Friday, May 29, 2009

Crossing the big pond! - Transatlantic Cruise on the Crown Princess


Destination: Ponta Delgado in the Azores (Portugal)

Where we stayed: 2 nights in Fort Lauderdale at the Marriott Residence Inn in Plantation ($42/night on priceline); Crown Princess - 21 days (actually 2 cruises back to back, the first a 9 day transatlantic and the second a 12 day Mediterranean) - $1049 per person plus tips $11.50 per day

Best restaurant: How about a favorite meal? My (Tracy) favorite cruise dinner is a goat cheese souffle, a bowl of crab legs and rack of lamb! For Jason, it's crab, crab and more crab!

Best of: We had perfect seas and weather for the first three days of the cruise...I spent a lot of time out by the pool relaxing and it was wonderful!

Worst of: My cold came back with a vengeance at the end of the first cruise. It probably had something to do with sleeping (or not sleeping) at the Lima airport....This time it was accompanied by a brutal cough which is finally starting to get better weeks later.

Our flight from Lima back to the US went smoothly although the night in the Lima airport was long and boring. Of course we couldn't check our luggage in for our international flight until 3:00 am so we carted it around with us while we killed time reading, snacking and writing to update this blog! Finally after 19 hours in transit from Cusco we landed in the good old USA! After picking up our rental car (priceline - $50 for 2 days) we headed to the mall to make a dent in our long list. After 4 months in South America we were both in need of a few items and we took advantage of being able to stock up! Our little shopping expedition continued in earnest the following day as we counted down the hours to our relaxing transatlantic cruise! The following morning we made a few last minute stops at Whole Foods for wine & Barnes & Noble for guidebooks and we boarded the Crown Princess, our home for 3 short weeks!

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I would like to say we stayed busy being productive for most of the cruise but to be honest we spent the first three days lounging in the sun, sleeping late and just relaxing. When the weather turned we used the time to catch up on photos, write entries for the blog, read and watch movies. It wasn't very exciting but it sure was relaxing! Our one bit of excitement came when we were attending a hypnotist's show one night. Both of us had talked about going up on stage and Jason decided to go ahead and give it a try. After seeing Jason scoot across the floor to put out an itch we will never think of "A Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash in the same way again!

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The transatlantic cruise had just one port, Ponta Delgado in the Azores. We wanted to see the lakes and ended up sharing a taxi with another couple (35 Euros for 3 hours - $45 per couple). If you are there and want an excellent English speaking driver contact Jose Raposo at The lakes were certainly beautiful but the weather was very overcast so we were disappointed that we were not able to see the blue and green colors that the lakes are famour for. We also stopped at one small village located on the shore of the lake and several other beautiful spots on the island.

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After the Azores we had one last day at sea. It was unfortunately quite rough and we spent most of our last day sleeping in the cabin and preparing for our port intensive Mediterranean cruise!

To see more photos of the Azores click here!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A final stop in South America - Machu Picchu, Peru


Destination: Macchu Picchu

Where we stayed: We stayed in Ollyantantambo in the Sacred Valley (see Sacred Valley entry)

Best restaurant: The oreo cookies in our backpack were pretty good! Since we were only in Machu Picchu for 8 hours we spent the entire time at the park and didn't eat at any of the local restaurants.

Best of: The clouds lifted 15 minutes before we had to leave so we raced to the Guardhouse to take a few final shots of the whole complex

Worst of: Wildly unfair tourist prices - for example, locals pay 10 soles for the train to Machu Picchu and tourists pay 93 soles or $31 for the exact same train from Ollyantantambo. The entrance fee is 120 soles/$40 for tourists and about half that for Peruvian nationals.

Our trip to South America wouldn't be complete without a visit to Machu Picchu. We planned our visit there to coincide with our last day on the continent. Machu Picchu is considered the most spectacular archaeological site on the continent. Its stunning location and mysterious past makes this a place of great intrigue. The actual function of Machu Picchu is not known but it is speculated that it was of great ceremonial importance to the Incas.

In order to maximize our time there we booked the earliest possible train....we were at the station 5:00 am. Machu Picchu here we come! We arrived in Aguas Calientes at 7:00 am and immediately took the bus up to Machu Picchu.

