Friday, October 28, 2016

Peru 2 - Sacred Valley

 
It seems trip updates are not writing themselves. It’s been a busy week. Neve’s arm is in a cast. We had an info session for an upcoming Chamber trip one evening, plus another evening spent with some of the people who were on our China trip. I had friends over one night. I also spent hours at the Apple store and on the phone trying to get our computer fixed. Spencer had an eye appointment and needs glasses. It felt like a week of constant interruptions, distractions and unexpected things popping up.
But it’s all good. Most of the busy-ness was good things. Everyone’s healthy and happy and things are as they should be.
Carrying on … After three nights in Lima, we took a quick early morning flight to Cuzco, the city with the nearest airport to Machu Picchu. It’s way up in the Andes with an elevation of over 11,000 feet. As soon as we stepped off the plane, we could feel the lack of oxygen. People in our group felt it in varying degrees; I was a little light-headed but some people found it really hard to breathe. We were told to take it easy, so we all walked slowly like a pack of zombies.
 
One of the main benefits of a group trip is that the tour operators and guides have learned all the tricks to make the trip go smoothly. As soon as we landed in Cusco, they herded us to the buses and took us down to the Sacred Valley, about two hours away. The altitude there is about 9500 feet (comparatively, Winnipeg’s altitude is 784 feet) so that allowed us to get somewhat acclimatized before heading to Machu Picchu. We were also encouraged to drink coca tea or chew coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness. Cocaine is extracted from coca leaves but the leaves themselves don’t seem to have harmful effects. At least that’s what they told us. Who are we to argue? So we drank a lot of coca tea and I guess it helped; I was told beforehand to expect that a good percentage of the group would be very sick and throwing up and it would only end when we were back at a lower altitude. Thank goodness that didn’t happen. There were a couple of people who were dizzy and nauseous, and a couple that needed oxygen (the hotels and buses had oxygen tanks), but for the most part, they all kept with the program. It was a little alarming to see their grey faces, but the colour returned almost instantly once they were hooked up to an oxygen tank. I would have liked to have tried it myself. When we lived in Toronto years ago, there was an oxygen bar down the street from us. I guess that’s not a thing anymore? It should be.

On our way to the hotel in the Sacred Valley, we made a few stops. We went to a place that sold textiles made from alpaca wool. They had a little herd of llamas and alpacas that we could feed. We also stopped to take a few pictures of an archaeological site and then spent a bit of time at the Pisac market. Lots of textiles, silver, paintings, an even a few cute little businesswomen willing to pose for pics with their baby lama for a small price. At the market they also sold produce, corn on the cob, and some pretty delicious empanadas.




We also stopped for some scenic photo opps
Then we carried on to our resort, which was just outside a tiny town in the Sacred Valley. It was a gorgeous place with amazing views of the mountains. I took so many pictures that all look the same because every day (we stayed there three nights) I would be blown away by how beautiful it was. From the main building, we had to walk up the hill a little way to our rooms, and you could feel the effects of the high altitude. We were huffing and puffing by the time we got to our room. Sometimes we’d stop and rest on the way. There was a farmyard outside our patio door and every morning we were woken way too early by the sounds of the roosters, turkeys and as a special treat, a loud braying donkey. There was also a child who would peer through the fence at us tourists in our rooms. At first it was kind of cute – a little head poking through a hole in the fence. We waved at her and she waved back and then she just stayed there. And stayed there. For hours. It got a little uncomfortable. To clarify, I didn’t stay there for hours but every time I glanced out the window, she was still there. Maybe she thought I was the creepy one.

Dale and I went to the spa one evening. We had to make an appointment and I didn’t realize they only took one booking at a time so we had the whole place to ourselves. There was a hot tub, sauna, steam room, and cold fragrant shower - kind of like Thermea but way smaller. It was pretty sweet.

 
 
There is lots to see in the Sacred Valley. We visited the Maras Saltpans, which were terraces that contained about 5000 salt pools. Many different families each own their own pool(s) where salt is extracted about once a month. Those pools have been used for centuries – even before Inca times.

