Cuzco, Peru, South America, 2015
First, let me say everyone should go to Cuzco, a fabulous place filled with Incan history and incredible architecture and where I started this journey. Do not just go to Machu Picchu and ignore Cuzco. The incredible churches and museums of Cuzco kept me busy and exhausted. Everything is bricks or cobblestones plus stucco on buildings. Walking is hard on this old man as everything is on some kind of an angle and can really wear one out.
The trip down was, of course, tiring, as is all international travel. Flew Vegas to Houston to Lima to Cuzco, leaving my home at 7AM and arriving 6AM the next morning in Cuzco. Got to my little guest house about 7 and, fortunately, they let me into my room immediately so I could grab a four hour nap before heading out to explore on foot this absolutely delightful city. In fact, I quickly decided this was perhaps one of the world’s great destinations and certainly among my life favorites. It would be even more so if I were a religious man or a devout Catholic has the many, many, churches in Cuzco are architecturally incredible outside and art museums inside. The shame of it all is these magnificent palaces were built by Incan slave labor and FILLED with religious art of gold and silver all stolen from the Incas by Spanish imperialistic conquistadors. However it occurred though, the result has left Cuzco and the surrounding area one of the world’s greatest destinations. Cuzco is also a very clean city and seems very safe with courteous and helpful people. Yes, it is up and down and, in that respect, can be tiring but here are many plazas and benches here with places to sit and relax for a while. In fact, sometimes I just sat in a plaza and read while enjoying the beauty of the city surrounded by the Andes. There is also an Incan site right on the edges of Cuzco, Sacsayhuaman, strangely enough pronounced like "sexy woman"!!!
Cuzco also is a city of music and festivals. And these are not street musicians playing for a few pesos but are simply the normal life of the people: parades in the street, colorful customs, happy music an involving people of all ages. One Sunday I was fortunate to find a festival going on the plaza in front of one of the churches. There were about twenty food tents serving a variety of Peruvian food. Of course I tried several especially enjoying some Lucuma cheesecake, made with a kind of Peruvian fruit. I also had some of the same fruit in ice cream. Delicious.
Speaking of churches, the main cathedral of the city, built on an Incan foundation, is filled with the most gold and silver, but the Church of San Francisco is filled with the most grand paintings, most quite large with several as large as about 60 feet wide to 30 feet high! Incredible! One of the largest ones is a painting of the last supper by a Peruvian artist. The unique thing is the food for the banquet in front of Jesus is Guinea Pig, the traditional food of the Incas and the Peruvian people for 500 years! Yes, that is the same little animal our kids keep as pets! I will try some before I leave but it is a little costly in the tourist restaurants. I did try some grilled Alpaca and it tasted like .... meat!
Monday, I had booked a day tour to Machu Picchu and, as often seems my destiny, it turned out to be another of my excellent adventures. This is a special trip which involves early rising and traveling to get there by mid-morning so as to have the most hours of daylight to see the place. Some people to two-day trips, especially younger folk, but most do one-day trips from Cuzco. You also have to book several days or more, depending on season, in advance as there are limits on the number of visitors per day. Anyway, I booked as soon as I got here and finally was able to go yesterday.
So, I rose at 4AM and am in front of my hotel by 4:45 for a scheduled 5:00 bus pickup to take me to Ollantaytambo where I take a train to Aguas Calintes, a little town known for its hot springs and as the shuttle bus gateway up to the Machu Picchu entrance. Sounds easy right? Well, my bus never shows up to get me! About 5:45 I phone the emergency number of the tour agency. The man says he will call me back in ten minutes. He does so and admits the bus made a mistake and he will send a car for me quickly. Remember, if I do not make my train and trip my opportunity is gone and it would be a several day wait again! So a few minutes later a woman is at my door with a taxi driver and they drive me about 5 minutes to another stop where I am almost thrown into a car with my backpack and a young man jumps in and we take off.
I say take off because we are now flying. It is a scheduled 90 minute bus ride to my train station. My train leaves in 30 minutes. I tell the driver it is not possible. He says "Don't worry." Well, I did not know the Penske racing family had relatives in Peru!!!!! I am in the rear seat and hanging on to the grip above the door for dear life as I am being thrown all over the back seat and became close to vomiting back there. My stomach is really churning. This young driver (stick shift) is weaving in and out at tremendous speeds inches from other vehicles. The scenery all around was very beautiful as we flew through picturesque towns in small glens surrounded by quickly rising mountains. I, however, was in no position to take any photos!
The time for my train to leave has past and ten minutes later we pull up to the gate and my door is ripped open, one man grabs my pack and a woman says, "Robert" and grabs me. I am escorted about thirty feet to the train, show my ticket and passport, and am hustled on to the train with my pack thrown right behind me and we are off! As near as I can figure, the agency had contacted the train and told them of my situation and to not leave without me. Wild!
The train? This was the smallest and slowest train I have ever seen or been on. For those of you old enough to remember, think of the Lionel train set you had in your basement growing up. This train was much like that. Now think of a train set owned by the Jolly Green Giant and that was about the right perspective. Anyway, I am on the train, served a coffee con leche, and we proceeded on tracks alongside the Urubamba Rio until our destination. It is then only a hundred meter walk to catch one of the constantly running shuttle buses which wind steeply up the mountain to the Machu Picchu entrance.
About 9:30 AM I am now at the world renowned site of Machu Picchu and one can immediately see why so many come to visit. It is simply spectacular and the setting is breathless. It is difficult to image the brilliance of the Incan people who built this place 500 years ago without benefit of any real tools other than their minds. One does walk, up and down and all around many hundreds of steps. I probably did not walk a thousand steps, but maybe close. The difficult part for anyone and especially an old man like me is all of the steps are uneven as built from stone set in the mountain side. Going up was actually easier than going down as going down created more balance issues for me. You fall going up you might get a little bruised, you fall going down, you could seriously injure yourself. I simply proceeded in my now normal turtle-like fashion and all was fine.
