Reflections and images from my travels

Archive for April, 2014

Cusco City Tour

This was our last day in Cusco before we depart on our trek. Both Anna and I were not really feeling well this morning. We seem to have really been compromised since yesterday. Some gastrointestinal symptoms, lassitude and mild headaches. However, we were able to go out on our final tour with Leo. We told him to keep it pretty easy.

Most of our time was spent in a large park just on the outer edges of Cusco called Sacsayhuaman. the pronunciation of this name is very similar to “sexy woman”. There are many archaeological dig sites and we had the opportunity to view several of them-Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, Kenko and Q’enqo.  We were filled with an appreciation of the skill and the capabilities of the Incas with regards to stonework. It is truly amazing that they were able to build such complex structures and Anna was convinced that they had alien help. There really doesn’t seem to be any other logical explanation. We then visited the Inca Museum which provided an interesting juxtaposition of Inca stonework and colonial architecture. There was a beautiful courtyard that you will see in the attached pictures.

We had a really nice lunch-although we did not eat very much-in San Blas- this neighborhood, home to artisans, as well as their work- and craft shops, is one of the most picturesque in the city. Its cobblestone streets are steep and narrow, lined with old houses built by the Spanish over important Inca foundations. It has an attractive square with a delightful little colonial church featuring an intricately carved pulpit considered to represent the zenith of colonial-era local woodcarving.

Leo then dropped us off at our hotel for a two-hour break which was much appreciated. We then walked to the Cathedral located in the central square also known as the Plaza de Armas. The opulence of the numerous altars housed within this enormous cathedral was breathtaking. Pictures were not allowed so you will just have to come to Cusco yourselves! This very imposing building was constructed on the foundations of the palace of Viracocha Inca. Built between 1560 and 1664, its interior has a variety of different architectural styles, ranging from the late-Gothic to the Baroque. “El Señor de los Temblores”, or The Lord of Tremors, a massive crucifix, is venerated by faithful Catholics all over Peru. The cathedral harbors outstanding examples of religious art, especially paintings from the distinctive colonial-era “Cuzco School”, such as the Last Supper depicting Jesus and the Twelve Apostles feasting on guinea pig, a traditional Andean delicacy. We then walked back to our hotel and had a heartfelt parting with Leo. He was an extremely passionate, environmentally aware guide who really went out of his way to make sure that he kept us away from the large crowds. He really added to the overall experience of our time in Cusco.

In the evening we had a meeting with our guides for the upcoming trek- Raoul and Ricardo- and the other participants on our upcoming journey. There are twelve of us in total. We both have a little trepidation for the upcoming trek based on how we’ve been feeling over the last two days. However, the tour guide is extremely reassuring and it appears the operation is very well run. We are both sure we will have an amazing experience. I will not be blogging during the 7 days that we will be out on the trek. I will be able to let you know of our experiences during the trek when we return to Cusco May 2 2014.

Maras/Moray and Chinchero

Today’s posting will be relatively short. Unfortunately, I seem to have come down with nausea, fatigue and lack of appetite. I do not know if it was related to something I ate yesterday. I was able to participate in today’s tour, but, felt somewhat compromised at the end of the day so I am going to quickly complete this posting and get to sleep early to see if I can get over this prior to our departure for the much harder trek.

We left our hotel at 8:30 AM with Leo and a new driver and proceeded to Moray.  Moray is a site located on a high plateau consisting of unusual but interesting Inca ruins: several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is about 30 m (98 ft) deep. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but the temperature differences between the top and bottom caused by this type of construction and its sophisticated irrigation system indicate that Moray was perhaps used by the Incas for conducting agricultural experiments. We were able to circumvent the entire structure in order to appreciate its intricacies from all sides.

