Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ollantaytambo ruins and a cute town

This is Mike...
Ollantaytambo is both a cute town and a site of a massive Inca estate. The construction of the site has many similar features as the other sites in the area but is unique for the well preserved storehouses on a hill overlooking the town. Water was also diverted to become an integral part of the estate. Today, this town is a popular spot for visitors to stay at while in the Sacred Valley as it is the last train station before Machu Picchu. Also, the town itself really dresses itself up nicely to accommodate the tourists.  

One of the water falls the Inca created in the complex.

The stones came from a quarry at the bottom of the hill.

The site is quite large and is at a high elevation.

Precision stonework.

Large stones adorn the hallway to the upper mezzanine

I am still so amazed at the detail on these hard to work with stones.

The six monoliths behind me were moved up the hill from the quarry and each weigh at least 90 tons.

This stone is massive at over 100 tons.

The quarry shows where the rocks came from but nobody knows how the rocks were chiseled from here.

Alpacas still roam the compound freely.

The main entrance into Ollantaytambo

The clean town bustling with tourists.

A short walk gets you anywhere in town.

Salinas and Moray

This is Mike...
We went to Salinas and Moray in the hills just above Urubamba. Salinas is an amazing terraced salt pan and extraction site used for salt production since pre-Inca times. The terraced patties are similar in concept to the rice patties of Southeast Asia but are gloriously white. The water coming from within the mountain, in this area, is mineral rich and as such enables the locals to harvest quality salt for the last thousand years or more.
    Moray, it is a sunken amphitheater style structure once used by the Inca to perfect agricultural techniques. For me, building such a large structure to refine agricultural practices seems to be a stretch. I overheard a local guide explain a new theory, that special religious crops were planted here that focused on purity for their religious celebrations and ceremonies. Either way, both concepts are working theories and is what makes pre-Hispanic South America so fascinating. So very little is known of the indigenous peoples and their mysterious ways after all this time. The best part about these sites is they are both easy to get to and yet off the beaten path in the valley.

Each one of these salt ponds is larger than a swimming pool.

The water is diverted to the ponds in a small canal.

The girls balancing on a ridge between the salt ponds.

The ponds are artistically beautiful and yet produce many tons of salt each year for the benefit of the community.

Looks like a winter wonderland.

We drank some of the water here and it is like brine

The terraces of Moray we visually pleasing to stare at.
If you look closely (by double clicking on the image) you can see people around the upper ring of the first level, this shows how massive the site really is.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Crying while your child eats soup

We were looking for a place to eat lunch on the main boulevard in Urubamba, Peru. The first place was nice but it was a buffet so we decided to check out the place across the street for better eats. Elise and the  girls decided to walk and I was going to move the truck just across the street to the other parking lot. I was putting my keys into the driver's door and heard my wife screaming loudly and a blaring horn, my head looked up but my eyes were searching where to look and I see Zoe, my beautiful 7 year old, in front of a speeding car. My mind was trying to decipher what was going and all I see is Zoe flying horizontal as the car sped by.
    It was beyond comprehension. It was all so fast and yet so frustratingly slow. The wife, in the passenger seat, of the speeding car rose to her knees looking over her headrest to see what happened. My head jolted back to Elise and the kids who are standing in the middle of the street, on the double yellow line. Screaming from all sides started to fill my ears. Zoe was pulled from the lane in front of a speeding vehicle by Elise.  Zoe's shoes were running down the side of the car. My family was nearly torn apart in a flash. Everybody was in shock.  My family's hair was still flowing in the wind from the speeding car.
   I was filled with anger that this could have happened. I was filled with joy that Zoe was still here. It was too much to handle all at once. I huddled my family and scurried them into our SUV. Elise started to ball and cry uncontrollably. Zoe thought she was in trouble and broke down too. Sierra looked stunned. My ears were ringing, ringing until I could not hear anymore. We were all overwhelmed. Life, that precious gift that matters most was as thin as a hair before us all. We were nothing but a chance, a lucky grab, a lucky pull from tragedy.
   For hours, our family released emotions, we are tired, exhausted, and fortunate it is over. This experience is hanging over us like a dark cloud. This had nothing to do with a trip abroad, it had everything to do with us and a street with cars. For some time we questioned ourselves, our choices and all of the those what ifs. The what ifs are like torture, unforgiving and vivid, and replaying without permission in my head.
  How can you explain what it is like to you cry while your child eats soup? We all need to move on but the visions of seeing your daughter run over is a bit much to handle. We are lucky, we are so damn lucky.    

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Machu Picchu and the humanity of it all.

