The flight from Lima to Cusco was quick – only about an hour – but the views were amazing. Even with an aisle seat I caught some amazing glimpses of the snow capped Andes. Beautiful! Cusco is so high in the Andes that when we landed it seemed like we barely had to descend.
On the ground in Cusco
Cusco sits in the mountains at more than 11,000 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness is an issue for many people above 8,000 feet, and it can be quite serious. From the moment the plane depressurized Mila and I could “feel” the altitude. For me the sensation was that of pressure in my head, especially behind my eyes, and a slight sense of being short of breath. I constantly felt like I needed to take a deep breath. The symptoms weren’t too bad, but definitely noticeable. Mila said that it felt like her head was in a vice, getting squeezed at the temples. Jette didn’t feel it at all. Ah, to be young!
We caught a taxi from the airport to our hotel in the old, touristy part of the city. The hotel was a quirky little place, but fine for our needs and we met some nice fellow travellers there each day at breakfast.
A slightly creepy welcome
We only come alive at night!
We were welcomed with cups of hot coca tea, a popular local drink which they say is good for relieving the symptoms of altitude sickness. It tasted like a smokey green tea, and was pleasant enough, though for me at least, it seemed to have no effect on my symptoms.
Coca tea is made by steeping the leaves of the coca plant in hot water. Coca tea is not to be confused with cocoa tea, also popular in Peru. Cocoa tea is made from the shell or husk of the cocoa bean – the same bean from which chocolate is made!
Speaking of coca, here’s a little bit of trivia. The original recipe for Coca-Cola included cocaine, a drug made from the chemical processing of coca leaves.
What most people don’t know is that Coca-Cola is still made with coca leaves. In fact, in 1922 when cocaine was outlawed in the United States and the import of coca leaves outlawed, the Coca-Cola Corporation was given a special exemption, allowing them and only them to legally import coca! Currently, this is done through their partner, the Stepan company. Wikipedia describes their coca operations:
The plant is the only commercial entity in the USA authorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration to import coca leaves, which come primarily from Peru. Approximately 100 metric tons of dried coca leaf are imported each year. The cocaine-free leaves are sold to The Coca Cola Company, while the cocaine is sold to Mallinckrodt, a pharmaceutical firm, for medicinal purposes.
Aside from tea, there are many coca products – from ointments to snacks – that are popular in Peru.
With our tea cups empty and our bags safely stashed in our room, we ventured out to explore Cusco and find some dinner. In the old part of the city there are lots of narrow cobblestone streets.
Narrow sidewalks and endless traffic in Cusco.
Walking down some of them was really unpleasant as some of the sidewalks were so narrow that when you encountered someone coming the opposite direction there was not enough room to pass each other without stepping off the sidewalk or ducking into a doorway. Normally such narrow streets and sidewalks are cute and quaint. But in this instance there was so much traffic, so many cars, that it was was very unpleasant. Drivers whizzed by, often driving way too fast for the conditions. Every taxi that passed blasted its horn, hoping for a fare. It was loud and, as we would discover, dangerous.
As we were walking down one very narrow street, a driver came so close to the curb that his side mirror came into the sidewalk area, and smashed into me. Luckily it was a newer car with “folding” mirrors, so it simply bruised me a bit as the impact flipped his mirror back. Of course the driver didn’t even slow down. Welcome to Peru.
In the end, we found a nice dinner at quiet little restaurant.
Lomo Saltado – a popular Peruvian beef dish. There are more than 2,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru, so you never know what color your french fries might be!
Cusco was the political and religious capital of the Inca Empire. For a very short period from about 1400 to 1534 the Incas assembled a massive kingdom that stretched along the West coast of S. America from Colombia to Chile. At that time, it was the largest empire in the world. It was short-lived because the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 1520’s and over the next 30 years decimated the population with fighting, enslavement and disease. In some parts of the Inca Empire only about 1 in 60 people survived. Very difficult times for the indigenous people.