We hopped back into the van and then proceeded through the town of Maras and eventually reached the salt plateaus jointly owned by the Maras townspeople and another town at the bottom closer to the Sacred Valley. These salt plateaus are owned by individuals from these towns. They are given approximately 10 plots to manage. They can inherit these plots and pass them on to their children only: if they wish to get rid of them in some other way they must give them back to the cooperative who then decides who will farm them. A true cooperative. It also had an extremely interesting and intricate set of mud aqueducts in order to provide the salty spring water to the individual plots. Some of these intricate aqueduct structures may have been first engineered and utilized by the Incas. What an amazing people! We had a very pleasant hike down the one side of the plateau and were able to appreciate how difficult it must be in order to do this work. It takes months of filling up the individual plots and then allowing evaporation to do it’s work. They generally wait until there is between 5 to 10 inches of salt and then they have a special tool to harvest it. 50 pound bags are then filled and have to be carried out manually from some of the plots to storage sheds. A truck then transports these bags to a high point but not to the top. Donkeys are then used as beasts of burden to take the bags the rest of the way back to their town. The salt is world-famous and there is also a pink variety. Anna was able to purchase some.

We found a quicker way back to the main road and then proceeded back towards Cusco. Along the way we spent some time exploring some architectural ruins in the town of Chichero. The people are very friendly and very industrious. They are still completely connected to the land for their agricultural goods and also produce beautiful textiles and other cultural items.

After a nice boxed lunch, we were given a demonstration of the natural insects and plants they utilize in order to get natural dye colours which they then stain sheep’s wool as well as alpaca’s wool with.   The ability to spin thread onto spools is something to behold as well as the actual weaving. This is certainly a very complex and technical art and the native women made it look easy. The demonstration was held at the woman’s cooperative so, of course, we had to buy a few items.

After Chincero we drove back to Cusco and visited the local market. Amazing selection with items too numerous to mention here. Everything you could possibly want was available and the vast majority of it is grown locally. I wish we had such a market. We then walked back to our hotel with Leo. We actually got back early which was a good thing considering how I was feeling.  Anna was going to go to dinner alone tonight and I hope she doesn’t hook up with some sexy Peruvian man!  As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Before dinner, she decoded to go to mass but only realized at the end it was a funeral mass. She certainly knows how to party! I will be the boring one staying at the hotel trying to recover with some pharmacology, electrolyte solution and hopefully plenty of rest.

Tomorrow is our final tour day in Cusco. We start early at 8 AM and will be touring some of the sites in this amazing mountainous city. It will be a busy day as we have to meet with our tour operator for our pre-trek orientation meeting after the city tour. We then have to repack our gear into smaller bags to take on the trek. Here’s hoping I am feeling up to the challenge.


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Sacred Valley Tour

Today was our first tour day with our guide Leo. He met us promptly at the hotel at 8:30 AM. We were the only two on the tour as it is low season here. Less crowds, more for us to enjoy and individualized service. Perfect!

We drove for about 1.5 hours out of Cusco climbing us hills and then descending them. I believe we got up to 3700m in the automobile which was good for our acclimatization. On the way we passed through Chinchero, which comprises of mainly mud brick (adobe) houses, and, where locals go about their business in traditional dress. The town’s main square has some unique features such as a characteristic Inca wall with its massive trapezoidal niches. The nearby colonial church has a very interesting, intricate interior, with Cusco School-style paintings covering a large part of its walls. We then proceeded in our journey towards the Sacred Valley which is like an Andean Eden. Every bend of the road is a true revelation, a surprise. The deep blue skies act like a framework for the amazingly beautiful landscapes below. Snowy peaks look down, here and there, onto the lower slopes fashioned into agricultural terraces by long gone civilizations, but still used by the contemporary Quechua speaking farmers. The bottom of the valley is lush and green, in contrast to the drier, more barren higher altitudes where cacti dominate. Small, historical towns and villages with traditional colonial architecture and Inca ruins dot the banks of the River Urubamba. The sound of the river cutting through the stony ground is deeply relaxing.

Our initial stop was at the town of Ollantaytambo, which boasts an impressive archaeological site and well preserved Inca town structure. This was the estate of Emperor Pachacutec who conquered the region, built the town and the ceremonial center. Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Overlooking the town is the archaeological complex, a ceremonial center built by the Incas on a steep hill. After all of our sitting we certainly felt the initial steps up the steep incline. The awe-inspiring views helped to compensate our laboured breathing. The intricacies of the stone structures was truly amazing. It is still not truly known how such massive stones were moved from across the valley where the quarry was located.

