Category Archives: Travel

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.

Keep your eyes open: things you see in the AM in Ajijic

I am not an early riser by nature. However, here, I am always rewarded if I get up relatively early to exercise on the malecon. I see so many wonderful people and things. I am afraid the US will seem impossibly and unpleasantly sterile when we return there.

This week, I noticed:

— The man with a wheelbarrow full of ice and fish, hollering “Hay pescado! Pescado fresco!” (There’s fish, fresh fish.) He’ll clean them for you on a board that he carries on the wheelbarrow with the fish.

— Freshly painted polictical slogans, the overspray still dotting white on the sidewalks. All the signs in our nieghborhood seem to be for the Morena party — “Morena, La Esperanza de México.” (The hope of Mexico.) Elections are in July. Note to self: learn about the political parties.

— Two horses (with riders) hauling ass down the street, so fast that people were gathering their kids up onto the sidewalk and coming out of shops to look.

— Dogs. Mostly out by themselves or with canine buddies, going about their dog business. Sturdy German Shepherds, skittery chihuahuas, wagging yellow Labs fresh from a swim, handsome pit bulls, dirty little poodles. Today, I passed a woman on the sidewalk who was followed by a tiny brown chihuahua in a pink sweater. I must have startled her, the pink sweater pup, as she stood still, creating an impasse on the narrow sidewalk until her person called her.

— Men going to work, mostly carpooling in pick-up trucks. They are dressed for construction, in jeans and boots, and carrying water bottles, lunch containers and backpacks.

— Men not going to work, sitting in a small group in the soccer field or fishermen’s lot. They can look a little rough around the edges and are sometimes having a raucous discussion, perhaps under the influence of last night’s libations. Still, a smile and “buenos dias” is always greeted with a friendly response: “adios,” “buenos dias, “good day” or “good morning.”

— Kids running in their pajamas to/from little stores to get an item needed for breakfast, perhaps eggs in a plastic sack, a jug of milk or a stack of tortillas.

— Women setting up their food stalls in the street, kneading a big plastic tub of masa for tortillas or heating up a grill.

— A noise that sounded like a boat motor coming from the fruit and veggie store. A juicer, of course! Note to self: bring a little cash for fresh carrot juice.

— Flowers of all colors and scents, including the fragrant vines across the street from our house.

— White pelicans, egrets, herons, doves and parrots.

— A new mural at the skatepark on the malecon, a study in black, white and grey replacing the colorful stylized eagle that had been there.

— Lake Chapala!

Unrelated: a fall, Luche Libre wrestling, and return to Yelapa

Unrelated items: a fall, Lucha Libre wrestling, and return to Yelapa

We’ve just returned from our annual Yelapa visit. For those who don’t know Yelapa, and my love of it, I suggest you search my blog for prior posts. We played in the International Croquet Tournament, but alas did not win. Like croquet? Want to play it in a beautiful tropical place on a jungle-y course? You can join in next year, February 10-14. The more, the merrier.

Living in Mexico this year made our trip different, as we didn’t return home to the US and the cold, but to our snug rental in sunny, colorful Ajijic. Still, I find Yelapa incomparable. The lack of cars makes it different than other beach towns we have enjoyed. Even though there is more building here every year, the location and the fact that the place is an indigenous community keeps it small — there will be no Hiltons, Señor Frogs, no time shares or 20-story condo buildings. I enjoyed sleeping on an open-air porch and listening to the surf at night. And the frogs! The nights when I heard the chorus frogs from the river, those were special.

We were invited to dinner at some friends’ house and several people told their “why Yelapa” stories. They all have one thing in common, “I got off the boat (haha, everyone gets here by boat),” and most then continue with something like “and knew this was where I wanted to be,” or “and I felt like I was home.”

Gracias Yelapa; nos vemos en el proximo año!

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And now, on to the topic of feeling old. A week before we visited Yelapa, I fell. I had attended Zumba class on the malecon in Ajijic and was jogging home through a field, on a dirt path, when my toe hit a rock. The next thing I knew, I was sprawled in the Superman pose on the hard, rocky ground. (Did I mention it was hard and rocky?) Knees, elbow, hands, thigh, lots of scrapes and bruises. My stainless steel water bottle tumbled onto the rocks, making a huge clang that woke up the dogs who live in that field. They came barking at me, which motived me to haul my sorry ass up quickly. I hurt, I felt miserably old, and I limped home where my husband fussed over me and cleaned my wounds. I spent the day with ice and ibuprofen. I’m happy to report (I think) no lasting injuries, although my left knee still isn’t quite right.

I feel lucky, as a middle-aged woman, not to have broken my wrist or ankle or hip. I feel old and vulnerable, and more committed than ever to exercising and staying fit.

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A few weeks ago we joined a bus trip from Lake Chapala Society to see the Lucha Libre wrestling in Guadalajara. My complete knowledge of the sport was based on seeing Jack Black in the film “Nacho Libre” years ago. But it seemed like a fun experience to be had only in Mexico and so we signed up.

And it was fun! A stadium where beer and food vendors come to your seat is always a plus and the wrestling was a spectacle! Evidently we were there on “family night,” and heard it gets pretty raucous on other nights, with folks throwing things at the wrestlers. Kids and adults, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Lots of cheering the good guys and booing the bad. The wrestlers had interesting (and sometimes skimpy) costumes. My favorites were a sexy guy with “Black Sugar” emblazoned on the rear of his briefs and “Tigre,” a fellow with white-and black-striped mask/ears and briefs. Roar! There were single matches, and then some with teams of two or three. The guys were all athletic with their choreographed gymnastic throws, slams and falls. All of that must seriously hurt, even though it’s “fake.”

Our biggest adventure of the night came when the bus ran out of gas on the way home, about 4 miles from Ajijic, on a dark narrow stretch of road with no shoulder. Some fellow passengers called taxis, the fire department showed up to make sure no one whacked into the bus, and things worked out in the end.

Go do things. Enjoy life. And when you fall, get your sorry ass up before you get bitten by a dog.

Black Sugar

I’m a fan girl

 

Beach trip

A brief trip to the beach

Chilly weather here at Lake Chapala motivated us to take a 4-night trip to the beach. It was about a 4.5 hour drive to Barra de Navidad. The scenery included berry farms, sugar cane harvesting, huge dry lakes, mountains, volcanoes, and cities.

Stayed in Barra de Navidad and visited the other small beach towns of Melaque and La Manzanilla (not to be confused with Manzanillo, a big port city with huge container ships coming in and out). We enjoyed all three towns and decided that the best beach was La Manzanilla, flatter and calmer.

We visited the crocodile reserve in La Manzanilla too. It’s a self-guided tour on a wooden walkway, with some swinging bridges, over the swampy habitat. We got to see a small crocodile eating a bird, although he was obscured by the mangroves and the photo didn’t turn out. The man at the entrance gave us a safety speech — no running, pushing people, leaning over…and no swimming.

We took a boat tour out of Barra de Navidad — firsst, we went through the back bay which has houses on canals, a fancy hotel (Grand Bay Isla Navidad), golf course, a small town, and seafood restaurants. Then we went out into the big bay where we were fortunate enough to see a whale breaching very near our boat. How fortunate we were!

We ate some delicious food including ceviche, seafood cocktails, and fish tacos on the beach in Melaque and la Manzanilla, and excellent breakfasts at Bananas Restaurant (Barra). And a fancy dinner of molcajetes at Manglitos in Barra.