After fishing and mining, tourism is the third largest industry in Peru, and modern day Cusco is a very touristy city. It gets about 2 million visitors each year. In the old part of the city it seems as if there is nothing but shops, hotels, touts and street vendors catering to tourists. We’d heard so many people rave about Cusco that we were expecting something, well, different. We wanted to like Cusco, but we just couldn’t. In fact it may have been one of the only places we’ve been that made us downright grumpy. Despite the fact that Cusco didn’t win our hearts, we still found lots of things to like. The setting is beautiful, there is lots of charming architecture, and the town is obviously rich with history.
Standing in front of Iglesia San Pedro, near the San Pedro Market in Cusco
Picarones near the market in Cusco
Bucket o’ dough (happens to include pumpkin and sweet potato puree)
Cusco had Jette climbing the walls!
Schoolgirls walking past the mercado
Old colonial architecture
Much to Jette’s dismay, guinea pig was on almost every menu.
When the Spanish arrived, they demolished many Inca buildings and used the stones to build churches and other colonial structures of their own. In Cusco you can see both old Inca structures and Spanish ones. One of the amazing things about many of the older Inca structures is the stonework. There are some truly massive stones assembled with amazingly precise joinery and without the use of mortar. Like the pyramids of Egypt, one really has to wonder how they were able to do it with the tools and technology of the time.
While mainstream archaeology attributes much of this work to the Incas, there are a number of people well outside the mainstream who theorize that many of these walls and structures were built as long as 15,000 years ago by an unidentified, pre-Inca culture using “lost ancient high technology.”
With this we are entering the realm of “aliens built the pyramids” – very alternative theories – but kind of fun! We watched a few of these videos and read a bit about this. While we can’t say that we fully embrace the theories, they did provide a really fun framework for looking at the structures we visited. And we saw a lot of old structures in Peru! After hours, days, and weeks of looking at site after site it can be very easy to glaze over and see them all as just another pile of Incan stones! Adding a little dash of “conspiracy theory” and approaching it like an archeological mystery to be solved made it more fun and engaging.
What if the mainstream archeologists are wrong?
Could there have been a culture of megalithic builders here long before the Inca?
What evidence can we find?
What techniques were used in the construction of this?
These kinds of questions had us analyzing building techniques, gathering evidence, and testing theories rather than just wandering through and saying, “Hey look, another Inca stone wall…”
Late one afternoon, we took a taxi to Saqsaywaman, the Incan ruins in the hills above the city. The price of admission was much higher than we expected. We had read that the admission was about $3 USD each, but the cheapest option for foreigners turned out to be $74 USD for the three of us. For foreigners, prices are much higher and instead of being able to buy a ticket to enter the site, you can only purchase the expensive “Boleto Turistico” a one day pass to a handful of different sites, or the “Boleto General” an even more expensive ten-day pass to 16 sites. We weren’t planning to visit many of the sites on the list, so we debated whether it was worth it for that price. Ultimately we decided that we were here, so we might as well do it. As it turned out, we didn’t have enough cash on hand and they didn’t take credit cards!
So, unable to enter, decided to walk along the adjacent road and peek at the ruins through the fence and hedge they have planted to block the view. As we walked, we spotted a footpath that led up an adjacent hill. Up we went and were rewarded with a very nice view of the ruins. We could only see them from a distance, but the view was good and the vantage point gave us a very good sense of the overall layout of the site. We were content.
The site of Saqsaywaman above Cusco
The massive stones of Saqsaywaman.
After taking things in from our hillside viewpoint, we walked back down to Cusco. Along the way a local dog adopted Jette. It walked with us for about an hour, all the way down the mountain and back into town.
Jette’s new friend
Looking across the valley at Cusco.
Buddies on their way into town.
We stopped at a shop to buy the dog a treat, but while we were inside she left! Jette got to feed the other dogs we met on our way back to the hotel.
The collectivo to Ollantaytambo.
The next day, we caught a collectivo to the old Inca town of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo would be our base for exploring Machu Picchu and the surrounding area. But that’s the next blog post!
Another flashback to about a month ago, where we pick up the tale of our travels. We had arrived in Cali, Colombia where a new credit card was awaiting us. We picked it up, spent one night in Cali, the hopped on the plane to Lima, Peru…
On arrival, we checked into our awesome Airbnb apartment. While we typically skip a lot of the really touristy things in the cities we visit, we decided that a open-top bus tour of Lima would be fun and a good way to begin to get a sense of the city and how it is laid out. So, we took an Uber to Larcomar, a beautiful, upscale shopping center built into a cliff on the edge of the Miraflores neighborhood. In addition to being a beautiful spot with great shopping and dining, this is where you can catch the tour bus. Here’s a video that sets the general scene. The round glass towers on the right side at the end of the video are part of Larcomar. You can’t see most of it as it is built into the cliffs below.
