April 29, 2012

88 Days In South America

After 88 days touring around Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru, here are some of our lasting impressions and memories.

South America is the land of creepy window manikins, Mercedes Benz buses, and walking breast-feeders.

South America is on a BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper) basis.

South Americans love mate, coca leaves, soccer, family, Coca-Cola, religion and their plazas. The order is debatable. South Americans also love music from the motion picture Rocky. We’ve lost count how many times we’ve heard “Eye of the Tiger”.

We’ve seen various creative forms of barbed wire.

Most of the souvenirs here are fakes produced in mass quantities. "Do you want to buy my alpaca sweater? It's one of a kind that I hand knitted". Okay lady, but I've seen 500 exact replicas of your hand-knitted alpaca sweater across 3 different countries.

People can’t add. In stores, the workers have to get a calculator out to add up 22.00 + 4.50.

They don't refrigerate milk, eggs, meat, chicken or butter. Somehow it works.

No matter where you are, or how small of a town you’re in, everyone knows California.

Just about everybody here could use a good pedicure.

Vehicle smog emissions are shocking, but South Americans use compact fluorescent light bulbs everywhere…including in the most inappropriate places like century-old church chandeliers.

The hit song of the summer has been “Au Si Te Pego” by Michel Telo. Even though it’s a Brazilian song written in Portuguese, it has completely infiltrated all of South America. It’s hard to go a day without hearing it on the radio, being sung, or as a ringtone.

Pizza and sandwich shops consistently list “Americano” as a flavor. Every time, the “Americano” would have anything but typical American ingredients. When’s the last time you had a pizza with ham, green olives, eggs and spam?

South America is dusty, broken and a little ghetto. Even the Eternal Flame at the Maldivas monument in Buenos Aires had stopped working. Even though it is rough around the edges, the South Americans own it and that’s part of the charm. It’s a passionate and rustic place with pockets of absolute beauty, a rich history and a cast of characters.

On a restaurant menu in Cuzco, we found this quote:
“You got here...all the way from your beautiful country…wow…it is a huge accomplishment…once in a lifetime…for some…really!!! Enjoy it to the fullest…and this is just one of the tasty moments your life will give you…how lucky we are!

We talk about that all of the time…how lucky we are. We have made it successfully through 3 months in South America. We are safe and healthy and happy.

We’ve been asked by people back home, “What’s it like to wake up every day and not have any obligations?” This question makes our eyes bug out. Steve summed it up best by saying that he has more obligations now than he ever did back in the US. Yes, it’s wonderful that we don’t have to go to work and that we’re off playing in these incredible places. But we also wake up every day needing to find a roof over our heads, food that won’t make us sick, and transportation to places we know nothing about. Our days are full of decisions that either lead us to harm or lead us to safety. It is a big responsibility.

Among the backpacker crowd, there is a funny but clear designation between "traveling" and "vacationing". Before this trip we had never distinguished between the two, but now we are absolutely certain that we are traveling. Vacationers get to stay in nice places and spend money on trendy dinners and bottles of wine. Travelers nit-pick every expense.

We are proud to say that so far we've spent the biggest portion of our money on activities. We've worked very hard to pull that off. Here's how it's broken down:
Activities – 38%
Lodging – 25%
Food – 23%
Transportation – 13% (not including flights)
 Internet, Toiletries, Souvenirs and Laundry – 3%

Would you believe that we keep running into people that we know? It turns out that the backpacker circuit is quite small and everyone seems to be moving in a similar direction. It’s always fun to spot someone on the street after not seeing them for weeks. It makes us feel connected.

We have spent every waking moment with each other for 88 days straight. The longest we were apart was for 2 hours in Arequipa when Katie visited the convent and Steve didn’t. We have come to rely on each other more than ever…it was a lonely 2 hours for both of us.

We never know what day of the week it is.

Given the amount of carbo-loading we’ve been doing with white bread, you’d think we were prepping for some major athletic event.

We are bringing the egg-over-easy on everything back with us to America. We are looking forward to eating salads and not having to brush our teeth with bottled water.

It is a sad reality, but we have become untrusting of people. Even when someone walks up to us offering help, we immediately think they’re either trying to rob us or sell us something. We have had one eye over our shoulders every day for the past 3 months.

