Back in Cusco: curious children, emoliente, and pisco

November 29, 2017
by Christina

After our energy-intensive trip to Machu Picchu, we settled back into the Grasshopper and spent some time recuperating. I found a lovely park nearby called Parque Umanchata (S/ 1 entry fee) where I went to get some exercise. There seems to be a dearth of parks in Cusco with playground equipment, so it was lucky to have this one just around the corner. I set up on some swings thinking, hey, there’s no kids here, I’ll be out of the way. Boy, was I wrong.

So far in my travels, Peruvian children have turned out to the most talkative and curious. In any country, working out with the gymnastic rings seems to draw children like some kind of gravitational pull. I quickly accumulated about seven children who wanted to play on them. And I got an amazing number of questions, about everything.

“What are those?” (the rings)
“How often do you use them?”
“How old are you?”
“What is your favorite color?”
“What is your favorite fruit?”
“Do you speak English?”
“Say something in English?”
“Do you speak Quechua?” (the Incan language)
“Are you married?”
“What is your husband’s name?”
“Do you have children?”
“Are you going to have children?”
“Are you going to have a Cesarean section?” (whhhhhat?!)
“How many countries have you visited?”
“What do you do?”
“Are you going to watch the soccer game tonight?”
“Are you coming to the park tomorrow?”
“Can you do the splits?”

We kept eating at San Pedro market, because a full hot meal for <$2 really can’t be beat. I got a few more photos of the market, since I feel like I didn’t do it justice in my previous post. We sampled a dessert which was a sweet gelatin made out of cows hooves. It didn’t have a whole lot of flavor, if anything there was a slightly orange hint.

To see some of the churches in Cusco we bought the integrated religious ticket. The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption (located on the Plaza de Armas) was definitely worth it, but they don’t let you take pictures inside of any of the buildings. The other locations on the ticket, which are the Museum of Religious Art, the Church of San Blas, the Church of San Cristobal, are moderately interesting.

As we wandered about the city some more, we realized just how big it is. I had a tendency to think of Cusco as a small town, but the fact is it’s expanding pretty rapidly, with a population of almost 350,000. It’s a picturesque town in terms of both city-scapes and architecture, but something that absolutely drove me nuts was all the dog shit. Seriously, it’s everywhere, you’ve got to pay a lot attention to not step in it. Ugh.

Something that struck me when we first arrived in Cusco were all the rainbow flags. I wondered if there as some sort of pride celebration going on, but in fact, Cusco’s flag is a rainbow very similar to the pride flag, but with an additional stripe of blue.

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In exploring nearby the Grasshopper we also discovered a cafe and bakery (pasteleria) called San Pedro where we picked up some desserts one afternoon. I got a “Copa del Rey” (King’s Cup) which is a chocolate cup filled with mousse and cake. Dan got a large slice of what appeared to be velvet cake, and both paired well with our coffee.

It was also time to get a haircut for Dan, and right next door to the Grasshopper is a barber shop that looks like it’s probably been there for a hundred years called Peluqueria Juventud. We were originally quoted S/ 20 for a haircut, but when we hemmed and hawed the barber dropped the price to S/ 10 in that way that says “Okay, that was the gringo price”. Dan had a bit of heart attack when the barber shaved him with a straight razor despite the shake in his hands, but Dan came away unscathed.

One evening we sampled a very Peruvian beverage called “emoliente” which is a hot jelly-like drink. The jelly is made from boiling the seeds of a plant, and this is mixed with hot tea and the extracts of various medicinal herbs. Sellers typically have a cart with the bottles of extracts prominently displayed like snow cone syrups, and will whip you up a fresh glass for S/ 1. The drink doesn’t have a very powerful flavor, mostly it just tastes like tea, but it is delightful on a cold night.

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A general aside on candies for a moment, since Ecuador I’ve been noticing these gummy candies shaped like teeth. Gummy candies seem to be more popular in South American than countries further north, and these denture looking things are very common.

For our last few days in town we decided for a change of pace and we hunted down Hospedaje Inca, where I stayed with my friend Josue seven years ago during my first trip to Peru. It has a beautiful view of the city, but that’s because it’s way up a hill in the San Blas neighborhood. We got a private room for S/ 50, but aside from the view and the circularity of it for me, it’s nothing special.

In our wanderings we also discovered the Cusco Municipal Theater, with for-donation shows open to the public most nights. Only the listings we found for the shows turned out to be wrong, so if you go, double check with a person about what will be showing that week.

The show we attended was a series of local amateur clown troops. Despite the clown-nature of it, the piece we watched was very dark! The four person troop, three male and one female, all in drag, depicted the story of an alcoholic husband who first gets his wife and two daughters thrown in jail for theft, their subsequent escape by poisoning the warden, a confrontation between the wife and philandering husband in the house of his mistress where she has been employed to clean now that she has to support the family, the reunion of the couple, and ultimately, years later, the death of the matriarch of the family. How is this children’s theater??? It was a fun night out.

We celebrated my 33rd birthday on our last day in Cusco. Our first stop in our birthday celebrations were the ruins of Sacsayhuamán which are just on the outskirts of the city. On the way up there, we went past the Cristo Blanco (white Christ) which has great views. Because a lot of the ruins around Cusco are intended to be visited by buying an integrated ticket we would have had to buy a S/ 70 ticket good for several ruins in order to enter Sacsayhuamán. Since you can just walk around the ruins and get a pretty good look at them, we did that instead.

On our way back from Sacsayhuamán we discovered a great little market just off of the Plaza de Armas called Museo Cava Tabac. They have a large selection of liquors, including infusions of piscos, some of which you can sample for S/ 5 a shot. Infused flavors included coca, plantain, apple, and something called “tutti frutti”. It was a good deal and a lot of fun.

Next up on my birthday tour, we had a visit at the Cusco Planetarium. This is a small family run business located near Sacsayhuamán. The entry fee was rather steep at S/ 50, but the lecture on Incan constellations and the significance of astronomy to the Incan people was very good. And we got to do a little star gazing before the clouds closed in (it’s rainy season in November).