I spent about five hours wandering the sight which was plenty sufficient. You can see everything in from 2-6 hours depending on your own pace or personal desires. You can also walk the 4 day, 3 night, Inca trail but I left that to younger explorers.
At one point I simply sat a rock for 15-20 minutes to just enjoy the beauty of the place and marvel at by being here and at the many wonders I have seen and done: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall, riding a camel in the Gobi Desert, spending a day with the elephants in Thailand, the Pandas in Chengdu, the ice Festival in Harbin, Xi'an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, Mount Everest and the base camp, chasing rhinos on elephant back in Nepal, the ancient temples of Nepal recently destroyed in their big earthquake, the ancient city of Lijiang, cave rafting in Laos, the joys of a peaceful Viet Nam, the 11 trips I have made to South America and its many innumerable wonders, playing softball in Argentina, the joys of living in Wuhan and knowing my wonderful students and, finally, sitting in the apartment of Sigmund Freud in Vienna and wondering if he would think I'm simply nuts!!!!!
I still have a few days to continue to enjoy the wonders of Cuzco. The weather has been mostly beautiful with days in the 70's and only one 2 hour rainstorm all week. Nights are cold but sleep under thick blankets and one is fine. The sidewalks in Cuzco are really narrow, barely one person wide. The streets are also quite narrow off the main drags, about one bus wide and cars often try to beat each other to get thru. There are also dogs everywhere that do not seem to belong to anyone, but that is typical South America. They are no bother except often too much night barking.
Last night, before leaving Cuzco I blew $20 and decided to have Roast Cuy (Guinea Pig) for dinner. Now, my longtime readers know that I virtually always try the local foods and generally find them quite tasty. Well, I can honestly say CUY is the worst thing I have ever tasted. There is very little actual meat but what there is tasted so foul it is what I imagine eating rat would taste like. Horrible!!!!! So never look longingly at your kids pet! It was my last meal in Cuzco except for some yogurt following to get the taste out.
Cuzco to Puno, Peru
Up early again this morning and off on a 7AM Tourist Bus to Puno instead of a regular bus. Tourist bus cost more but as the name implies we stop at tourist sites along the way plus a lunch buffet stop included. We visited several interesting Inca sites and old churches from 1600 BC to 1500 AD. The old churches were small but very ornate and beautiful. Didn't arrive until dark so just checked into my room and tomorrow would go see the famous Lake Titicaca. Upon arriving in Puno my first impression was of a hectic and chaotic place. However, it brightened the next day and as I wandered the city.
I began the morning with a walk to the pier area to take a boat tour of Lake Titicaca. I purchased a ticket for ten sole - about $3. I got on a boat and waited for 45 minutes and nothing happened. We had only three people on the boat and I was told we needed ten to leave. I noticed many other boats were leaving but evidently they were tour groups who paid more. So I did the only thing I could do and got off my boat and walked on another boat with a tour group just like I belonged! I figured if anyone stopped me I would just act the confused old man, not hard to do! I also figured once we were over water no one would toss me overboard! I am learning not to be so shy! LOL
Well, no one questioned me the entire day and so I enjoyed a wonderful tour with ten people from France and me! The tour of course was conducted in Spanish but I speak enough to reasonably follow. We spent about an hour cruising out among reeds and islands formed by reeds containing homes and boats built from reeds! Fascinating to see.
We stopped at one of the Uro islands to visit with the people there, see the homes and have a presentation given to us about the place and life there. We then took a fide on a reed boat to another island that was the "school" island for the children living out there. We toured their school houses (all built over reeds) and the children sang to our group in French!
We the returned to our regular boat and sailed back to the pier starting point. However, half way back toward the pier another boat pilot was not looking and neither was our pilot and the other boat hit us head on for him and mid-side for us taking out about eight feet of windows on our boat and banging up paint and metal on both of us! We sat about 45 minutes while glass was cleaned up, the two boat pilots argued and a third boat pulled up to investigate! Ahh, the joys of travel!
Anyway, no one was hurt and most of us passengers were laughing now as we returned to the pier and departed. I then took a bicycle rickshaw to the bus station to buy my ticket to leave on Sunday for Arequipa, then took a motorized tuk-tuk to Plaza de Armas to explore the center of the city and architecture. Had a Peruvian pizza for dinner and slowly walked back to my inn of residence.
I must mention one difficult thing, I was really moving slow and breathing hard often. I had been at altitudes from 9 to 15 thousand feet for ten days and I was feeling it with headache, tough breathing and slow moving. Sunday I will head to a lower elevation at Arequipa and am ready for that.
Puno to Arequipa, Peru
Saturday was a quiet day in Puno as the weather was nice and I needed a day of rest, so I sat in a plaza and read and then had a nice meal. It was a good day for me. I was up early Sunday and took a 6 hour bus ride to Arequipa. The first three hours were high plain and what looked like rolling hills all around but we were at high elevation and above tree line all the way. Mostly grass and shrubs. Again, I am in the Andes which often rise to over 20,000 feet. The next hour we saw several large lakes and then snow-capped peaks over the final two hours on the bus as we rolled in to Arequipa. This city is surrounded by high peaks including "Misti," a perfect cone shaped volcano that rises over 19,000 feet, towering over the city.
Arequipa itself is a pleasant city. The elevation is okay and it was warmer here also. It is known as the white city because of the white stone used in most of the major buildings and even small homes. The many churches and municipal buildings are quite beautiful architecturally. On one tour of the Convento de San Francisco I was told it was built in 1552!
