vermillion horizon

Monday, January 28, 2008

Warm days, cold nights... and even colder showers

At 3300 meters, Cusco took some getting used to not only for the thin air, but also for the weather. Even in November, the middle of spring in the southern hemisphere, the mornings were downright frigid. The cold air, however, didn't linger for long. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the city eventually warmed up - and by early afternoon, we were baking in the heat. Of course, the high temperatures of midday didn't last for long either. As the shadows of late afternoon started to fall over Cusco, the temperature would drop quickly - and by nightfall it was freezing once again. In any given day, the temperatures would fluctuate by about 30 degrees F, from around 40F (4C) in the mornings and evenings to over 70F (22C) in the early afternoon.

I could handle the quickly changing temperatures, once I learned to dress in layers. I always felt a bit awkward tying a jacket and sweater around my waist and stuffing my scarf into my bag during the afternoon, but I was always grateful to have these warm clothes early in the morning and in the evenings.

But one thing I never got used to was the cold showers at the guesthouse in Cusco (and all over Peru, for that matter). Sure, when we asked about it at check-in, the proprietor swore up and down that the showers would be warm. I don't know what definition of warm they were going by, but the water felt rather icy to me - so much so that taking a shower was a painful and unpleasant experience. Each night, I would have to work up my courage to go into the shower - and I usually finished in record time. I probably never rinsed all the shampoo out of my hair or washed between my toes, but given the circumstances I was amazed I didn't just skip showering all together. Good thing we didn't visit Peru in the winter!

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

The first meal of the day

Breakfast is my favorite meal - and as we traveled through Peru, I always looked forward to trying something new for the first meal of the day. However, many days we would be out the door and on the road too early to catch breakfast in our guesthouse or a nearby restaurant. So we often picked up a snack at the train station or bus terminal - something like the egg and cheese sandwich and paper cup of steaming coca tea we got as we boarded the train to Machu Picchu. Sometimes we planned ahead, stopping by a bakery the night before to pick up some pastries and juice boxes. But my favorite breakfasts were those for which we actually had time to sit down and enjoy a slow-paced meal.

We had one of those meals our first morning in Peru. Though we had scheduled a tour of the Sacred Valley, we still had enough time for a relaxing breakfast. We walked down the cobblestone lanes in Cusco to find a place to eat and it was not long before the worker outside Cafe Munich convinced us to come in the cozy little restaurant.

I went for the Economical Breakfast. For only S/4, this set gave me a choice of sandwich and hot beverage. Still suffering from altitude sickness, the coca tea was exactly what I needed - and the warm egg and cheese sandwich was more than filling, as my appetite still hadn't returned completely. Mixed fruit juices, omelettes, toasted bread, and coffee were also available as part of the International Breakfast, for only S/9. Familiar food, served in a slightly different way than we were used to.

As our waitress ran outside into the kitchen next door to help the lone cook prepare the food and drink, we just relaxed. Eventually, the little window to the kitchen opened, our waitress ran back in the front door, and delievered our food - and what comfort food it was! I savored the big mug of hot tea, while indulging in the warm, cheesy sandwich. Though we had a lot of time, the pace of our meal was so slow that before we knew it, we had to leave for our tour. But the bread and tea we hadn't finished by then, the waitress wrapped "to go" - and so we had a snack for later!

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Just for the tour

Our tour of the Sacred Valley in Peru was a great way to see a lot of interesting places all in one day. The tour was fairly inexpensive (only a few dollars per person) but the tour operators had to make their money somehow - and that's how we ended up making stops at a "traditional market" in the middle of nowhere and a restaurant serving a "delicious buffet lunch for only $5"

The real Pisac market was closed that day, so the traditional market we visited was little more than a wooden and clay structure on the side of a dusty road.
For sale were the same ponchos, knitted hats, handmade jewelry, wood carvings, and other souveniers that we could buy in Cusco - but at twice the price. The proprietors knew we were on our way, greeting us with steaming cups of coca tea as we stepped off the mini bus. Surpringly, the tea really was free - but anyone wanting to use the restroom or snap a photo of a lady wearing traditional clothing with her alpaca would need to pay a fee. Our bus left us there for nearly half an hour - more time than we would have at some of the sites we were really on the tour to see.

