Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cusco the Inca capital

Cusco, the charming capital of the Inca empire, sitting near the top of the world at 3400m elevation. It was by far the city we liked the most considering the amount of pictures we took. The plaza de armas is downtown done right. As usual the square is in front of the cathedral, but here in Cusco the square is huge, so that you can admire the cathedral in all its magnificence. However here in Cusco all the 2 story buildings surrounding the main square are also a work of art. We could actually say that to the entire historic center district.
Like in Berlin you step in history all the time. There's clear evidence of the advancement of the Inca culture, but also of the atrocities committed by the Spanish conquistadors.
I understand Cusco is the airport to get to Machu Picchu and other adventures, but the city itself is very comfortable and welcoming.
For a touristic city it's quite cheap, with laundry for 2 soles/kg in the maloq street, and awesome lunch for 6 soles in restaurant Gallito Rojo at calle Siete Cuartones, 242. Lunch includes soup as entrée plus main dish and a refreshment.
There are even some restaurants that offer a lunch menu for 4 soles.
Another highlight are the artisan and gift shops. They have awesome items for good prices.

Practical information
Once you arrive at the airport, you can get one of the vans to downtown for 0,70 soles. A taxi downtown should be around 8 soles. Word is the taxis inside the airport cost 3 times more, so you should just get out of the airport in the main street (a short 100m walk) and hail a cab there. Since there's no taximeter you will have to haggle.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Machu Picchu

The lost Inca town, hidden in the mountains. It took 50 years and thousands of workers to build it. It has a nice location with a river flowing by and several mountain chains as natural protection. No pictures can describe Machu Picchu. By the way have you ever noticed that it has an extra C in Picchu? It is pronounced by the way so the name is sounded like Matchu Piktchu.
The real name of this town is lost in time. It's known as Machu Picchu because that's the name of the mountain it's built on. The name means old mountain. Next to it is Huayna Picchu, i.e. The young mountain. Huayna Picchu also has ruins, but it requires an extra ticket reserved at least a month before and it probably also requires that you don't have fear of heights.
Machu Picchu is much larger than it seems in the pictures. It's said to have between 400 and 600 inhabitants, possibly from the Inca nobility, including astronomers and engineers.
There's a path that goes all the way to Cusco, and according to the guides it had another 7 paths leading to it. The speculation is that the other paths were destroyed when the Incas were forced to flee the town.
It was built around 1450 and lasted for almost 100 years until the Spaniards arrived to rape, kill and pillage everything, forcing residents to go away. In an incredible strike of luck, the Spaniards never found it and that's why it's so well conserved even after 600 years.
The Incas used what are considered current methods of architecture and engineering which made sure the city would resist the weather and the earthquakes.
The locals have a slightly different version about when the city was discovered by the Yale university researcher Hiram Bingham between 1909 and 1912. The official story is that he was doing research and he's a nice hero for discovering the city. That's what's on wikipedia as well. The local version is that he was searching for gold from the Inca nobility. Word on the street is that he helped to steal 48000 artifacts from Machu Picchu, making a fortune out of it.
There's much pride from many of the locals about the Inca empire and rightfully so. One thing that comes to my mind though is that the Incas didn't conquer such a vast territory by sending flowers and giving free hugs.
The city itself is stunning and one can't help but be marveled at the ingenious ability of the Incas. There's even an aqueduct bring fresh water from the mountain. The part of the mountain above the city was used as a cemetery, many mummies were found.
We had an interesting encounter when were strolling around looking for nice picture angles. We decided to get inside one of the few stone houses that has a roof. As we got inside a young girl pulled her pants up quickly and vanished outside. I hope she was only peeing on the sacred ground. The toilets cost only 1 nuevo sole, it's a shame she had to do that.
I'd say a guide is a must to have a better understanding of the ruins. I noticed that some people prey for tour groups and simply follow a tour guide once inside.

Practical information:
You need to get to Ollantaytambo to get the train to Machu Picchu. You can buy the train ticket online. You can also buy the Machu Picchu ticket online. The train leaves you at the village Aguas Calientes, now renamed to Machu Picchu pueblo.
To get to the lost town you can either get the bus for USD 12 each way or walk around 2 hours up.
In Machu Picchu pueblo there are only overpriced shops and restaurants. If you are on a budget you'd rather pack food.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Altitude sickness in Cusco