The central Plaza de Armas is very pretty with a large fountain in the center and many trees and colorful bushes. There are about thirty benches around and the place was filled with people all day long. The streets here are mostly brick and there are several pedestrian streets leading off from the center. It is really quite a beautiful place and with many fine places to dine. It's about a mile walk from the very nice hostel where I am staying. Downhill going to the plaza but a bit of a struggle coming back. On the plus side, I am clearly losing weight and down over one notch on my belt. I certainly need it. I am also getting more comfortable with my Spanish again.
Speaking of food, one of my readers commented about food and fear of eating strange food. Let me say that is a ridiculous worry. These are all first world countries and cities filled with restaurants of all kinds. Yes, you can eat all local food if you wish, as I mostly do. However, there are all kinds of restaurants from Americano steak houses to Italian to Chinese, pizza, Burger King, McDonalds, KFC, and so on. You can pretty much eat whatever you choose to eat. Today I had dinner at a patio table with a Peruvian vegetarian spaghetti and an Inka Cola. Normally I do not drink soda or carbonated beverages but had to try Inka Cola here in the land of the Incas. It is a bright yellow drink and when I looked at the bottle I learned it is bottled by Coca-Cola and maybe just a Mountain Dew with a different name!
I will continue to wander this lovely city over the next few days and then have an early morning flight to Lima on Thursday. From Lima I plan to go to Guayaquil, Ecuador, but having trouble finding a decent flight. They are all very expensive one way.
Today would have been a very quiet day as I just wandered this lovely city and enjoyed the architecture, food and atmosphere around the Plaza de Armas. However, the area was a bit crazy today. It seems the miners in this area were upset with safety, wages and ecological damage so hundreds of them were parading around the plaza over and over chanting slogans and drumming, with one corner reserved for fiery speeches. This went on for about 4-5 hours before disbanding. The plaza area was also surrounded by many policia in riot gear with shields and all. They mostly leaned against the walls though and looked bored as nothing bad happened. All talk, no real action.
Some of the stores around the area had pulled there metal "garage doors" down over the front of their shops and some closed so maybe bad things happened before but it was all wind today. I have seen demonstrations in South America before and they are mostly peaceful. They are actually more violent in the USA.
Today was supposed to be another quiet day and it mostly was for me. However, I was relaxing in the Plaza de Armas this morning at about 10:00 and there were a few protestors like yesterday but the number was small and they seemed outnumbered by the policia. By noon though the protest at grown to over a hundred demonstrators and instead of marching around the plaza they began sprinting, waving flags, chanting and shouting, louder and louder! There were many shouts of "Puta," which I believe is the Spanish word for prostitute. It seems the protestors felt the companies were prostituting the workers and screwing them over.
All of a sudden the police, who had been looking bored, sprinted from their relaxed position and began running alongside the protestors wearing their full riot gear. The metal "garage doors" on the shops also began to come down. Being the old seasoned traveler that I am and a reasonably intelligent human being I made the only logical decision - I left the area! I later heard nothing really bad happened but better safe than accidently ending up in a Peruvian jail cell. Interesting day!
Later I had a wonderful last meal in Arequipa of Saksuka, a kind of vegetarian Turkish salad (very tasty) and an avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich in pita bread, also excellent. So I am still well and happy and will rise early tomorrow to fly to Lima for several days, my last stop in Peru. Lima is a big city so will, of course, be different than where I have been to date.
Let me say everyone should go to Cuzco for a week or more (many side trips possible) as it is a magnificent experience. Puno and Lake Titicaca can be done in 2 or 3 nights max as the lake is the main unique thing to see. Arequipa is beautiful but is a place more for the young to come for a week or more. There are many side trips out of here to hike the volcano, hike Canyon del Colca and spot condors, whitewater rafting and great outdoor activities. All things I did when younger but they are no difficult for an older man. This is a great place though if you can handle such activities.
Anyway, weather still good and another good day. Tomorrow should be the same
I flew in to Lima on a Thursday morning. Leaving Arequipa the airport was crowded but very small, only four gates. Lima, of course, is a large airport. I took a taxi to Miraflores, an upper class suburban area of Lima. I had to find a room for Thursday night as I only had a reservation for Friday on. I was forced to stay in a bit of a dump on Thursday, very tiny and cramped room for too high a price (US$30). After that I stayed in The Lighthouse Hostal in Miraflores with a fantastic room and bano privado for only US$25 per night. I highly recommend this place if you come to Lima. The neighborhood is also clean and safe with good walking areas. I had some really nice walks here.
Several friends have recommended I should have gone to Nazca and, in retrospect, probably so. I had the time, especially if I did not make the Galapagos side trip. I guess I will have to come back some day!
Arriving in Lima you are immediately hit by the humidity of the area after being in the drier mountains. You sweat a lot more in Lima, not as bad as Houston or New Orleans but more like Milwaukee in the summer. It is not so bad nearer the Pacific as you often get a little breeze, but centro Lima can be warm - and this is winter here!
Saturday morning I took a taxi to central Lima and the Plaza de Armas. It is surrounded by huge buildings including the capitol of Peru and the HUGE Lima Cathedral. This cathedral and the one in Santiago are the two largest I have ever seen. I think this one in Lima may be slightly bigger, but really don't know. Devout Catholics would go crazy in South America visiting all the beautiful churches. I always say - Protestants build churches, Catholics build museums! These here are 500 years old.