Our last stop of the night was Museo del Pisco for a formal pisco tasting (desgustación). The tasting was small pours of four types of pisco along with a detailed explanation of how pisco is made, and the variations in the grapes and processes that yield the different styles of pisco. Dan and I each got a flight of different piscos, so we were able to sample eight of them side-by-side. It was an eye opening experience.

Pisco, which is distilled from grapes, appears to have as much variety as does wine. And just like wine, there can even be significant differences between the same style of pisco made from different producers. We also learned that much as the British invented IPA to keep their beers from going bad in transit to India, so was pisco invented to keep wine from going bad en route to the new world! The tasting cost us S/ 45 per person, which is a good chunk of change, but it was worth the expense.

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Next up: The adventure of Quehue and the Incan Rope bridge!

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Machu Picchu: there and back again, a backpacker’s tale

November 22, 2017
by Christina

On Sunday we packed up our things and checked out of the Grasshopper to begin our pilgrimage to one of the tourist Meccas of the world: Machu Picchu.

At this point, I should make a note that this is my second trip to Peru, and my second attempt to see Machu Picchu. In 2010, my friend Josue and I planned a trip to Peru, but due to heavy rains and flooding Machu Picchu was closed. Long story short(er), Josue and I made an effort with some other travelers to sneak in past the hydroelectric plant at night, got caught, slept in a guard hut on a dirt floor, and in the morning we were threatened with a machete before being diplomatically turned away. So for me, Machu Picchu had attained a sort of mythical unattainable Holy Grail status. I kind of didn’t believe we would actually make it there.

Now, the “normal” way to get to Machu Picchu is to take a train, which is stupid expensive, starting at $52 for a one way ticket, and soaring quickly into the hundreds (do you want high tea on your way to Machu Picchu? $438! one way). The equally touristy, but more time consuming and even more expensive method is to hire a guide and hike the Inca Trail. Note, in this link Lonely Planet calls the hike a “must-do” *cough* bullshit *cough*. Not that it’s not cool or worth doing, but a must? Hard pass.). When people admonish you to reserve early, it’s the Inca Trail they’re talking about.

But there is another (cheaper) way to get there: colectivos. Colectivos are a common method of transport in Latin America; you just pile into a van or car going to your destination, and wait until it fills up, then when it fills up, you go. They’re the way locals get around, and they’re very economical. The route we ended up taking was colectivo from Cusco (A) to Santa Maria (B), then colectivo from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa (C), where we spent the night. The next morning we took a final colectivo to Hidroelectrica (D), and from there the final walk to Aguas Calientes (spoilers!).

We got directions at the Grasshopper to where we could catch a colectivo in the right direction. It wasn’t a proper station, but it was in short walking distance. We found a colectivo to Santa Maria and bargained our way down from S/ 25 to S/ 20 per person, a 4.5 hour ride from Cusco.

One of the fun things about transit via colectivo is the stops for food. The van pulls over, and there a people selling all kinds of things through the windows: peaches, pop corn, bread, you name it. We bought a very Peruvian food item: choclo con queso. This is a large-kerneled Andean corn, with a slice of queso fresco. Peruvian queso fresco has a special taste to it, and little more tart and earthy than what I’ve had in other countries. We also made a bathroom and restaurant stop, with gorgeous views of the mountains.

Once we arrived to Santa Maria we took a stretch break and bought some snacks. While waiting for our next colectivo to Santa Teresa to fill up, I tried to work out the rest of the details about how to get to Machu Picchu. And I learned something: there is no road to Aguas Calientes (the adjacent city and launch point for Machu Picchu). You either have to walk or take a train between the Hydroelectric Plant and Aguas Calientes. Someone said that the train was so expensive, it was worth walking the 2.5 hours, but then someone else said that guy had been drinking, and then a third guy said the second guy was crazy. So I wasn’t quite certain what to believe. We got on the road after a 30 minute wait, and the ride to Santa Teresa was about an hour and cost S/ 10 per person. We didn’t make an effort to bargain on this, I think it’s a pretty fixed rate.

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Where we were dropped off in Santa Maria

After the long windy road carved into the side of a very steep mountain to Santa Teresa, we got a room at Hospedaje Puriq, where we bargained down from S/ 50 to S/ 45 for the room with a private bath. The ladies at reception were very helpful and confirmed what I had learned in Santa Maria: you’ve got to walk or take the train to get to Aguas Calientes. You start walking from the train station at the Hydroelectric Plant (Hidroelectrica) and they said it would take 2 to 2.5 hours, but that to get to Hidroelectrica by colectivo for S/ 5 per person we would need to leave between 6 and 6:30 am, later in the day all you could take were taxis for a S/ 30 fare.

We took a walk around town, went to buy snacks for the trek in the morning, and managed to snag a dinner for S/ 10 with a little bargaining, then hit the hay early so we could catch a colectivo in the morning.

You’ll notice there’s a lot of talk of bargaining going on here, yes? This is part of Peruvian culture. I think it happens between locals as well, but its especially important for tourists, who will often be quoted higher prices simply because they are visitors and are assumed to a) have a lot of money, b) not know better, or c) both. It is very common, so much so that I have to assume it is considered culturally acceptable, to quote inflated prices to tourists. This is often accompanied by a tell-tale pause when the price is asked. And it applies not just to colectivos, but restaurants and shops as well.

It wears on you after a while, because not everyone does it, so you’re always wondering if you’re being quoted the real price or not. I developed the habit of asking the price for an item (stuff is simply not labeled most places), and then responding with “Would it be possible to buy it for [some value less than quoted]?” which I have had pretty good success with, though not every time. In the US, because negotiating price is not a part of our culture for the most part, people will mostly just laugh at you or say no if you ask for a lower price, but in Peru it seems like there’s a sense of social obligation to engage in the bartering process.