Did you know that Lima had beaches and surfing? I didn’t!
Anyway, the bus tour was pretty good. At least it gave us a peek at the old, downtown neighborhoods of Lima, and a very good taste of the crazy Lima traffic. We stopped and had short walking tours of a couple historic plazas, popular neighborhoods, and some creepy catacombs.
Bus tour of Lima
Giant ant sculpture in Barranco park
Going through downtown Lima
Tour group in the plaza
Grand colonial architecture
Policeman boots us from the plaza in anticipation of protests.
Cartwheel above the catacombs
Mila snuck a photo in the catacombs. Naughty! They estimate that there are 30,000 people buried in the catacombs. Talk about creepy…
The bus sat in traffic for about an hour and made it back to Larcomar about the time the sun was going down.
View from Larcomar
Like Bogota and Medellin, the climate in Lima is near perfect. You don’t need air conditioning or heat. The sun is warm and intense, but it is cool in the shade. The average daily highs and lows vary only about 10 degrees and rarely get below 60 or above 80 any time of year. Amazing.
Oddly, it is a desert, in the mountains, on the ocean. This makes for a very distinctive climate. In addition to the perfect temperatures, it is very dry in terms of precipitation, but fog is common. In fact the city has been blanketed with fog almost every morning we’ve been here.
The negative is the air quality. The air pollution is horrible. This is a city of 10 million people and what seems like 100 million cars, trucks and busses belching smoke. Yuck. Fog and smog, smog, smog.
Culture in LIma, and Peru in general, was very different than Colombia. People were friendly, but less so than in Colombia. People were not nearly as polite. In Colombia when you said, “Gracias” people would always respond, “Con gusto!” with a smile. That didn’t happen much at all in Peru. Little things like how place settings were laid out in restaurants, even simple restaurants, made Colombia feel more refined.
Simple things like walking down the sidewalk or trying to cross the street in Peru were hilariously maddening. Clearly the Peruvian sense of personal space, courtesy, and right-of-way are very different than our own.
Walking on a sidewalk or in a shopping mall, you can fully expect that other people will walk right into you or shove their way between you if you are walking with someone. As you are walking, people will step out of doorways right into you. Groups will spread out across the whole sidewalk and force you into the street. Sidewalks and staircases were constantly blocked by groups of people chatting, looking at their phones, or simply taking up space. People would congregate at the top and bottom of escalators. On a couple of occasions, adults physically shoved Jette aside or cut in front of her in lines at shops and in Cusco a man pushed her off the sidewalk and into the street. He’s very, very lucky that I didn’t see this and only learned about it from Jette after the fact.
On an airplane, we had a woman shove her way between Jette and me as we were exiting the plane. She shoved me multiple times, and tried to push past me. Impossible in the narrow, crowded aisle. When she couldn’t push past me, she began to push up against me continuously, as if she was trying to push me and everyone in front of me off the plane! I turned around and told her in no uncertain terms, “DO NOT TOUCH ME!” It had little effect, and ultimately the point of my umbrella sent the message effectively and she backed off.
Drivers in Peru are among the worst we’ve seen anywhere in the world. In many countries, road “rules” are taken as mere suggestions. This is certainly true in Peru. Lane markings, traffic signals, and stop signs mean nothing. The design of the traffic infrastructure is almost identical to the US. The road look the same. Same lane markings, same crosswalks, same everything. It is just the behavior that is different. There is absolutely no accommodation made or right-of-way given for pedestrians. Most drivers will not yield for pedestrians crossing the street in a marked crosswalk. I did a Google search for “pedestrians in peru” and of the first results was an abstract from a medical journal:
Reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries due to road traffic injuries in Peru: interventions that can work
Pedestrians in Peru are the victims of the greatest proportion of road traffic fatalities in the world. In 2009, pedestrians were involved in 27% of road traffic incidents in Peru. This is a significant public health problem in Peru and it has important economic effects as well…
Beyond the massive numbers of pedestrians maimed and killed by negligent drivers, the traffic congestion is horrible. In Lima major intersections were blocked with huge jams of honking drivers, all ignoring any notions of lanes or right-of-way. Roundabouts that would function smoothly anywhere else in the world were constantly jammed in Lima. I’d say it was worse than Indonesia or India. It was almost like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos – you could just see the consequences of bad decisions happening everywhere you looked.