After using up a lot of our lotions, shampoos and toothpastes, our backpacks are feeling lighter than ever. We could run a 100-meter dash with them on, if we ever needed to.

We have had the perfect mix of city and nature…flipping every week or so from one to the other. We have been to every capital city and bused our way through the countryside of every country we visited. But even so, there is so much land we still did not cover. South America is a BIG place!

We really hope that we don’t forget too much of our Spanish before we make it to Spain. Are we sad to be leaving South America? Not really! We had an absolute blast, but we are too excited for the next phase of our trip. Until next time, South America! Hasta Luego!


April 28, 2012

Peru Recap

From the moment we hit Lake Titicaca, the most noticeable and memorable aspect to the Peruvian landscape has been the Inca terracing that consumes almost every hillside. It is unimaginable to think about how long it would have taken them to accomplish all this.

Its pretty standard for Peruvians to have children in their 20s and get married in their 30s or 40s. Peru has the cutest kids with the biggest brown eyes. They aren’t shy at all…they just run up to us and immediately start playing with our foreign objects.

We thought that Bolivian clothes were colorful, but it’s nothing compared to Peru. They embrace neon.

During the Spanish colonization of Peru, Christian symbols were introduced to educate the indigenous people about the Catholic religion. These new symbols such as Mary, saints, and the crucifix were painted by indigenous people of Peru, and it was this unique mix of European and Andean styles that became known as the Cuzco School of Painting. We have seen and enjoyed these paintings all over Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. The hallmark characteristic of the Cuzco School is the application of gold brocading to simulate embroidered designs on clothing. In person, the gold details just pop off the canvas and it's really beautiful.

Compared to the rest of South America, Peru has tourism down. They have sophisticated tourist offices and maps. When Katie left her bikini at the bottom of the Colca Canyon, they went out of their way to put it in the hands of an Israeli hiker named Bar who promised to escort it all the way to Cuzco. Unfortunately Bar turned out to be a dishonest human being, but at least the tourism office was helpful!

We are ready to get away from all of the people down here who feel entitled to our money. Particularly in Bolivia and Peru, the handicraft vendors are constantly a presence and many times overstep their bounds. They play a sob story and make you feel like you’re a bad person for not wanting to buy a weaved bracelet that was popular in 1992. 

Lately we have really been put off by all of the people who think tourists should pay for absolutely everything...
"You want to use the bathroom? 50 centavos."
“You want to take a picture? 2 soles.”
“You want to pet my llama? 3 soles.”
“You want to walk inside a church? 25 soles.”
I am just waiting for the day when someone says to me, “You want to breathe our air?
1 sole.”

After 3 months in South America, you'd think that we would have tried most of the major foods and that this section would be small. Peru really does have its own culinary identity, and its food was our favorite out of all five countries that we visited.

Alpaca – technically different from the llama that we ate a lot of in Bolivia. We’ve tried alpaca in the form of steak, meatballs, and on pizza.

Cuy – guinea pig. This is a national specialty dating back to pre-Inca times. It took us a long time to find a restaurant where we felt comfortable enough to try it. I don't know if it was the quinoa crust, or the meat itself, but I thought it tasted exactly like a fish stick.

Rocoto – a hot pepper that is stuffed with meat and vegetables…another national specialty. After 2.5 months of no spice in our food, we were sweating after eating this!

Lomo Saltado – beef tips, red peppers, onions, egg and rice on top a bed of french fries.

Aji de Gallina – chicken in a yellow pepper sauce with olive, egg and rice.

Papas – potatoes in all sorts of colors…orange, yellow, green and purple.

Ceviche – a specialty of Lima and basically a heaping pile of sushi bathing in milk and lime juice. We tried a fish called cojinova. It tasted fresh and delicious.

Queso de la Casa "house cheese". Just like a glass of house wine, this stuff is not very good. It's spongy. I've never met a cheese I didn't like, but even I couldn't stomach this stuff.

Zapallo – giant squash. It’s so big that people don’t buy the whole thing. Street vendors only sell chunks at a time.