Besides the main Cathedral, the Convento de San Francisco, built under Juan Pizarro's leadership, is just a few blocks away and very beautiful architecturally. It included catacombs below such as I have only seen once before in Rome. They give a nice 45 minute walking tour in several languages, also pointing out some earthquake damage. Following my tour I wandered a few shops in the area. Spotted two lovely wooden Inca figures (man and woman) I wanted to buy but they were simply too large and heavy to transport for me so had to pass. Did pick up a small painting of a Peruvian boy though. I liked central Lima and found it quite beautiful to wander.
I stopped for lunch at an outside table on the plaza at a restaurant called Atlantic - Don't know why since Lima is on the Pacific? I had Loma Saltado, the supposed traditional dish of Peru. It is essentially strips of beef, onions and peppers over a bed of French fries and a side of rice. It was okay but nothing special, much like alpaca but, of course, both better than guinea pig! Actually, chicken is the favorite food here with more pollo restaurants than any other kind. Chicken is literally everywhere and the Peruvians favorite food, generally roasted and not fried.
Afterward, I strolled down a six block pedestrian street and all the shops until coming to another large plaza where I sat a short while and then took a taxi back to Miraflores and my hostel abode. I was back in my room about 4:30 as I was tired. Shower and rest was the rest of the day.
Sunday I went to take a walk on a path that runs along the cliffs up above the Pacific and then circle back through Miraflores. This was one of the greatest city walks I have ever been on with park land and beautiful views for many kilometers above the Pacific. I stopped and had lunch at a chifa (Chinese restaurant) at a small mall with many restaurants and outdoor dining overlooking the ocean. I then circled back through the lovely city of Miraflores. Probably only strolled about 4-5 miles but a really beautiful walk both along the ocean and through the city.
My initial impression of Lima was of another chaotic big city but, like any large city, it has many sides. Here in Miraflores I am seeing it’s most beautiful side and I am impressed. I may very well come back to Peru soon. For now, I will take it easy tomorrow, Monday, with a short walk and just enjoy the day. I will be up early Tuesday morning for taxi to the airport and my flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where their currency is the US$! That makes it easy.
Lima, Peru, to Guayaquil, Ecuador
Some final thoughts about Lima. I thought Lima was an okay place. A little warm perhaps for living there but if one lived in upscale Miraflores and enjoyed the ocean breezes, a nice place overall.
Yesterday, Tuesday, I had a morning flight to Guayaquil and was in for a heat shock. I knew this was a hot and humid place and flying in I could see water everywhere and city that seemed in the middle of a swamp. It actually lies on the Guaya Rio with tributaries and river delta all around. The air is thick with water. The temperature is in the upper 80s and you sweat everywhere you go. I walked about 4-5 miles yesterday and maybe 5-6 today to see as much of the city as I could. The city has two main things going for it though. They have a nice section along the riverfront with shops, restaurants and a park-like atmosphere. I enjoyed walking there.
Most of all though, I enjoyed visiting the small but glorious Parque Bolivar, Parque of the Iguanas! There is a one square block park in the middle of the city that for some reason these Iguanas have made their home for a hundred years or more!!!!! When I first walked in and took some photos I thought there were just a few of them. I began to look around and found they were everywhere. I would estimate 70-80 total of all sizes ranging from a foot or so to as long as 4.5 feet nose to tail. Tails were up to three feet long. You had to watch you step taking photos as there was iguana poop all over the park! You were not supposed to touch them but they would eat greens out of your hand. One even ate a cracker I dropped. They tend to crawl low but if standing erect on their front legs they range from 6-12 inches tall. The biggest ones have like a turkey waddle under their chin and move their head up and down rapidly to show it off. I think they were the big studs of the park! It was all great fun as I snapped away, hoping for some good shots.
Tomorrow morning I plan to take a van/bus to Cuenca and back into the mountains and cooler weather. I like cooler weather. Most of my remaining time in Ecuador will now be in the more mountainous areas.
Today was another crazy, interesting and fascinating day. I was told yesterday by a girl from England that you could just go to the bus station in the morning and ask for a van to Cuenca and it would be no problem. Many go there and it was only about $12. Wrong, senorita!
When I got to the bus station there were no vans going to Cuenca and I could only find a private car for $50. That was not my choice so I began to walk about and think. I saw a man who looked like he spoke English. Don't ask me how I know that! Anyway, he was a young Ecuadorian with an MBA, Oscar, and he wanted to go to Cuenca also and was having the same problem finding a ride. With his lead we negotiated a private car for $40, just $20 each, and were happy.
The first 90 minutes were simple driving and the country was flat and green. The road was concrete and well-paved all the way. The next 90 minutes though was all uphill and all S curves with very, very, little straight sections. It was also great drop-offs if you went off the road. Much of it was two-lane but much was also three-lane, with that dangerous middle-lane open coming each way. It was a bit scary as our driver constantly shifted and passed in places I would not have passed. Half-way up the mountain we are in thick fog for 15 minutes and then rain. I am hanging on to the roof handle above the door and thinking they might never find my body!
Finally, we come out of the mist and we are above the clouds with blue sky again. The road is still a little scary but at least the driver (and I) can see now. After a three hour trip we arrive safely in Cuenca and the driver drops us off. Oscar waves over a taxi and he drops me at the Hostel Macondo and Oscar is going nearby. We part and I thank him for his help, which turned out to be good for both of us.
Now my hostel is absolutely beautiful!!!! It is perhaps the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in. It is a converted old mansion right in the centro of the old city which is all stone and stucco and wonderful old architecture. My room looks out on a garden and I have a private bano with breakfast included for $35 a night. It is a few dollars more than most hostels but is well worth it.
I walked to the local Mercado and had an interesting dinner of roast pork (taken right off a half hog), white corn, potatoes and vegetables with a young couple from Vancouver, Canada. It is, of course, much cooler again and I am wearing a light jacket again. Tomorrow I will wander and see more of this delightful city.
