Machu Picchu: world wonder or over-touristed?

Machu Picchu: world wonder or over-touristed?

How about both? Shortly after we decided to go, we read an internet article, something like, “10 Places NOT to travel to,” where they talked about places that have become over-touristed and that responsible travellers should avoid. Alas, we went anyway.

A friend told me about his visit to Machu Picchu in the 1970s: “I remember Machu Picchu as a very beautiful mystical place with clouds floating below in the canyon. We weren’t prepared with any special knowledge of the significance of various parts of the ruins. There were only four or five of us up there wandering around. I thought it would be a perfect venue for magic mushrooms but we didn’t have any. We were warned not to sleep on the ground up there because of the slim risk of sharing your sleeping bag with a small but deadly heat seeking snake. We walked down the hill to the river at and slept on a bamboo stave platform in a primitive hut, the hippie hotel.”

It’s quite a different experience in 2018. While I wish I could have visited decades ago, I’m still glad we went.

Yes, Cusco has a ton of tourist shops — travel agents, outfitters, trinket sales, llama and alpaca scarves and sweaters, restaurants and bars with hawkers out in front promising you a free drink. But Cusco has been a city since Inca times. There are ruins. There is lovely architecture. It’s a real city with a life of its own, although tourism plays a huge part. The city is growing up the surrounding mountains, with clear signs of ongoing construction and expansion.

Closer to Machu Picchu are the towns in the Sacred Valley. They too, seem like real towns with active plazas and lives of their town — albeit with a lot of tourist restaurants, hostels, hotels, and shops.

Closer still is Machu Picchu Town (changing its name from Aguascalientes, evidently), accessible only by train or hike. From my observation, this is a completely tourist-focused place. It appears to have sprung up and grown almost solely to service the zillion people who visit Machu Picchu. Hotel after hostel after hotel, tourist restaurants and bars (4 for 1 happy hour!), trinket stores. I may be wrong, but the town square, church and futbol field look like more recent additions, added to provide comfort for the workers who likely move there from elsewhere for jobs. Unlike Cusco, Ollayntaytambo and other Sacred Valley towns, it is not a place I would want to linger. It’s a place to have food, drink, sleep and showers before or after visiting the archaeological site.

Given the hordes of people cycling through the site, Machu Picchu was surprisingly uncrowded-seeming. They do an excellent job of managing the buses up to the site and it seems that not too many people are admitted at once. I have also heard there is a daily visitor limit now. We had a fine guided tour through the ruins and then hiked to the Inca Bridge on our own. Thoroughly enjoyed our visit!

A world wonder! The Inca people were fascinating and talented and what remains of their structures (those that weren’t looted by the Spanish to build churches or simply destroyed to oppress and conquer) are truly works of art. The stone work is like no other I’ve seen in my travels through Native American, Mexican, Greek, and Roman ruins — the huge boulders fitted perfectly to natural stone formations and to each other. Those stone masons were the real deal. And all of the Inca stuff that wasn’t destroyed by the Colonists has survived earthquake after earthquake while modern structures have crumbled.

Thank you, Peru!

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Sacred Valley of the Incas, meeting people

We drove out of Cusco in our minibus, through the city of about 500,000 and into the rural area. Up up into the mountains. 3,300+ meters to a “el ultimate pueblo” the last town before the mountains rise even more steeply. The tour operator contracts with the tiny village. About 24 women participate. We were met by a team of 8 women, an older man, and several children. Dressed in traditional garb, playing music, dancing with us, and giving us flower necklaces. We all greeted each other and introduced ourselves (our guide taught the basic Spanish phrases for “my name is…I am from… I am x year old….I have xx children” to those who didn’t know). Many of the folks there only speak Quechua, the native language. Only those who went to school have learned Spanish.

After introductions, we went to a field to dig small yams. Peru is known for having thousands (literally) of varieties of potatoes. Clearly some in our group had never dug potatoes before. Most of the crops grown by the village are up in the mountains where they walk hours each way to plant, tend and harvest. We saw from a distance people working up there, and fires where they cook potatoes for their lunch.

Speaking of lunch, I was extremely happy that everything they served us was vegetarian. We started with a fava bean salad with some cheese on it (we saw the favas growing). Followed by a variety of boiled potato. And then a quinoa soup with squash and potato. Then a buffet of a corn/chard bread, yam stew, mountain greens, quinoa, and potatoes. Potatoes are big. I don’t think everyone in our group was as happy with the food as I was…

After lunch, we saw a demonstration about how the ladies wash the sheep, llama and alpaca wool with a soapy mixture made from a root, and then the different compounds they use to dye the wool, and how it is spun and woven. Amazing amount of work that goes into everything that is made. Of course, we had to buy some scarves made from baby alpaca wool. So lovely — the people and their handiwork.

