Sunday, March 30

Madrid, Spain

(t) First of all Madrid was our first European city. As we drove into Madrid I was reminded of all the things I had been missing without knowing I was missing them. It was contemporary man-made beauty. Fashion window displays. Home decor stores. Beautiful buildings rather than cement cinder blocks with re-bar protruding from the roof. I know. I know. This makes me sound terribly materialistic. But, I really thought, Oh, yeah I like these things. I am not saying South America doesn't have these things but where we had been we hadn't seen them for some time.

Our first morning we ate breakfast in the Plaza Mayor where a government procession kept cruising through. They had the full getup with the powdered wigs and all.

After each pass though the vacuum truck would come though and clean up after the horses. Very clean. Another thing I like.

We made our way across town on one of our self guided walking tours and found the palace where the convoy was arriving. Perfect timing! We were able to see the palace guards march out and greet the leaders entering. We spent the rest of the day touring the city. The theme of Madrid for us was tapas bars. We loved the complementary snacks that came with our cold beers.

We had to try the churros and chocolate. We visited the popular Chocoloteria San Gines. Unknowingly we ordered two orders (one for each of us) and we were shocked when they brought us a mountain of churros. Mike did his best finish them but we just couldn't do it. And, then we had one of our - Why did we eat that? Moments.

We spent half of the following day figuring out the best way to mail our camping gear ahead to the Spirent office in Hong Kong. The Madrid Post Office was a tour worthy destination in itself.

Once our packages were on there way, we spent the rest of the day wandering in Retiro Park. Mike thinks I look like Mini-Trini in this photo.

From Madrid we took a recommended side trip (thanks Aimee) to Segovia. This was an easy bus ride from the center of the city. We saw our first of many roman structures in Segovia. The Roman Aqueduct which is 894 meters long.

While there we spotted a traditional barber shop and Mike decided to abandon his no haircut idea. Here is a last look at his long locks.

Here's the new clean cut Mike.

Thursday, March 27

Lake Titicaca, Peru

(m) Our backpacks were leaning against the wall outside of the hostel at 6am as we waited for our shuttle to pick us up and take us to our Cusco to Puno bus. To our dismay (identically to Antigua) it would not show and we frantically came up with a new action plan. We hailed a cab and sped towards the bus station in an attempt to catch it before it departed. Whops, we arrived to the wrong bus station. After asking around, we found where the bus should be and grabbed a new cab. To our dismay, it had already departed. After discussing the situation with the bus company manager, we decided to attempt to catch the bus at the first of its six site seeing stops along the way. Thankfully after a crazed 45 minute ride we caught up with bus and group.

Another stop was a visit to a traditional Peruvian house which had a room full of guinea pigs on display. These cute little guys aren't just pets here. They are a popular main course as well. Later in Puno I would sample one and find, not surprisingly, they taste like chicken though it took quite a bit of effort to nibble bites of meat from its tiny bones.

A baked guinea pig. Yummie!

Six hours passed and we rolled into Puno. Puno is the main town along the shores of Lake Titiacaca. This massive, high altitude lake sits at about 10,000 feet and claims to be the highest navigable body of water on earth. Two-thirds is a part of Peru and the remaining third lies in neighboring Bolivia. Puno would be our base for exploring the nearby towns and launching point for our boat excursion to the nearby islands.

On our first day we checked out the town of Plateria just south of Puno.

Heading back to the square we settled on one of three tiny restaurants. After asking for menus, the owner/waiter/cook told us he had fried cheese and fried trout, which would we like? We said, one of each please!

We "chose" well, the trout was great.

Our meal was washed down with the tasty Inca Cola, a Coca Cola product and #1 soda in Peru. It tastes like bubble gum.

As we finished our lunch, uniformed school children started to spill into the square. A couple of curious ones walked over to us and shortly after we had ten bright eyed kids gathered around our table checking us out. We had a good, slightly awkward, time trying to chat with them about school and the area.