In the morning we got lucky when a colectivo already loaded with two passengers found us, and we hopped in for our ~20 minute ride to Hidroelectrica. The other passengers turned out to be Mexican Jehovah’s witnesses, who after a stint in the jungle, were doing some touristy stuff before heading home. And they disabused us of a famous Machu Picchu myth: that you have to make reservations far in advance. They hadn’t bought tickets yet, and they were planning to walk up to Aguas Calientes, buy tickets, see the ruins, and walk back to Hidroelectrica all that same day. And evidently that’s not unusual, our driver certainly didn’t think so.

Since Dan and I were planning to stay the night in Aguas Calientes, and we wanted the flexibility, we kept our bags with us. Most people just leave their bags at a hostel in Santa Teresa (or Cusco) and take a day pack with them to Machu Picchu, as our Mexican friends did. We were also not especially well informed about the distance from Hidroelectrica; we were told ~7 km, and it turned out to be almost 12 km. This, with 45 lb bags, was a haul, and took us over four hours (not to mention that Dan was a bit under the weather as well).

Finally we arrived in Aguas Calientes and checked into Casa Machu Picchu where we had made an advance reservation. We curled up for a nap for a few hours after that. Realizing that a visit to Machu Picchu plus the Huayna Picchu hike the next day would not pair well with the hike back to Hidroelectrica, we determined that we should plan to stay a second night in Aguas Calientes. However, Casa Machu Picchu was full, so I went wandering about town in search of groceries and accommodation for the next evening.

Aguas Calientes is a small town, and an incredibly touristy one at that. It was kind of surreal, after hiking along 12 km of isolated train tracks to come upon roads and buses and all various other indicators of civilization (Pisco Sour Happy Hour 3 x 1!). But it is still possible to get off the beaten path for lower prices, this just scales proportionately to the size of the town, and so “off the beaten path” turned out to be a block off the main strip, where I found Hospedaje Choquequirao, where Veronica cut me a deal and let us have a private en suite room for S/ 50, where that normally would have gotten us two beds in the dorm (S/ 25). As far as I can tell, Hospedaje Choquequirao in Aguas Calientes has zero web presence.

Dan unfortunately was down for the count for the rest of the day, and ultimately had to resort to the Cipro in order to make sure he would be in a condition to see Machu Picchu the next day. This left me to wander the town alone, and I elected to pay the hot springs (after which Aguas Calientes is named, I believe, being translated “Hot Waters”) a visit. Local prices for the baths is S/ 10, but us foreigners have to pay S/ 20. The baths are located in a valley by a river, but ultimately it was crowded with muddy looking water that wasn’t all that hot anyways. They do serve booze bath-side though, so you can order drinks. Overall though, I didn’t think it would be worth a second visit.

In the morning we got up to partake of the free breakfast offered by Casa Machu Picchu, which like most of our Peruvian hostel breakfasts consisted only of bread, butter, marmalade and tea. Ultimately the view from the breakfast area, and the kitchen, were the best things about it. The dorm we were in was rather crowded, and the trains, oh God the trains. Remember how I said that’s the usual way to get there? Well, the city is basically formed around the train tracks, and the whistles are LOUD, you can’t escape them anywhere in the city, but the hostel is literally on the street where the tracks run, and the trains run late. Not very conducive of sleep.

We slept a little late in order to give Dan some slack, but we got checked out and left our bags at the front desk by about 8:30 am. From there we walked down to the main drag and where we bought two bus tickets to the ruins. Dan and I had been planning to make the hike up to the ruins for free, but given his condition and that we were planning to do the Huayna Picchu hike, we decided to begrudgingly cough up the $12 USD per ticket for the bus up the mountain. That price is just outrageous. Remember, it cost us S/ 20 for a 4+ hour drive from Cusco to Santa Maria. This is a S/ 40 fare for a 20 min ride up a mountain. However, in the end it was worth it. We did the hike out at the end of the day, and we were exhausted. If we had tacked on an additional steep 90 minute hike at the beginning of the day, we would have been down right miserable on the way out. As it was we were pretty beat.

So, then, finally, the moment we have all been waiting for: we arrived at Machu Picchu at about 9 am. There were already a fair amount of tourists about, and it was foggy, but the fog was clearly gradually as the day warmed up. We got incredibly lucky with the weather: it didn’t rain all day, during rainy season. We walked around a bit and had some nice photo ops before we headed to the Huayna Picchu entrance.

Huayna Picchu is the greater of the two nearby mountains you always see in the background of the classic Machu Picchu photos (see above!). It is a haul up that mountain, with lots of stairs, but the view is pretty spectacular.

And there’s an additional hike around the backside of the mountain that is beautiful. It goes past the Temple of the Moon, which honestly, isn’t worth the hike in and of itself, but if you just want a pretty hike, then its not a bad bonus. And if you want to do the longer hike, don’t be a slack. They close the Huayna Picchu main peak at 12-12:15, and they close the trail for the longer hike at 11:15 am. We had a 10-11 am entry for Huayna Picchu, and if we had waited until 11 am to enter, there was no way we could reach the trail head at the main peak for the longer hike before it closed. As it was, we had to beg/argue our way onto the trail at 11:30ish.

We got to the temple of the moon pretty quickly, it’s all down hill, and enjoyed the simple lunch we had packed before making the return journey. The hike back was pretty damn grueling, though the altitude definitely played a role in that. We ended up being the last people out of Huayna Picchu that day.

It was then that we discovered a strange quirk of Machu Picchu: it’s a one way loop and you cannot go backwards. We had skipped over some things in order to go the Huayna Picchu entrance, and we were not allowed to back track. This caused some stress and annoyance, but it worked out alright in the end. You are actually permitted two entrances to the park, marked by stamps on your ticket. So to see the things we had missed, we had to finish the loop, exit the park, and then re-enter. There are two main circuits through the park, and it seems like its probably not a coincidence with the double entry. Another thing to note: if you forgot to print your ticket in advance, the ticket office will do so for free.

So finally, after our second circuit through the park after about six hours wandering the ruins, it was time for us to head back. We hiked the 3.5 km down the mountain and the final stretch back to town where we checked in to Hospedaje Choquequirao. After dinner and showers, we settled in early to nap, relax. I knocked back a few Cusqueñas, having bargained the pair of them down from S/ 5 a piece to S/ 9 for the pair (stuff is pricey in AC). Then we hit the hay early.