This was the view on the way down to the valley to the salt pools
 

Then we stopped to see some terraces used by the Incas for agriculture and research. This is a view from the top. If you look closely, you can see a bunch of people on the right, top third of the photo. That gives you an idea of the size.
 


Walking on the terraces - gives you the scale.
It was lunch time one day and we were all getting hungry but it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere with no food around for miles. The guide said we were going for a picnic lunch but I couldn’t quite picture how or where that was going to happen. The roads were dusty and bumpy and narrow. We had to stop for cows to pass by on the road. There were old-school shepherds in the fields with their sheep. We even saw a predator (probably a fox) grab a sheep and run away. And then suddenly we arrived at a lake with tents set up on the shore, to an incredible gourmet lunch. It was one of my favourite meals.
 



Quinoa is very prolific in Peru ... we had quinoa in pretty much every way you can imagine.
Here it is in a dessert, which was actually delicious.
 
We also went to a little authentic Adean village where a cute 16-year-old girl with a very high-pitched voice gave a weaving demonstration. At one point in her presentation, she said, “We use this bone for (I forget what). What kind of bone do you think it is?” People guessed alpaca, llama, etc.

“No,” she said. “It is from tourist who didn’t buy anything in our store.” She said it with such a straight face in her little-girl voice that I wasn’t sure if she was joking or had just used the wrong English words. When English is not their first language, I’m always scared that they’ll think we’re laughing at them, not with them. But obviously it was a joke and she said other things that showed she either had a good sense of humour or (more likely) a well-rehearsed speech to make the tourists laugh and buy things.


A town called Ollantaytambo was a place I would have loved to have had more time to explore. It’s touristy, but in a bohemian sort of way. It’s the starting point for the Inca trail, which is a 4-day hike to Machu Picchu that I really want to do someday. There are lots of hostels and signs advertising Sherpa services and gear for the hike. If you are young and adventurous and unencumbered, you should get on a plane right now and go hang out there for a while. 
 
 

The people that live here still live the same way their ancestors did, with their customs and traditions. We toured someone’s private house. It wasn’t 100% authentic because they sold t-shirts and hats by their front door, but that’s how it goes.


They had lots of guinea pigs which scurried around underfoot. Make no mistake: these are not pets. These are Christmas dinner. Guinea pig is a special meal, reserved for birthdays or other special occasions. There was a guinea pig dish at one of our dinner buffets; Dale said it was okay. Apparently it's pretty bony. We also saw it being sold roasted on a stick. Does this make you hungry?


Also in the home was a shrine to their ancestors, including the skulls of the said ancestors.


 


Also in this cool town was the site of the Ollantaytambo Fortress, which was built to guard the entrance to part of the valley.


 
Fun story: our group climbed up to a certain height and then came back down. We had a younger guy on the trip who was more of an adventurer than most of the group (we'll call him Cam). When we started making our way back down, he decided to zip up to the highest point. He ran all the way up and when he got there, there was only one other guy up there. The guy was wearing a Canada cap, so Cam asked him where he was from. The guy said, "Winnipeg." Cam says, "Me too!" Turns out the guy spends most of his time travelling all over the world and he said in all his travels, he had never met another person from Winnipeg before.
 
And then Cam proceeded to sprint down the mountain, jumping off rock stairs and basically doing parkour off the stone walls while our guide watched with horror from the bottom. Apparently these are sacred ruins and for the sake of respect and preservation, that kind of activity is very much prohibited. Oops.
 


Again, if you look closely, there are little people on either side of the big rock carving. Those Incas were amazing.

A functioning bull ring visible from the top of the fortress

Walking down the stairs like you're supposed to
 This was pretty cool: we saw these hotel "capsules" suspended way up on the side of a mountain:


The only way to get there is by climbing. To get down, you can also choose to zipline. Read more about it here.