The actual name of this city is "Santa Ana de los Quatro Rios de Cuenca," and thus it is simply called Cuenca. Of the four rivers, the main one is Rio Tomebamba. The old city and the historical centro is north of the river, on a hill and slowly going up the mountains beyond. The new part of the city is south of the river on a plain until it also begins to go up the mountain sides. I am staying in the more interesting old city.
The old city is amazing. Every building is old colonial architecture, some in Spanish style some in Italian, some in French, some in Incan and even one in Arabic style. However, they are all stone, brick, marble, stucco, glazed tile and combinations of those and all blend together beautifully. The churches are also, of course, magnificent. The old city looks much like an old western movie in the USA. The roads are all paved stone, concrete or blacktop. If the roads were covered with dirt and dust you might expect to see Butch and Sundance riding their horses down them with guns blazing!
The cathedral here is magnificent and the largest in Ecuador. It rivals those of Lima and Santiago as the largest on this continent. The many restaurants are also interesting. My dinner tonight was Green Banana and Peanut Seafood Soup! Pretty tasty!
I continue to walk and eat little and am down 2.5 notches on my belt. I have lost so much weight I have been a little concerned I might be sick. I have only a little cough though and have had no fever or unusual bleeding or any sign that something might be amiss - so I'll take the weight loss and be happy.
Because we were again high up in the mountains it was quite cold in the early morning, so cool I broke down and bought an alpaca jacket for $20 this morning. It warms up by 9:30 as the fog burns off and then the days are nice until late afternoon when it begins to cool off again. I had read there were many retirees from the U.S. here and at Cotacachi (near Otavalo). I understand why they are here in Cuenca as this is an absolutely delightful place to be.
I have also learned there are Inca Ruins around Cuenca and a long history to this area. First churches built in the 1500s, led by Spanish missionaries of course. I took an open-top double decker bus tour today (3 hours) and got a good overview of the old and new city and views from high up observing how Cuenca sits in a big bowl among the mountains. Beautiful. I have been told this is the finest city in Ecuador and I am a believer.
Saturday I took a long circular walk around this lovely city. I stopped and got my haircut, which is always interesting when you are explaining what you would like in another language - but she got it the way I like it. Then I walked down along the river between the old city and the new. The four rivers here are not like some city rivers, concreted in, shallow and trashy, but are all beautiful rapid white-capped running water and bordered by parkland or grass strips on both sides. Very lovely and enjoyed by many strollers such as myself. I took the time to sit on a bench and read for a while as I listened to the relaxing sound of the water rushing over the many rocks of the river.
Later I sat in Plaza Calderon, the main plaza of this city and had a long chat with a retired American couple from Minnesota who now live six months in Florida and six months here in Cuenca. You may remember I mentioned many folks from the U.S. have retired down here. We talked about life, our travels and a great variety of things. They said one of the greatest things about Ecuador is that health care is high quality and free for everyone living here, Ecuadorians and visitors. It was a nice afternoon chat.
Sunday I was up early and off for the day with a small tour group of four (family of 3 and me) to visit Ingapirca, Incan ruins two hours from Cuenca. Peru and Ecuador were the centers of the Incan world which extended into southern Columbia, northern Chile and northwest Argentina. This turned out to be a good choice with an excellent and very knowledgeable guide. The roads were also very good. Our guide told us that the Ecuadorian President has set goals of health care for all and building good roads everywhere for both the people and tourism and he is achieving his goals.
First we stopped at the small town of Biblian to see an amazing church built high up on the side of a rock cliff and actually part of the cliff. We had to climb 200 steep steps to reach it but I made it up and down. Talk about a good reason not to go to church!!!!! Had to be a very difficult construction task.
Next we stopped at the small town of Canar to visit the weekly Sunday Market with the indigenous people coming from miles around. It seems the Canari people are the original people of this area since 1000 BC. The Inca people dominated the Canari and inter-married routinely with them. The market was fascinating to see. So many different fruits and vegetables and many quite large. Huge bananas and cabbages that maybe weighed 15 pounds! The long growing season here makes for some big crops. Cuenca is about 6000 feet elevation but today we were near 12,000 ft. Everything was so green and beautiful with the countryside the most beautiful I have ever seen. It never snows in Peru, Ecuador or Columbia except rarely on the very highest peaks so all stays green and growing season year round. Magnificent country.
Next we went to Ingapirca, (near 13,000 feet) an ancient site that once housed about 2000 people of mixed Incan and Canari people. Ingapirca itself was actually a religious site dedicated to the sun, moon and gods of the people. Our guide, Luis Gonzales, was actually born near the site and thus gave us an extremely knowledgeable tour. It was all very interesting. Luis was also very helpful to me with the many steps we walked. I had no problem all day with any of the elevation though. The day was beautiful and the air crisp and clean.
We then ate a late and filling lunch at El Castillo, a small restaurant in the village of Ingapirca. We had our choice of chicken or pork, with carrots, avocado and white corn/hominy. Also a spicy sauce if we chose (I did). It was all quite good and afterwards we drove back to Cuenca, arriving at my hotel about 4:30, a good eight hour day.
As a final thought, I cannot say enough good things about Cuenca and the magnificent green countryside of hills and valleys after hills and valleys and bigger hills and valleys. I am nearing 40 countries visited and never have I seen countryside so beautiful and I highly recommend visiting Cuenca and the surrounding area.
For me, another great day. Wonderful. Tomorrow I will simply wander more of this beautiful city and then bus north on Tuesday morning to the town of Banos, a famous mountain hot springs place.