We took our time organizing ourselves in the morning, and got something to eat at the central market before starting our hike back to Hidroelectrica. I had a fish stew for S/ 7.

This time, knowing the distance, we broke up it up rests every 3 km. The weather was sunnier that day, no rain, and we made a little bit better time than on the way in. When we got back to Hidroelectrica, we were surprised to discover it filled with people and vehicles, with options for transit directly back to Cusco being offered. But rather than hop on a six hour drive back to Cusco, we paid our S/ 5 apiece to get back to Santa Teresa.

This time we stayed at Hospedaje Imperio where we stayed for S/ 50 in a private room with the offer to use the kitchen. Only that turned out to be really weird because it was the restaurant’s kitchen, so while I was cooking my own simple meal, I was trying not to get underfoot of the cook who was serving actual paying customers.

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In the morning we went for breakfast at the central market, where we got meals for S/ 7 a piece, which was pretty tasty. It came with something called “Arroz Turco” or Turkish rice, which is cooked with noodles and vegetables. Dan and I love collecting these kinds of dishes, reinterpretations or outright fabrications of another culture’s food. Kind of like American Chinese food.

Afterwards, we headed down to the Aguas Termales de Colcamayo (more hot springs!). We walked out there, only to conclude that given the distance and muddy conditions of the road, the S/ 3 fare was well worth it. These baths however, did not disappoint. The baths were expansive, with clear blue-green water and great views of the valley. Entry fee for foreigners was still twice that of locals, but here is was S/ 10 and S/ 5, much more reasonable.

Here though I should mention the bugs. The deceptively innocent looking gnat-like flies that are actually the heart of desperate blood sucking evil with no fear of death or the sense of decency that normal mosquito possess. These creatures are called mosquitos by the locals, though they bear little resemblance to what I think of as such, and they had attacked us earlier on the trip, but at the springs you were taking your life in your hands getting out of the water (in they left you alone, even with your head above water). I had gotten attacked earlier in the week (you can see the results), and I had it easy compared to some of the other tourists we saw. I asked one of the locals and evidently they are seasonal, hanging around for about four months of the year, but my apologies dear reader, I can’t recall which four, only for certain November is one of them. It’s possibly a rainy season issue. So, remember bug spray and long sleeves.

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We caught a ride back to town when we were done, and thus began the cluster f*ck that was our journey back to Cusco. We were offered a ride on a direct van to Cusco for S/ 35 which we bargained down to S/ 30 (per person). It was 2:15 and the van was departing at 3 pm , so we settled into wait. We waited until 3 pm, then 3:30 pm, and finally at 4:15 pm we asked for our money back. The van had evidently had a trouble with its tires, but it wasn’t resolving, and with a reservation at the Grasshopper that night back in Cusco, we didn’t want to get trapped.

We got into a colectivo that took a while to fill up, but we were finally on our way back to Santa Maria a little after 5 pm (S/ 10 per person). Back in Santa Maria there was a colectivo waiting to fill up, telling us that the fare back to Cusco was S/ 30, and wasn’t willing to lower the price (ah, leverage). However, just then another colectivo, with only two seats available came cruising past, and we clambered aboard, on our way to Cusco at last. It was cramped, the woman next to me smelled something awful, fell asleep on my shoulder often enough that I worried she might drop her baby, which I was waiting in horror for the moment when it pooped itself, but really, I didn’t care; I was happy to just be on the way.

Finally, at about 10:30 pm we arrived in Cusco. Only now the driver wanted S/ 30 from us for the fare, after we had each of us (Dan and I) had definitely asked if we could ride for S/ 20 a person. An argument ensued, and ultimately, we ended up paying him S/ 25 per person to be done with it.

A short walk later, we were back at the Grasshopper, with its now-familiar cozy beds and free tea awaiting us. The staff even knew my name when we walked in the door. That felt wonderful. And after the ordeal of the afternoon and evening, it’s important to remember kids: home is where you already have the WiFi password.

 

D&C’s favorite travel items

November 12, 2017
by Dan & Christina

Exciting announcement! We finally have our Gear Page up and running! It’s on the “What? (Gear)” tab, as in, what did we bring with us, why, and how’s it working out? It’s a near-comprehensive packing list to help other travelers figure out what stuff they want to bring.

So to celebrate, Dan and I are highlighting our favorite things: the stuff we are really happy to have with us, that get a lot of use, and generally make travel easier.

Note that this page contains Amazon Associates links, and if you make a purchase via the link, we get a small commission. However, these aren’t just advertisements, they are things we have with us.

Christina’s favorites

  • SilentEar ear plugs  – The value of ear plugs, for someone like me who has trouble tuning out noise at night, cannot be overstated. Having these to pop in and rest no matter what’s going on is great. I prefer the SilentEar as foam ear plugs give me an ache overnight. I started out with standard size SilentEar, but one of them fell and got lost during a bus trip, and the small version stays put. Small ear canals may also be why foam ones bother me.
  • sleep mask – I like to sleep in full dark, and with a mask I can do that even if there’s a lot of stray ambient light. I keep mine wrapped up with a lavender sachet when not in use, so it smells nice at bed time. My particular mask has been discontinued, but this looks very similar (large with dual straps).
  • Kindle E-reader – My 5th generation kindle (no light, no touch screen, but no advertisements, ha!) isn’t offered any more; the link is to the latest (and cheapest) version. The compactness of the device is great for travel. It has a long battery life, and if you want to read in foreign languages you can download for example, a Spanish-English dictionary that makes looking up words incredibly easy. You can also carry around as many travel guides as you can find e-versions of.
  • Water Gear chamois towel – If you are not familiar with what a chamois is, it. is. magical. A miracle of modern material science. When it is damp it is squishy and super absorbent, and when its fills up with water, you just ring it out and boom, it’s back it’s previous state and ready to suck up more water. Great for toweling off after a shower as it never becomes sodden like terrycloth. It packs up small and it dries quickly. You can also use it to ring out hand washed clothes for a faster dry time.
  • Gaiam no-slip yoga mat towel – This mat is very light and easily packable, and I use it almost every day for yoga. It is thin, so I have had to modify my practice to avoid things like pigeon pose which require more cushion, or I do fancy folding to compensate.
  • Lily Drew hanging travel toiletry bag – Having something that contains and keeps your toiletries well organized is really nice. This one will sit on a counter without falling over and it has a hook for hanging as well (as there’s often no counter). Only problem so far is that the stitching on the hook came loose, and I’ve got to sew it back on, but NBD imho.
  • Diva Cup Diva Cup Model 2 – This is a reusable menstrual cup and users of this product are famous for ranting at how amazing it is. I highly recommend it, especially for travel. For heavy bleeders, it typically works longer than tampons before it needs to be emptied. Note there are two sizes; model 2 is for people >30 years or post-baby. Combine it with some Dear Kate Hazel Sport underwear for extra protection on travel days.