The following day we left Puno in a rickety boat with a group of twenty or so. Our first stop was the floating islands of Uros made entirely of reeds from the versatile totora reed which is harvested in abundance from the lake's shallows. The reeds constantly rot on the bottom and are layered on top to keep the island afloat. These islands are home to about 2000 Uros tribes people living off of the lake and more recently, tourism. Originally the islands were created as a way to escape enemies on land. In recent years boats were used to bring the islands closer to Puno to help make it easier for day trippers to visit. I enjoyed the spongy, squishy under foot as we were toured around the resident's small huts and boats also made completely from Totora.

The islands are in 60 foot of water.

Not just for boats and islands, you can eat it too!

After motoring for several hours we reached Amantani Island where we would stay with a family for the night. I really enjoyed spending some time in their back to basics lifestyle. The Amantani residents live out their lives with little mainland interaction in basic houses with adjacent small farms. Our host family used candle light to illuminate the rooms and sat on an earth floor cooking our simple yet tasty meals of soup and fried cheese on a small wood burning stove.

Watch your head!

We hiked up the nearby mountain to enjoy the sunset.

Following dinner we were loaned some traditional attire to attend a dance in the nearby hall. The room was booming with flutes and drums as we tried our luck at this spin your partner around kind of dancing. What a blast!

In the morning we thanked our host family and headed out for another nearby island, Taquile, which also has local residents. A collective society, known for their fine knit handcrafits. It is the men who do a bulk of the knitting, we saw a dozen or so gents in the town square knitting and chatting away. The hat color indicates their marital status.Photo from wikipedia.

Wednesday, March 26

Machu Picchu, Peru

(see map) - trin: After completing the Lares Valley trek we were bused to Ollantaytambo where we waited to board the Machu Picchu Train. The train has large glass windows and roof. We were able to sit back and take in the view through the valley up to Machu Picchu Town/Aguas Calientes.

On the train (and many other tourist places) they played Peruvian flute renditions of American classics. Some of the songs included: Moon River, Chariots of Fire and My Heart Will Go On. It was fun to play Name that Tune at first.

That night we stayed at a hotel in Machu Picchu town. This is unavoidable on most of the alternative treks. We think this kicked us out of the experience. Had we hiked into Machu Picchu we may have enjoyed the ruins more.

That being said, we did rise early so we could be at the park in time for the sunrise. But, the clouds did not cooperate and we did not get our Ah... inspiring sunrise moment. The ruins were impressive but I think the dramatic mountains and cloud forrest are what make Machu Picchu stand out from other sites. For more information on Machu Picchu check out wikipedia.

After the tour we hurried to the Waina Picchu trail and climbed to the top. This was the most rewarding part of the day for us.

Looking back at Machu Picchu from Waina Picchu. Waiting for the clouds to clear.

Making my way down a very very steep staircase. You can only take it one stair at a time.

After we finished exploring the ruins, we had a long wait in Aguas Calientes for the train back to Cusco. This town has developed at a very fast rate to accommodate the tourists flocking to Machu Picchu. It is a place where the old meets the new. The red building is our hotel. In the shack next door they still cook over an open fire. The town is now trying to put some urban planning in place. A plaza and central church were recently completed.

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Sunday, March 23

Lares Valley Trek, Peru

(see map) - mike: There are three ways to reach Machu Picchu:

1. Hike the extremely popular Inca Trail, 3 to 4 days
2. Take one of the "alternate" hikes, 3 to 7 days
3. Via a bus to Ollantaytambo, train to Aguas Calientes, then bus to the entrance (no hiking)

All three options can be booked in packages either ahead of time from home or from Cusco. We read it is cheaper to book once in Peru although we did not price it to compare.

The Inca Trail appealed to us because it is the only option to hike directly to Machu Picchu without stopping for a night hoteling in Aguas Calientes as required on alternate treks. The downside (upside for some) is that the trail is often fully booked with a max of 500 people (including guides and porters) starting the trail each day leaving the campgrounds swarming with people. It often books up months ahead which was the case while we were there so we opted for one of the alternates called Lares Valley Trek through Qente Adventure Trips.