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When we arrived at the gates of Machu Pichu we raced across the site, snapping a few photos in the process, until we arrived at the entrance to the Wayna Picchu trail. Wayna Picchu means young mountain and they allow 400 people to climb to the top of each morning. We were in luck, we were numbers 97 and 98 so we set off up the mountain with the hopes of getting a few fantastic photos of Machu Picchu! Sadly, it was not meant to be. Although we made it to the top, Machu Picchu was covered with clouds. We gave up after sitting at the top for 45 minutes and seeing only clouds.

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Back down at the gate, we found a tour guide (60 soles/$30) for a two hour tour of the highlights. Our tour visited the Temple of the Sun, the house of the High Priest (including the "toilet" of his holiness), the Temple of Three Windows, the Agricultural Terraces & the Temple of the Condor.

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When we finished our tour, with only fifteen minutes to go before catching our bus down the mountain, the clouds finally lifted and we ran to the top of the Guardhouse to take a few photos of the entire Machu Picchu complex before catching our train and saying goodbye to South America!

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The train ride back down to Cusco included an English tea time and an alpaca fashion show! While out host and hostess strutted their stuff down the makeshift runway we cheered and clapped. Unfortunately though, no purchases were made by us!

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After returning from Machu Picchu we spent our final night in Cusco before starting our homeward took us about 24 hours including a very long overnight layover in the Lima airport. Our reward was 1.5 days of shopping fun in the great USA before heading across the Atlantic on the Crown Princess!

To see more photos from Machu Picchu please click here!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Sacred Valley of the Incas - Pisac, Moray, Maras, Chincero, Urumbamba & Ollyantantambo


Destination: Sacred Valley of the Incas

Where we stayed: We stayed one night in Urumbamba at Hostal Los Geranios for $25/night and two nights in Ollyantantambo at Hostal Las Orquídeas for $35/night with breakfasts. I would definitely recommend both establishments!

Best restaurant: The chocolate cake at the Pisac market ($.50/slice) was phenomenal, it was even better than the chocolate cake at Nona's in Denver ($5/slice); Pizza Zuni had excellent pizza in Urumbamba

Best of: Entertaining bus rides and the well preserved ruins of Ollyantantambo

Worst of: Broken down buses, having aguardiente dumped on us

After spending the week relaxing and getting acclimatized to the higher altitude in Cusco, it was time for a little adventure. We backed a couple of day bags for a 4 day journey through the Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu.

The Sacred Valley lies down the hill from Cusco in a fertile valley that not only provides stunning backdrops but most of the corn and other crops of the region as well. The valley is dotted with several ancient Inca ruins serving as a good buildup to Machu Picchu. We started with Pisac for the first day; moved on to Moray, Maras and Chinchero the next; followed by Ollantaytambo on the third day.

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We woke up bright and early and caught the local bus up to Pisac for the Sunday market. Hoping for something similar to Sapa in Vietnam, we were expecting hillside village people bringing all sorts of goods to market, enjoying all sorts of local foods and loads of character. While the market was nice, Sapa it was not. Lots more of the same stuff you find in the markets in Cusco, but with a few vegetables on the side. It did come to life after the tourists left as the locals celebrated their day of sales with loads of local foods a la chocolate cake, popcorn & donuts along with a bit of aguardiente!

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After having our fill of souvenir stands we poked our head into one of the stands serving up Cuy, or the infamous Guinea Pig. Having already decided that a trip to Peru would not be complete without trying this local delicacy, we ordered our lunch compete with potatoes and...yep...corn. I can't say I would order it again, but it wasn't as bad as you might think. If you have had dove or a small gamey tasting bird, then that get's you in the ballpark. If that is also not on your taste radar, think dark meat turkey with a smokier flavor.

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After our "filling" lunch, we hopped in a cab and went to the top of the hill for the Incan Citadel high above the village. The height provided some nice views of the valley and the well preserved ruins at the top were pretty nice also. We ended up taking the 2-3 hour walk down from the top which was a pleasant experience in itself passing by nice terraced farms and a waterfall.