Dan’s favorites

  • MSR MIOX water purifier – I expected that we would just buy bottled water in places where the tap water isn’t potable. We’ve found that bottled water is relatively cheap and readily available. Even still, the cost adds up and it’s not always convenient or possible to run out to the store to buy a bottle of clean water (think middle of the night vomiting and diarrhea. This thing is a godsend.) It’s been so useful that I wouldn’t travel without some kind of purifier anymore. This particular purifier was developed through a collaboration between Cascade Design‘s MSR brand and MIOX with funding from DARPA grants and SBIRs from the Navy to miniaturize the MIOX purification system for field use and eventually for consumers. The process involves generating a chlorine solution through electrolysis of a brine solution. In simple terms, you add salt and water to the MIOX pen and push a button generating a little bit of chlorine which you add to your water bottle (chances are good that your drinking water in the US is already chlorinated.) Waiting 30 minutes for the chlorine to work will kill viruses, bacteria, and giardia and in 4 hours will remove cryptosporidia. All you need to make it work is salt and a CR123a battery (typically used in cameras). This particular purifier was never very popular and I believe it has been long since discontinued. But AquaResearch has picked up the technology and has a product called H2gO that is a little less convenient in terms of preparation but it’s quite similar and has the advantage of being USB recharging. Overall it’s super convenient, but the downside is the light pool taste. We have found that adding TruLemon or possibly a vitamin C tablet after the disinfection period helps cut the taste and neutralize the pH. I’m definitely sold on this purifier.
  • SwissChamp pocket knife – This pocketknife is a bit overkill but it’s the closest thing to having a tool chest when traveling. It has an awl for goodness sake (which I used to fix a pair of sunglasses btw).  The only fault in terms of tools for me is that there are no hex keys on it. I should have also brought my bike mini-tool for adjusting poorly maintained rental bikes during travel. But I didn’t expect to be getting as many biking opportunities as I have during this trip.
  • KMASHI usb power bank – This is extremely useful during long bus trips and hostel stays where there are very few power outlets. I haven’t used it a lot but I’m always thankful for it when I do use it. It holds a charge very well so I don’t need to babysit it and top it off when I anticipate using it. It’s just always ready to go. This model is 10000 mAh which is sufficient for a couple full charges.
  • Marmot Precip rain jacket – I started this trip thinking that I would use a rain poncho for wet weather. I changed my tune in Boston during some very cold wet rainy days. Ponchos are quite awkward in the wind and aren’t particularly warm. So after some hemming and hawing, I bought this jacket and it works great for mist and light rain. For heavy rain I just hide. Another reason I’m glad I got this jacket is that I didn’t think we would be encountering so much cold weather. It isn’t particularly warm, but it has proved just enough when combined with a button up shirt in cooler weather.
  • Xero Z-Trek sandal – These sandals are super minimalist so they don’t take up a lot of room and they affix to your feet quite well so that, unlike flip flops, you can actually walk in them at a reasonable pace. They are supposed to be for barefoot running. I don’t use them for that, but I do like the idea of replacing my bulky running shoes. They dry reasonably quickly, but for swimming you have to keep an eye on them a bit because the straps soften and have a tendency to come undone. In the shower if you kick the heel down you can slip them on and off without too much hassle. I find them comfortable and they suite my needs without being a burden to lug around.

 

Termas de Papallacta: logistics of getting there and back

written November 11, 2017, describing events on October 15 and 16, 2017
by Christina

Papallacta is an often and highly recommended side-trip from Quito, Ecuador. However, Dan and I generally had trouble finding good information about getting there (and back), and where to stay. We really enjoyed our trip there, so I thought I would write up how we did it, and what it cost us. We have a more general post including photos and details about the baths and where we stayed here. This post is intended to focus solely on logistics.

Our outgoing route was from Rio Coca in Quito to Pifo, where we changed buses for our final leg to Papallacta.

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Departing Quito we took a bus line to Terminal Rio Coca. Exiting the terminal, we turned left and walked up a block or so the the neighboring bus terminal, Terminal Terrestre Interparroquial Rio Coca. From there we caught a bus to the town of Pifo. It cost $0.55 cents per person, and it took about an hour to arrive in Pifo.

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The person taking the fares on the Pifo bus was very helpful and told us not to get off in the main square, but to continue up hill a ways, where he directed us to walk down a dirt road to the large roundabout (rotonda in Spanish) where the main highways meet. There were four entrances to the roundabout, and once on 35 you can see the road signs, and one being labeled “Papallacta”.

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There was a group of people there waiting, and a vendor selling snacks. We only waited about 15 minutes before a bus arrived, and most everyone waiting piled on. This bus fare was $2.00 per person, and another hour until we arrived at Papallacta. The bus made a stop here.

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After disembarking we walked up the hill and checked in at Residencial El Viajero (no advance reservation and they don’t seem to have an online presence). Cost was $10 per person/night, and the two of us got a nice private room for the night at $20. The owners are a couple named Hilde and Jorge. They do have WiFi in the restaurant area (we didn’t try the food), but it didn’t work in the room. They also run a small market out of the same building where we later bought things like bread and milk for dinner.

