game. The local team ended up winning by one goal scored near the end, and we had a lot of fun watching the crowd as always.

In total we spent about 4 chill days in the city before heading to the Sacred Valley. We spent a lot of that time doing things at South American Explorers. One night they had catered food for a Lonely Planet sponsored party, and we don’t pass up free food often. Another night they had a poker tournament, and I made it into the final four before being knocked out, which is as far as I’ve ever made it in the few poker tournaments I’ve played in. We also enjoyed the reading books from their fairly well stocked library and just getting info about the area in general.

The food is really varied and good here since there’s so many tourists, but it’s also pricey. It’s still possible to find 3 sole (US$1) lunches, but you gotta get outta the touristy sector. However the touristy sector has stuff like nachos and towering american style breakfasts, so sometimes it’s hard to leave. There’s a lot of good vegetarian restaurants and almost everywhere has veggie options.

We took a tour of the city on a trolleylike vehicle that leaves from the main plaza at seemingly random times. The tour was good for 9 soles (US$3), but if you go don’t sit on the back deck where it’s cold and the speakers make it hard to hear the guide. The tour goes up above the city and around the ruins of Saqsaywaman (pronounced like “sexy woman”) which you can see really well from the tour, so we didn’t feel the need to buy the rip off boleto turistico yet (you can’t just pay to see many individual sights, you have to buy a ticket to see them all for 70 soles or US$27). We might have to buy it if we want to see some of the sacred valley sites, but for now we’re gonna pass.

All in all Cuzco was more fun than I expected for the amount of tourists there. From here Kim and I are off to luxury for a few weeks at Willka T’ika, a yoga retreat, where Kim will be teaching vegan cooking skills and I’ll be teaching English and computer skills. After that Laura and Brendan are coming down from the USA to visit us for a little while before we fly back to Florida on April 15th. Somewhere in all that we’ll be visiting Machu Picchu of course.

March 9, 2008

San Pedro de Atacama – Beautiful but Expensive

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 9:04 am

Since we’re not going to Bolivia due to the newly implemented $100 per US citizen visa fee, we’re seeing some of the crazy landscapes in Chile near the Bolivian border. San Pedro de Atacama is a tiny little town that seems entirely built on tourism. Because of this, all the basics are really expensive. We paid $14 per night just to camp. Ouch.

The food is also really expensive, but at least it’s a lot more varied and tasty than in most of the rest of Chile. Vegetarian options are everywhere too. I thought it was interesting there was a table of Chileans in a restaurant next to us and they asked why there was so much good food in town and the waitress responded, “the foreigners demand it.”

The first afternoon we spent a ton of time just trying to figure out the tour situation. There’s way too many tourist agencies, and most of them are all equally unimpressive. The prices do differ, but not a whole lot. Everyone says they take credit cards, but they all told us that theire machines weren’t working and we needed to pay in cash, which was weird since we had just paid for a meal with a credit card. There’s only two ATM’s in town too, and they’re often out of cash or shutdown for random hours. Overall shopping around was fairly frustrating as people are very “loose” with details and straight answers. I don’t even remember who we booked with in the end as it seemed that having a good tour agency was practically luck of the draw.

We booked two tours in one day, which was a long, fun day which also happened to be Kim’s birthday. The first tour, a trip to the Tatio Geysers, required us to get up at 4 AM. From then it’s a bumpy two or so hour drive to the geyser field and it is cold! The guide said it was about -12 Celcius (10 Fahrenheit). After the first bathroom stop before the fields, our van stopped working. Fortunately there’s dozens of other tours, so another van dropped off their load at the geysers and picked us up. Afterwards our guide managed to get us on another tour bus that had open seats so that we wouldn’t get back late for our afternoon tour.

The geyser field is really fun to see at sunrise. You can walk around wherever you want, so you can put your face right in the steam vents. Of course, you need to be careful and smart about what you’re doing, because there’s no barriers or people telling you not to do stuff. For breakfast they hard boiled our eggs in a bubbling vent. After playing around in the small vents for a while, they took us to the larger geysers which are near the thermal baths. The baths were fun, mostly to watch people scurrying in and out of their clothes in the freezing cold temperatures. The water isn’t all that hot, but it’s definitely warmer than the air. Getting out and changing can be a little tricky since there’s no changing rooms. On the ride back we saw a little village, ate some empanadas, and saw vicunas and an ostrich looking bird, which we were lucky to see.

