Summary of the trip: Americas

I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip, but so they stay relevant I am going to do some as I go along. So I’m going to split my trip into thirds. Firstly the Americas, then Oceania and Japan, and finally mainland Eurasia. Then finally I’ll sum up the whole thing.

Best site

Iguazu, Argentina and Brazil, although Machu Picchu was pretty special out didn’t quite take my breath away in the same way.

Honourable mention

Machu Picchu, well that much is obvious. It is an epic site.

Best museum

The Holocaust Museum, Washington DC, it tried so hard to just give the facts. I learnt a lot about the recent history of the Jews and that reflects heavily on the middle east today. Well worth a visit.

Best tour company

Layana, San Pedro as they gave detailed explanations in English of the sites we were seeing. They also weren’t too pricy.

I have to admit in general I haven’t been too impressed and was going to give it to the Sinh Cafe from my last trip to Vietnam.

Best city

New York for it’s incredible range of stuff to do in the day. having half decent nightlife as well and also having excellent transportation.

Honourable mention

Santiago, a hidden gem that I didn’t expect to be great. But aside from all it’s attractions seemingly shutting on Sunday and Monday every week it is actually a pretty nice place. Though its worth noting that even in Providencia it does have a sinister feel sometimes, especially after dark (though nothing personally happened to me or anyone I know in Santiago).

Best non-family accommodation

I’m not ranking my family/free accommodation as you all looked after me well so I’m picking the best accommodation I paid for.

Sunny Days, Arica Chile provided all you can eat breakfasts, excellent rooms and good advice on the city as well as a kitchen and lounge area with good cable TV.

Best food for under US$25 (excluding service)

Just in case I get taken to the local equivalent if La Manior I’ve stuck a price limit on this but the winner is Steak in Buenos Aires at a small restaurant at Defensa and Independencia which was above and beyond anything I’d had before.

Honourable mention

Pacha Papa, Cusco for it’s excellent food and exquisite service.

Best nightlife

Chicago, Buenos Aires is close but frankly it’s too late for me to start clubbing at 2am.

Friendliest People

El Soberio. After falling ill I was looked after really well by the people of El Soberio. And I improved my terrible Spanish a bit too.

Best transportation company

Via Barriloche, Argentina for providing good food, drink and comfortable seats for only a little more than the competition.

Most useful material possession

iPod Touch for letting me write these blog posts when on buses and public transport and having lots of other useful information on it.

Best bargain

Plastic playing cards in Cusco for US$0.67 that are fully plastic so should last well.

Biggest rip-off

Postada la bonita for accommodation worth a generous US$10/night costing US$100/night.

The Patrick Levy award for cinematography

When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.

And the winner is SHOOTER which was an excellent and clever movie about a presidential assasination. I really want to see the end of it as we arrived in Tacna so I missed it.

Honourable Mention

Don’t mess with the Zohan I quite enjoyed this movie about the Israeli superspy Zohan but my friends I was with thought it wasn’t that great.

Arequipa again

After leaving Puno I spent a couple of relaxing days in Arequipa. I left there a day later than planned as the accommodation in Tacna was going to be really expensive so I stayed in Arequipa for an extra day. On Sunday afternoon I went to a food festival in Arequipa and tried stuffed peppers which is a speciality while I was there. Other than that I went out on Saturday night and lazed around the hostel.

On the bus to Tacna I saw the romantic comedy “Failure to Launch” which was predictable but still funny. I also saw the Cruz del Sur “tour Peru” (but just point the camera at the attractive female presenter) video that includes a detailed look at some inca baths the presenter in a bikini for the third time. Frankly I’m bored of it now. We did get to see Shooter which was a really good film.

After the bus arrived in Tacna I took a collectivo for the short trip across the border into Chile where I now am. Chile is much richer and nicer but also more expensive.

Puno and Lake Titicaca

So on Wednesday I got the early morning bus with Cruz del Sur to Puno. The bus wasn’t as nice as the ones I’d been on before and it didn’t redeem itself with it’s movie choice of Miss Congeniality. By the afternoon I had arrived in Puno and got a “taxi” (actually a three wheeled motorbike which was a new experience) to my hostel. After a one hour walk around town I had caught all the main “sights” of the town. I’d be curious to know whether it manages to beat Slough in the excitement stakes (though this week it is hosting the APEC summit which means the town was full of policemen). Anyhow like Slough there are more interesting sights nearby in this case consisting of lake titicaca (which means Grey Puma in Ketchua the local language) which I went on a two day tour of.