This is Mike...
Quechua is the native language of the Inca and is still widely spoken in this region today. Machu Picchu in Quechua means "House of too many tourists trampling over each other for a photo op." Just kidding, Machu Picchu actually means "old peak" in Quechua and was a special retreat for the royalty of the Inca Empire in days of old. Today, throngs of visitors from all over the world descend on this world heritage site making it quite chaotic to visit. It wasn't that so many people were there to see it, just that Machu Picchu has too many bottlenecks within the compound. These bottlenecks pile the tourists on top of each other and create a rather stressful claustrophobic feeling. We have not been to any ruins to date that were so Disneylandesque as this place. Sadly, any solutions to ease the overcrowding will be mired in politics and will probably have, in the end, a bureaucratic nonsensical resolution.
   Even though humanity was on top of you at certain spots within the compound, there were plenty of areas to just chill out, suck in the thin oxygen and enjoy the views. It is easy to see why the Inca chose this place as their royal retreat, it is serene, stunning, and easily protected. Machu Picchu was both larger and steeper than I had envisioned prior to arriving. Having fresh water springs near the top of the mountain was also neat to see. The water from the valley floor is literally pushed up the rock through tiny fishers and ends up at the magical summit. The only other time we saw water make this incredible up hill journey was at Thousand Foot Falls in Belize.
    For some practical advice for those of you planning on making it to Machu Picchu in the near future.
1. Guidebooks make it sound as if water bottles are forbidden here, well they are not and they even sell them in the compound near the Huayna Picchu gate (for $15 soles a small bottle). The guards at the front gate never search your belongings so bring bottled water with you.
2. If you are planning on going to Huayna Picchu make sure you are on-time, we were 12 minutes late because of all the crowds and they refused us entry. Ultimately, after arguing with them they let us go to the Mini Huayna Picchu known as Huchuy Picchu. This was absolutely sufficient for us with our kids. The cliffs are steep and deep so if you are afraid of heights or if it is raining pass on this portion.
3. Bring Coca candy for you and/or other visitors gasping for oxygen like goldfish in a pond. They are cheap, effective and are a great conversation starter when shared.
4. After going to Machu Picchu and seeing the pitfalls of the crowds we would recommend staying a night or two in Aguas Calientes and seeing the site in the afternoon when the crowds are largely gone.

We arrived to AguasCalientes to see a massive 200 meter long bus line. The line moved fast but still there were a lot of people heading up the mountain all at the same time.

The mist added to the intrigue of the site.

Amazing stonework within the walls of Machu Picchu.

It drizzled for about 30 minutes at the beginning of our day.

Amazing to think this place was just a retreat for royalty and holy men. 

Exquisite detail of the stones, some of which are settling or shifting over time.

It is easy to imagine the complete dwelling with such well preserved exterior walls.

Some of the settling is more pronounced and quite photogenic.

Some of the stones were massive and made us wonder how did they do it.

The complex is terraced and exceptionally steep.

A representation of a nearby peak used for prayer rituals.

The natural flow blended in so nicely with the site.

Scenic views of the valley from atop the mountain.

Zoe hiked with me up a very steep and precarious trail where we had to use a rope to climb the final portion of Huchuy Picchu.

The view was worth the hike and I was impressed that she went all the way to the top without complaint.

Yes the cliff is that steep and yes there are no guard rails.

Restored roofing makes it easy for the mind to wander while admiring the buildings.

Hard to believe we finally made it here after all the years of postponing the journey.

Zoe really enjoyed the expansive views.

I cannot get over the size and precision of the stones used at the Inca sites.

Steps carved right into the mountain side.

Grand and commanding temple.

The long line from atop the mountain to catch the buses back down to town.

A mild stimulant to help at the higher elevations.

The water distribution system still works after all these years.

Stunningly picturesque.

Sacred rock is still used by some worshipers today.

Peru Rail and settling for luxury

This is Mike...
Well we didn't originally plan it this way but we finally chose to go to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu train station) via Peru Rail's Vista Dome service. It is their deluxe rail service through the mountains and was probably the slowest train ride I have ever been on. We opted to go on this train rather than the coveted "back way" that most overlanders do by taking a local train to Aguas Calientes from at the hydroelectric dam behind the mountain. We decided the strike may have jacked things up too much for us to be adventurous on the back route. As it would happen we enjoyed the slow, direct, comfortable train and wasn't worried about logistics and just enjoyed the views and conversations with others. In the end, it worked out even though it wasn't our first choice.
   We met some nice people from Orlando who are planning to do a road trip like ours, but on a motorcycle, in the future. We all clicked well and they invited us to their elegant resort, Tambo del Inka for drinks and appetizers. The kids enjoyed the big fire and hot tea of the hotel while the adults discussed life. It was nice to just relax and let the evening unfold similar to the way we used to do back home in the states.
"All Aboard!" getting ready to board the train.

As seen on the internet, a sky view room for rent on a steep cliff.

A happy family chugging along.

Downtown Aguas Calientes is an easy walking community

Siesta time.

A clown on the train came by to play.
Elise danced with the clown for the amusement of all in the cabin.

Sierra busted a move and was a natural, very popular with the crowd.

As we approached the hotel we were greeted by fire dancers on stilts with fabulous music.

The hotel dining room prior to opening up for dinner.

The girls loved the fireplace and the cool masks of the resort.