We then proceeded towards our lunch spot. However- prior to this along the road- we had noted red plastic bags hanging from elongated wooden poles along the side of the street. Our guide told us that these represented locations where a local corn liquor Chicha was made and was available for sale. We stopped at one of these locations in a small village that translates as “black underwear” (don’t ask) and where we were given an education about Chicha by Leo. He called it a “social drink” because it only contained between 2 to 3% alcohol. This apparently allowed the locals to have rational conversations during social gatherings. The variety of corns that were available locally was truly amazing.

Our lunch spot was located in an idyllic location on absolutely beautiful grounds. Apparently a French woman had moved to the area over 20 years ago and decided to build a relaxing spa and hotel called Sol & Luna Lodge and Spa. As always, we were fortunate it was low season as we were the only guests for lunch. The grounds were filled with absolutely beautiful flowers and individual small cabins were available to rent. The facilities were first rate. We could certainly see coming back here if we wanted to achieve utter and complete relaxation. The lunch was actually locally sourced cuisine which we consumed greedily. Much fancier than we expected.

Back into the van we went. We then continued to drive for approximately 1.5 hours in order to get to our next destination. This was an active archaeological dig site located just outside the town of Pisac.  We climbed in the van back up to an elevation of approximately 3500m. We walked the rest of the way to a ceremonial digging that had absolutely stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It boggles the mind as to how the Incas were able to construct such complex stone structures on such steep slopes. On the way back down from the structures we passed several schoolchildren who were walking home from the local public school located in a small village before the park gates. They lived in a small village that was located above the highest point of the archaeological dig site. This means they have to climb approximately 600-800 m to get back home. Amazing!

We then proceeded back into the town of Pisac, by the banks of the Urubamba River. and were dropped off at a local market to browse. Anna was not feeling the love and didn’t end up purchasing anything. During our tour of the market we were approached by a very cute local boy who asked us where we were from and then proceeded to tell us 5 factual pieces of information about our country. Of course, there was a catch. He then proceeded to offer us the sale of some small circular structures that you could blow into to produce a whistling sound. We had a good chuckle. We didn’t end up purchasing anything from him. However he continued to stalk us for the remainder of our tour of the market. We were sure he would grow up to be a very enterprising businessman in the future.

The road back to Cusco was much shorter as we took an alternative route back. Along the way, we passed another archaeological dig site that we would be visiting Friday. There was a beautiful statue which was quite large of a white coloured Jesus that is apparently lit in the evenings and is viewable from the town of Cusco. It stands as a sentinel over the city. Catholicism is the major religion of the local people.

We definitely had time to speak to our guide about our shopping needs on the way back. He informed us that it was best to purchase any of the local items through one of five factories in Cusco. A very helpful saleswoman named Elizabeth [who is now Anna’s best friend] instructed us in how to determine if an alpaca product was real or synthetic acrylic. You definitely can tell the difference. We will be returning and I am sure major damage will be done.

After refreshing ourselves back at the hotel we went back into Cusco for our dinner meal. The restaurant was recommended by our friends Anita and Greg and was called Cicciolina’s. One of the main reasons to come to this restaurant was to have guinea pig. It is served as a confit instead of roasted whole on a skewer which didn’t seem as appetizing. It was interesting. Our waiter was a very suave gentleman who kept saying yes in that Spanish way that adds the consonant d in front of yes that makes that word sound so sexy [at least, according to Anna]. We had a lovely walk in the cool night air and retired back to our hotel for a nightcap and succumbed to the deepening night.

Our next day’s tour is going to be more active and is going to take us to the salt mines of Moray. I promise, forced labor is not required…. I think!



We arose from our deep slumber definitely feeling more refreshed. We quickly organized our room and belongings and took a very well-deserved shower and appropriately groomed ourselves. We felt much better.

The plan for the afternoon and early evening was very simple. We were simply going to walk around the area of our hotel to become acquainted with the local sites and shops of the tourist district of Cusco.

