Friday, July 26, 2013

Peru - Part 6!

The Andes – Cusco #2

We were nearing the end of our time in Peru.  We’d pretty much done what we set out to do, seen what we set out to see.  These last couple of days would be about taking it easy and preparing to return home.  Being back at the Monasterio gave us the perfect setting for winding down and enjoying ourselves.

It began with dinner after we returned from Machu Picchu.  We sat in the Monasterio bar, sipped our Pisco Sours near a beautiful large fireplace, admired the vaulted room and artwork, ordered some food and wine, and hung out.  Wonderful!

The next day we went to two museums, the Inca Museum and the MAP Museum.  I was disappointed with the former and impressed with the latter.  The Inca Museum had some interesting artifacts, but the layout, lighting, and signage were badly done.  Inca history and art deserve better.  MAP (Museo de Arte Precolombino) was the reverse.  An extraordinary collection of pre-Colombian art, beautifully presented.  As it turns out, much of the art is on loan from the Larco in Lima.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised either by the quality of the art or how it was displayed.

We had dinner at the Senzo Restaurant, which is in the hotel next to the Monasterio, the Palacio Nazarenas, and owned by the same company, Orient-Express.  Senzo is under the guidance of Virgilio Martinez, chef at the Central in Lima.  It wasn’t as elegant as Central, but quite good nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 26, was our last full day in Cusco.  We checked out the old Inca Sun Temple ruins and were not impressed.  We returned to the central plaza, made our way through another demonstration organized by disgruntled workers, and for lunch found a restaurant with a view of the square and cathedral.  Simple and satisfactory.  Relaxed during the afternoon and had dinner in the main hotel restaurant, El Tupay.  It was very good.

We would start our trip home on June 27, but our plane to Lima, where we’d connect to a United flight to Houston, wasn’t until late afternoon, so we had a leisurely morning packing and checking out of the Monasterio.  But we didn’t need to leave the Monasterio yet.  There was still time to sit in the courtyard and have a couple of drinks, then lunch.  It was a glorious final pleasure in the hotel and Cusco.

Our plane out of Cusco was late, but that didn’t matter since we had a long 7-hour wait in the Lima airport anyway.  Loading onto the United flight was confusing and delayed since they’d changed to a new airplane instead of the one regularly scheduled.  It turned out to work to our advantage.  The plane had three classes rather than two, so six people from business needed to be upgraded to first class to sort out the seating.  We were surprised to learn that two of the six seats were to be ours, so we had a chance to see what the new first class seats are like.  Very comfortable, although we were asleep (on a nice flat bed) most of the time.

In the end we paid a price for the upgrade.  The plane was late arriving in Houston and our connection to the San Francisco flight was tight.  We made it through immigration and customs quickly and rushed through the airport to our gate.  A mad dash is more accurate than ‘we rushed.’  We arrived before the departure time only to find that they’d given our seats away.  We were seriously pissed off, but our anger wasn’t going to change anything.  They had us get on the plane and told us to find empty seats.  There were only two seats, in economy and not together.  We were less than happy for the next 3½ hours, the time it took to get to SFO.

We made the plane but our baggage didn’t.  It would arrive on the next flight, an hour and a half later.  We decided to hang out at the airport and wait for our bags rather than have them delivered later by the airline.  In retrospect, it would have been smarter to wait in Houston for the next plane and hope for better seats, but we didn’t consider that option at the time.

Shortly after noon we were home.  And very happy to be here.

Final Thoughts

We had a good trip.  I’d give it an A-.  Not the most memorable journey we’ve taken but overall very interesting and satisfying.

Peru was a pleasant place to visit.  We found the people friendly and helpful.  Our inability to communicate in Spanish was on occasion more of a problem than I thought it would be.  I think a language disconnect is more a fault of the visitor than a local person.  It is, after all, their country and their language.

We were on highways and roads quite a bit.  I found that there was more courteous behavior toward other drivers than in many places we’ve been.  The level of craziness associated with impatient people in a hurry (Italy for example) was less in Peru than we’ve seen elsewhere.  Yes, horns were in use on crowded city streets, but again, less than elsewhere.