Wrapping up Cuenca, Ecuador
It is late Monday afternoon and I am back at the Hostel Macondo and wanted to wrap up some thoughts on my time here in Cuenca. I did not mention one of the unique things about the Sunday Market at Canar yesterday. The indigenous people of the area all dress differently according to their group or the village they are from. Some, especially the women wear certain hats to designate them. Every village has their own certain colored and design skirt to designate them. Because they come to the market from many surrounding villages, it gives a very festive air to the market.
Today I walked at least three miles again. I started with a walk to the bus station to book my ticket for tomorrow, Tuesday. I have a 09:15 bus to Ambato (5 hours) from where I will take another bus about one hour to the town of Banos for two nights. As I wandered Cuenca today I went to many areas I had not been before. I always enjoy doing that as I discover new things. Today I discovered two new markets and two small unique churches. At one of the markets I tried what I thought were potato pancakes (which I love) but tasting them I think they maybe were white corn / hominy pancakes? I was not sure? Finally settled in the Plaza Calderon to rest for a while before returning to my hostel. It was a relaxing day and I try to have one of those regularly so I do not get too worn out. Good way to end my time in Cuenca.
After Banos, on Thursday I will take a bus to Otavalo for maybe 4-5 nights and then on to Quito. I have a spot to go to Galapagos for eight days if I want it. It cost a bundle but everyone tells me it is one of the wonders of the world so I am torn. I have a few days to decide.
Tuesday was an interesting day traveling to Banos. First, you had to take a bus to Ambato, about seven hours. Then take another bus for an hour to Banos. Should be easy it seems. There were two other folks from Chicago, a young couple, also traveling from Cuenca to Banos. However, when we get to Ambato there is no bus station. The driver simply yells "Ambato," and we three quickly get off the bus and we are on a busy road in the city as we get our luggage from under the bus! What now?
I say to the bus guy, "Donde es bus to Banos? He points at a bus across the busy four lane road and says "Banos." That bus is just leaving though. So our bus yells and waves at the other bus, "Momento, tres personas para Bano." We dodge cars while dragging our luggage across the very busy road and yell "Banos!" A bus assistant opens the bottom of the bus, throws our luggage in, and we jump on the bus. Who knows what would have happened if we had not caught that bus? Maybe wait for hours for another?
Anyway, an hour later we are in Banos and all is fine. My hostel here is very simple but clean enough and my first impression of Banos is a charming little mountain town that obviously does a lot of tourist business. Many little shops and restaurants.
Walking all over the town today was not difficult. This is a real mountain village, only about 1 K wide and 2 K long. The mountains rise quickly on all sides. The weather is also true mountain weather. It is cloudy and gray, the sun is shining, it is raining lightly, it is windy, it is calm. the sun is shining and it is raining at the same time! The weather changed about 20 times today alone.
Anyway, it was overall a relaxing day. I am off early tomorrow morning to Otavalo, a town a little north of Quito and another area where there are many retirees from the U.S. By tomorrow afternoon I also have to make my decision about Galapagos.
Thursday was a long day on the bus. First took four hour bus from Banos to Quito and then another three hour bus from Quito to Otavalo. It was not really that simple though. When I arrived at Quitos, which is a huge bus terminal with 44 departure gates, I had to find the bus line and ticket window for Otavalo.
When I found it I was sold a ticket for a bus leaving from gate 34 at 12:00 and it was now 12:00! I said "ahora!" (now) The ticket lady says "Ahora, go, go." The gate is about 200 meters away and when I was very young and in good condition I could only run that in about 30 seconds. Now I am timed in minutes and I am also carrying luggage and the altitude is over 9000 feet. The bus is already pulling out as I puff on up and wave my cane while yelling at the driver. The driver’s assistant sees me and jumps off the bus to come over and grab my luggage to throw under the bus and drags me gasping for air unto the bus and we are off!!!!!
The drive was again spectacular on winding mountain roads with magnificent views everywhere and huge drop offs along the road. You hoped your driver was skilled because leaving the road was not likely survivable. When we finally get to Otavalo the bus does not come into town but drops me on the Pan-American Highway that bypasses the city. I have to walk maybe a mile into the city. Fortunately, I only walk about 50 yards and a man in a truck pulls over and says he will take me to my hotel and only wants one dollar. I agree, we have a nice chat, he drops me off, and I pay one dollar!
I also did a lot of thinking on the bus after talking at length with two couples who had been to Galapagos and I have decided not to go and have to spend near $3000 to do so. I have other trips I would rather take with that money. They told me the wildlife is great but the living is uncomfortable on the boats. You are always dirty and damp. Showers are sea water and a hose. Conditions are cramped. You can get seasick (I usually do) and you have to swim and snorkel or scuba to see many things. I am a very poor swimmer and, truthfully, somewhat petrified of the water. In summary, it did not seem like a good idea for me. When younger a few years I would have done it but at my age it just didn't seem to be wise. I'll stick to watching National Geographic channel. I will miss seeing mainly the birds though. If some of you are a little disappointed in me, I'm sorry. If you want photos of blue boobies you will just have to watch a smurf movie. I will now spend a little extra time in Quito and maybe Columbia. Or who knows?
The day ended nicely also as my little hostel is more like a boutique hotel. I have a lovely wood floored bedroom, comfy bed, tiled bathroom and shower, mountain view, breakfast included and $23 a night. I am happy, tired but happy. This is a larger town, about 30,000, but also a mountain town like Banos. We are high again, about 9000 feet, but completely surrounded by towering peaks. Really quite beautiful but also with regularly changing weather.