Chirimoya – a prickly green fruit on the outside that is white with large black seeds on the inside. The white fruit is sweet and good.

Lucuma & Guanabana – two different kinds of fruit that we tried in juice form.

Nabas Saladas – dried and salted fava beans. Yummy snack!

Maize Gigante – giant corn…really giant. It's served on the cob and also dried for a starter at restaurants.

Muna – an herb used in tea or cooking, which supposedly helps with stomach aches.

Machu Tea – we were served this tea after each day on our Inca Trail hike, and it is one of the top South American recipes we will be bringing back with us to the US. Ingredients are black tea, camomile tea, fresh squeezed orange and lemon juices, and sugar. It was thick and oh so yummy. It can also be enjoyed with a splash of rum. We know this because one of the Irish hikers in our group carried an entire bottle of rum on his back to Machu Picchu.

Sublime – our favorite guilty pleasure chocolate bar. Even the Easter Bunny knew what we liked!

Escoceza & Inka Kola – different kinds of soda. Inka Kola outsells Coca-Cola in Peru and tastes like a mix between bubble gum and cream soda. Escoceza is red and consumed in mass quantities in Arequipa.

Chicha Morada – a non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn. It was surprisingly really sweet and tasty. I suppose if you put enough sugar in anything, it would it be tasty.

Chica An alcoholic corn beer that we tried on the Inca Trail. If you're expecting the taste of beer, you're in for a rude awakening.

Pisco Sour – the famous alcoholic drink that is a Peruvian staple. The ingredients are pisco, lime, syrup, egg white and bitters. It tastes like it belongs in the margarita family.

Cusquena – the most popular beer, served in both light and dark form.

Leche de Tigre – “Tiger Milk”. This was served, along with some dried corn, as a pre-meal snack at a very local restaurant that we stumbled upon in Cuzco. It’s served in a shot glass. We asked the waiter what it was, and he said “ceviche”. Hmmm…that’s interesting. We asked him to expand on that. Apparently it’s fish juice, lemon, and pepper. We gave it a little sip and called it quits. It tastes about a horrible as it sounds. The aftertaste was even worse…it just lingered.

Andean Condors – condors play an important role in the folklore and mythology of the Andean region and it was a treat to get to see them so close up and in their natural habitat in the Colca Canyon.

Giant Hummingbirds – we saw these all over Peru. They look too fat for their little wings to hold them up.

-  La Pascana (Chivay)
-  Tumbo Viejo Hostal (Arequipa)
-  Eco Packers (Cuzco)

-  Getting insight into the traditional island cultures of Lake Titicaca
Stumbling upon the Dia de los Ninos (Day of the Children) costume contest in Chivay
The mighty condors of Colca Canyon
Arequipa’s charming plaza and friendly people
Convent Santa Catalina tour in Arequipa
Cuzco’s intertwined Incan and Spanish architecture
-  Hiking through the terraces up to Pisaq's ruins
-  Jumping the Super Mario stairs in various ruins
The Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu
-  Night fountains of Lima

Ever since La Paz in Bolivia, we caught an unlucky streak with the weather. We were in Bolivia and Peru at the tail end of the rainy season, but we’ve heard that this year is running particularly late. We have powered through some hikes in the rain that were fun, but under ordinary conditions would have been spectacular. Rainy season is still rainy season…even if it’s at the tail end. We made an agreement with Mother Nature that we would give up clear weather in the Colca Canyon for clear weather at Machu Picchu. She obliged!

We pretty much can't believe that our time in South America is up. We are so happy that we chose Cuzco and Machu Picchu as our final hurrah.

We have become experts at flushing the toilet with only a bucket of water. This was something that we were scared to even try in Bolivia, but it became a necessity on the remote islands of Lake Titicaca. Who could have imagined the talents we would pick up!

We have spent many hours fine-tuning our foosball and scrabble skills. Spanish Scrabble anyone?

April 27, 2012

Last Stop...Lima

Lima is the capital of Peru and officially our last stop in South America. We never intended to come here, but it was a mandatory layover between Cuzco and Europe, so we decided to make the most of it. Flying over the city, Lima was simply-put…brown. It reminded us of a city in the dessert along the ocean.