I hadn’t realize how multiethnic Peru is.  Most people we saw were either Mestizo or Amerindian.  Rough population estimates say that 47% are Mestizos and 31% Amerindian, while Europeans account for less than 20%.  I somehow thought the Spanish blood would be more evident.

Ethnicity aside, the impact of the Spanish is everywhere, and in my view is a major negative.  Starting with the drive to Christianize the population, no matter how many had to die in the process, and continuing the process by destroying indigenous physical and cultural foundations, was ruthless and unrelenting.  I’ll resist the temptation to use this space to launch a diatribe on the subject, but you get my message.

There is clearly some unrest in Peruvian society.  The student and worker demonstrations we witnessed weren’t one-off expressions of unhappiness.  We chose to concentrate on being visitors and didn’t get into the socio-economic reality of present-day Peru.  I read a few days after we returned that the police in Lima had used tear gas and force against demonstrators in the Plaza de Armas area.  So what we saw continues.

We chose a perfect time to be in Peru.  In the Amazon it was warm but not too hot – and no rain.  In the Andes it was cool at night but not cold – and no rain.  In Lima it was in the 60’s day and night – and no rain.

As we always do, on the way home we chose the five things that impressed us most on this trip.  This time four of the five were the same for both of us:

1.     Machu Picchu – overall and our time with Ernesto.
2.     The Delfin
3.     The Monasterio
4.     The Larco Museum

Sandra’s fifth was our tour of Iquitos – the market and floating city.  My fifth was our last few hours at the Monasterio having lunch in the courtyard.

That’s it – for now – on Peru.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peru - Part 5!

The Andes – Machu Picchu

Originally we were to take a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu.  But a few weeks before we left San Francisco I received an email from PeruRail letting me know that storms had washed out the tracks between Cusco and Pachar Station near Ollantaytambo, so we would need to take a bus to Pachar, which is about halfway to Machu Picchu.  Later I learned that this is not a unique happenstance – apparently it happens almost every year.  Too bad, but so goes life in the Andes.

The bus ride took about an hour and a half.  Actually, we were on the same road we took the previous day back to Cusco from the Sacred Valley.  Except for the fact that we had to stop for a while because of a small avalanche that happened just seconds before we passed that spot on the road (dust from the rocks and dirt were still blocking our view) the bus was uneventful, albeit a little uncomfortable.

The train was much nicer.  Called the Vistadome, we were surrounded by glass and large panoramic windows.  We followed the Urubamba River through the valley and the scenery, as advertised, was beautiful: mountain peaks on either side, small towns, farmland, forests.  After another hour and a half we arrived at Machu Picchu Station in Aguas Calientes.  It’s actually the gateway to Machu Picchu, which is another six kilometers up the mountain, accessed by bus on a twisting, turning, hairpin-filled dirt road.

I’ve mentioned that we were booked into the Sanctuary Lodge, located just a few meters from the entrance to the Machu Picchu site.  A hotel representative found us wandering around Aguas Calientes trying to figure out how to get to the hotel.  Our man Jorge.  With his guidance we got bus tickets and tickets to Machu Picchu, which need to be purchased in advance.  And up the hill we went.

The Sanctuary is a 3 or 4-star hotel at a 5+ star price.  We were paying for location, and in that sense it was worth it.  Their service and food are pretty good, but the rooms are ordinary.  We did have a view of Huayna Picchu, the iconic mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu, the Citadel, and that was a special treat.  Machu Picchu, the mountain, is on the other side of the valley.

Machu Picchu is a challenge to talk about.  On the one hand it is a huge engineering masterpiece.  How could a group of pre-industrial people manage to haul thousands of huge stones up or down a steep mountainside so as to create artistically sophisticated temples, houses, tombs, farming terraces, gardens, fountains, and more?  On the other hand Machu Picchu highlights and honors three main elements of Inca life – nature, culture and the spirit – brilliantly.

We are told that Machu Picchu was built as a retreat for the Emperor, used as such maybe once a year and otherwise occupied year round by a few hundred priests and residents.  A pretty fancy part-time residence, that’s for sure.  Whatever the truth and history, for me it was mostly a special place to be.  Others, including Sandra, want to know the details, and I understand that.  But in the face of such exquisite natural beauty I am happy to just sit back, immerse myself and enjoy it.  And that’s what I did.