Cusco houses about half a million people and is very safe except for occasional pickpockets so you do need to be careful. We were mainly on a scouting mission and found some wonderful folk art and alpaca shops that would definitely be visited later. There were many restaurants. There were also many beautiful churches which would be helpful to cleanse us of our future sins.

2014, Anna Idzi, Cusco, South America

The Main Square

2014, Anna Idzi, Cusco, South America

The Main Square

2014, Anna Idzi, Cusco, South America

One of the many beautiful churches

2014, Anna Idzi, Cusco, South America

Anna at our hotel, ready to head out on the town!

2014, Anna Idzi, Cusco, South America

On my steed at our hotel!

The roads were very narrow. Apparently the ancient Incas could not have foreseen modern automobiles. We finally settled on an Italian-themed restaurant that was very charming, very clean and had locals eating at it. That is always a good sign. On Anita and Greg’s recommendation, we had soup Creole which was wonderful as our starter and followed this with skewers of alpaca meat. Yum!

We proceeded back to our hotel and finished the night with some passionfruit Pisco sour nightcaps! Of course, this was just for medicinal purposes.

We fell back into our very comfortable bed dreaming of our first tour the following day of the Sacred Valley.

Lima Layover

We arrived at the Lima International Airport late in the evening on April 21 at about 11 PM. Flying into Lima in the evening certainly made us aware of how large a city Lima is. Apparently, it is close to 9 million people. The airport was very modern, well kept and very clean. Since we were getting in so late, we felt it was not worthwhile to stay at the airport hotel as our next day’s flight to Cusco was leaving so early.

It had been recommended to simply spend the time at the food court on the second level of the airport terminal. At this point we had been up for about 19 hours. The chairs were not very comfortable and after about 90 minutes we decided this would simply not work. We decided to go back to the main level and checked our bags even though they could not assign a gate. We went through the check-in gate and security very efficiently. We were thrilled to find consecutive padded seated benches on the other side and proceeded to rest our weary eyeballs in fitful short stretches of “sleep”. I cannot believe how long the evening seemed to stretch.

We finally “got up” at 3:30 AM and proceeded to our departure gate. About 30 minutes before we were supposed to depart, one of the stewardesses came up and talked to us in Spanish about a very important announcement that we couldn’t understand. We paid rapt and confused attention. 15 minutes later, in broken English, she stated that Cusco had bad weather and the flight might be canceled. With our fatigue weighing upon us we felt worried. However, the flight board did not state that the flight was canceled. Our hopes lifted. Thankfully about 15 minutes later than our intended boarding time, they announced the flight was proceeding forward. Yes!

We were thrilled that the flight to Cusco was aboard a very clean, well operated and large Airbus 320. We were expecting a small turbo prop plane. The flight was only one hour and 20 minutes but with our fatigue felt like 3 hours.

We landed at the Cusco Airport expecting to have our tour company provide us with a driver to get us to our hotel as we desperately needed sleep. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be there. A very helpful local cab driver who spoke remarkably good English offered to take us to our hotel for a good price. What a great introduction to the warmth of the people of Cusco! He was very informative and chatty on the drive and told us of his earlier life as a guide and his travels to the United States. This probably accounted for his very good English accent.

We finally arrived at our boutique hotel-the El Mercado- which was absolutely beautiful. Small, quaint with very friendly people. We were wanting to check in but the very nice woman at the front check-in desk insisted we set in front of the fireplace and provided us with a nice hot cup of local coca tea. Heaven!

An exhausted Anna enjoys Coca tea

An exhausted Anna enjoys Coca tea

We had a quick breakfast in the “Happy Room” with very healthy offerings and were also provided with a local herbal drink that apparently would cure all ills. It actually worked for everything except for our profound fatigue.

We were shown to our room which was stunning. I then proceeded to plug in our power bar and completely blew the electrical fuses in the room! The staff were very understanding and found us an AC converter.

Fatigue overcame us and we fell into the most blissful slumber for the next 4 hours. It was 930 AM. We knew that this would disrupt our sleep wake cycles, however, we didn’t care- at this point we had been up for about 24 hours.

