Dec
30
2009
4

Christmas in Cusco

Let’s get the spelling question out of the way: Cusco is often spelled Cuzco.. they’re equally (in)correct, since it’s a transliteration from Quechua. The official spelling is Quscu (which translates as “Navel of the World“, isn’t that a lovely image?)

I figured Cusco would be a good place to hole up for a few weeks during the holidays. My idea was that by taking Spanish classes, I would integrate into a family and a community and thereby not be alone for Christmas. Things turned out rather well..

Introduction to the city

Wandering around lost after walking from the bus station (since I eschew taxis), I ran into a young American couple that I hung out with in Vilcabamba (Ecuador) many months ago. Grace and Cody – they were the ones who stayed so long there because they were making more money from the poker games than they were spending on daily living. Amazing that we should bump into each other here after so long. We were only able to hang out a couple of nights together as they had to finally get back to the States. But they recommended a Spanish school for me to attend here – FairPlay. Back to that in a minute.

I’m glad it was a sunny and warm day when I pulled into town otherwise I might never have stayed so long. The weather this time of year is generally rainy and cold, particularly chilling to the bones owing to the fact that none of the buildings have insulated windows nor heat. I would have difficulty living here if only for that reason. The beds have heavy wool blankets which means that you’re warm by the morning, but it’s freezing until your body heats up the bed. Large, strong hail is surprisingly common here. And yet, the climate is surprisingly dry for the amount that it rains. I suppose it’s due to the thin atmosphere at this high altitude – there just isn’t anything there to hold the moisture. When the sun does come out, things dry out incredibly quickly.

A couple of other odd things about the altitude (3,600m/11,800′) – fires don’t burn very well, due to the lack of oxygen. The matches are huge in an effort to stay lit. On the plus side, that means forest fires are never a problem. On the flip side, if you’re trying to start a fire or keep one going (for a BBQ, say, or in a fireplace), they require contant tending and blowing. Also: since water boils at a far lower temperature up here (88° C vs. 100° C at sea level), there is some debate as to whether boiling water actually purifies it enough to drink. Oh well, I haven’t gotten sick yet.

It only takes a few hours of walking around in the warm sun to fall in love with Cusco. I finally understand why it’s such a tourist destination (nearly a million tourists a year!) – stunning architecture abounds at every corner you turn; romantic views from every hill; and surprisingly gentle and kind residents, uncommon for such a touristed place. Even the touts are not as aggressive or ornery as elsewhere. The central area is refreshingly clean and free of stray dogs – a welcome respite.

This will sound odd, but Cusco reminds me a bit of Istanbul. Built long before cars, many of the streets are just narrow alleyways and pedestrian-friendly plazas and passages. Far more approachable and livable than modern cities with their traffic-clogged avenues designed solely for vehicles, not for people.

The buildings are a sight to behold with their red tiled roofs and foundations dating back to when Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. The Spaniards came and did their damndest to erase the existing culture, but a lot of it survived. In a classic case of empiralism, the Spanish built Catholic churches on top of Incan houses of worship in an effort to wipe out the existing religion. You can see this all over Europe as well – in some cases, three or four layers/cultures/religions built one on top of each other.

The matching red tiled roofs and uniform height of the buildings here are no accident – it’s the law. A welcome change from the usual hodge-podge, haphazard, and function over form of most buildings in Latin America.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

Dec
12
2009
4

The less-traveled road to Cusco

Back on the coast I looked at the little map in the guidebook to see what the most direct route to Cusco is. Which it turns out, is not always the fastest route! What the map didn’t show is that the most direct route actually takes the longest.. about 30 hours in fact, over rough dirt roads. Ah well, the joys of unplanned travel…

My first connection is in Pisco, just an hour or so north of Ica. Not being a morning person, I miss the early bus.. and I don’t like traveling at night, particularly when the scenery is so spectacular. So, I figure a night in Pisco couldn’t hurt. Listen, fellow traveler: do as I say, not as I do. Pisco is an abomination of a town. Had I landed here a year ago with less experience under my belt, I probably would have burst into tears. Ugly, ugly, ugly. People trying to rip you off at every turn. Even the hotel, which normally takes the side of their guests, tries to tell me as I’m leaving that the taxi fare to the Pan-American highway is in fact twice what I had paid the night before – and even that was a rip-off. In moments like these you simply turn your back on the hustlers and walk away with your middle finger held high.