After visiting the market and wandering around the ruins of Pisac, it was time for lunch. Lunch was not included on the tour, which we knew ahead of time - but what we didn't know is that we would not really have a choice of where to take our meal. The bus pulled up in front of another building in the middle of nowhere, a tourist restaurant featuring a long buffet with soup, lomo saltado, various chicken dishes, salad, and lots of rice and potatoes. The food didn't look bad, but at the same time $5 is expensive as far as meals go in Peru - and still suffering from altitude sickness, I didn't feel like stuffing myself at a buffet. I snacked on the banana chips I had saved from the plane and an Inka Kola, while watching other members of our group fill their plates.

Visiting this market and this restaurant made me think about tours I have taken in other countries - and they included stops at the same sorts of places. Places you would never go on your own - places that exist just for tour groups.

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Touring Peru

We are usually very independent travelers, setting our own itinerary and changing our plans on a whim. But when time is limited, a group tour can be a good way to see a lot of things without much effort. With only two weeks in Peru and a long list of places we wanted to visit, we decided to join up with a tour group a few times – and found that no two tours are created equal. The main reason? The tour guide.

Our first tour experience in Peru was a day trip around the Sacred Valley. The itinerary called for stops at Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. We boarded the mini-bus which would be transporting us to each of these sites – and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into when the guide started her commentary in Spanish. But not to worry – what we didn’t know yet was that many tours in Peru are conducted in both English and Spanish, catering to a diverse clientele of local tourists and visitors from abroad. It turned out that our guide for the day spoke excellent English and knew a lot of interesting facts about each place we visited. She had a little trouble keeping all the participants together – a handful of high school boys in our group wanted to do their own thing – but overall the tour was a good way to efficiently visit places that are not easily connected by public transportation.

A week later, we signed up for another tour – and did not feel the same satisfaction coming out of it. One of the things we had most wanted to do in Peru was to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca and stay overnight with a family on one of the islands. Doing this sort of trip independently is possible for those hardcore Lonely Planet sort of travelers – but we did not have the time or means to go through all the trouble of doing it on our own. We signed up for a tour – one that started off on the wrong foot and never got better.

The tour operator picking us up at our hotel the first morning was half an hour late. When we got to the docks and boarded the boat, the tour guide never bothered to introduce himself until a couple of hours into the ride out into the lake - and then the boat kept breaking down on the rough waters, adding hours to the ride. By the time we made it to Isla Amantani, the island where we would be spending the night, all of us felt seasick and cranky. Without explanation, our tour guide hiked us up a rocky hill and finally assembled us in one of the village’s gathering areas – just as a misty drizzle began. This is where we would be matched up with our families – but rather than taking charge, the guide let us just awkwardly find some people to go home with out of the villagers there. Without any direction, it took us awhile to sort out which villagers were actually intending to have a visitor and which were just there to watch. Then we had to determine how many visitors each household could accommodate. We were all cold, wet, and starving by the time we finally made it “home.”

We figured out that we were supposed to spend some time settling in and eating lunch, but then what? The itinerary had mentioned something about hiking, but the guide never told us anything for sure. So after lunch – which our host family had just served to us in our bedroom – we were sitting around confused, until the head of the host family finally motioned to us that we were going somewhere.

He led us to the center of town, where our tour guide finally appeared. The other members of the group trickled in over the next half hour or so, escorted by their families and looking as confused as we felt. By then, the afternoon was almost over and the sun was getting lower in the sky – but our guide spent another half hour lecturing inexplicably about island life. When we could actually understand something he was saying, it was something he had already said in a slightly different way. How could we escape this??

Finally, it was time to hike. Sure, it was rainy, windy, and dark, but the guide lead us to the head of the path. All of us started making our way up to Pachamama, ruins honoring the Mother Earth that were located on a hilltop in the center of the island. Concentrating on putting on foot in front of the other as we fought the strong winds, we didn’t realize at first that our guide wasn’t following us – in fact, he was nowhere to be found. We didn’t know until later, but he had returned to the center of town to stay warm and catch up with old friends, leaving our group to fend for ourselves in a unfamiliar place in terrible conditions.

The next day wasn’t any better as far as our guide was concerned. We enjoyed wandering around Amantani and another island, Taquile, and riding the boat (the water calmed down a lot compared to the first day), but we never quite knew where we were supposed to be when. And any time our guide managed to assemble the whole group to provide commentary, he would keep us together for a painfully long time as he rambled about nothing. When we got back to Puno, he hinted about a tip – but for a tour like that, I just couldn’t part with any more money for him. Sorry!

