Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Paracas and Nazca

Remember how I went to Paracas and Nazca the weekend before my week-long trip? And how I didn't have a chance to update my blog before I left?

Here's that missing post! It's going to be brief, because after writing a post on Arequipa, I'm tired and ready to go to bed.

On Tuesday, October 27, we visited Paracas. It's located on the southern coast of Peru and is known for its massive national reserve and wildlife. The national reserve is a beautiful stretch of desert, notable for its yellow sand dunes located next to red sand beaches. Just off the coast of this reserve are the Islas Ballestas, a rock outcropping known for having huge numbers of pelicans, flamingos, tern, penguins, sea lions, and more.


Paracas National Reserve

Yellow sand dunes next to a red beach next to a turquoise ocean

Islas Ballestas. All the black spots on the rock are birds

Sea lions!

Really cute sleeping sea lion

Beach filled with sea lion mothers!

Then on Wednesday, we went to Nazca. We spent the morning climbing the Cerro Blanca, the highest sand dune in the world, then sandboarded down. It was really difficult to hike up it, but it was so worth it. Then we went to see the Nazca lines, a series of massive geoglyphs etched into the desert. We didn't fly over them because the prices were raised recently and I didn't have my passport on me. But we went to a mirador, a three story high tower overlooking the lines. Then we went to a nearby hill and watched the sun set over the lines, which was a wonderful experience.

At the top of the Cerro Blanco

The tree, my favorite of the Nazca lines

My trip through Peru, part 2... AREQUIPA!

If you've looked at my photos on facebook, you probably saw a billion photos of a canyon and a monastery. So you probably already know what I did in Arequipa, but I feel like I ought to talk about it anyway.

Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru and is also considered the second most beautiful city (behind Cuzco). Why? It's in the Andes and surrounded by (currently) inactive volcanoes El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. But more distinctively, most of the city was constructed from sillar, a pearl-colored volcanic rock. Between the way the sillar glows in the sun and the Spanish architecture, the entire city is gorgeous. Because of this, Arequipa is known as the White City. And to top it all off, it's right near the Colca Canyon, which is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

I arrived there on Sunday, November 7, at about 6:30 am. After finding a hostel and dropping off my stuff, I headed to the Plaza de Armas for breakfast...and there I got a huge surprise.

Lima is such a modern, big city that I sometimes forget that it's essentially a Latin American city, which inevitably comes with a violent, dictatorial, military background. Occasionally I get brief reminders of it, with a random police invasion, visiting the Shining Path exhibit at the National Museum, seeing posters for Keiko Fujimori (I'll explain that another time), or even the slightly-increased numbers of police in the street. But in general, I tend to forget about the role the military plays here.

But when I got to the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, I was shocked to see a huge event of some sort. There was a stage set up with a huge crowd in front of it and a military parade of some sort. The military was marching through the streets in full uniform, massive guns held at the ready. But there wasn't just one type of military. I saw probably 6 or 7 different uniforms, and each different military branch had their own separate procession. And, to my shock, there were even tanks. That's right, they were parading tanks through the street.

I was flabbergasted to see this. I figured that the parade was for someone important who was visiting Arequipa. But when I got to breakfast (on a second-floor balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas to keep watching everything), the waiter said that this was normal. Apparently, every Sunday, the mayor does a show of Arequipa's military power. To reassure the citizens that they're safe? To show how powerful Arequipa is under his governance? Just for fun? I'm not really sure about the reason. But a lot of arequipeños (people from Arequipa) seemed to like this. I think what shocked me the most was that so many people would cheer for such an overt show of military dominance, despite Peru's recent history of military oppression and abuse of power.(Read my post on Museo de la Nación for a mini history lesson).

Anyway, once I got over the shock of that, the rest of my day was much more normal. I almost didn't go to the Santa Catalina Monastery because I didn't want to pay 35 soles to see another church, but I'm so glad I decided to go. It was absolutely beautiful. The history behind it was nice, but what I found most amazing was the architecture. It was created by the Spanish, yet it was more clean and streamlined - sort of a modern version of typical Spanish architecture. I completely loved it, especially with how it played with geometry. It layered rectangles over semicircles/circles over and over again, so when I glanced through any opening like a door or window, I would never just see a wall. Instead there were more and more openings in different geometrical shapes, drawing my eye through the rooms and courtyards. Plus the monastery was so colorful. It was painted in a bright blue, bright red, and a burnt sienna orange, with bright red flowers as accents. So combined with all the layers of arches and rectangles were also layers of colors. I know I'm explaining it pretty badly, so suffice it to say that it was beautiful.

