Monday, July 13, 2015

Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and on to Bolivia

Waking up the next day, we had a quick breakfast of bread and coffee at the bus-stop restaurant close to the hostel and waited for the temperature to rise a bit before taking off.

Our second attempt at crossing the pass was much more enjoyable.  The weather was a bit cold, but clear and beautiful.  We could see the evidence of the last night's snow storm and were glad we decided to turn around.

At close to fifteen-thousand feet, we could feel the elevation, but it never got so bad that it was an issue while riding.  On the way to Cusco we went over several tall passes, saw lagoons filled with pink flamingos, and tons of llamas and vicunyas on the side of the road.  The scenery was beautiful.

Arriving in Cusco, we find the city crowded and just about every hotel and hostel booked.  After much searching, the sun was setting and we got lucky and bumped into other motorcyclists that were staying at a very motorcycle friendly hostel, not too far from the famous Norton Rats tavern, a motorcycle traveler hangout filled with stickers and T-shirts from around the world.

Cusco is a very interesting city.  It was the capitol of the Incan empire until the Spanish conquest, and is where the emperor lived.  While it is probably the most touristy city in Peru, it still has a lot of awesome history and architecture to keep your attention.

In Cusco we lined up all our train tickets and entry fees for Machu Picchu.  We used an agent, and negotiated a good deal.  The plan was to ride up the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo  (my favorite Peruvian town name to say), and make a day trip to Machu Picchu.

We took dirt roads on the way to Ollantaytambo from Cusco, and stopped the archaelological  site at Moray.  This site is very unique because there are large, terraced depressions in the ground that were supposedly used for the Incan scientists to test different orientations, depths, levels, soils, and condition for farming.  These guys were so advanced for their time.  Really mind-blowing.

Ollantaytambo was one of the biggest surprises of our whole trip.  While it was touristy, most people are just passing through, and not really staying there.  The tour buses from Cusco just use it as a place to drop tourist off at the train.  Exploring the town you realize that this is a real Inca village, complete with the original streets and walls of the buildings.  It is pretty surreal staying in a place that old.

View of Ollantaytambo's main square, the original from Incan times.  In the background you can see the guard towers on the hills.

Our accommodations in Ollantaytambo

The next morning we boarded the train to Machu Picchu.  When we took our seats, we couldn't believe our eyes: our friend Davish sitting in the seats across from us.  We met Davish in Guatemala City, and traveled with him for a day before parting ways.  What a crazy chance encounter a couple of months later.  When we arrived at Machu Picchu,  it was raining buckets, and there was a long line to get in, but we didn't care.  This would be one of the highlights of our trip.

We'll spare you all the details about Machu Picchu, since it is probably the most well known destination in South America, but I'll just say this:  this ancient site is even more impressive in person than it is in pictures.  It is a very "modern" ancient city, having been built not long before, and during the Spanish inquisition.  There is a lot of technology and engineering at this site. I'd recommend it to anyone.

On our way out of Ollantaytambo we stopped and hiked through more ruins in the Sacred Valley and made our way towards Lake Titicaca.  Once again, we were stopped by a snow storm and had to double back and find a hostel.  The next day we made it to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world.  It's not much to look at from the Peruvian side, but still pretty cool.

After stopping in the town of Puno and seeing it all packed with people, and all the lodging booked up, we decided to head somewhere closer to our border crossing that is a little smaller.  One of the travel books we had suggested the town of Juli.  When we got there, we were less than impressed.  Off the path of the tourists, this place was pretty down-and-out.  Nowhere to camp, and only a couple of dirty hostels were available.  The one we ended up with was completely vacant (for a reason), run by a mean 8 year old boy, and was the nastiest room we had ever stayed in (our standards are pretty low too).  The sheets had clearly never been washed, and the room was filthy.  I guess you can't expect much for $8.  Our camping gear definitely came into play that night.