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Getting out of the house

With the temperatures below freezing outside, hibernating for the next few months sounds like a great idea. But we're trying to avoid cabin fever by venturing out of the house every once in awhile - and luckily we found a couple of new places worth going out for.

Last weekend, we took the Blue Line up to Western. Nestled under the tracks across from the station is Vella Cafe, a cheerful place that opened last spring. We enjoyed a simple yet satisfying brunch, beginning with the Cafe de Olla Latte. Made with Intelligentsia coffee, this latte is infused with orange, cinnamon, cloves, and brown sugar - a perfect way to warm up on a cold winter morning. Then we tried the sausage frittata panino, one of the cafe's signature items that the owners served at the Green City Market long before they opened their storefront. Not only was the sandwich warm, crispy, and delicious, but the smashers it was served with were addictive. We closed out the relaxing, slow-paced meal with a couple of freshly baked cookies from Vella's pastry counter - a nice finishing touch to a good morning.

Last night, we trekked up to Devon to check out Uncommon Ground's newest location. With plunging temperatures, we really didn't feel like going anywhere - but it turned out to be just the right place to go! Decorated in deep earth tones and featuring a fireplace near the entrance, Uncommon Ground was incredibly cozy and inviting. We enjoyed our entire meal, from the Meditteranean trio and the baked artichoke, goat cheese and pesto dip appetizers to the Ginger Snap mocha for dessert. Just as our coffee was served, the lights dimmed and the live music began - Yoko Noge's Japanesque played an energetic set that helped us forget just hold cold we would be on the way home.

As much fun as we had visiting these two new places, I have to admit that I'm not very motivated to go anywhere else this weekend... I'll just stay here with my blanket and warm tea, hoping for spring to arrive soon!

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Thin air

Before we left for Peru, we had heard all the warnings about soroche, or altitude sickness. Headaches, dizziness, nausea... all common symptoms striking visitors not used to high altitudes. Our first stop was Cusco, located in the heart of the Andes - and at a height of more than 3300 meters (that's close to 11,000 feet, or about twice as high as Denver), a dangerous city for someone like myself who had never spent much time in the mountains.

I expected the problems to start right away as I stepped outside the airport to grab a cab. But I felt just fine - no trouble breathing, no dizziness, nothing. What was the big deal?

Unfortunately, I was a little too confident. After finding a guesthouse and settling in, we walked around the city for nearly two hours... under an intense sun... with no water... wearing several layers of clothes, which we had needed to stay warm on the plane. We finally decided to stop for lunch.

Waiting for our meals to be served, I kept wondering why the restaurant had to be so stuffy... and why I had no appetite despite not eating all day... and why the room was suddenly spinning. I buried my head in my hands and then put my head on the table. I didn't feel good at all. I needed air. I managed to make my way out the door and sit down on the front steps, gasping.

The waiters had seen it all before and knew right away what my problem was. One of them came outside with alcohol for me to breathe in, which helped to clear my head. The other brought mint leaves, which eased my breathing. They also recommended coca leaves, a local remedy to help with acclimitization.

I eventually recovered enough to walk back to the guesthouse, though I did need to sit down on the curb twice in the one block I had to travel. I slept for a couple of hours and took things slow for the next few days - and I learned my lesson to take soroche very seriously!

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Welcome to the country

As much as I love to travel, arriving in a new country never ceases to stress me out. I always worry about getting through immigration, finding cash in the local currency, trying to communicate in a new language, getting my bearings straight in order to figure out where to go... all overwhelming enough to make me wonder why I didn't just stay home!

Our trip to Peru in November brought back all these old fears. To make matters worse, we were flying into Lima, but planned to head out to Cusco immediately. Only one catch - we didn't have tickets for a flight to Cusco yet! I don't know what we were thinking when we decided not to purchase those tickets ahead of time as any sensible person would have done. But there we were, wandering through a large, crowded international airport in a country where we didn't speak the language, trying to find a ticket counter.

After several laps around the same corridor, multiple "conversations" with people in Spanish, and even a trip to the infirmary (that's a long story best saved for another time), we finally managed to find a counter with tickets still available for a flight the next hour. We didn't expect to have to pay with cash (at home I use my credit card to pay for a $3 gallon of milk, so handing over more than $200 in cash was painful), but we had the tickets in our hands and were on our way in no time. How very Amazing Race of us.

And the adventure was just beginning...

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