The tour started early in the morning and was great. First we went to the floating islands near Puno which are made of reeds and mud and are artificial islands that have existed since inca times. Additionally part of the reeds are edible and we got to eat some of them. They have a subtle flavour and are generally similar to the banana. After that we went on a further three hour boat journey to the island where we were going to stay the night and we had an unfortunately late (but tasty) lunch before going to watch the sunset over the island which was very beautiful. After this on the way back to my accommodation in the presidents house I got lost and had to ask for directions in Spanish. As I was staying in the presidents house I assumed this was going to be a trivial process but there were 7 communities on the island and so there were 7 presidents and they were unsure which one we were staying with and neither were we. In the end we figured it out and were taken back to our accommodation.

After that we had dinner and then dressed in a poncho to go to a traditional dance festival which was very interesting and we danced around the fire which was fun. Then the next day we went to another local island with overpriced souvineers for a morning walk followed by lunch. After which we took the boat back to Puno. Back at the hostel I had the pleasure of reading my favourite magazine: Teen Vogue, it is the only magazine I’ve ever read which stops articles in the middle and then starts another article. It also has so may ads that the contents doesn’t finish until page 60 of the magazine! I went out with people from my hostel first to get a meal for only 2.5 soles (US$0.87) and then for considerably more expensive drinks in town. I had a Pisco Sour which is a traditional Peruvian drink and it was considerably better than the ones I have had before.

Today I have just arrived back into Arequipa for the night before heading onto Tacna and the Chilean border tomorrow.

Cuy and the final day in Cusco

Today us my last day in Cusco. I got up at 9am and had breakfast. Then after that I headed up to Saqsaywaman which is an inca site just above cusco which I had missed earlier in the week. It was pretty impressive even after seeing Machu Picchu and it was basically a fort overlooking Cusco itself. Though it also had farming terraces and a theatre. After that I headed down the road to the Jesus statue overlooking the city before walking down a different route into the city itself. By that point I was hungry and I went to a restaurant that was the earning wing of a charitable organisation running after school clubs called Aldea Yanapay (that definitely seems like the way to run a charity – the food was also no more expensive that elsewhere and excellent.)

Then in the afternoon I spent several hours uploading photos to Flickr (they haven’t all been sorted through and named yet – I’ll post when that is done.) and then went to the regional museum that would have been good had it had descriptions of the objects – even if they were only in Spanish.

After that I packed my case putting my cold weather clothes at the bottom of my bag so it is now finally sensibly packed (as anyone whose travelled with me knows I usually end up emptying my bag in every place I visit.)

Then I had dinner at Pacha Papa on San Blas square in Cusco. For that I had some Cuy (Guinea Pig). Unlike the Cuy rat I had in Arequipa which tasted like duck this tasted completely different from any meat I had tasted before. I also had some fermented corn beer with the meal which is made by eating the corn and spitting it out again. I wasn’t allowed a full portion as it makes some people sick but I did get a sample to taste. It is well worth trying and it has quite a subtle flavour (though it got stronger in the glass) and especially it doesn’t taste of hops like normal beer.

More in Cusco

So this weekend was the final weekend my friends from Oxford were here in Peru. On Saturday we went to a locals Market in Cusco but didn’t buy much the best bargain was a set of playing cards for 2 soles (US$0.67). After that we went to McDonalds for a late lunch where I had 99% of my FDA fat and salt allowances.

Then on Sunday we went to Pisac so we could visit the fortress. On the way we took the collectivo and unlike before we had to queue up for tickets. Also apparently seats we assigned but at least 50% of the bus was ignoring them so that was fun. I also had a chat with an American family travelling the world which was interesting. After getting to Pisac first we had a wander aroud the Sunday Market, which as well as the mass produced souviners had some more interesting hand made ones as well including a rug I bought. After that we took a taxi up to the fortress above Pisac and then had a wander around the extensive and interesting fortress and terraces before walking back down to the village. From the village we then caught the collectivo back to Cusco which was uneventful.