Late on our first afternoon, after many of the day visitors had gone, we went into the site for the first time.  It was an exploratory excursion.  We just poked around without a plan to get a sense of what it was like.  We enjoyed it, but realized that a more organized visit would be helpful, so we arranged with the Lodge to have a guide the next day.  I recognize that this may seem inconsistent with my I want to just ‘be’ approach, but I saw no downside to both ‘being’ and ‘being in the place with someone who knew what he was looking at.’  So the next morning Ernesto joined us.

During our time in Peru Sandra had been coping with a stomach upset, including diarrhea.  She’d successfully held it at bay, but at the end of our first day at Machu Picchu she was also feeling the onset of a sore throat and cold.  She wanted some medication, but finding any didn’t seem likely.  As far as we knew, when the site closed all the little stores and kiosks at the entrance went dark and nothing was open except the Lodge.  However, when we asked about medicine at the front desk we were told there was a dispensary/clinic nearby.  So off we went to find it.

With the help of a flashlight and Sandra’s good sense of direction we found the place.  A knock on the door brought out a young man and woman who opened another door and behold, there was in fact a little dispensary inside.  Their stock of meds was limited, but after determining what the problem was they suggested some pills.  We had little option except to take their suggestion.  So we paid for the pills, and also a charge for the ‘consultation,’ and returned to the Lodge for dinner.  When we were back in Cusco we went looking for a pharmacy and added to our pill supply.  Whether either the first or second meds did any good we don’t know.  Fortunately, the sore throat and cold didn’t get worse, so either nature took its course or our medical ‘experts’ were helpful – or both.

The next day we spent three hours with Ernesto and were very happy we’d chosen to use a guide.  He was very knowledgeable, organized our time so that without undue exertion we were about to see the most relevant places, and patiently answered Sandra’s endless questions.  I’d borrowed a walking stick from the hotel, which made it much easier for me to climb around the site, which had a lot of ups and downs and rough spots.  It was a very satisfying morning.

Sandra wasn’t quite finished.  She wanted one more trip inside the Citadel, which she did the morning of our last day in Machu Picchu.  It turns out that for many many years she’d dreamed of visiting this place.  Before we planned this trip her Machu Picchu dream hadn’t come up in our various conversations about where to go in the world, so this was news to me.  She made her final visit and returned, she said, complete.  She was a happy girl.

On Monday, June 24, we retraced our journey down the hill to Aguas Calientes, boarded the train, transferred to the bus at Pachar Station, and arrived back in Cusco about 7 p.m.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Peru - Part 4!

The Andes – Cusco #1

The Monasterio is my newest favorite hotel in the world.  We stayed there twice, for three days the first time around, and then after two days in Machu Picchu we returned to Cusco for another three days.  The Monasterio was extraordinary from the moment we walked in.  We were greeted by Christopher from Guest Relations.  He took care of our registration and showed us to our room.  It was a standard room, smaller than we thought it would be, and our disappointment was obvious.  Without missing a beat Christopher said he would see if a Deluxe room was available.  He found one, we looked at it, it was perfect and so we were upgraded.  Christopher said it would be an additional $50.  No problem, we said.

The Monasterio was originally built in 1595 on the site of an Inca palace and then appropriated by the Spanish and consecrated as the Seminary of San Antonio Abad.  It was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1650 and restored.  In 1965 it was remodeled into a hotel and declared a national historic landmark.

The hotel’s design reflects its heritage.  The stones around the entrance doors still bear the Spanish Arms Escutcheon and the image of Bishop Juan Serricolea y Olea from the 18th century.  At the heart of the hotel is a beautiful cloistered courtyard featuring a large fountain and a 300-year-old cedar tree.

The Monasterio is tranquil, breathtakingly beautiful, impeccably managed and the gold standard for customer service.  Every aspect of the Monasterio is seamless.  Sitting in the sunny courtyard for a drink or meal, with Gregorian chants in the background, enjoying a Pisco Sour and great food, is an unforgettable experience.  Like I say, my newest favorite hotel in the world.