Very cool, but I was pretty happy to come back to this after a long day of sightseeing:
 
 
 

 
Oh boy - this was long. Next time: off to Machu Picchu! And then one more post about the Amazon and it will be over, I promise. I know this isn’t very exciting to read if you’ve never been or wanted to go to Peru. This is the only place I write down stuff like this so it’s really more for myself. I’m sorry to make it all about me. Oh wait, this whole blog is all about me … that makes me cringe, but yet I keep writing.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hecla and more

I'm still planning to post a few more trip pictures, but in the meantime we had ourselves a fun little weekend in Hecla. Chloe ran the 5k and I ran the half on Saturday morning. It started off as a sunny, decent fall day but went downhill from there when the sun was soon replaced by a chilly wind. I loved running with a beautiful lake view but I didn't appreciate the icy gales off the water. I struggled the last three miles and did a lot of walking. I ended with a time of 2:09, which was exactly what I had predicted but was secretly hoping for better. Like I say every single time, next time I'm going to train more. Sure.
Before the race

Chloe finishes strong despite zero training

You can tell it's cold: the volunteer is wearing a parka! With fur on the hood!

Looking much happier than I felt

Other than the running, it was a great event. Yummy food and wine were served in the hospitality room and a soak in the spa was part of the deal. I'd love to do it again next year but will probably run the 10k instead of the half. The resort stay (Lakeview Hecla) was super fun; my neighbour Karen and another friend came too and we hung out at the pools and went for dinner and their daughters and Neve had a great time together. I hadn't stayed at the resort for many years and was really impressed with the rooms and the friendly staff and the beautiful grounds. It wasn't nearly as expensive as I thought it would be either, so I'd highly recommend it for a little getaway at any time of year.
We also went over to Dale's brother and sister-in-law's cottage on Saturday afternoon and enjoyed a relaxed, cozy fireside happy hour with them.

The last time the five of us stayed in a hotel together was in the summer of 2015. I can hardly believe that, but I think it's true. So things like ordering room service at 9:30 pm just because we can was pretty sweet. Here the kids are devouring an order of fish tacos:

 
Hotel accommodations for a family of five are complicated. We booked a suite and it was a really nice room, but it only had a king size bed and a small futon-like couch. Since there were no rooms available with two queen beds, they gave us two cots instead. Here they are, squished in like little sardines while Dale and I had an awesome king size bed in our own spacious area at the other end of the suite. But no one complained; it was all part of the fun. Our days of one hotel room are probably numbered but we don't usually spend a lot of time in the room so it's hard to justify two rooms.



 

One of these things is not like the other (hint: it's me)







Lots of pics of the girls, I know. Spencer a) doesn't like to be with us very much; b) doesn't like to be on pictures.
 
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In other news, Spencer got his learners permit today! He even let me take a picture and has given me permission to post it.


I know everyone jokes about how scary it is that their "babies" are allowed to drive hahaha, but I am actually legit scared. I'm like the guy from The Scream painting. I believe in time he will be shaped into a good, confident driver but what worries me is that he doesn't even look up when he walks across the street. My heart has stopped too many times to count when I've dropped him off somewhere and watched him cross the street, head down, right in front of a car. I do need to give him some credit; he has biked to school the last two years (unless there's snow) and has always come home in one piece. I asked him once if he ever had close calls and when he hesitated and started to answer, I decided I didn't want to know and quickly changed the subject ("Look, marshmallows!"). As I know from experience, even with all senses on high alert, the odds of a close call are pretty high when biking. Never mind when you're in your own little world, thinking of the characters in the 800-page novel you're reading, the population of Botswana, the age of the Giza Plateau, or analyzing the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song. There's a lot going on in that head and there's not much room left for things like awareness or caution, or for that matter, social interaction. But that's another story.

I take comfort in knowing that there have been others like him who have gone on to successfully operate motor vehicles. I'm sure it will be fine, probably. He does not like to display his emotions but I sensed he was pretty happy about reaching this milestone.

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Today is my sister-in-law Joan's birthday (the video in the linked post is a little cheesy and there are things I would now do differently, but it is what it is). In my mind, I can still hear her laugh as clear as if I'd heard it yesterday. I miss her and hope she's having a wild and crazy birthday up there.