Then on Monday morning we did some last minute souviner shopping and went to some mediocre museums before having some food. While eating I got my shoes shined. As we were continually accosted by people trying to sell us stuff and the show shiners practically make you tell them to fuck off before they’ll go away so I jokingly suggested the price of 10 centivos (US$0.03). However he did a good job and applied some setting chemical so I was going to pay the original price of 1 sole (US$0.33). However he kept insisting on 15 soles (US$5) which was outrageous and in the end I paid him 2 soles (US$0.67) which he accepted. The sad thing is that I’d have had less trouble giving the original price than by trying to be generous. In fairness however he did do a better job than I could manage myself.

After that fun we got a taxi to the bus station so my friends could get their 20 hour bus to Lima for their flight home. As they don’t enjoy Hollywood blockbusters as much as me I don’t think they’ll enjoy themselves too much on the bus but I hope it’s OK.

Machu Picchu

Firstly a note. This is a double post and the story on the rest of the Sacred Valley was posted at the same time.

After breakfast at the train station we got ok the train. The train didn’t have much legroom (little more than the bus yesterday) but we did get a window positioned next to every seat. At first we got to see the rubbish produced by the citizens of Cusco. I wish they’d add a US$1 surcharge to the US$48 each way ticket price and pay people to clean it up as it’s disgusting. After that we got to see the tight valley the train winds through to reach the Sacred Valley including several switchbacks; especially as we left Cusco. After about 2 hours we again reached Ollyatambo and afterwards headed through the lush farmland of the Sacred Valley. After a while this gave way to the most virgin jungle I had yet seen as we wound our way along the track to Machu Picchu station.

After our journey we arrived into London Paddington Machu Picchu station (if you treat it like London and march straight through you can get the first waiting bus. Keep your guidebook handy for the route through the inevitable Market.) then you are taken to Machu Pichu itself. This meant we got to the top very quickly so we got a lot of time at the top.

It doesn’t exactly have a wow moment like Iguazu does but overall it is incredible and an amazing location to build a city surrounded by mountain peaks and also very challenging to reach. The bus up has to practically hug the cliff on the 30 minute journey to Machu Picchu itself. The highlight for me was the absolutely spectacular views in all directions of the surrounding mountains.

In the city itself we had a wander around and saw the usual half constructed buildings that are present at the other inca sites. The city also is clearly unfinished in places and large boulders take their place among the buildings. Basically the Spanish conquered the incas at the height of their empire so the city wasn’t finished. The centre of the city was a slanted rock which had no shadow on the equinox days which everyone seemed to want to pretend to touch.

After seeing most of the city which includes ledges for growing food for around a 3 hour trip we walked up a path for 30 minutes to get amazing views of Machu Picchu from above. It was as high as the mountain limited to 400 people so the view was pretty amazing, probably as good to be honest. Overall Machu Picchu was definitely well worth seeing and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

PS there are lots of trains from Ollyatambo to Machu Pichu. If you want to spend longer on the mountain but still do it in one day get the bus to Ollyatambo the previous evening and stay in a hotel there and then get the train to Machu Picchu from there and then get the train all the way back to Cusco in the evening. If you don’t stay there you’ll have to get up even earlier as it takes 2 hours to get there from Cusco however you do it. Alternatively you can get a late train from Ollyatambo to the village at the end of the train line which lets you walk up one of the mountains to overlook Machu Picchu whose numbers are limited to 400/day and you have to get entry at 7am.

PPS I’ll be adding photos in the next few days of the site to Flickr and I’ll link them from the story.

The Sacred Valley

So on Tuesday evening we went off to the Pre Columbian art museum in Cusco which had some more pottery of different Peruvian cultures as well as wood and metalwork. I have to admit the pottery was the best however. The museum was run by the same people who ran the pottery museum in Lima and it was also excellent.

Then on Wednesday we went to Pisac at one end of the Sacred Valley and attempted a walk into the mountains along the river. This ended fairly quickly in failure as we only had a 1km=1cm map as that was the best available (even that cost nearly US$20) and the path itself wasn’t clear at all and we kept getting distracted by sheep tracks. Maybe a GPS would have made it more possible. Regardless we did get to see some amazing views of the valley and it was a tough walk so I shouldn’t complain too much. In the evening we went to a small restaurant with excellent food but unfortunately the worlds slowest service.