It got even better during our second stay.  No deluxe rooms were available, but Christopher found a Junior Suite for us, again for an extra $50.  Given that the daily rack rate for the Suite is $225 more than the first room we booked, it was a bargain.  What I didn’t realize during these room changes was that the $50 Christopher mentioned for the upgrade was a one-time charge, not an additional $50 or $100 a day, which we would have gladly paid had that been necessary.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century to 1532, when it was overrun by the generals of Atahualpa.  The Spaniards arrived the following year and, as was their custom, destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces.  Cusco became the center of Spanish colonization in the Andean world, and thanks to agriculture, cattle and mining became very prosperous.  Most of Cusco today reflects the Spanish, not the Incas.

Cusco lies at an elevation of 11,200 feet.  Not being acclimatized and arriving from sea level as we did can be a problem.  On our first day we had a late lunch accompanied by our now mandatory Pisco Sours and wine.  Big mistake!  After lunch we were totally out of it.  No energy, disoriented, headachy.  All I wanted was a bed.  I assumed the next day would be difficult.  But after 12 hours of sleep we woke refreshed and ready to go.  Throughout our time in the mountains we were aware of less-than-usual oxygen, but we didn’t experience a recurrence of altitude sickness.  We considered ourselves lucky.

On our first full day in Cusco we took it easy.  This was Thursday, June 20.  When planning our itinerary I hadn’t realized that Cusco’s top local event, Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun, was celebrated on June 24.  We were locked into a schedule that had us returning from Machu Picchu that day, so we’d miss the key event, but we would be there during the days leading up to the Festival, which were filled with happy, colorful, noisy activities.

The focal point for Inti Raymi was the main square, a short walk from the Monasterio, which is where we headed that first day.  When we arrived we were greeted by crowds of people standing on the steps of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (built in 1539) cheering on a parade of bands and dancers dressed in traditional costumes.  They represented local indigenous groups and communities and were unrestrained as they marched past us.  It mattered little that they were sometimes out of step or uncoordinated; their enthusiasm was contagious.  

Again, Sandra had done restaurant research.  She found an eatery overlooking the square, where we had lunch, and a place called Incazuela, which featured uniquely prepared local food, for dinner.  Both were good, as was dinner the following night at a more upscale restaurant, the MAP Café.

The Andes – The Sacred Valley

The next day would be devoted to a trip through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, also called the Urubamba River Valley.  We arranged for a car and driver through the hotel, and it was to be a full day’s excursion.  As it turned out, the route we chose (which included two spots off the beaten path) was a mistake.  Our first stop was Pisac, Inca ruins that include temples, a citadel and agricultural terraces.  Sandra loves ‘old stones’ and Pisac, while not super-old, qualifies.  One needs a good imagination to make sense of the ruins, which are indeed a pile of stones.  But over the years I’ve been with her to see ‘old stones’ all over the world, so this was not a new experience.  We would see many more ‘old stones’ before we left Peru.

Next was Moray, reached by a long drive on a bumpy, unpaved road – not a place on the usual Sacred Valley itinerary, and for good reason.  It is another Inca ruin, this one circular agricultural terraces.  We looked down at them, found them mildly interesting, and then retraced our route along the long, bumpy ride back to the main highway.  Not a wise use of time.

Our next unscheduled dirt road jaunt was to the Maras Salt Ponds.  Since pre-Inca times salt has been obtained by evaporating highly salty water from a local subterranean stream.  The water runs down into several hundred ancient terraced ponds.  The way to the ponds is mountainous and dangerous, but the payoff makes it more worthwhile than was Moray.  Even so, the cost in time had a deleterious impact later in the day.

The key site to visit in the Sacred Valley is the town and ruins of Ollantaytambo.  Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon and then faced a gridlocked traffic jam that held us up.  Finally, we left the car and walked to the main attraction, the Inca ceremonial center built in the mid-15th century by Emporer Pachacuti.  We would have preferred more time in Ollantaytambo, but it was getting dark and we had to head back to Cusco.  Our trip to the Sacred Valley was worth doing but could have been planned better.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Peru - Part 3!


