Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Paracas, Peru: Peruvian penguins and sandboarding


We then traded the high altitude of Cusco for sea level at the coastal town of Paracas, about 3.5 hours south of Lima.

The first day was a pure and simple travel day, with a flight from Cusco to Lima was of course delayed (thanks again, Star Peru!) and we barely made it to our bus- they were calling our names over the intercom and we rushed in. We had booked our bus ahead of time and they were comfortable with personalized TVs. I don't think I could get my subtitles to work, but hey, a movie is a movie. 

Paracas is a great jumping off point for a couple of different activities. Nazca lines are nearby, sandboarding in Huacachina is even closer, and a tour of Islas Ballestas to SEE PENGUINS. THERE ARE PENGUINS. Let that sink in a little bit.
Paracas is like the poor man's Galapagos Islands. And because we couldn't swing the cost or the time of a Galapagos trip, we found ourselves here.  

A tour of Islas Ballestas and Paracas National Park are offered by a guided boat tour. It was delightful to get out on the water and see penguins and sea lions. Less delightful was the smelling of the sea lions, yet it is unavoidable and comes with the territory since we are invading their privacy. 


Colony of sea lions. Hearing hundreds of them bark at once was pretty incredible.


The boat ride was also a two-fer: we also got to see the cactus-shaped carving: the Candelabra. It is one of the Nazca lines put in by aliens? A Masonic symbol placed on the hillside by a general? We'll never know.

Sandboarding near Huacachina


In the afternoon we had one of the most pure fun activities of the trip: sandboarding in the sandboarding capitol of the world, Huacachina. It was the most fun you'll ever have getting sand places you wouldn't imagine. :) kidding, only kind of.


We booked our tour at an agency in Paracas and scheduled for the last tour of the day. We arrived a little late and got our own dune-buggy to ourselves which was awesome! Part of the fun is driving so fast through the dunes- it was such a thrill. Those seat belts aren't just for show!

Each dune-buggy comes with all of the gear you need to sled down the dunes. If you want to snowboard, you need to request ahead of time (none of us board so we stuck with sledding).


In between the boarding, the dune buggy would pick us up and take us to the next hill. We enjoyed a stunning sunset and would definitely recommend the last tour of the day.


Our taxi ride to Haucachina was interesting to say the least. The woman at the agency that we booked our dune buggy tour with suggested her friend to be our taxi driver. No problem except that we later learned that he was not a registered taxi driver. Which became a big problem for him. We embarked on our journey (about an hour or so) and about halfway there we got pulled over. As the officer was walking up to our car, our driver said to us in Spanish, "Tell them that we are friends and that we met on the beach and I'm just taking you for free..." So.....not an official taxi driver. After being delayed for a long time, our driver was given a hefty fine and we were on our way. Only to get pulled over again. Oi. We eventually made it (a bit late) but, for the sake of your driver, make sure it is official.


That evening we tried to stargaze because different hemisphere = different stars. Not that we know anything about astronomy. In the morning, we lounged in our Airbnb's pool before catching a bus back to Lima.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Peru: Two Days in Cusco


After our spiritual experience at Machu Picchu we took the train to Olly and then a taxi to our apartment in Cusco to spend the next two days in Cusco. It was Easter that weekend and we had heard that Cusco is a riotous place for Easter with parades and a lot of fanfare. The excitement typically happens the week beforehand while actual Easter weekend was more subdued and spiritual.

Our pace in Cusco enabled a lot of meandering, shopping and eating. And, of course, Incan ruins.

We relaxed/recovered in the morning before taking a taxi to the ruins of Sacsayhuamán or affectionately called Sexy Woman for those who can't nail the accent (never could).



Sacsayhuamán is considered the most important Inca monument after Machu Picchu. It was thought to be a religious complex during Inca times. However, it is only a fraction of the size of what it was before the Spanish hauled off some of the blocks as building materials. Created in 1440, the massive stones are jigsawed together. The stones are so large and the placing together so intricate that some people believe the only answer is: aliens. I didn't get the extraterrestrial vibe but who knows?

We spent time exploring the complex (which is huge- it is hard to describe) before heading on to a little adventure.



After you have wandered among the ancient stones and debated about the role of intergalactic beings, you will hear shrieks of joy from adults and children on the upper edge of the complex. Hidden on the other side of a hill is a natural rock slide. Run smooth from all of the sliding, you can definitely pick up speed!
Not just for kids.





It was delightfully unexpected to pretend to be a kid again in Cusco. Do we thank the aliens? We'll never know...
Plaza de Armas from above
We saved our soles and walked instead of a taxi back to Cusco proper. En route we stopped by Cristo Blanco, the smaller version of Christ the Redeemer, which happened to have an incredible view of the orange-roofed Cusco. Worth it for the view.


The viewpoint is conveniently located above the popular and delightful San Blas neighborhood filled with winding streets and cute shops to explore. It is the kind of neighborhood made for meandering. A market outside of the San Blas temple had beautiful artwork and jewelry.  