Traffic police. This has to be one of the biggest jokes in Peru. There are traffic police everywhere. They are standing at every major intersection dressed in their fancy costumes, often with white patent leather holsters and goofy little helmets. Sometimes they have little orange wands which they wiggle back and forth, regardless of what traffic is doing. On the highways in Lima, there is typically one of these guys/gals standing on the side of the road at every exit and overpass. They don’t ever seem to do anything other than stand next to their motorcycles and look at their phones. On one occasion we passed a disabled vehicle. On another, a crash scene. In both cases there were traffic police just standing at their posts by the highway exit or overpass, not helping in any way, just surfing facebook on their phones and collecting a salary. The Peruvian National Police force employs 140,000 and is notoriously corrupt (second only to the judicial system). Many of the traffic police are now women, because there is a popular notion that women are less likely to be corrupt.
Car alarms. The car alarm is the Peruvian national anthem. It is played at all hours of the day and night, everywhere you go. You would think that Peruvians are very patriotic since it is played 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but they always seem to ignore it.
All of these gripes aside, we enjoyed Lima. Jette enjoyed cooking in the apartment kitchen, but we also enjoyed so great meals out. The apartment was close to Pasteleria San Antonio, a very popular bakery and cafe where we enjoyed some delicious salads. We made multiple trips to La Lucha, a super yummy sandwich shop with great sandwiches, frites, and chocolate shakes.
Salads make me smile
Yummy La Lucha
Classic combo of chicharron, camote, and salsa criolla.
Sorry Philly, you lose to these guys.
The bread they use is really good.
Jette was excited to find bubble tea.
Lunch in old downtown Lima
Beyond the delicious lunches, we had fun exploring Lima. We went down to the beach, caught a nighttime fountain show, and generally just enjoyed slowing down and being in one place for a while.
Mila getting her shoes fixed
JFK Park is full of cats.
Miraflores park on the top of the cliff.
The path down to the beach
The cliff from which the paragliders take off.
Classic surf van. Lots of old VWs here.
Handstand on the rocky beach.
Ready for the show.
In terms of her studies, Jette finished her last math workbook. Yay!
She’s almost finished with the second of the three Story of the World books. Each book is designed to provide material for a full school year, but Jette’s goal is to finish all three this year. We’ve sent the physical workbooks home, so she is no longer doing the map work. She’s reading, writing a complete summary of each chapter, and we’re discussing it. She’s doing fantastic.
After a week or so enjoying Lima, we boarded a flight to the mountain town of Cusco, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu…
Boarding the flight to Cusco.
We awoke this morning to news that the Indonesian volcano Gunung Sinabung has again erupted. As you may recall, it was just a few months ago that we were in Berastagi, Sumatra, Indonesia climbing Gunung Sibayak. Each morning and evening while we were in Berastagi would would climb to the roof of the home we were staying in and watch the smoke coming from Sinabung.
Climbing to the roof to look at Sinabung
Sinabung smoking on the horizon
Talking about the last eruption…and the present danger.
The husband of the family we were staying with had an extensive album of photos he had taken in 2010, the last major eruption of Sinabung. The photos were a strong reminder of nature’s power – flowing lava, billowing smoke, dozens of charred bodies, horribly burned survivors with skin baked and peeling, everything covered in snow-like ash… A nightmarish scene.
And yet people choose to live and work all around the volcano. The land is fertile, the climate friendly. The area is Sumatra’s “bread basket.” The family we stayed with was convinced that it was totally safe.
Lush fields in our “backyard”
A house in Berastagi
To put the locations in perspective, here is a map that shows Sinabung, Sibayak and the house where we stayed:
The red circle is Sinabung (just erupted), the green circle is Sibayak (the one we climbed), and the blue circle is the house where we stayed. The map scale is about 1 inch = 5 miles.