We knew we were going to like Peru, but we really had no idea it would be this much.  Between the history, culture, food, and people, it has been one of the biggest highlights of our trip. Tomorrow we gas up and head into Bolivia.  We've heard a lot of things about the country, and really don't know what to expect.  Having spent a lot more time in Peru than we anticipated, it'll be nice to be somewhere new.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Heading to Cusco: The Nazca Lines and Peruvian Pampas

We tried to get an early start out of Lima, but it was hard to break away from such a good time and amazing hosts.  After getting a package sent home from the post office, we hit the road in the early afternoon with our sights set on Nazca to see the famous and mysterious lines.  Again, it was another boring stretch on the Panamericana to get there, but it made for a quick day of riding.  We arrived at Nazca just as the sun was setting, and climbed up into one of the roadside view towers to see a couple of the figures in the dirt.  It was very cool, but we were excited to see more the next day from an airplane. 

After finding a hostel in the middle of town, we figured out how to book a ride in a small plane from the local airport to see the lines from the air.  The hostel owner was very helpful with booking a flight.  She asked us if we'd like breakfast in the morning and we said yes, before we left for the airport.  She said she would only make us breakfast after the trip on the plane because she didn't think we'd keep it all in during the flight. 

Arriving at the airport we waited in line for our plane,  a small one that fit about eight people.  The pilot took us up and flew us over each formation etched into the earth, letting each side of the plane see by tilting the plane sharply over on each side.  I can see why the hostel owner was worried about us eating beforehand. Every maneuver the pilot did was aggressive and actually quite fun. Luckily, no one threw up.  The grand scale of the lines and beauty of the patterns is something you can only truly experience from the air; the roadside towers on the way into town really don't do them justice.

After returning to the hostel, eating breakfast, and loading up the bikes, we took off through the desert and into the mountains, hoping to make it about halfway to Cusco.

World's largest sand dune outside of Nazca, Peru.
As we climbed in altitude, the terrain started to get more alpine and more beautiful. We passed through a natural reserve full of llamas and vicunyas (a smaller, wild member of the llama family).  The road climbed and climbed until, faster than expected, we had gone from sea level to about 13,000 feet.  We could really feel it. 

When we stopped in the small town of Puquio for gas and a quick snack, we noticed the weather starting to turn.  The clouds ahead were ominous, and we still had about 150 miles to ride before the next town.  While we tried to make the break quick, we couldn't help but ask the lady walking by with a baby lamb if we could see it, and pretty soon, all her children were crowding our motorcycles taking turns asking us questions.  

What started as a 20-minute lunch break turned into an hour and a half of entertaining all the local children in the church square.  We had so much fun that it didn't seem important that it was getting late and the weather was looking bad.  The questions the kids were asking us were really funny, and we were having too good of a time interacting with them to be able to leave.

I think kids always ask the best questions when we travel: "What do you eat?" "Do you have any pets?" "What do your pets eat?" "Do you have any children?" "Why not?" Why are you so tall?"  Things like that.  It's a refreshing change from the usual "How much did your motorcycle cost?"

After answering every question from every kid,  letting them sit on our bikes, and push every button, we passed out stickers, cookies, and anything else we had to give and hit the road. 

From Puquio, the road continued to climb.  At about 14,000 feet, we had to stop and put on every layer we had because it got so cold.  Shortly after, at about 14,500 feet, it started snowing pretty hard and the sun was going down.  Looking at the map, we still had about 500 more feet to climb before the road leveled off above 15,000 feet for another 60 miles or so.  When the snow kept increasing in intensity, we made the call to turn around and head back the half hour to Puquio.  If we had kept going, it would have meant riding for at least 2 more hours in the dark in a snow storm.

We found an empty hostel on the edge of town and got a room on the 3rd floor.  Carrying our luggage up the 3 flights of stairs at over 14,000 feet almost did us in with the elevation definitely taking its toll.

You could tell this mountain town saw no tourists.  All the buses must just blow by on their way to Cusco every day. As we explored the old town square, everyone would stop and stare at us like we were aliens.  This was the first time we had experienced this since being in China many years ago.  While everyone was interested in us, it was a friendly curiosity, and people were very nice and happy to answer all our questions.

In the morning, we will try the climb over the pass again and hope to make it to Cusco to explore and figure out our plan for Machu Picchu.