Lima is known as the gastronomical capital of South America, and we stayed in an upscale part of the city called Miraflores. We stopped into a grocery store and were shocked to find it verging on Whole Foods quality…a complete anomaly in South America. Miraflores is full of beautiful parks, trendy restaurants, coffee table bookstores, stray cats and American name-brand shops. They even have mobile libraries and wi-fi in the parks!

The Miraflores sub-section of Lima is by far the most American city we’ve seen in South America.

Around sunset, we headed down to the beach boardwalk. If I could remove the cell phone towers, smog and dirty ocean water, I would swear we were sitting in La Jolla. There were flowering cliff-side walkways with paragliders above and surfers below.

Lima also has a large historic center where we visited the Convento de San Francisco. Underneath the church is a labyrinth of catacombs where Lima’s original cemetery was located. It’s estimated that 25,000 people were buried there. By “buried”, I mean that their femur and skull bones are sitting out within arm’s reach. The bones were typically arranged in an artistic pattern. No cameras allowed, so here’s one from the Internet.

At night, Lima has a really cool park where 13 different fountains are lit up and set to music.

Here's Steve going through the Tunnel of Surprises.

They even had a new-age laser version of the Bellagio fountains. We were pretty impressed.

I love that on our last night on this continent, South America showed us a thing or two about technology!

April 25, 2012

The Inca Trail

“…From the city of Cuzco there are two roads or royal highways which are two thousand miles long; one goes along the plains and the other along the mountaintops…”
                                                                                                                           - Garcilaso de la Vega

Over a year ago, we began making plans to summit Machu Picchu on my 30th birthday. This was probably the single activity that we spent the most time researching and organizing. It’s also what we built our entire South American itinerary around. We had been looking forward to this moment for a long time.

The Inca Trail hike is a 4-day, 27-mile trek just beyond the Sacred Valley, culminating with The Lost City of the Inca’s – Machu Picchu. The fastest recorded time to complete the Inca Trail was set by a porter in 3 hours, 45 minutes. That's 11 minutes better than my fastest marathon time.

3 days before my birthday, we began the trek with 12 fellow hikers. Everyone in our group was either American or Irish and all around our age, with the exception of one retired couple from Alaska. We had a great time with these guys and felt so lucky that we got paired up with the group that we did.

Aside from the hike itself, one of the most interesting and memorable aspects of the trek was the support crew needed to pull it off. Every day, there are only 500 people allowed on each section of the Inca Trail. 200 are the hikers…300 are the crew. For our group of 14 hikers we had: 15 porters, 2 chefs, 1 coordinator, and 2 guides. Our team of 20 gave us a 5-star camping experience that completely spoiled us and ruined our expectations of “camping” forever.

The porters are tiny little men who come from neighboring communities. At the beginning of the trial there is a weigh station, and under new regulations, each porter is only allowed to carry 25 kilos (55 pounds).

We slept in tents at campsites, but these were not your normal campsites with picnic tables. Our porters literally transported a mini-city for us every day – tents, bags, chairs, cooking equipment and food. The porter with the most balance was given the task of carrying the eggs. 2 of the porters were solely dedicated to carrying propane tanks.

Carrying the weight on their backs, the porters would run the trail so that they could get to our lunch spot and have everything set up by the time we arrived.

After we ate, our guides would give us about 15 minutes to digest the food before we started hiking again. That’s when the porters would break down the city, throw everything on their backs, and run the trail to catch up and surpass us so that they could have dinner and the campsite setup by the time we got there.

We always had bowls of fresh water waiting for us to wash our hands.

This level of service went on for 4 days. They worked extremely hard, and on top of it all, they were really nice people.

We also ate better during our 4 days in the wilderness than about 75% of our meals so far in South America. We feasted on more vegetables in 4 days than we’ve had in 3 months combined. Each lunch and dinner consisted of at least 5 courses. We had food that shouldn’t even be spoken in the same sentence as the word camping…fried chicken, ceviche, popcorn, pizza, vegetable stir fry, spaghetti with meatballs, fried rice, quinoa porridge, avocado salad, corn on the cob, fried trout, stuffed peppers, pancakes and chocolate pudding just to name a few. Every morning we had a personal wake-up call at our tent with warm coca tea.