On Thursday we had some chores to complete in the morning but we also headed off to the Sacred Valley to the other end that is accessable by road to the town of Ollyatambo. This took 2 hours each way by bus and collectivo but still coat less than $2. It was pretty efficient and we didn’t stop much and it was a great way to see the locals. I wish my Spanish was up to conversation too. The only problem with the bus was the lack of legroom but I didn’t have a problem. There are definitely advantages to being short!
At Ollyatambo there was an attractive town which we looked around as well as more terraces and an Inca fort. The inca fort was very interesting and we spent over an hour looking around it. They had also partly reconstructed the fort so you could see what it used to be like. Hopefully they don’t go too far with this though. This end of the valley was also much more tropical than at Pisac which as it was only 30km away was surprising. This was clearly an important valley for the incas. Then we got ready for Machu Picchu the next day for which we had to get up at 5am for the train.

Cusco

So after a bus ride from Arequipa that at 10 hours was entirely too short, and on twisty and bumpy roads we arrived in Cusco yesterday. I say the bus journey was too short as we then didn’t get enough time for sleep on the bus and it arrived to early in the morning, though admittedly it was streets ahead of Vietnam Railways arrival into Hanoi at 4.30am last year.

Cusco is really the tourist centre of Peru and it is a beautiful city, it is an old town, with very narrow streets and it is fun watching the taxis charge at each other before one gives in an reverses out again. Really its a city for walking, even given the height of 3500m. Apon arrival first we went to the South America Explorers Club to pick up a walking map. After getting that and a cheap lunch we had a wander around the centre and visited the very beautiful cathedral. There was even a free and very good audio tour of the cathedrals (I’m something of a fan of audio tours, they tell you a lot more than just wandering round on your own)

After that we went to dinner at a place called the Bagdad Cafe and had some excellent food. However in mine, which was a local speciality that was basically pork soup there was a chili. Unfortunately even though the dish was fairly spicy I didn’t realise it was a chili and thought the spice was in the sauce itself and it was a sweet pepper. So I took a big bite and then my mouth was feeling incredibly spicy. This was to an insane extent and I downed most of a bottle of beer, had some bread, and also quite a bit of sugar, as well as a 500ml bottle of water to return the level of spice to a sane level (i.e that of a medium curry like a Chicken Tikka Masala).

Then this morning I had a bit of Diarrhea, probably due to the spice, so I’ve stayed at the hostel while my friends go up to see some Inca sites nearby. I am already feeling a lot better though, and am shortly going to get some lunch.

The Colca Canyon and Arequipa

So on Thursday after our first day in Arequipa we went on the bike ride. We did get up at 6am and after breakfast we went to the bike shop. Then after they got the bikes and we got up the mountain we then had to cycle down. None of us had ever cycled on a non-metalled before and the others both fell off and we all had a fair few near misses. The main challenge was staying on when the road became either sandy or bumpy with rocks and you had to keep a good grip of the handlebars. Regarldess of the falling off we all enjoyed it and the scenery on the way down was amazing. By the time a had finished it was also nearly dark so that took the whole day.

The next day we got up at 6am again and headed out on a tour to the Colca canyon. This involved a 4 hour drive over the mountains and we stopped off on the way to see wildlife including llamas and alpacas. We also went up to nearly 5000m above sea level to the roof of the Andes. The height was in fact fine though we all had minor effects as we drank lots of coca tea, which helps with the altitude. Coca is the plant that contains Cocaine but is entirely legal here and it also doesn’t contain very much of the drug. Later in the day we had lunch at our hotel which was very good before setting off on a walk and then going to some excellent hot springs. I was a little disappointed that the pools were all the same temperature but that was a minor issue.

Then we went back to our hotel for dinner and an early night as we were getting up really early at 5am the next day so we could go and see Condors.

So after waking at 5am and having breakfast we left the hotel at 6am and headed towards the canyon seeing more amazing scenery. At 8.30 we went on a walk towards the condor viewing place and at 9am we weren’t disappointed by the view of the birds. Given my cameras 10x optical zoom we also got some great shots of the birds. After that we headed back to Arequipa for an early night and for one last day in the town. We are leaving tonight for Cuzco which should be great but first we are having a lazy morning by staying in bed a little later than 6am!