I spent the rest of my time walking through the city, eating some of the food Arequipa is known for (queso helado and rocoto relleno!), and trying to find a tour agency for my trek the next day. Because I sprained my ankle hiking Huayna Picchu, I wanted to take an extra day to rest my ankle and do a two day trek through the Colca Canyon instead of the three day trek I had been planning. For the extra day, I figured I'd mountain bike down the Chachani volcano instead. However, the tour couldn't run with just one person, but the tour agencies kept telling me that they had another group about to confirm that I could join. However, by about 6 pm, the other group hadn't confirmed, so I decided to do the 3 day Colca trek again.

The trek left at Monday, November 8, at 3 am. Needless to say, that was a lovely time to be awake. The first day of the trek consisted of 5 hours of driving to Cabanaconde where we started the hike, stops at Chivay and Cruz del Condor (to watch the non-existent condors) along the way, and about 3 and a half hours of hiking down into the canyon. We arrived at about 2 in the afternoon, so we all laid out on the grass reading and talking until our candlelight dinner (no electricity!).

The next day, we hiked along the canyon (about a third of the way up the wall) for about 3 hours, passing through tiny towns of 10-15 families, then descended for an hour into Oasis. In Oasis, a cluster of hostels at the bottom of the canyon, we relaxed all afternoon at a pool filled with running natural water from the Colca River.

Then for the third day, we had to climb straight up the canyon wall. The guide told us that the hike would take 3 to 3 and a half hours, but I pushed hard and reached the top in only 2 hours. Even though a few other tour groups left about fifteen minutes before ours, I was the second person to reach the top. The only person to beat me was a 6 and half foot tall backpacker from my group, so I felt pretty happy.

Then after driving back and dinner in Arequipa (personal pizza and a glass of wine for only 13 soles!), I boarded my bus for Lima at 9:30 pm.

And that was it for my trip! It was really a wonderful experience. Arequipa was absolutely gorgeous, and the Colca Canyon was pretty astounding. We didn't hike the deepest part of it, but it was still pretty phenomenal. And the natural high from pushing myself as hard as I could physically go on the third day of my trek was a really wonderful feeling.


A quick summary of my entire trip

* Best experience: hiking to the top of Huayna Picchu and sitting at the top for 2 hours watching the mist clear over Machu Picchu

Runner up: relaxing poolside at the bottom of the world's deepest canyon with an Arequipeña cerveza

* Best ruin: Machu Picchu, of course

Runner up: Moray (nothing can really compete with Machu Picchu, but this came close)

* Best scenery: Sacred Valley near Cuzco

* Best historical building: Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa

* Best hostel: getting a triple with a private bathroom for the price of a single, perched on a hill overlooking Cuzco

* Best meal: Personal margarita pizza and glass of wine for only 13 soles (Arequipa)

Honorable mention: Massive veggie burger topped with guacamole, portabello mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, caramelized onions, and greens; served with herb fries and limeade at Jack's (Cuzco)

* Best name: Sacsayhuaman, pronounced "sexy woman" (ruins in Cuzco)

* Best sunset: first night in the Colca Canyon

* Condor spottings at the Colca Canyon: 4

* Llama and alpaca spottings: 6 plus a herd of 30+ alpaca

Friday, November 12, 2010

My trip through Peru, part 1 ... CUZCO!

I got a week off of my "work" to travel through Peru. I just got back yesterday and, after falling asleep at 8:30 last night, finally got around to sorting out my photos and everything this morning. The trip was absolutely amazing!

I left on Wednesday, November 3rd in the morning for Cuzco. Actually, I left at about 10 pm the night before to catch a 2.5 hour combi to the airport, then spent the night "sleeping" there until my flight at 5:45 am. After finding a hostel and passing out there for an hour (high altitude plus no sleep = a very tired Christine), I spent my first day exploring Cuzco. Apparently I can't follow a map, so I ended up walking around the city in circles all day. But it turned out great, and I found a lot of random areas and places that I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise.

Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire but was later taken over by the Spaniards, so you can see the mixture of the two cultures. In fact, some times the Spaniards built their churches right on top of the Incan temples. I visited Qorikancha, which was a perfect example of this. It was a sun temple built by the Incas, but when the Spanish came, they tore down part of the temple and built a monastery on top of the Incan foundation. So when you look at the building from the front, you can see the two different layers of construction. The same thing is true in the rest of the city, where I often saw Incan stonework at the base of Spanish buildings.

Other than wandering around the city, I visited a few museums and then visited the Cristo Blanco (huge white statue of Christ) and the ruins on the mountain overlooking Cuzco. The ruins are called Sacsayhuaman -- pronounced "sexy woman", no joke. They were really beautiful and interesting, though I'm glad I saw them on my first day, since later ruins completely blew these away.