It’s funny that some places don’t realize that travelers do in fact talk to each other, and that ripping people off will only lead to less business in the long run. But then, many people I interact with don’t think in the long term – only what will make them a buck today.

The ugliness of Pisco isn’t really their fault. Just two years ago, an 8.0 earthquake struck this area killing 519 people, injuring 1,366, and destroying 58,500 homes – fully half of the buildings in town. Rebuilding is dragging. The entire place is a construction zone. Hot, dusty, and dirty. No reason to come. Move along now, nothing to see here.

Just off the coast, however, are some islands covered in guano (another Quechua word – along with pisco, coca, condor, jerky, llama, puma, quinine, and quinoa – that’s made it into the English language.) During Peru’s guano rush of 1850-1870, 10 million tons of the stuff was carted away. This had the effect of lowering the islands’ height by 30 metres and almost destroying the bird population – which includes the Humboldt penguin (Arthur!), flamingo, pelican, and of course, boobies! Guano rush?!
[An historical aside – the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing U.S. citizens to take possesion of any island containing guano deposit (providing it’s not already owned by another nation). It also empowers the President to direct the military to protect such interests. Who knew?]

After waiting by the side of the road for a while (why did I get up so early??), the bus eventually rambles up only an hour or so late. Once I’m settled in, the stewardess inexplicably picks me to go downstairs into the first class section. Woo-hoo! Really plush, huge comfy seats that recline all the way. Further along in the journey she takes a bit of trash from a passenger, opens the window, and throws it out. Did I mention that we’re in the middle of pristine wilderness. How do you begin changing behavior like that which is so ingrained? The scenery is spectacular, I’m glad I waited to take the day bus. We’re traveling over puna, that alpine-like terrain that looks so beautifully desolate.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

Written by in: Peru | Tags: ,
Nov
30
2009
8

Fun in the desert

Four hours south of Lima lies the Ica desert, a moonscape of surreal sand dunes. Paleontologists know this area for the fossilized bones of gigantic whale-eating sharks, sea sloths, and other long extinct marine animals. Oenologists know the region for its vineyards, planted by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Hundreds of bodegas (the other use of the word – not the corner store where you buy your cigs, but rather a winemaking hacienda), from big industrial affairs to small traditional rustic operations, produce the famous pisco white grape brandy as well as a variety of ports and wines. I took a tour that went to one of each operation. As you might expect, the small family producer was much more interesting. Each March during harvest, the grapes are hand mashed. Actually, foot-mashed. I’d love to come back during this time, it sounds like quite a party. We saw photos of the pretty “grape queens” dancing away with dozens of other revelers in the vats – surely the strangest disco that exists. After the grapes are crushed underfoot, they are further squeezed by lowering an enormous 150-year old tree trunk onto the mess. The liquid is then siphoned off for fermentation. The remaining skin and seeds are spread on the ground (basically thrown away) – it’s what you walk on around the grounds. Originally the wine was aged in cylindrical clay containers leftover by pre-Incan cultures who made them for fermenting chicha, but nowadays it’s aged in oak barrels.

Pisco is distilled from wine that has been fermented for 45 days. Whereas in the modern wineries where gas jets and refrigerant are used, the artisanal wineries still distill the old-fashioned way. A large wood fire is kept going under the enormous tank of wine; the resulting vapor is collected in a copper tube which spirals down through a vat of cool water, and the condensed liquid drips out into a clay pot. After all that work, only a percentage of the final product can be sold for consumption. There are three parts to the resulting liquid. The first part out of the distillery, or the “head”, is almost pure ethanol and is sold for industrial cleaning operations. The second part, or the “body” (and here’s where it takes an expert to tell when to change the tap), is sold as pisco for drinking. The third part, or the “tail” or “legs”, is again no good for imbibing, and is used for different industrial uses.

Chile is also known for it’s long tradition of pisco production, and there has been long-standing rivalry and disputes between the two countries over this issue.

After being given a tour at each winery comes the best part – the sampling! I found the different types of pisco to be pleasant, particularly when chilled. They also make a Bailey’s-type liquor from pisco, milk, sugar, and figs which is yummy. But the wine is not particularly agreeable to my palate – it’s all sweet or semi-sweet (owing to the grapes grown around here), and I prefer my wine on the dry side.