Jorge offered to drive us to the thermal baths, and the cost was $1 per person, which is steep considering how short a trip it is (~2 km), but from what I gathered in various corners of the internet, that price is about standard. He gave us his phone number to call to come get us when we were done.

The baths are associated with a fancy ass spa, and if you search “Termas de Papallatca” it’s the first link that comes up. If you look at that website and you are at all remotely frugal, the prices will scare you. However, there is a large set of baths that are spa-adjacent, but open to the public for purchase without buying access to the spa and its hotel. As of our visit the baths the cost was $8.50 per person, and a locker rental was $0.50. The baths themselves are open late, but they begin draining and cleaning some of them in the evening, so your bathing options are more limited if you go later in the day. There is a restaurant on site, but the “economical” options were $9.00 or so, high by Ecuadorian standards.

To get back to El Viajero, someone lent us a phone call Jorge, and it was another $1 fare per person. I am not sure how you get a taxi late at night without having something set up beforehand like we did. I expected to see taxis waiting outside the baths, but there weren’t any that I noticed (we left a little shy of 9 pm). However, I’m sure the staff at the baths can help with that.

You might think of walking back considering the 2 km distance, but the night we were there it was very cold, drizzly, and dark, and the little walking we did do involved walking past a few packs of unattended dogs. If it had been daylight and warmer, we probably would have walked to save the money, but the cold and dark were too much for us. And it got really cold that night. The room didn’t have much insulation, but there was plentiful hot water in the private bath and the bed was heaped with blankets, so we were comfortable once we got into bed. But before that, we were wearing all the warm things we had with us.

In the morning we walked back down the hill to the bus stop where there is a shop and a restaurant. We picked up some snacks, had a cup of coffee, and asked about the buses. We were told they ran approximately every half hour. The bus we climbed aboard was different that the other two we took getting there, it looked like it was probably a long haul overnight bus, but one that sold empty seats along the way. It cost us $4 per person and took us all the way to Quitumbe Terminal in a little over 2 hours.

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FYI Quitumbe is veerrryyy far south in the city; it’s about another hour bus ride from there back to city center ($0.25 per person) because of traffic. There are easily places we could have gotten off earlier, which would have allowed us to take a local bus to city center and avoid the long road south then back again, but we stayed on so we could buy tickets at the terminal for our bus trip to Peru.

I found references to other routes for how to get to Papallacta from Quito (and back), but this is how we did it. If you have questions or alternative ways of doing it to share, please post below.

From Lima to Cusco: street food and mercados

November 10, 2017
by Christina

I arrived back in Lima early in the morning, and a little bleary eyed after my travel. Dan came to meet me, and here we learned a lesson: getting an Uber away from the Lima airport is a huge pain. We had two cancellations from drivers, canceled on one after he went past us and was re-routed with an eta of 15 minutes, and finally after an hour, we got one. Lesson learned: if you want a car from the Lima airport, take a taxi and barter hard. For reference, the Uber cost ~S/ 20 to the historic center, taxis will be a little bit more, but they’ll start high and you’ve got to negotiate them down (more on negotiating in Peru in our upcoming post).

From there we went to stay in walking distance of the historic center at Lima House, which had a beautiful kitchen and bathrooms, but was a little tight on common spaces. After my journey I was tired, so we mostly relaxed at the hostel, venturing out for walks and sustenance as desired. We finally partook in a popular dish we’ve been seeing since Ecuador: salchipapa. This is a combination of the words “salchicha” (hot dog) and “papa” (potato), and the dish is more less just that: hot dog sliced up, fried, and served over fried potatoes, with a delightful array of condiments. Very healthy. It’s also very inexpensive, with a plate of it costing only a few soles (depending on size).

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Other notable food items were these mashed potatoes fried in balls and served with sauce and a garnish of lettuce for S/ 1 each. We also hit up a chicken restaurant. Chicken is super popular here; there are a bunch of restaurant chains that are dedicated chicken restaurants. And I got something I hadn’t had in a long time: chicken gizzards (mollejas) served with fried potatoes. Potatoes are also super popular here, equal to rice I would say.

There is also a market nearby called Mercado Modelo. Something we have learned so far in our adventures in Peru is that eating in or near a mercado is one of the best ways to get a cheap tasty meal. Upon entering we were swarmed by hawkers, trying to lead us to their respective restaurants. Like, surrounded by a veritable sea of Peruvian women that we had to beg off be able to take a look around. Ultimately we snuck into one from the side, and got a great meal, including a ceviche appetizer.

To clarify, in Peru, a lot of restaurants serve what is called a “menu”. This is a meal that typically consists of a soup for a starter, then a plate of rice with some sort of salad/meat/potatoes, and a drink. You can often get it very cheap (S/ 6-7) at some places, though its just as easy to find menus for S/ 15 and up, it just depends where you go.

On our last night in Lima, we caught up with Omar, Dan’s couch surfing host for several nights while I was out of town. We went out for pizza at Big City Pizza, which was really good and reasonably priced. After that the boys went to cash in some free drink tickets, and I packed my bag and hit the hay early for our 6:05 am flight the next morning.

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Then, bright and early, it was time to fly to Cusco, which happens to have an altitude of ~3400 m above sea level. Since Dan had troubles with the altitude in Quito (2800 m) when we took the bus in, we guessed that a long dehydrating bus ride might have taken a toll, and decided to try flying. Also, the 21 hour bus ride cost about as much as a 1.5 hour plane ride from Lima to Cusco on Viva Air.

However, we made one big mistake: we didn’t read the rules early enough about online check in. If you don’t check in online in advance and show up with a printed ticket, Viva Air charges you $13 USD to check you in and print you ticket (!!!) per ticket. That was a huge disappointment and discovered too late. Another lesson learned: carefully read your tickets for unfamiliar airlines for rules of this nature.