This is the main market town for this area and supposedly has the biggest Saturday market in the country. So Thursday night I will rest and wander this city on Friday. Always have to be careful in a "shopping" town! Money can go fast! I have mentioned Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar but coins are a funny thing. They use both U.S. and Ecuador coins. All coins are the same size and color with different design except they have a gold $1 coin that is a little thick and bigger than a quarter but smaller than a fifty cent piece.
Friday I mainly walked and relaxed. The high altitude was again tiring me quickly so I showered and hit the sack early that night and prepared to explore the giant market beginning early Saturday morning. I had committed to a week here relaxing before moving on to Quito. I need to keep my pace slower.
Well, the big market was on Saturday and it was big. I estimated over 1000 vendors and I did not even go out to the animal market on the edge of town. There were normally about 200 vendors here during the week but they come in from everywhere on Saturday, selling a great variety of items. Tour buses even come in from Quito for the market. Interesting. They began setting up about 7:30-8 and all were set up by 9. They began tearing down about 3 when it began to drizzle some and then a 15 minute steady rain about 4. I went to a Chifa for dinner when it rained and had Chop Suey Spaghetti, a bit different choice but quite tasty.
About Galapagos, understand that my funds are very limited and I really scrimp to travel, staying in the smallest places and eating local food. This is the same reason I passed on going to Antarctica when I was in Ushuaia, Argentina. There are simply some things I cannot afford to do. Galapagos, e.g., would have cost me more than the other seven weeks total of this trip. Such is life and the choices we must make.
In addition, I was pretty exhausted from the altitude and have discovered my body simply is not up to doing what I may be used to do. There will be no more bungee jumping, sky diving or para-sailing! LOL I am going to have to keep future trips shorter and perhaps an easier pace. We shall see. For the moment I am taking a few days off and simply relaxing here in Otavalo. I need to catch my breath before heading to Quito.
I had been feeling a bit poorly and had not been sleeping well. My hotel was fine but for some reason the bed did not agree with me, unusually hard. Plus it was a twin and when I am sick I toss and turn, pulling the covers off me and I get cold. Remember, there is no heat in these hotels and one sleeps under wool, llama or such blankets, which is fine if you don't kick them off you. In addition, there was pack of dogs barking much of the night. And air conditioning I have only had in Guayaquil, a coastal tropical sweatbox of a city. I also continue to lose weight, perhaps a mixed blessing of sorts. I don't really know?
So Monday I changed hotels to get a bigger and more comfortable bed for me. I also stopped at a "farmacia" and got some meds to dry out my sinuses and help me breathe better (Alercet D, Cetirizina 2HCI 5 mg, Pseudoefedrina Sulfato 120 mg, whatever that is). Take morning and night for five days. Between the two, I hoped that would do the trick. It worked fine Monday night as I got the best sleep I've had since I left Cuenca. And no dog pack! Tuesday night though I slept poorly again with nose/breathing issues. Tonight, Wednesday, who knows?
My new hotel, Hostel Indio, does not have their included breakfast on site like most do. Tuesday it was right next door and Wednesday it was about a block away. Both were good though. Tomorrow, who knows? I may skip breakfast tomorrow though to get the earliest bus for Quito.
Couple of things about much of South America; dogs often roam freely and crap all over the streets. No one seems to pay much attention to them. Ecuador also has some unique things I have noticed wandering about. The ethnic groups wear their particular clothes and usually carry their babies in a blanket wrapped around their backs and tied in the front. The child's legs dangle out below the blanket. Only occasionally do you see a stroller. If no child, the women often carry the same blanket with a huge load on their backs. The men, of course, usually carry nothing unless there are two small children or a load too large for only the woman. Men also wear hats and so do many of the women. The men also wear a long braided pigtail hanging down their back and the ethnic people are short, very short, usually less than five feet, often much less. The men are often in white pants, very thin sandals and a lightly colored sweater with their hat. They often look like they should be walking a beach in Miami.
I'm no fashion expert but the normal Ecuadorians of most any age seem to mostly wear Aeropostale or Hollister clothing. Seen and sold everywhere. The non-ethnic clothed women tend to wear very tight pants. That looks good on some but on others, well, not so good. Weather constantly changes also. The sun comes out and I am quickly sweating in my alpaca. The sun goes away a few minutes later and I am chilled in my alpaca jacket. This country is heavily mountainous and thus the weather constantly changes.
School age children generally wear uniforms of their school, something that is common in much of the world. It is supposed to promote unity and eliminate the competitive nature of dressing. I have often wondered why we don't do that in the U.S. but perhaps our independent nature and the pressure of the fashion industry would never allow it?
Food here is different also than found in southern South America. There is more Hispanic and Mexican influence. I have seen here the first Mexican restaurants I have found in South America. One restaurant was called "Cuisine Ecuadorian" but I do not think there is much of a unique cuisine here. They eat mostly chicken and all the other meats: pork, beef and fish. Rice more than noodles. Hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and nothing particularly seasoned. Fairly bland except for, of course, guinea pig. I decided to try some "enchiladas verde" Ecuadorian style Tuesday night and they tasted like no Mexican food I have ever tasted before, different sauce and no cheese. I did follow that up though with an Ecuadorian banana split, covered with whipped cream and grated white cheese! That was a surprise but quite tasty.
Traffic here is also much lighter, less cars in general, which is nice for walking around. Buses are still the main mode of transportation for the majority. Most cities have big and very organized bus terminals. Some, like Otavalo and many smaller towns, have a vacant lot where the long distance buses congregate and a couple of small kiosks selling tickets. It can get very confusing for the traveling novice who must scramble to find their right bus.