When you go to a place as high as Cusco you always study the place and all the tips and tricks to avoid altitude sickness. And so we did. However a small detail turned out to be very important. Between the flights from Quito to Lima, and from Lima to Cusco I drank very little water. And that was my downfall. After arriving at the hostel slightly dizzy, we went out to find the travel agency for the trip to Machu Picchu to pay the remaining of the tour. And it was around that time that it hit me. Dizziness, felling very weak and as if I was going to pass out.
The walk back to the hostel was awful with my mind full of negative thoughts and stopping to rest 2 times during the 500m walk. As I arrived I laid down in bed feeling awful, with no energy at all.
After a few coca tea mugs and some water fetched by my girlfriend I was finally able to sit up, and after some more able to walk out the door seeking a restaurant. We found one right in front of the hostel for 6 soles. Entrée was Muña soup. I had my soup and half the one served to my girlfriend. A day later I found out that Muña is excellent to help the body expand the lungs to take more air with each breathing. Am I lucky or what. I'm not sure whether it was the coca tea, the Muña soup or all the water ingested with them, but soon after I was felling way better.
All I can say is that the altitude sickness is very democratic in selecting victims. It does not matter whether you are a marathoner running 50 miles a week or a 70 year old who smokes 3 packs a day. All that said, if you go to the altitude, go slow. Not walking slow, more like sit down for some 3 hours and see how your body reacts. Drink tons of water. Follow all the advice to the letter. Maybe nothing will happen, but maybe altitude sickness will catch you and let me tell you she's a bitch.
The good news is that apart from those 2 hours of terror nothing else happened to me and my girlfriend suffered nothing at all.

Bus cable in Quito aka Teleferiqo

The bus cable starts near the avenida occidental around 2950m elevation all the way to 4050m. From the top you can take very nice pictures of Quito and the surrounding mountains provided there's a clear sky. We weren't that lucky unfortunately as clouds were covering most of the peaks. We took a bus downtown at La Marin terminal direction terminal La Ofelia. We got off the bus at seminario mayor station then walked avenida gasca until the tennis club where the teleferico signs start. Following the signs was then easy and there were no lines on a Thursday morning. Once at the top you can also hike a path to Rucu Pichincha.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mitad del Mundo

Mitad del Mundo is a small village created by the Ecuadorian government exactly over the Ecuator line. It has a nice monument, a museum, a planetarium, some llamas, a few restaurants and some gift shops.
There's also a scale because your weight is lower at the Ecuator line. The reason is that the Earth is wider at the Ecuator thus you are further from the nucleus and the planet's gravity impacts you less.
To get there you need to take a bus to Ofelia terminal and take the bus "Mitad del Mundo" from there. The second bus charges extra 15 cents.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hiking to the glacier on Cotopaxi volcano

If the travel agency had told us what climbing the Cotopaxi volcano would entail I'm sure we'd decline. However now that all is done I'm glad she didn't.
We were supposed to stay in front of the hostel at 6:30am. And the trip started on the right foot as the minibus was there on time. There were 10 people on the excursion.
First we went to a small restaurant near the entrance to Cotopaxi park for breakfast. It was a very nice breakfast with pancake, omelet, natural juice and coffee. The place even had wifi available.
Then we headed to the parking lot at the parks administration house. It was there that we met our park guide Medardo.
From there we'd take the gravel sinuous road to the Volcano parking lot at an altitude of 4500m.
We got raincoats, gloves and goggles and started climbing the 1000m or so to the refuge at 4800m elevation. It seemed pretty easy at first until we realized how steep the climb was. It was probably 30, 35 degrees and the ground was slipping. To make matters worse the weather got really bad, probably -5C and raining with some very strong headwinds that almost knocked my 84kg (185lb) frame down at times. 
To make matters even worse, on the advice of the travel agency clerk we were prepared to face maybe 5C. That means our sweat pants and coats weren't nearly enough to protect from the cold. The gloves we got from the guides were wool gloves, so not as useful as we got wet.
Oh, and our running shoes are definitely not appropriate fir this kind of hiking making us slip all the time. It was a hell of a quad and lower back workout though. Aerobically it was about the same as running a 10k, but one of those where you go out too fast and pay for it the while time.
Luckily the altitude didn't seem to bother us at all which could be good news as we have Cusco, La Paz and Uyuni coming up next on our trip.
It took us probably 40 minutes to get to the refuge. When we got there I was freezing, wet and afraid to lose my toes and fingers to frost. Once in the refuge though and after some hot cocoa I was feeling much better.
I gave the cashier a 20 dollar bill, he asked me if I could come the next day for the change. I burst out laughing, no way I'd face that hell again.
Back on track we'd climb 200m more to reach 5000m elevation at the beginning of the glacier. The volcano top stays at 5897m and it requires a couple days trip at least. Not for us.
We got to the glacier, took a few pictures and then started the descending. Ironically this was the hardest part as we'd slip all the time and had to go very slow to avoid a fall.
When we finally got to the parking lot at 4500m elevation again, the bus was there with the other travelers. We rode in the bus for a few km then got out for the second adventure of the day. Downhill. The bus had bikes on top, we got on said bikes and started descending the downward gravel road on the bikes. I even got dust on the right eye so I had to ride one-eyed which improved the adventure hah.
We rode the bikes for some 20 minutes until the plains near the lagoon. The landscape was inviting for pictures and so we obliged.
After that a short bus ride to the same restaurant from the morning for us to have lunch. Lunch was broccoli soup as entree, rice, meat and potatoes as main dish and fresh strawberry juice to wash it down. Since I'm a glutton I finished my soup before anyone else so they placed a bowl of rice in front of me. Not realizing it was meant to be shared by the table of 4 people I started eating it. Once my mistake was pointed out by my girlfriend I wanted to hide underground in same. Oh well. The poor colombian couple who was sharing the table with us had to eat rice contaminated by me. Oh, and the husband's juice had a hair in it.
We got a ride back to Quito, overall very happy with the experience.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Quito part 1