Iquitos is home to half a million people, the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road.  You have to either fly in or come by boat, which is a long, difficult journey.  It grew into a thriving urban center during the rubber boom (1880-1914).  Today, Iquitos is the hub where the food, culture, customs, worldview, and historical landmarks of the Loreto Region of Peru meet.  And as the rainforest becomes more accessible and popular, a magnet for tourists.

We stayed in the Casa Morey, a 1913 Victorian villa built by the rubber baron, Luis Morey.  It overlooks a lovely park on the banks of the Itaya River and was recently restored to serve as a high-end hotel.  High end is a relative term.  Yes, high end for Iquitos, but not quite 4 or 5-star in the world of international hotels.

The building is impressive.  A national monument, historic, reminiscent of the grandeur associated with an earlier time.  Spacious, very high ceilings, open areas, clean.  Yet, I found staying at the Casa Morey a bizarre experience.  We had a huge bedroom, toilet and entry room, but very few furnishings, little light and minimum amenities.  The management and service left much to be desired.  Almost no one spoke English, so basic communication was difficult.  The staff was friendly and well-meaning, but inexperienced and untrained.  However, our expectations were not high, so staying there for two nights was not a problem.  Just bizarre.

A few blocks from the hotel, alongside the river, were several restaurants that catered to foreigners.  We went to one we were told was good, were able to get a table upstairs overlooking the promenade, and had a very pleasant dinner.  I tried an alligator entrée that was OK.  Our Pisco Sours (now a staple when we sat down to eat) were OK.  Much to our surprise, on the walk back to the Casa Morey we ran into the Italian women from the Delfin.  They had also stayed in Iquitos for a day.  They greeted us like long lost cousins, not at all like their demeanor on the boat.  Go figure. 

The next morning we took a walk to the center of town.  The main square was underwhelming.  There was a lot of construction of what promised to be new, ugly buildings.  The streets were crowded and noisy.  Overall, we weren’t too impressed.

We were to have a more interesting view of Iquitos under Luis’ tutorage.  He came by mid-morning as promised and we went with him first to the main outdoor local market and then on a small boat to see Belen, Iquitos’ floating city.  The market is huge.  Vendors from 150 local communities come together to sell everything imaginable to eat, drink, cook with, or wear.  One area features medicine, literally thousands of local remedies for whatever may ail you.  The work of indigenous craftspeople is everywhere.  The sights, sounds, aromas and energy generated by hundreds of people jammed into a small area make a visit to this market unforgettable.

What stands out for me most during our day in Iquitos was the walk from the market to the river where we began our boat trip through the floating city.  The waters, which were at their peak in April and flooded low-lying areas of the city, had receded.  What was left behind was the garbage and debris that weren’t so visible when the waters were high.  Huge piles of stinking refuse were everywhere.  To their credit, whatever city agency is responsible for removing this stuff was doing its job, which is to gather it together and haul it away.  But the job was a long way from being finished.  The people who live in this area are, of course, the poorest residents of Iquitos, so they are the ones that have to deal with the flooding and then the follow-on issues.  It was a very ugly and dispiriting scene.

I’m not a great fan of boats under any circumstances.  The one we boarded to see the floating city was small and in my view unstable.  So I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of floating around the Amazon in this thing.  I was assured it was safe and so off we went.  The floating city is just that – houses and shops that are in the water, anchored I assume in a way that keeps them in one place.  Clearly, the people living here are poor, and we were told that most visitors are shocked by the conditions in which they live.  But for us, a slum is a slum, whether floating or on dry ground.  And we’ve seen dozens of slums around the world.  We were not, therefore, surprised at what we saw.

Perhaps the signal event that says it all was when a little boy in a little boat came up next to us and was playing in the water with what we were told is the largest rodent in the world, a capybara.  He then lifted it up into his boat and was petting it.  I thought the thing would bite him, but apparently they are friends and no damage was done.  So, no shock associated with the floating city.  A lot of shock associated with the little boy and the huge rat.

For the rest of the day we did nothing, relaxed and had a quiet dinner.  The next day we would make a dramatic environmental change – from the Amazon to the Andes.  We flew from Iquitos to Lima and connected to a plane to Cusco.  All the logistics were smooth and our flights were on time.  We checked into our hotel, the Monasterio, at about 2 in the afternoon.