From the airport in Cusco it’s pretty easy to take a kombi to the town center, and the cost is just S/ 0.80 per person (so like 25 cents US). Taxi’s were charging waaaaayyyyy above that, S/ 10 or so. Just exit the airport from the baggage claim and head to the right, and there’s a bus shelter. Verify that the kombi is going to “Plaza de Armas” and hop aboard; you’ll most likely pay when you disembark. It’s about 5 km from the airport to the center, but it’s too far to walk with luggage newly arrived and unadapted to the altitude.

We headed to the Grasshopper Hostel, about 1 km from city center. I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but it’s grown on me. The kitchen is more or less the bare minimum of what is reasonable to call a kitchen (two burner stove top, table, sink, and marginal cooking utensils), but the terrace is nice, there is a free breakfast (not super inspired, but free!), and the staff is great about keeping things very clean.

We spent some time walking around Cusco, visiting the Plaza de Armas, and taking a look at the twelve angle stone. A lot of Cusco is built atop Incan ruins, and you can see the original Incan walls in many places, which demonstrate a very high level of stone craftsmanship. The twelve angle stone is just one of the stones that has a lot more edges or angles that the surrounding stones.

On November 3rd, we were treated to some kind of festival all over the city. The one person I asked, who tried to pin a Cusco rainbow ribbon on my shirt, said it was the national children’s day. When I went looking, I didn’t find reference to any Peruvian national holidays on November 3rd… But Dan ferreted out that it is the feast day of Saint Martin de Porres, who was from Lima. Celebrations included various different bands and parades bearing a statue of Saint Martin. In one instance, we saw a string hanging across the road with all kinds of plastic kitchen implements (Tupperware, colanders, etc) tied to it. When the parade neared it, the people began ripping the items off the string in a frenzy, evidently in order to keep and take home.

Not far from the Grasshopper is the Mercado San Pedro, which is Cusco’s central market. It’s stuffed with vendors of all kind, selling tourist trinkets, cheeses, fruits, veggies, meats, and a wide variety of pre-prepared foods. You can get a menu for S/ 5 at many of the food stalls, and it’s in generous portions. This is definitely one of our favorite spots in Cusco. Oh, and you can buy cow face there, for making soup. Whew.

Another nearby market is Centro Comercio Paraiso. All the shops are housed in boothes and roller doors, more orderly and structured than San Pedro. It sells all kinds of consumer goods, a lot of cell phone and accessory vendors, but there’s small kitchen appliances, clothes, bags, shoes, stuffed animals, power tools and hardware. There is also a row for prepared food vendors where you can get a solid meal for S/ 5. We haven’t eaten there, but it smells good. However, the options are much less extensive than San Pedro.

Wandering away from Paraiso we found another market, this one in the form of an alley, which I will refer to as Meat Alley. It was all kinds of meat, from single cuts, to entire sides of beef, just animal carcasses everywhere is various states of deconstruction. There were baskets of alpaca and llama heads. Vegan nightmare land. You may be either relieved or disappointed to know that I didn’t have the chutzpah to start snapping pictures of the these things, since it was a busy working market. And, oh, the smell. But it’s here if you want to go find it. Heading back towards the hostel along the train tracks there were even more vendors of the same kinds of items.

There are a lot of interesting meats to be tried in Peru, and one of those is Alpaca. We tracked some down as a menu option for S/ 20 with a free Pisco sour (the sour was eh). The Alpaca was interesting. It looks like beef, but it has a gamey tartness to it that makes it distinct in flavor.

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After three nights in Cusco we readied ourselves to make our pilgrimage to one of the great wonders and tourist attractions of the world: Machu Picchu. Coming next!

Bellingham for her, Lima for him

November 4, 2017
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

This past week I made a trip up to Bellingham, WA. I volunteer for my professional society, and even though I’m not working now I am keeping up with my volunteering duties. So I attend three meetings a year, and this year’s October meeting was in Bellingham at the society’s headquarters.

As I am discovering, flying places from South America is kind of tough. There aren’t a lot of direct flights, and certainly none to Bellingham. So I ended up buying two separate round trip tickets, one on LATAM from Lima to Los Angeles, and a second on Virgin from Los Angeles to Seattle, with a shuttle for the last leg of the trip. This ended up working out pretty perfectly.

So on Monday night I settled into my overnight flight back to the states and woke up on Tuesday in sunny Los Angeles, greeted at immigration with an immense dynamic image of rose petals wafting around Lady Liberty. Alternating with advertisements for haute couture goods, of course… To complete my homecoming, I got a beer and vegan burger (because yeah, it’s LA folks, of course there are vegan burgers in the airport).

From LAX the flight to Seattle was uneventful, and I took the Bellair Airporter the last leg to Bellingham. Seattle rush hour traffic made the trip from SeaTac take almost as long as the flight to Seattle, take note if you plan a similar ride. So in total, transit was less than 24 hours! Which, honestly, after our 33+ hour saga getting from Medellín to Quito, really didn’t seem so bad.

Not that I wasn’t exhausted when I arrived. But I was super excited to see my friend Lara, who came to pick me up. She and her husband fed me dinner and beer, and maybe some red wine, and Lara and I stayed up way too late hanging out because we were having so much fun. And then we did yoga together in the morning! Sweet.

Later that day my friend Dirk took me sea kayaking, an activity I had never done before. We were worried about the weather initially, but it cleared up as we were out on the water, and it was absolutely gorgeous. So much fun, thanks Dirk!

That evening Dirk and I went to catch up with Lara, Dimi, Leah, and Tricia at Structures Brewing where we had some great beers (the barrel aged saison was fantastic). From there we headed to Kombucha Town for some tasty food (sadly, I did not get any pics there, sorree).

Then I got down to business. The meeting for the society occupied both Friday and Saturday, and we got a lot done. In the afternoon on Friday there was a beautiful building dedication at headquarters, and the staff organized a tour for us visitors. I was really delighted and impressed with what an amazing job they did (you guys rock!!!).

Saturday night some of us did a Pedal Party to visit some breweries and bars. Our first stop was Wanderer Brewing, where I got a delicious flight (photos below are from Wanderer). Our second stops were Menace Brewing (where I got a tasty porter), and Schweinhaus, which is an outdoor beer garden. The pedal party staff were great, but that “bike” was heeeavvvy. Expect to work hard on that thing!