Our Hotel

Our Hotel


They say a good night’s sleep is essential in order to have a great day. This is so true! Unfortunately Anna and I did not get the sleep, so, we had a few chuckles on our transit day from Calgary to Houston.

By the time I got to bed prior to our departure, it was 11:45 PM. Of course I was fully awake at 2 AM! Unbelievable! Sometimes you get so busy and tired that you cannot relax the mind when it is most needed. Anna did not really sleep much more than I did. 3:45 AM came around much quicker than expected. The cab even came earlier than it’s appointed time of 4:15 AM. There is very little traffic at this time (really) so the drive to the airport was a breeze.

Anna and I checked in and proceeded through US Customs and here our paths separated as I am a Nexus card holder. I had great difficulty with the scanner which insisted that my 4 fingerprints were not straight but angled but eventually I got it right. When I went through security I forgot to take my liquids out even though I travel all the time so was pulled aside and scolded a bit. Fatigue really plays with your mind.

Anna also had fun in the peasant’s lineup. As she was waiting in line a helpful woman behind her came up and gently told her she was leaving a “trail of tampons” behind her! To her surprise she had left her backpack zipper on the bottom slightly open! Anna was mortified but with great class picked up her feminine protection units in front of a bemused crowd of bleary eyed travellers. Anna has reinvented the “breadcrumb trail” and assures me this advanced orienteering technique will eventually save our lives if we get lost on our subsequent trek. Always thinking that woman!

We also specifically upgraded to business class for the early flight down for 2 reasons: sleeping pods and free early morning champagne. Imagine our disappointment when we were seated in our 1A and IB seats ( I know, we have never been that close to the front bathroom) that are NOT pods and our further devastation as the steward brightly asked us what we would like to drink quickly followed by “anything but champagne”! Life is a cruel mistress. We choked down our water in bitter and non-therapeutic disappointment.

Partway through the flight Anna decided to go through her purse. The previous night she assured me she would do this prior to our departure in order to take out non-essentials. You know pack light and fast. Imagine my surprise when she pulled out essentials for wilderness travel: large full chequebook- check- you never know when you will come upon a small family business in the high Andes that only accepts cheques; a Mama Mia program- check- one never knows when you will come upon a rural production of Abba-filled tunes looking for extras who can sing and dance; less than an ideal number of feminine protection units- check- I’m not even going to joke here, and – her paper lists of things to pack- check- nothing like having reams of lists that you can do nothing about. Man, we had a good chuckle! The rest of business class glared at us suspiciously!

So where are we off to? From Houston we will have a several hour layover and then board our COACH flight (back to reality) for our 6 1/2 hour flight to Lima. Peru. We arrive late in the evening and being into the ultimate comfort while we travel, settle into our premium food court chairs to overnight at the airport until we leave the next morning at 5:20 AM to Cusco, Peru our “home” for awhile. How the heady days of flying in the lap of luxury of business class recede into the mists of the common traveller!

Will we sleep so we are refreshed for the Cusco leg of our journey?

South America 2014 Departure

Well, here it is the day before another big adventure and I sit enjoying an espresso and pondering. I really have had no time to get excited until now. Everything that needs to be done or organized has been. Fatigue is just starting to slowly loosen its grip.

To me these trips represent more than just getting away. They are a time to reflect, process and to let my mind and perceived sense of control slip away and be replaced by the wonderful experiences and beautiful sites that we will see.

It has been a very tough time for me and my travelling companion Anna. It is hard to believe what we have both been through. Life has been full of challenge, trauma, death and self compromise. This trip represents a chance to invest in our own well being and to allow others to take care of us in some of the most beautiful locations in South America.

Our last night tonight before we venture south we had dinner hosted by our friends Anita and Greg who had travelled to Peru previously. The night was filled with laughter, great food, wonderful red wine and a small snifter or two of single malt scotch. Anita and Greg were also free with multiple suggestions for great places to eat and shop while we are in Cusco. Great friends and we were given specific suggestions to find certain folk masks, pillow cases and wall art to bring back. This is going to be fun!

Where could we possibly be going? Will adventure and folk art be in our future?

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