Anyway, I needed to get a little healthy before heading to Quito and not sure that is happening. I was still breathing poorly. I had a bus to Quito Thursday morning but Quito was also about 9000 feet altitude so that now concerned me. In a few days I will have to decide if Quito will be my last stop for this trip or go on to Cartagena, Columbia, which is warm and back at sea level. Still all questionable for the moment.
Arrived in Quito on Thursday after a few hours bus ride from Otavalo. Quito is located over 9000 feet altitude so there was no relief here for my breathing and tiredness issues. I just slowly struggle through.
That being said, Quito is in most other ways an interesting and delightful city. The old city is full of colonial architecture and is a joy to slowly walk around – at least when one is walking downhill! Quito is set in a long valley between high peaks all around. There are very few pockets of flat land anywhere in the city. The 2.5 million residents are evidently in good physical condition. This is the first city I have been where I have to take taxis far more than is normal for me. Fortunately taxis are everywhere and comparatively inexpensive. There were a few times when they might have cost $100 and I still would have had them take me up the long hill in front of me!
Thursday and Friday I would mainly stroll the center of the city and the Plaza Grande area where most of the important buildings were and many of the grandest churches. Fantastic architecture and a beautiful plaza to slowly stroll. Saturday was an excellent day in that I took a double-decker open top tour bus which covered all the high points of the city. It was an all-day on and off situation so you could spend as much time as you wished at many of the sites. I was impressed by the Cathedral of Quito and several other places that I was not ever going to see on foot as they were on large hills (small mountains to me). Several times we were over 10,000 feet. Even mostly riding the bus, it was exhausting by the end of the day.
I was also staying in the most disappointing hostel on this trip. The internet seldom worked, there was little hot water to shower, there was no place nearby to eat and we were high up on a hill to walk to. The bed was fine but I still could not sleep well due to stuffed everything and continued breathing issues – plus I was as exhausted as I had ever been traveling. So I had made the decision to return home after Quito. Now I had to deal with the airlines and their insane rules for changing a ticket, something all travelers should try to avoid having to do.
Well, I have returned home and am feeling fine except for a little jet lag. My breathing is fine and all is again right with the world. It simply boiled down to over six weeks at high altitudes of 9000+ and the thin air wearing me out. I also found myself dehydrated some so have been drinking plenty of fluids since my return. I thought (hoped) I might have lost 15-20 pounds on my trip but it turned out I lost only nine. Have to keep working at my diet.
Let me emphasize I had a wonderful time as a whole. In Peru, Cuzco is a great place and Machu Picchu a world wonder. A place everyone should try to experience to greater sense our story as human beings on this planet.
Puno was nothing special as a city but Lake Titicaca is very unique to visit and I much enjoyed it. Arequipa, Peru, is okay but I probably should have chosen Nazca instead. Lima turned out to be a cool place and much better than I expected. I would recommend spending at least a few days there. The suburb of Miraflores is especially nice.
Moving into Ecuador, one must first know that the equator runs through northern Ecuador and thus the climate of this country varies little from season to season. It is elevation that matters in terms of climate and temperature. I did not like Guayaquil but that was simply because it is very humid located in the lowlands by the Pacific. I am not a big fan of heat/humidity combination and constant sweating.
Ecuador is very unique as a country and supposedly has more diversity of plant, animal an anywhere else in the world though a small country in area. The west coast is on the Pacific Ocean creating one kind of environment. The Andes run north to south down the middle of the country, creating another type of environment. Finally, the eastern section of Ecuador drops off to the Amazon basin creating another type of unique jungle environment. That is the section I did not visit on this trip but may one day choose to do so. Except for Guayaquil, I stayed in the mountains and cooler high elevations on this last venture.
Starting with Cuenca, I earlier wrote this is one of the nicest places in the world and seems to have been discovered by the over 10,000 retirees from the U.S. who have settled there. Very clean, friendly and modern with a wonderful year-round climate. I can think of nothing negative about Cuenca and would recommend all visit and check it out.
The few days I spent in Banos were interesting but not a place one can spend much time. It is simply very small, a little hard to get to, and can be rainy a lot.
Otavalo is another wonderful place and has one of the great Saturday markets of South America. I very much enjoyed Otavalo and it is another area that has a large number of retirees from the U.S. It is closer to the equator than Cuenca but higher elevation so climate is not much different. Cuenca is larger though and a more modern place in my estimation.
Finally, there is Quito, the capital of the country. I found Quito very interesting and a great place to visit. However, it is all over 9000 feet and almost nothing is flat. For older (and even younger) visitors it can be VERY tiring between the elevation and the hills. If you choose to visit, I recommend staying right in the center of the city (less walking) and allowing yourself sufficient time to take things slowly. You'll enjoy it more.
One of my readers told me that it didn't seem like I was having much fun with some of my stories about crazy bus rides and such. However, he failed to understand that is exactly what I love! It is the unusual adventures that makes travel memorable. Things like crazy bus and train rides, rafting rivers, riding elephants, chasing rhinos, dancing in the streets, eating some strange foods, living history, meeting wonderful people and more that is why I love my travel. It is all the things that happen that I would never find in the U.S. that are my joy and make me feel alive. Perhaps only my cousins, Herb & Mindy, who visited me in China, and my cousin, Jim, who also travels the world, or friends like Eddy or Art, also big travelers, can fully understand what I mean and feel.
I do not know where I will go next if I can or what I may do next if I can? Getting older, I do not know how much longer I can enjoy travel but I want to keep feeling more alive as long as I can. And the invitation to join me to all friends and family remains open. Come with me. Maybe I'll put you on an elephant back in Southeast Asia, light incense at a Buddhist temple in China or dance with you in the streets of Santiago. I have no doubt you will love it! Until, hopefully, my next adventure, ciao, ciao.
Journey to the Land of the Inkas