On my second day, I traveled through the Sacred Valley. I had seen photos of Moray, a ruin not covered in normal Sacred Valley tours, so I decided to do the tour on my own using taxis and buses. I started out with a bus to Pisac and went to the ruins there. The ruins were absolutely beautiful, a series of massive agricultural terraces and Incan stone buildings perched on top of a mountain. I ended up joining a Peruvian school group and walked around the ruins talking with them, to the confusion of a lot of other tourists. They couldn't figure out what the random gringa was doing in a group of a dozen Peruvian teenagers, so I got a lot of funny looks.

After that, I caught a couple of buses and a taxi to get to Moray, a ruin that I had heard about from a friend. With the exception of Machu Picchu, Moray was my absolute favorite of all the ruins I saw. It was a series of concentric circular terraces set in a valley at the base of a mountain. There weren't any other tourists around at the time, so when I sat on one of the terraces, all I could see were these perfect green circles and blue sky. I sat there for a while, just marveling in how peaceful and relaxing it was. While the other ruins were beautiful mentally, with the sheer amount of history and work evident in them, this was beautiful in its simplicity and perfection. It was designed for agriculture, but it could have just as easily been a place for mediation and relaxation. It was so beautiful that I probably could have sat there all day.

But alas, I had to move on. From there, I went to Ollantaytambo, the last town in the Sacred Valley. I got there at about 4 pm and was planning on going from there to Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu) to spend the night. The only form of transportation between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes is by train, so I went to buy my ticket as soon as I got to Ollantaytambo. Though I was there at about 4, the 7:30 train was already full, and the next one wasn't until 11 pm. So I visited the ruins at about 5. The ruins were pretty cool, mainly in how massive they were, but the best part was that the sun was just beginning to set beneath the mountains. I went all the way to the top of the ruins and watched the sun disappear, and the light it cast over the valley and ruins was incredible. It completely lit everything up and made the ruins literally glow.

The next day (Friday, November 5), I got to Machu Picchu at about 6:30 am so I could hike up Huayna Picchu, the peak overlooking Machu Picchu. (Huayna Picchu is the mountain in the background of every photo of Machu Picchu. It's limited to 400 hikers each day.) It was so amazingly beautiful from the top. From there, Machu Picchu seemed tiny surrounded by mountains on all sides. It seemed like the mountain dropped straight down from the rock I was sitting on, descended thousands of feet to the Rio Urumbamba, and then rose back again to equally high mountain peaks. I sat up there for an hour or two just looking around because it was so astoundingly beautiful.

Then of course, Machu Picchu itself was amazing. The ruins seemed to go on and on and were in perfect condition. From the top part of the ruins, it seemed like the city was suspended on a little ridge between the two mountains (Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu).

The rest of the day was comparatively uneventful, filled with a bus, train, and colectivo ride through the beautiful Sacred Valley to get back to Cuzco.

My last day in Cuzco (Saturday, November 6) was uneventful, though nice and relaxing. I had a wonderful breakfast on a balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas, did a bit of shopping, visited some museums I had missed, and generally finished seeing the city. Then at 8:30 pm, I was on an overnight bus headed to Arequipa!

All in all, I really enjoyed Cuzco. It was amazingly beautiful and filled with history and culture. Though at times it was very frustrating. It was very touristy and at times I felt like I was just getting gyped left and right. My best experience was seeing Machu Picchu and hiking Huayna Picchu, though getting there and leaving there with the train was the most frustrating. Because there weren't any other ways to get there (other than trekking), train tickets were $50 or more for an hour long ride. As a point of comparison, my 15 hour bus to Lima with the best bus company in Peru was 80 soles, or $30. And the entire city was completely full of tourists, to the point where I was going days barely hearing Spanish. Peruvians wouldn't even talk to me in Spanish, even when I kept responding to their English with Spanish.

The trip was wonderful and I am completely glad I went to see Cuzco and Machu Picchu. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. But this trip definitely confirmed my preference for visiting non-touristy places.


There were too many photos to put on here, since the uploader is incredibly slow. To see a small selection of my photos, look at my facebook album.

Post on Arequipa and my Colca Canyon trek tomorrow!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Brief Update

As I'm sure you've noticed, I haven't written anything about my adventures last weekend. We went to Paracas and Nazca, two cities near and/or on Lima's southern coast. Since then, between preparing for my upcoming trip (more on that in one minute!), celebrating Halloween and more, I haven't had a chance to update this.

I promise I will ... in a week. Why? Because starting on Wednesday, I will be traveling around Peru for 9 days! Since a new volunteer is here for two weeks, I got permission to take off 9 days to travel while she covers all of my classes.

Starting on November 3rd, I'm going to spend four days in Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. And then after, I'm going to spend four days in Arequipa and hopefully hike the Colca Canyon (which is twice as big as the Grand Canyon). And then one day of traveling and I'll be back on November 11th.

So I won't be posting anything for the next week. But when I get back, I'll put up my pictures and talk about both last weekend (Paracas/Nazca) and this upcoming trip.

I can't wait to go and know it's going to be amazing. Until next week, ciao!