The flight from Guayaquil to Quito took only 35 minutes and it really seems like a good choice. It takes 8 hours by bus. There's also a train available that goes to many points of interest on the way though 3 days and 2 nights.
Upon arriving at Quito airport we immediately realized we should have spent less time in Guayaquil and more time in Quito. The view from the airport itself facing some rocky mountains is awesome. Quito has a very good transport system and the fare is also 0.25 USD. We took a bus from the airport to the Rio Coca terminal. From there we took a bus downtown.
The historic center which seems to have been recently renovated is very charming with narrow sidewalks and narrow streets as well. The town square where both the Cathedral and the presidential palace has the mountains surrounding Quito as background making for nice pictures. Walking up Venezuela street you end up at the Basilica with a breathtaking view of the city from its tower. To get there you have to either walk up the stairs or take the elevator to the third level. From there you walk a wooden bridge that's on top of the basilica's main aisle, though it's still inside the building. At the end there's a super steep staircase that reaches outside in the towers. I cannot comment on the amount of vertigo going up or down those stairs. It goes up about 5m on a 65 degree angle. It's leg trembling vertigo while going down backwards.
Did I mention there are restaurants serving lunch for 2USD? They are very clean and the meal involves some kind of soup as entrée plus rice, veggies and meat as main course plus a glass of natural juice. I love Quito!

Guayaquil - last thoughts

Guayaquil is a huge city and it feels opressive in a way, much like you would feel in Sao paulo. Tourists mostly go there to take a flight to the Galapagos Islands.
It was surprising that there were only 240 restaurants registered in tripadvisor. The downtown area has plenty of whole in the wall restaurants but we're unlikely to eat at one of these unless via tip from a local.
The transport system is still in the 60s with the small buses where you cannot stand upright inside. There is the new Metrovia system but it seems to cover limited locations.
The highlight of the city has to be the Sweet & Coffee chain. They have quite a few inventive and delicious sweets plus the regular coffee drinks you'd expect from Starbucks.
Still, like any giant city Guayaquil has many nice things, you just have to look at the right places.
The area on the riverfront, also known as Malecon is a pleasure to walk for a couple hours. There's a very interesting monument depicting a meeting between Simon Bolivar and General San Martin, both heroes of the independence in south american countries.
At the end of the Malecon you are in the picturesque Las Peñas district. You can either walk the stoneroad known as Llona or climb the 444 steps to the lighthouse. Try it at noon for maximum effect. This is a massive workout but the view from the top is more than worthy.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Guayaquil - Isla Santay

Santay island on the Guayas river used to be only accessible by boat. Recently the government built a bridge for cyclists and pedestrians as well as a elevated wooden footpath inside the island that takes you to the ecovillage. The entire ecovillage is built on a swamp so all the houses are elevated as well.
There are a few small crocodiles that are taken care there though they are not much of a show, rather just staying still. There are also a restaurant and a few snack huts.
If you have overeaten your sweet quota like us you not only would like, you would need to visit Santay island. The 3 km from the start of the bridge to the ecovillage plus all the way back will burn all that extra sugar.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Guayaquil is the largest, richest city in Ecuador sitting in front of the river Guayas.
Ecuador uses the US dollar since 1999 as its currency after the Sucre went down. It's quite interesting tomuse the dollar specially considering the prices are much lower here than anywhere in the US.
The funny thing is that the ecuadorian central bank also minted ecuadorian coins which are worth the same as the dollar coins. Not knowing that I thought that the ecuadorian coins were from the old currency and thus worth nothing. That's why I was rejecting ecuadorian coins on my second day here in Guayaquil. There are at least 2 ecuadorians now hating me and with good reason. One was the bus driver who got quite annoyed at me. Bus fare is 0.25 by the way, Porto Alegre mayor I'm looking at you.
Our stay here hasn't only involved me being an asshole though. We visited Cerro Santana that has 444 levels of stairs to arrive to the lighthouse at the top. It's quite the workout under the terrifying ecuadorian sun. We also hit the artisan market, the malecon, the 9th of october avenue and the parque centenario. We must have looked quite the tourists on that park with our dunkin donuts bag.
One dude even shouted to us while he was doing some sort of shady transaction which involved him taking a hit at a marijuana joint and leaving the place with a black plastic bag full of something I have no intention of knowing what it is.
Oh, yesterday we visited the Citymall where we picked the cheapest meal for 3 dollars per person only to visit Sweets and Coffee (a starbucks competitor) and spend 8.50 on sweets and coffee haha. Awesome financial skills.