Our guides, Oscar and Aldo, were patient and so incredibly nice. If anyone were to have trouble getting over a mountain pass, these two guys were ready at any moment to literally carry them over.

Day 1
We hiked 9 miles in about 5.5 hours. This was a relatively flat day with a tough uphill section at the end. We were surprised how many different kinds of wildflowers lined the trail in all sorts of colors – red, orange, white, blue, purple, pink, yellow.

There wasn’t anything too unusual about this day…we spent most of it getting settled in with our group, the porters and this new sophisticated style of camping. Day 1 is also when I got a small bug bite that ended up infecting my ankle by Day 4.

Day 2
We hiked 10 miles over 8.5 hours. With 2 mountain passes topping out at 13,780 feet, this was by far our hardest day of hiking. To make things more challenging, it rained almost the entire day. We couldn’t believe how quickly the weather would change every 10 minutes. It went something like this: sunny, foggy, rainy, foggy, rainy, sunny, rainy, foggy, rainy. I have never in my life done a hike where I had to change my clothes so often. It made it hard to get into a groove, and we were more than happy to arrive at our campsite that evening.

As the porters were putting the final touches on the dinner table, a double rainbow appeared over some Inca ruins on the hillside overlooking our campsite. 

It turned out to be a beautiful night with a sky full of stars.

Day 3
Because of the elevation of our campsite at 11,810 feet, this was our coldest morning. We were completely bundled up in every article of clothing that we brought with us. This was also a short and easy day of hiking – 5.5 miles over 4.5 hours. We had great weather and the views were spectacular. This is also where the trail turned into more of a jungle, and we saw also sorts of wild orchids. We got to our campsite early enough to take naps and even shower!

At dinner that night, I was surprised with a huge birthday cake and lots of singing hikers. We honestly would have believed our guides if they said a porter had carried the cake all that way…that’s how good they are. But it turns out that the cooks made this fancy cake on-site without even an oven.

Day 4
We were woken up at 3:15am to get on the trail as early as possible. By 6:30am we arrived at the Sun Gate, which is the point where you get to see Machu Picchu for the first time. From high up on the hill, our first impression was that Machu Picchu is really small.

We spent another 45 minutes getting closer and closer until we reached Machu Picchu at 7,870 feet. I can’t even tell you how relieved we felt that the weather was clear. We had been worrying about rain and fog for months.

Machu Picchu was officially discovered by a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham in 1911, when an 11-year old local boy showed him the way. It became really famous in 1913 when National Geographic dedicated an entire edition to the Inca city. Nobody knows exactly what it was used for, but most likely it was a city for the noble class. Archeologists believe that we can’t even see half of Machu Picchu, which is in the form of underground foundation and drainage systems.

The unfortunate news is that Machu Picchu is sinking. Even pictures of Hiram Bingham in 1911 show huge cracks in the walls.

One of the hikers in our group did the Inca Trail 37 years ago when people were not required to go with a guide and you could camp in the ruins along the trail if you wanted. It was insightful to see his pictures and hear his stories of how regulated Machu Picchu has become. This, combined with the sinking problem, really makes us wonder about how much access the public will have to Machu Picchu 30 years from now. Will we even be able to walk among the buildings or will we just be able to view it from a platform 50 feet away?

We spent 8 hours walking around the site and doing some side hikes to the Inca Bridge and up Huayna Picchuthe large mountain that gives Machu Picchu its classic backdrop. Everyone told us about the views from Huayna Picchu, but no one mentioned how amazing the hike itself is. It took us 40 minutes to get to the top via a system of extremely narrow and steep steps and steel cables.

From the top it was easy to see how Machu Picchu was built in the shape of a condor. From this picture the condor is upside down with the head and neck top and center.

In normal fashion, the weather was changing constantly and we got to see Machu Picchu from all sides in  the sun, rain and mysteriously shifting fog.

I think we walked enough steps to last us the rest of the year. After 4 days of hiking and 8 hours of scampering around Machu Picchu, we were beat. It couldn't have been a better birthday. I wish I could have talked with my family, but life is lived for days like these and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.