But the real reason I came down this way was to see Lake Huacachina, a magical and incongruous oasis surrounded on all sides by huge sand dunes. [If you’re in Peru, pull out a 50 Sole note and look on the back. That’s this place.] Total population: 115. I met an English woman who’s been living here for five years. Wow. With just a handful of restaurants and hotels grouped around the tiny oasis, it’s an ideal spot to relax for a few days. (Or a few years, I guess.) Sunset walks on the dunes.. sunbathing by the pool.. or adventure sports! A number of operators offer inexpensive dune buggy tours combined with sandboarding at sunset. Good fun.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

Written by in: Peru | Tags: , ,
Nov
25
2009
1

Lima’s faded glory

For no good reason, I’ve been in Lima for two weeks now.. which is about two weeks too long. I exaggerate. Kind of.

Like any metropolis of it’s size, there are many Limas.. and some of them certainly are attractive. The central plaza is a beautifully landscaped park surrounded by handsomely restored colonial palaces and other grand buildings. Over on the other side of town, the aptly-named Parque Amor makes for a romantic stroll along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean, past finely manicured lawns and Gaudiesque mosaic benches. But the vast majority of the city is a sprawling wasteland of grimy industry and depressing slums. The smog is so thick that visibility is often reduced to just a few hundred yards (although to be fair, I find the exhaust to be no worse than that of Panama City, Managua, or some of the other ugly capitals I’ve seen on this trip.) The honking is incessant, made worse by the untimely death of my noise isolating in-ear headphones which until now facilitated my escape from the din.

The weather has been pleasant with warm, spring-like temperatures, and although the skies are constantly gray, rain in Lima is about as common as snow in San Francisco. The streets don’t have storm drains and many homes have roofs that aren’t designed with the rain in mind. Many Lima residents have never used an umbrella in their lives.

My hotel room is across the alley from a casino that leaves it’s back door open all night. I lie in bed falling asleep to the incessant cartoonish songs of the slot machines. When the announcements join in, I think I’m inside a Jim Jarmusch film.

I’ve changed hotels three times since arriving in Lima. Never quite satisfied with the value, or discovering annoyances not noticed at first viewing, and of course eternally searching for that elusive WiFi. It’s slowly dawning on me that my hotels may in fact be discrete love dens for amorous affairs and not simply undiscovered gems off the tourist circuit. Come to think of it, they’ve been located in unusual places for a hotel. And I can’t think of any other reason the cleaning staff would be making rooms up at all hours of the night. Usually I pick up on the signs at first entrance, like the multitude of hotels that quote their rates in 12-hour blocks – but these places are more subtle. No matter, it doesn’t bother me.

Most visitors to Lima stay in Miraflores, the upscale neighborhood full of all the traveler delights – malls, fine restaurants and gringo food, internet cafes, travel agencies, outdoor equipment shops (although surprisingly for a country famous for it’s outdoor sports, there are only three quite small gear stores). I am not like most visitors; I have been staying exclusively in working-class neighborhoods. Queens, as opposed to Manhattan, for you New Yorkers. Safe, but (and) not another tourist around for 50 blocks. Oh, I long for the smart cafes and crave the comfort food available in Miraflores; but I’m not willing to pay the ridiculous prices that they ream the tourists for these pleasures.

My one exception to this rule is when it comes to coffee, which as you know I take very seriously. One of the only places to get a real cup of coffee around here is at Starbucks, and fortunately there are a handful scattered around the upmarket neighborhoods. A small coffee at Starbucks costs as much as a complete meal at any of the typical neighborhood eateries. I’ve been partaking in both. My typical day begins with breakfast in my hotel room made from supermarket groceries as I leisurely check email and browse the news on the net. I then hike to one of the far-flung Starbucks’ while listening to podcasts or language tapes along the way and taking in different neighborhoods. There I savor over the hard-won cup of joe while I write. After a couple of hours, I’ll wander back through a different neighborhood and have a late lunch at whatever hole in the wall is hopping with locals. I’ve been averaging about 80 blocks a day – walking being the best way to see a city, in my opinion.

I sure miss my iPhone, with it’s GPS and Google Maps. The guidebooks and tourist office only have maps of downtown and Miraflores, which does no good for my kind of exploring. So after a couple of days of getting hopelessly lost, I finally realized that I could load Google Maps on my netbook in the hotel, take screenshots of where I would be walking that day, and transfer those image files to my Treo. Kludgy, and doesn’t give me GPS, but at least it gives me a map in my pocket.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

Written by in: Peru | Tags: , ,

Powered by WordPress