After lunch we started our tour of the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). Our guide for this was pretty bad since he used a microphone that made him completely unintelligible. That was okay for the most part since the tour consists mostly of just looking at cool landscapes, and it sounded like the info he was spurting out was mostly just dry facts like altitudes and dates of discovery. For sunset we climb a big sand dune from where you can see the landscape turn pretty shades of purple as the sun goes down.

Our third day in San Pedro we just chilled out until the 8 PM bus to Arica. Once again thankful to be leaving Chile for the sake of saving money.

March 6, 2008

Paragliding and More in Salta

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 12:15 pm

We found Salta to be a much more pleasant town than Cordoba. We setup camp at a park a few kilometers south of the center. This place has the biggest frickin swimming pool I’ve ever seen! Unfortunately, they drained it a few days before we got there because apparently the season for it is over with all the kids back in school now. Phooey. At least the camping was cheap and buses go right to the center from there in less than 15 minutes.

There are a million travel agencies in town, but for what we wanted to do it didn’t seem to matter which one we chose. We wanted to go paragliding, and there only seems to be one company doing that right now, so all the travel agencies go through them for around $150 pesos ($50 USD). We finally booked with Las Nubes because they had a discounted full day tour that we thought we’d do too. We considered doing some bungie jumping or white water rafting, but Kim wasn’t too into the bungie idea and the rafting sounded really tame.

Paragliding was a blast. Kim was nervous at first, but once she took that running jump off the hillside, it was just fun. For those who don’t know, paragliding is like wind current surfing with a special parachute. We went tandem of course since we don’t know anything about how to control the chute, so there was someone strapped to our backs the whole time. Since there’s nothing propelling you but wind, you’re dependent on how much there is. Kim had a turn where she floated up above the started point and then landed back where she started. I, however, didn’t have much wind halfway through my flight, so I ended up back down at the base of the hill. On the ride down I hit a tree top with my legs when my pilot got a little too close to the trees. Fortunately the tops of trees are fairly weak, so it broke off and ended up in my lap without injuring me. From the landing site we had to drive back up to the top of the hill to reunite with the others in the group, which took almost an hour.

The next day we got up ridiculously early to do a tour of some of the area around Salta, including salt flats. This is the first guided tour we’ve actually paid to do on our whole trip. The tour turned out to be okay, although our guide left a little something to be desired. He was a very fat, smoking, mumbling, immobile guy who basically was just a driver who told us stuff on the road before we got to places. He rarely got out of the truck. We went with two other Argentinian girls who were fun companions. There was a lot of beatiful scenery that reminds me of photos I’ve seen of the American Southwest: lots of colorful rock layers, shaped and formed by wind and rain.

My favorite part though was the salt flat. It’s a weird thing to walk around on, especially since it was covered with water causing a mirrorlike surface. The sun is brutal on the salt since the salt reflects all the sun right back at you. There were a few small sculptures made from salt out near where people where extracting salt to sell. The salt flat stretches on farther than you can see, which is a weird sight. I can only imagine how immense the Bolivian salt flat must be.

The next day we again got up ridiculously early to catch a bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. My wallet hurts just thinking about going there.

March 1, 2008

Cordoba – I Give You Permission to Skip This One

Filed under: travel — mmrobins @ 5:33 pm

The first thing our guidebook says about Cordoba is that it was named the “cultural capital of the americas”. We didn’t see it, especially after being in Buenos Aires. We got there on a Saturday, but by 2PM on Saturday the town was completely dead. We expect that on Sundays, but aparently most of the weekend is like a ghost town here. The town was also not very pretty with lots of dust and garbage in the streets. We looked up the cultural events, but weren’t excited by anything going on. So we bought our tickets outta town for the next night. Unfortuantely that meant spending all day Sunday here too, which was just as dull.

We stayed at another hostal where it was all Israeli’s, which was more fun this time since they actually talked to us in something besides Hebrew and we had a private room, so they’re staying up all night didn’t affect us as much.

From here on to Salta!