A few of us kept going after the pedal party, and went to play games at a bar cum board game establishment. We were totally quiet and well behaved, and definitely did not get kicked out for a game of Cards Against Humanity that got too loud. Remember, I am a 100% reliable narrator; this is not One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The innocents involved in this non-escapade have coincidentally not been named or pictured.

Something that was a great treat was to get to see my brother Scott, who lives in Seattle. He was able to come up to Bellingham for some of the festivities, and on Sunday evening we headed back to Seattle together. We went for a visit Gas Works Park, where we saw people fighting clad in head-to-toe armor with blunted weapons (is this medieval martial arts, LARPing or SCA? I’m bleeding nerd points here…), and back at home we had a great time playing board games with his roommate Jose.

Scott is also an amazing cook, and he had prepared a great pea soup for dinner on Sunday. I was also treated to him cooking breakfast on Monday morning (potatoes, onions, and bacon, topped with cheese…. so good).

Scott took me on short tour of downtown Seattle near where he works, and we hit up Zeitgeist Coffee (had a great mocha) to do some work. I got a quick tour of Scott’s office and met some of his lovely coworkers (who follow the blog! yay! hi guys!), then it was time for me to return to Peru!

Dan:

When Christina left for Bellingham I left the posh Miraflores neighborhood where we had been staying and went to check out the Barranco neighborhood about 4 km away. It was much more my speed. People say that it’s an artistic area, but I didn’t see a lot beyond some cool murals in the touristic area (near the Puente de Suspiros). And an ant. I like ants (speaking of which I need to make a YouTube channel with my ant videos). Barranco was overall much cheaper than Miraflores.

I stayed at Passión Barranco because it was the cheapest place I could find. The mattresses were sagging, you had to use the breaker as a power switch for the shower heater, the dorms were huge; it was a pretty run down place. I loved it and everyone was super friendly. Some of the other guests were Argentinians that spent their days busking, selling random art in the street, and smoking and drinking yerba mate on the extremely cozy (tiny) roof terrace. The only downside was the unwanted interest of the owner who moved me to a bigger dorm when he figured out I wasn’t into it…

In Barranco I found a street food with a name very much like “yucatitos” (that’s wrong, but I couldn’t find it on Google). They are not fried yuca, but fried dough balls with a slight anise flavoring. Anise is used very commonly here for flavoring bread and drinks,  but it’s just a subtle flavor and I quite like it. These are great little treats for 1 sol each.

I also was recommended a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the hostel. It took a bit of searching to find, but it’s on Calle Ignacio Mariategui kinda between a school and a hospital (more or less here). There is a small little handwritten sign on the door frame of a house. To order you push the doorbell and speak over the intercom. About 5 minutes later the owner comes to the door and gives you a reasonable sized meal in a polystyrene box. At S/ 3, it’s the cheapest meal I’ve had by far.

I spent a day in the Centro Historico visiting various tourist sites. In general most of the churches are used more for church services, and less for touristing. San Pedro was very pretty and ornate. The Catedral has a S/ 30 entrance fee, so I skipped it. I did pay the S/ 10 fee for the tour of San Francisco and the catacombs. The church is great and the catacombs are super cool and eerie with stacks of skulls and bones all arranged just arms length away. I wanted so many photos, but it was prohibited throughout (so sorry). Also, I’m almost to the point where I can understand most of tours in Spanish so that’s neat! The buildings in the city center are quite beautiful and colorful.

I also just wandered around city center; it’s one of my favorite things to do in cities. I found a huge market of bags. Just every type of bag as far as the eye could see. At the end of that market was a used book market. Same deal, just dusty books stacked as high as possible, as well as various diaoramas for sale sprinkled about.

Finally I wandered through the Central Market and Chinatown. This was just heavenly for me. There were some great little counter serve restaurants in the central market. I talked to the hawker while I ate seco de carne (a common Peruvian dish) and she said that she usually didn’t see many folks from the US, just Europeans. Chinatown was even better and more chaotic (at least the part just south and east of the gate). The streets were closed to cars and it was bustling like crazy.

After that I headed back to Miraflores to stay at HosteLima for a night (pretty good, but nothing special, lacking in the kitchen). There were lots of great Israeli guests there; apparently it’s pretty common for young Israelis to travel after their military service. That night I went to Huaca Pucllana (which we biked past on Census Day) for a ~40 minute guided tour. The interesting thing is that there is also a super fancy open air restaurant that overlooks the excavation sight, so there were lots of folks dressed to the nines entering the park at night. Overall though, I don’t think it’s not worth the additional fee to see it lit up at night.

Next I went to stay with couch surfing host Omar in Callao near the airport. The first thing that you read about arriving in Lima is how dangerous and chaotic the airport is and how you should avoid Callao. This refrain is constantly repeated online and also by the locals working the hostels. Omar assured me that his neighborhood was just fine and  after staying there two nights I absolutely agree. As with anywhere, there are parts that are dangerous, but the part around the airport was all just fine. I took a kombi directly from Miraflores for S/ 2  and then walked about 2 km to the hospital to meet Omar.

I loved the neighborhood in general, and there was lots more street food available. One night Omar and I went to a Mexican restaurant to get sandwiches and fries (so many sauces!), but sadly I can’t find it on the map. I tried, promise. The next night we went out for antichuchos a typical Peruvian street food which is kebabs, a common meat being beef hearts covered in grilled tripe. This kind of food is more like Christina’s type of thing, but I end up loving it. Absolutely delicious.

Having tried lúcuma flavored drinkable yogurt (so good), I hunted down one of the actual fruits. Lúcuma tastes a lot like mamey, but different in that it’s a bit chalkier and therefore ends up working better as flavor than a raw fruit. tastes better as a flavoring rather than raw. It’s a bit chalky. I also tried a creamy strawberry gelatin from a dessert shop (not sure what it’s called). Totally worth it just for the color and the texture.

And then when Tuesday came and I walked to the airport to meet Christina, and we headed off to Centro Historico to enjoy our last two days in Lima.