Our group included a bilingual guide, Miguel, 2 cooks, 2 horseman, 3 horses, us and 2 other guests (Amy and Patti, see link on right side) from Canada. Being our first guided trip, we looked forward to the pampering it would include: a prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner, dining tent, bathroom tent, and not having to carry our packs.

Day 1: Bus from Cusco to Lares Valley stopping at a local market for provisions and a hot springs for a dip in chocolate colored water where our gleaming white bods definitely turned locals heads. Then off on a mild hike meandering up Lares Valley past small villages living off the land in small stone houses and still relying on primarily barter to obtain needed items. At camp an industrious gal from the village laid out a blanket with a variety of drinks including a nice cool beer I enjoyed.

Stack of cheese at the market

Chips and guacamole for our first course at lunch. Check out the real metal silverware! Amy and Patti shared the dining tent with us and coincidentally were also on a year trip so we had a great time chatting about past experiences and future plans.

High altitude football

Our stuff on horseback quickly passes us

Throughout the whole trip kids would run from their homes and ask us for candy. Our book suggested to avoid this practice as it creates bad habits (and bad teeth) though Trin found them hard to resist particularly when they sprinted a quarter mile for a "dulce". One disappointed kid I said no to actually let me start to walk away and chucked a small rock at me!

Day 2: The most grueling day of the hike up over a 4300 meter or ~14k feet. Thankfully we were well enough acclimated and didn't have much trouble with the altitude.

Church we passed before the climb

This baby llama (maybe alpaca?) was crying for his/her mom and almost followed us. These guys roam freely but Miguel mentioned they are not wild and provide wool and meat to nearby villagers.

Miguel's watch photoed while resting from the top of Condor Pass.

Another shot on the pass looking back the way we came up.

Shot of a local villager and her wares along with our gear passing us on the second day.

Example of rock houses and walls sporadically built in the valleys.

This little tent had a makeshift toilet for our convenience. Worked great except for the one time in the middle of the night I staggered over to the tent to find the toilet gone (stowed because of dogs) and settled for the nearby bushes.

Day 3: Another mild hike down to a village called Willoq, where it was market day. Nearly everyone was decked out in bright orange and red ponchos, skirts, and tops. The market seemed to be the primary social gathering and including all ages chatting, flirting, snacking and buying goods. Soon we were loaded onto a bus to Aguas Calientes.

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Wednesday, March 19

Pisaq, Peru

(t) So, Mike and I didn't book our Machu Picchu ahead of time. Yes, I know we are crazy. But, it wasn't really that big of a deal. We were doing an alternative trek and it was early in the season. We found thee options. All leaving in two days. This allowed us an extra day to acclimate and explore the nearby Sacred Valley.

We took a local bus to Pisaq. I was relieved to get out of Cusco. Especially, after the mob incident (see Cusco). We stayed at Paz y Luz a B&B/Spiritual Center on the outside of town. It was definitely was peaceful. We sat on our porch and watched the corn grow.

Besides the corn, we spent the day exploring the Inca Pisaq ruins. The ruins top steep mountains overlooking the valley and are spread out over a large area. The different classes of people (royalty, military, farmers, etc) lived and worked in separate areas. The areas were connected by trails. Here I am navigating a scary staircase connecting two areas.

Mike passing through a tunnel along one of the trails.

Pisaq (the town) below. When we were done checking out the ruins, we hiked down to the town. We could have hiked up too but opted for a taxi ride. At this point, we were still sucking air on any incline what so ever.

When were reached the town's plaza we were inundated by locals selling handy crafts. Mike loves... shopping for handy crafts. Fortunately, we found refuge on the edge of the plaza at the colorful Ulrike's Café.

When we returned to the B&B, there was a group of pigs blocking our path. The neighbors' dogs cleared them out of the way but they sent them straight at us. At this point we were use to encountering domestic animals along the road but this was our first pack of pigs. The little babies were very cute.

The next day we took the local bus through other towns in the Sacred Valley. We stopped in Urubamba for lunch. It was siesta time when we arrived and the streets were pretty much deserted.

After lunch we headed back to Cusco in a shared taxi (everyone pays a set price and you leave when the car is full). That night we packed and readied ourselves for the Lares Valley trek.