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Chloe and I did a 6 a.m. spin class at the new WPG Cycle this morning, so I'm fading fast. It was a high-energy workout with great music and the 50-minute class just zipped by. I felt like I could conquer the world afterward - and I did get a lot done today - but not being a morning person, I'm paying for it now at the end of the day. But I kind of like knowing I have the willpower to get up that early - it feels empowering. But I'm still going to sleep in tomorrow.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Lima


I know I'm repeating myself, but I can't get over how awesome it is to have no jet lag. After the last two Asian trips, I had to drag myself around for days, barely alive. But this time I am as fresh and perky as a young daisy. From now on, I'm only going to fly to destinations in the same time zone.

It's been a busy week though; getting back to reality with work and kids and unpacking and yardwork. I haven't had time to do a complete trip summary, but I'll start.

We spent the first three nights in Lima (well, two nights for those who missed the flight in Toronto!). I really didn't have high expectations of Lima - or any expectations for that matter. I was just focused on getting to Machu Picchu. As I've so often said before, life is better with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lima is a pretty cool city. That being said, we stayed in the tourist district where everything is clean and safe and pretty. We drove through other parts where that wasn't the case. But our hotel was a few blocks from the ocean and there was lots to explore. There was a steep cliff down to the ocean with amazing views, but Dale and I wanted to put our feet in the water. It took a while to find out how to get down due to the language barrier, but eventually we made it. There were tons of surfers but I didn't think the waves were that big.






a fitness club near the beach


The pace in Lima - and most of the trip - was much more relaxed than the last two trips. I'm not sure why - maybe it's because of their laid-back South America mentality. Whatever the reason, I liked it. We were almost always back at the hotel by 4 pm and had lots of free time to explore on our own.

We saw Lima's Plaza des Armas, where we saw the Government House, a cathedral (including catacombs) and other buildings that I no longer remember the purpose of.


Wooden balconies were a big thing in Lima. The reason for them is  that at one time, women were not supposed to be seen and couldn't go outside. So balconies with little slits and holes were built so that they could sit and look outside without being seen.




The highlight in Lima was visiting a Peruvian Paso horse hacienda (ranch) just outside the city. Paso horses are a special type of breed that are known for their unusual and smooth gait. They did a little show and demonstration for us, and then we got to ride them. I'm not exactly an experienced horsewoman but it did feel pretty smooth. Riding in a car is still smoother though. It was a beautiful place, with lots of trees and flowers and a gorgeous spot for our outdoor lunch.



 

A museum in Lima. The outdoor spaces were a lot more interesting to me than the exhibits inside.



Fun fact: it never rains in Lima. There's moisture in the air and sometimes it drizzles, and it's often overcast or covered by a grey fog. That would get depressing, but I found it interesting that it never rains. The roofs are flat and there are no eaves troughs or drainpipes and no drainage in the streets. We saw the downside of that one evening when we saw shopkeepers working hard to sweep water out of their shops after a water pipe burst. The water eventually runs down toward the ocean but I think they would have appreciated having a drain nearby.
 
In our spare time, Dale and I went to a couple of great restaurants. On the plane to Lima, I sat with a professional kayaker who was heading home to Peru and he gave me some recommendations. We checked them out and it turns out the professional kayaker did not steer us wrong. We tried ceviche, a popular Peruvian dish that's like a salad with raw fish and lemon or lime juice. We really liked it. While I'm talking about food and drink, I should also mention the pisco sours. I don't know if Peruvians actually drink it as much as we think they do, or if they just pretend to because tourists love it so much. I can't even count how many pisco sours I drank in those 12 days. We were often given free ones at shows or when we checked in to a hotel, plus at almost every meal. They were powerful, but they served them in pretty small glasses which was probably for the best.
 



Okay, that's all I've got time for today. Due to a lapse in judgment, I'm running a half marathon tomorrow morning. Thank goodness for no jet lag. Did I mention that already?