We then drove to a viewpoint where we looked down into the Incas’ Sacred Valley, and into the valley itself. We landed in the town of Ollantaytambo. Giant peaks surround. It happened that we arrived during the festival for the town’s saint. After checking into our hotel, my husband and I headed for the town square where we sat on the second floor of a bar, drinking a beer, and watched round after round of costumed dancers. We are thinking each group, with very unique costumes and dances, came from a different area. The most amusing was one where a dancer in a Western-style suit with a big-nosed mask, carrying a big black book, tried to dunk the other dancer’s heads into a tub of water. Hm, baptism? He was routed out, dunked into the water, to much laughter.

After dinner, we returned to the square where an older man and two women grabbed us to dance to the Peruvian heavy metal. They keeping speaking to us in Quechua, but of course we could not understand. We bought a big bottle of beer to share with them and had a fine time. My husband picked them up when they topped over, with much laughter. The man kept pointing to the sky and saying “Apu!” We responded, “luna?” Thinking he meant the moon. We found out today that Apu is a spirit mountain. So even though everyone was celebrating a saint’s day, it comes back to the land, the sacred valley, the spirit mountain.

Coca tea, Cusco, small pleasures

Coca tea, Cusco, small pleasures

We enjoyed our two nights in Lima. What a busy, bustling place where people walk much faster than we are used to from either Ajijic or Oregon. Maybe even faster than in Chicago. We toured the monastery of San Francisco which is known for its underground crypt full of the bones of Franciscan monks and “rich, important” people who donated to the church. Alas, no photos were allowed on the tour, but I am sharing a few we took in the church (allowed).

We watched the changing of the guard at the Plaza de Armas, which evidently happens twice a day. Impressive. One of these guys pulls a hamstring, he’s out for good; the high kick Is mandatory.

We ate cebiche (see prior post) and then just wandered about the Miraflores neighborhood. It’s a fancy place (Chicago friends, think Lincoln Park; Oregon friends, think Pearl District). In the evening we sampled the Pisco Sour at a bar/restaurant called Haiti and watched people stream by. Dinner, we had along a little park where we watched the nightlife there. Animal lovers, take note that the parks have fenced green areas which are occupied by cats (someone waters and feeds them). I can imagine them running amok in the wee hours when all the people have gone to bed.

Very impressive church:

Crypt!

Lima, Plaza de Armas, school kids:

Lima night life:

Pisco Sour:

Hot chocolate tasting. We put the chocolate into the cups and then added hot milk. Mm.

I practiced my Spanish with our various Uber drivers, only one of which took advantage of us. I learned that Peru is pretty excited about their team playing in the World Cup this year and got tips on restaurants and sites to visit.

We flew from Lima to Cusco and, after a plane delay, just made it to the briefing of our tour group. Of the 15, we are the only 2 not doing the multi-day hike to Machu Picchu and are instead taking the train. I’m sure they will have a spectacular time but we will be well-rested and see other sites (and I won’t be the person who drags the group down).

Our tour leader took us on an orientation walk and Cuzco seems extremely charming. Tiny narrow streets reminiscent of small villages in Italy. Lots of interesting buildings and more shopping than a person could shake a stick at. From a million alpaca clothing stores to NorthFace to local crafts, they’ve got it here. The restaurant scene looks fun too.

We had a chocolate and hot chocolate tasting — organic, Peruvian cacao. Delish. In building with the chocolate place, we noted Mr. Soup. Our tour leader recommended we eat light tonight to help with adjusting to the altitude (altitude sickness is a real thing and can lead to death!). We returned to Mr. Soup for dinner where this non-meat person was extremely happy to eat a giant bowl of lentil and veggie soup. Despite the altitude sickness advice, we each had a glass of wine (don’t tell) — a Peruvian Malbec which hit the spot.

The hotel offers free coca tea, which I sipped before bed. How is it related to cocaine (or is it?)? Hm.

Ceviche in Lima

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, we had lunch at La Mar Cebicheria in Lima, Peru. Oh my. We sat at the bar and had a view of two pastry chefs creating desserts — apple pie, chocolate cake, and these fried dough things called (I think) Picarones. Served with a honeyed syrup. Yes, we had to order them.

Ceviche combinado– catch of the day (see above) with friend calamari. Followed by scallops tiradito con leche de tigre. No, it’s not really tiger’s milk, but some kind of sauce.

15: Lucky and pampered

15: lucky and pampered

We went to one of our favorite restaurants, Casa Domenech, to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of the day we met. We met by chance at the Emily Morgan Hotel bar in San Antonio, Texas. Life has never been the same, and it’s never been better.

My husband talked to Ray Domenech, the owner, and let him know we were celebrating our anniversary and asked if we could bring one of our prized bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir. (Folks as what we miss, living in Mexico, and I always say: “Our friends and Oregon Pinot Noir.”)

When we arrived, Ray asked if we wanted the regular menu or whether we wanted something “special.” He knows I don’t eat meat or mushrooms and said he would make us something. We said, “Great!” Ray rolled out four courses of colorful food wth unexpected combinations, rich sauces, and regional Mexican specialty ingredients. Oh, and there were two after-dinner drinks.