We continued our wandering until the lighting of the Easter candle at Catedral at the head of the Plaza de Armas. Inside of the catedral is a pretty awesome version of the Last Supper. One that has the apostles dining on Peruvian delights such as guinea pig and chicha. Because of the Easter festivities it was hard to angle to get a photo. However, we did gawk a bit at the stunning Catedral. 

Day 2 in Cusco


Plaza de Armas is just as gorgeous during the day as it is at night.

Incan awesome-ness in one 12-angled stone
We swung by another famous Cuscoan site that we easily missed yesterday. If you do not know what you're looking for and there isn't a crowd (there usually is), you might miss the famous Twelve Angled Stone in between San Blas Temple and the Plaza de Armas. 


We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through markets (Cusco is perfect for wandering). We ventured into the indoor San Pedro Market for smoothies and other trinkets and found an outdoor food market for all sorts of Peruvian snacks (we skipped the cuy). 


We spent the late afternoon at the beautiful Sun Temple or Qorikancha. It was built to honor the Sun and used to be covered in gold (Qorikancha means "Court of Gold"). The gold is long gone (pried off by the Spanish Conquistadors) so all that is left is stunning stone work.

We finished off the day with dinner at a darling restaurant and a cultural show (on the Boleto Turistico) that went on far too long....


Cusco, dear friend, we enjoyed you very much!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Peru: Machu Picchu


The day arrived. This is it. Machu Picchu!
It deserves all of the accolades, superlatives and must-see lists.
Everything I sit to type sounds cliche. Machu Picchu was awe-inspiring and looks just like the pictures. Seeing it in person is even better. Towering ruins above the valleys, llamas acting as natural lawnmowers. It's really fantastic.

As we walked up to the edge, the anticipation was electric. To see something that you have been anxiously dreaming and anticipating is a feeling that I can't describe.

Our experience was pretty standard, yet even the standard experience at Machu Picchu is spectacular.


We, along with a couple hundred other travelers, lined up in Aguas Calientes to take a bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu. After purchasing our tickets (and stamping our passports!) we walked in and the first view you get of the ruins is the picture above.


The day started out misty, moody and rainy. Normally, soggy days aren't my thing, but oh, that fog made it magical. The beginning of the year is rainy season in Peru so we brought waterproof hiking shoes, pants (lovingly called adventure pants) and jackets. It is amazing how not being soaked improved our experience. A poncho seriously wouldn't cut it.

view from the top of Huayna Picchu

The "Lost City of the Inca" was "discovered" in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, although locals knew about its existence. I read Turn Right at Machu Picchu and I highly recommend it as trip research. It was fascinating to learn about how Bingham rediscovered the site.



When we visited we were able to explore the ruins however we wanted, respectfully of course. There are not really any signs explaining what you are seeing so get a guide book or a map at the entrance if you want to know what is happening.


We spent a few hours exploring the main ruins before hiking Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain towering in the back of all of the main pictures.

Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 hikers each day- tickets must be purchased well in advance to secure a spot.


The trek to the summit is pretty intense. You have to navigate steep, narrow steps that were carved into the mountain by the Incas.


The entire hike was foggy and rainy, but as we reached the summit the fog dissipated and we could see the entire valley. The switchbacks you see in the middle of the photo is the road that leads from Aguas Calientes to the entrance to Machu Picchu.


The descent is just as arduous as the ascent. If you can, bring a walking stick!


Wandering back through the ruins to the entrance, I was in awe. And exhausted. It was hard to walk out of the complex and turn your back on this view. If I could walk backwards I would have. This was a truly, truly magical day.


Traveled March 2016.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Peru Day 3: Chocolates, Hot Springs and the Road to Machu Picchu


If there is a chance that I can eat on a trip, I will find it. We spent the morning eating and learning about Peruvian chocolate and how it is made. We took a chocolate cooking class at the ChocoMuseo and took a cocoa bean and mashed it into chocolate molds filled with treasures.


The class was completely hands on and we are now practically pros. Actually, they gave us a bag of beans that I had no idea what to do with when I got home. But the class was so much fun. Highly recommended.

After packing up and a quick lunch we boarded the train to Machu Picchu!


The train ride is half the journey. We upgraded and took the nicer train that came with snacks and had class ceiling. The views through the valley were incredible and it was definitely worth the upgrade.

The train from the Sacred Valley deposits travels in the tourist town of Aguas Calientes. It's a crowded Plaza de Armas and main thoroughfare surrounded by shops and restaurants and hostels. Since we were only there for the night, we picked a cheap hotel that was close. 


Aguas Calientes, literally meaning hot waters, is named for hot thermal springs in town. The springs are funneled into a series of public baths. Honestly, the water is a little murky (public bath = public body broth). But, when in Rome. (hot tip: rent a towel at one of the many shops along the way).

We had dinner at a restaurant along Avenida Pachacutec while a soccer game was happening (goalasoooooooo!). Our wake up call was at 5 a.m. so we put in earplugs (because of said soccer game) and off to bed.