After our walk down, we hopped on the local bus to Urubamba for the night. On our way we encountered an interesting character sitting across from us. Shortly after sitting down, he took a swig from what was left of a nearly finished bottle. After yelling at the driver for 10-15 minutes to get moving, he turned his attention to us and began to talk to us as if we could understand a word. Knowing a fair amount of Spanish at this point in our trip, we were surprised at how little we could understand...until we realized he was talking to us in Quechua, the local language. Jason was brave (or dumb, take your pick) enough to try his elixir, while Tracy ended up wearing a little of it when he decided to turn it upside down. After yelling several times what must have been curse words, the conductor had to come back to tell him to chill out. About halfway there, the bus broke down and we were refunded half the fare (1 soles; 25 cents). We all got out, some started to walk to the next town, while a few of us sat on the side of the road waiting for a ride. The drunk man refused to get off the defunct bus, kicking at anyone who tried to pry him out of the door. Eventually, a van came by and picked up the handful of us left on the side of the road (another 2 soles)...minus the drunk man who was still laying siege to the stranded bus. Once we got to the small town, we picked up the rest of the bus passengers. What was a standing room only bus, became a packed van. Normally, the van holds about 12 and our best count (we could not see everybody) was around 24 people, a sack of corn flour and one big bug buzzing around a small dim light.

After peeling off the van walls and checking into our hotel for the night, we headed into the town of Urubamba for a bite to eat. The local pizza joint, which looks as if it's seen a fair share of tourists, was surprisingly good.

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The next morning we were met at the hotel by our taxi driver for the day. We had decided that it was too many logistical challenges to get around Moray, Maras, and Chinchero on our own and it worked out fairly well. We began the day in Chinchero, the "birthplace of the rainbow". With cobblestone streets and a beautiful church at the top of a pedestrian only hill, the small town had tons of charm. The views from the Inca ruins were breathtaking and the frescos painted on the walls of the church were impressive, nearly equaling those painted around the same time of the Renaissance happening across the pond.

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We moved on to the crop circles of Moray next. No, aliens did not make these crop circles. The Incas were believed to have used these as some sort of experimental agricultural lab. They fed the circles water by a series of aqueducts which have since been closed off.

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After climbing out of the circles of Moray, we headed over to Maras Salineras. Maras, also known as the salt mines, has been working since Inca times. Spread out over the side of the hill, thousands of these "pans" collect the salt that flows from a stream. The workers divert the salty stream, fill the pans and wait for the sun to evaporate the water. The whole process takes a long time and the results are about a ton of salt per month. We had the taxi drop us off at the top and then we walked down past the salt pans all the way to the river, a 1-2 hour walk.

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The taxi driver picked us up at the bottom as promised and we were on our way to Ollyantantambo. On our way there, he took us by his home town to try some Chicha. Ok, so it was a little bit of a tourist trap, but it was fun anyways and we got a little education on how to make corn "beer". It cost us a whopping 10 soles (about $3.30...but a full glass of chicha is normally .70 centavos or $.20). We also had a chance to try Fruitilla Chicha, fermented corn drink with strawberries mixed in giving the mead like drink a sweet flavor. It was excellent!

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After paying for our drink pitstop, we arrived in Ollyantambo the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. We had a late, late lunch at the Heart's Cafe with a couple of Germans who helped us get in touch with our artistic side by helping us color our own postcards!

The next day we spent touring the ruins above the town. These ruins were a military outpost and were the site of a rare loss during the Spanish conquest of the Incas. This was the sight of the last major battles between the Incas and the invading Spanish forces. After their eventual defeat here, the remaining Incas retreated into the jungles, but did so in a way that by passed Machu Picchu thus preserving it for the tourists to come 500 years later. I was amazed to learn that the Spanish had defeated the Incas with only 100 soldiers prior to being turned back here...momentarily at least. Their real strength lied in the ability to convert the local population to Christianity. The battles were mainly between converted "Peruvians" and the Incas.

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After our morning on the ruins it was time for some lunch. The food at the local joint was so bad we ended up feeding this kid most of it, which he apparently liked. The real joy came in the free show that was going on in the square. I will let the picture do the talking, but, yes that is a monkey on dog on dog moment. Can't say you see that everyday!

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With an early morning train ride, we decided to call it an early night in anticipation of the next day in Machu Picchu!

To see more photos click here!