Rafa Torres, one of our favorite local musicians, sang us some special songs, supplementing the excellent jazz duo that plays there regularly on Mondays. How fortunate are we?? Our hearts are so full! (And our bellies were, too.)

I wanted to get this post up so you could see how well we were pampered for our anniversary evening. Alas, I don’t have the names of some of the unfamiliar ingredients, but here goes:

1: Fish topped with a reduction of strawberries, tomatoes, and onion. Grilled nopal topped with cooked veggies, kiwi, and a magical chile sauce. Center: chipotle chutney/sauce/marmalade.

2: Pasta with veggies, cheese, grated mango, and a savory nut mixture from Cuetzalan, Puebla.

3: Shrimp served over toasted bread and guacamole. More delish chipotle chutney.

4: Bean and potato tostada. (My sweetheart had a meat tostada.). Rafa playing in the background.

And: margarita and herbally liqueur from Cuetzalan.

And these two? Lucky, happy, and extremely pampered and well-fed.

Mother’s Day; remembering Estée Lauder

May 10 is Mother’s Day in Mexico. Here is a little remembrance of my mom, Agnes. I hope she’s partying in heaven with her sisters.

I remember the smell of my mom’s Estee Lauder perfume. My dad wasn’t the most creative shopper or gift-giver; he always claimed that the lights in the stores hurt his eyes. As I came of age, he would make me go to select his gifts for her. But before that, birthdays and Christmases, he would usually get my mom Estee Lauder soaps, lotion, or colonge. Her purses always smelled strongly of it: cigarettes and Estee Lauder, her signature scent.

My mom wasn’t exactly a hoarder, not like the stuff they show on TV where houses only have tiny paths through stacks of newspaper and trash, but she was definitely a saver. She was a child during the depression and saved everything because you “might need it someday.” My parents moved from Chicago to Oregon when they were in their 70s. I don’t think she sorted through much in the house before moving, just had movers pack everything up. When she moved to Oregon, I found a box of comfrey tea in her cupboard — tea that my grandmother had drunk and that my mom never liked, probably at least 10 years old. Yet it was there and had been moved across the country. All the cupboards and closets were full. A lifetime of accumulation, nice things and junk, shelves and drawers full.

The bathroom storage was particularly stuffed: cottonballs from a store in Chicago that had long been out of business, a lifetime supply of Aquanet hairspray, Cindy Crawford anti-aging lotions from the Home Shopping Network, and lots of worn towels and sheets (because there was no sense using all those brand new ones until the old ones were completely rag-like). And again the smell of Estee Lauder. She had soaps or sachets; towels and sheets were infused with scent.

When my mom died and I had the responsibility to go through her things, I found a fair amout of Estee Lauder colognes and soaps from, I guess, the 60s and 70s, still in their original packaging . Most of them went to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, but I kept a box of small rectangular green soaps. Each was wrapped in cellophane with a small bow, the Estee Lauder name carved into it, and they fit into a classy-looking green and gold box. I used the soaps in my homemade laundry detergent, reminding me of my mom.

When we packed to move to Mexico, there was one soap remaining, its edges finally turning brown. I threw it into the bag with our comforter and pillows.

Henry and Agnes, engaged to be married:

Rainy season(s)

Rainy season(s)

I endured about thirty rainy seasons in Oregon, West of the Cascades, the part of the state where it rains. My experience is that the rainy season is approximately from November to April, with May, June, and October thrown in some years as a bonus. That’s a good six months of rain. What is the rainy season like? It’s dark (think short days and long nights at that latitude), grey, and the rain comes in steady showers, drizzles, and soakings. To break it up, there are occasional bursts of ice and snow. It’s the season that makes some suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and compels others to a winter vacation to sunnier places. Like Mexico, for example…

On Beltane (May 1), I think our rainy season started here in the Lake Chapala area. The clouds built up steadily during the day, mostly south across the lake. We saw a few little flashes of lightening around 6 p.m.. By 8:30 or 9, we had a thunderstorm, the kind I remember from growing up in Illinois. Lightening vibrating the sky in big arcs; thunder, rumbling like earth’s anger; and a long drenching rain. We watched the show from our mirador (rooftop deck) for quite some time. The rain was loud on the plastic patio cover roof. The electrical energy was palpable all around us.

The next morning as I went out for exercise along the lake, the air was fresh. The cobblestones were damp (not dusty!). The sand on the beach was furrowed in places where streams of water ran into the lake from the streets. In the afternoon, we had a smaller, less spectacular storm but we enjoyed that one as well.

During travels in Mexico, many have told me that they love the rainy season the best. They say, “Everything is so green and fresh!” I am grateful to be here to experience this rainy season and look forward to it with anticipation — green mountains, flowers, fresh mornings and roaring thunder in the evenings.

What I’ve seen so far here beats the rainy season in the Pacific Northwest. Here, there is sun, powerful electrical energy, and cooling after a hot day. While I do enjoy a rainy day of soup-making, cookie-baking and sitting by a fire, the energy of the dark grey drizzle in the NW doesn’t crackle and charge me like the rain energy here.