Sinabung smoulders at sunset
A sulphurous lump on the side of the volcano
Not hot lava
Local kids at work
We hope our friends there are safe, and continue to be so…
Let’s go back in time about a month. If you’ll recall, we had a great time in the beautiful Paisa town of Jardin in Colombia, then felt the earthquake in Pereira. We spent about a week in Pereira, a small city that was quite nice. It was bustling with commercial activity and seemed to have quite a good standard of living and growing middle class. Tucked into the foothills of the Andes in Colombia’s coffee country, it was also a good base for exploring the area. As with everywhere we went in Colombia, the weather was perfect.
With perfect weather, even the food court at the local mall is open air.
But the hotel bathroom left a little to be desired, at least for me…
Can I get a little leg room please?
From Pereira we did a day trip to the very touristy town of Salento. It was cute, but so touristy we were glad we weren’t staying. While we were there we walked around town and did some horseback riding. The town square was closed to vehicles and there were lots of kids out having fun. Oddly though, they had huge speakers set up playing really weird techno music. Here’s a video showing what it sounded like (I have NOT added a soundtrack, this is really the music they were blasting!!!)
Despite the crazy music, it was a fun scene with all the kids playing. Jette did some cartwheels and handstands, and a little boy on roller blades came over to chat. He was a sweet little guy and we had fun talking with him and just watching all the action in the square.
Handstand in Salento, Colombia
The horseback riding was nice. It took us down to the Quindio River and the scenery was beautiful.
One of our friends in Salento
The other day trip we took from Pereira was to Panaca. This is how Wikipedia describes Panaca:
PANACA is a farming theme park that promotes contact between humans and nature, intended for those who live in the city and to create awareness about nature.
Their tagline is, “Sin campo no hay ciudad” (Without fields there is no city). There are thousands of animals and they grow a variety of crops in display gardens. There are animal shows, exhibits, and even a zip line above it all.
Jette and the Panaca Mascot
It was FANTASTIC. We spent the whole day wandering the theme park, and I think we were the only gringos there. The park, the exhibits and the animal shows were great. I wish we had something like this in the U.S. Jette had a great time interacting with all the animals, especially the chickens, rabbits and pigs. As for me, I was shamed in front of a large crowd when I lost a cow milking contest!
From Pereira, we made a quick trip to Cali, Colombia. Cali wasn’t originally on our agenda, but when I received an email from my bank notifying me that they were cancelling both my credit and my debit cards (the bank was switching from MasterCard to Visa and there was no way to postpone the switch!), We needed a reliable place to have them sent and given where we were in Colombia, an international hotel in Cali seemed like the best bet. So we spent one night in the Hampton Inn in Cali. It was actually a really nice hotel and my new credit card was waiting patiently for us, safely tucked inside a FedEx envelope at the front desk.
Hampton Inn Cali Colombia
From Cali, we caught a flight to Lima, Peru. On the airplane we read about far off lands…
Where is this fabled place called “Dallas”?
Overall, Colombia was fantastic. It is a beautiful country – an amazing landscape, with an amazing climate and a proud, friendly people. With its history of conflict and crime it has been off the mainstream tourist circuit for years. It still has some healing to do, but wow, what a great country. We’ll be coming back again, I’m sure.
After a great couple of weeks exploring Peru – Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, etc. – we’re back in Lima. As we slow down for a few days I thought I’d get a quick and easy blog post up. More detailed posts about our recent adventures are in the works and coming soon!
Counterfeit currency is everywhere here and I thought it would be fun to show you one of the counterfeit bills we’ve received and how to identify them.
We haven’t been checking notes we receive very closely, so we got suckered! We received this counterfeit 20 Sole note somewhere along the way, either as change from a purchase, or possibly from an ATM. Since the counterfeit notes can be purchased for 25% of face value, the crooked businesses that buy them and pass them off to unsuspecting tourists as change have quite a high profit margin – if they don’t get caught! We first realized that we had a counterfeit when we tried to buy lunch and the shop rejected the note. Bummer!
Here’s another video about a counterfeiting “bust” in Lima:
And a Guardian story about counterfeiting in Peru.
Here’s a video about the security features in U.S. currency: