Monday, January 7, 2013

Lima and Urubamba Valley

2012 - the year of Latin America - has come to a close. Of the 3 international trips we took this year, all were to visit our friends to the South - two to Central America (Costa Rica and Mexico), and this final Christmas trip to Peru. Peru was the 35th country I've visited, yet the first one South of the equator. I finally got to experience summer during winter - file that one under momentous travel occasions.

This was certainly not a relaxing trip. We were constantly on the go; our days started early and ended late, and were crammed chock-full of sights and impressions spanning the spectrum from beautiful and enlightening to introspective and hard to swallow. There were 4 am wake up calls, long treks in high altitude where your head spun and your lungs burned. In fact, altitude oscillated between sea-level and 14,000 feet, and we went from sweltering in our t-shirts to shivering in our jackets and hats - sometimes all in one day. Such is the reality on South America's Pacific coast, where the Andes tower right out of the ocean, yielding no more than a sliver of rocky, tempestuous beachfront, and rise higher and higher for miles, where ancient cities and reclusive indigenous tribes dwell, forever among the clouds.

There was much novelty throughout this journey, as will happen inevitably when you dip below familiar latitudes. Peru's amazing geographic diversity went a long way in ensuring that we felt well outside of our familiar elements. We ate and drank things we've never tasted before, learned about long-lost cultures we never knew existed, slept in a monastery high in the mountains, walked along original Inca-era cobblestones in the oldest city of the western hemisphere, and rode a boat made of reeds on the highest navigable lake in the world.


But, before all these amazing things transpired, we spent a day in the country's sprawling capital, Lima. Lima is situated right on the coast, yet it is unlike any of the coastal cities I've visited before. Forget about the typical gentle slopes or laconic rolling hills framing a bustling port. This coastline explodes right out of the sea, allowing for no more than a few feet of rocky, pebbled beaches sloping above gray, roiling waters, and a few lanes of road warning you every few feet along the way that in case of a tsunami warning, you should hightail it out of this area immediately.

After that, it's imposing, sheer cliff-side, with clumps of anemic looking vegetation holding on for dear life, and only after that - Lima itself.

Needless to say, it's an unusual sight, unfamiliar and very beautiful, in its own way; a city and its coast sharing the geography in a carefully negotiated balance. And locals really do seem to make the best of it. The beaches are teeming with surfers and sunbathers taking full advantage of whatever redeeming qualities they happen to see in this arrangement.

There are also quite a few parasailers making use of the constant upward draft rising along the cliffs from the sea. And then there's El Malecón, a six-mile stretch of coast-side promenade winding among parks, cafes and shopping centers, a perfect place to roam if you want to take in all the grandeur and beauty while breathing the salty air.

This city is hot and muggy. The sun rarely makes a full appearance, it just beats down through a thin film of clouds; bright enough to require sunglasses and measures against B.O., but muted enough to flatten the light and give everything a hazy, ethereal feel. But despite the clouds, humidity, and the ocean lapping at its foundation, Lima is nevertheless the 2nd driest capital in the world, coming in right behind Cairo, with only 3 inches of annual rainfall!

We started our visit with a walking tour of the Old City. It should be noted that Lima is actually 43 small cities clumped together, independent districts that make up the metropolis, each with its own unique history and population. The "Old City" is located deep inside this maze, around Plaza de Armas - the seat of the government and Justice Palace.

Plaza de Armas, Lima Old City
Ornate wood carved balconies on the Justice Palace. Plaza de Armas, Lima

First, we visited the San Franciscan Monastery - a storied and atmospheric museum of local history. I was very bummed that we couldn't take photos inside, especially when we were shown the Library, with its amazing collection of colonial and pre-colonial volumes set in the original space. Imagine - winding wood-carved staircases, gorgeous dusty tomes, crystal's simply amazing. Look it up. We did manage to sneak a phone picture in the catacombs/ossuary, which served as the city's first cemetery and contains 70,000 remains of Lima's earliest dead.

Who doesn't love a festive skull-and-femur arrangement?
At lunch, in a lovely restaurant with a patio overlooking the ocean, Flo and I discovered 2 things that immediately became our Great Peruvian Loves, sought after and savored at every opportunity - ceviche, and Pisco Sours.

When he's not delivering insurance your way, Flo enjoys a robust cocktail.
In doing my research for the trip, I came across a few tips suggesting to avoid Pisco Sours because they require raw egg in their preparation, thus presenting health concerns to dainty American stomachs. Fair advice, but we're not always known for our level-headedness. When presented with a choice between trying a regional specialty or not contracting salmonella, we usually go with the former. Anyway, this first Pisco Sour at the Mangos cafe on El Malecón was a true revelation. Like a hit of crack, once we tasted it, we knew instantly that there's be no going back, and, starting on that very first day, we threw caution to the wind and consumed this magical libation whenever we could.

To those of you thinking: "Meh... I've had Pisco Sours at my trusty neighborhood bar, they're OK, I don't know what you guys are so evangelical about" - let me just clarify something for you right now. What you had was llama piss. Upon our return to the US, we went to one of Austin's best cocktail bars - a surefire stop for all things related to mixed masterpieces - and what they made was a total fail. A decent tasting drink, to be sure, but NOT a Pisco Sour. So, we did some research, bought a slew of exotic ingredients (Angostura Bitters?...) and tried to recreate the magic at home. It was better than what we had at the bar, but still a far cry from the quasi-religious experience that arrived in frosty pastel colored glory all throughout Peru. (If you're interested in learning how to make this amazing drink properly, read this. And, if you're going to make it, please invite me over.)

In the evening, we prowled Barranco, the bohemian district of Lima that has always attracted vacationers and famous writers, a lovely spot full of taverns, restaurants, parks and architectural gems.


Bridge of Sighs in Barranco. Local legend has it that those who cross the bridge while holding their breath will have their wish granted.

Noisy cafes, shops, and street music make up the boisterous soundtrack to Barranco night life 

Urubamba - Sacred Valley
The next day we left the safety of sea-level, oxygen rich air, and flew to Cusco. Those who have known us for a while may remember that we visited Colombia in 2008, and that I got a serious case of altitude sickness in Bogota at 8,600 feet. In Cusco, we disembarked at 11,200 feet. I'd been having anxiety fits about this for weeks. Altitude sickness is weird, in that you can never predict whom it's going to affect and how. Sometimes lifelong smokers do just fine, and then some triathlete chick dies of hypoxia in the Peruvian high planes. There's no logic to it. But, having experienced it before, and at much lower altitude, I was understandably anxious when I got off that plane. But - I knew to expect it, so I walked off that plane slowly, breathing evenly, looking straight ahead as much as possible. And, it was ok. I certainly felt it, it was weird, but the worst subsided quickly and within a few hours I was back to normal.

A cure for what ails ya: Coca tea, made from the leaf of the Coca plant - is the best remedy for altitude sickness. You can find it in the lobby of every hotel in the region, and it's available at every cafe, restaurant, and snack stop.
We didn't stay in Cusco during the first few days; instead, we made our way to the Sacred Valley, called Urubamba, the cradle of the Inca civilization. This area was truly the heartland of the Inca empire, this was where they grew all of the crops needed to feed their population of 10 million plus people. The name of "Sacred Valley" also seems very fitting when you see it; it's quite beautiful.

Our first stop in Urubamba was Ollantaytambo - an archaeological site from the 15th century, a former town, as well as a terraced agricultural site and temple complex. It was our first glimpse of true Inca ruins, and it was really breathtaking.

We would later learn more about the importance of terracing in Incas' agricultural efforts, and the incredibly advanced practices that they developed to grow and manipulate their crops. At Ollaytantambo, though, we were too busy gawking at the scenery - blown away by our first encounter with an Incan city - to take in too much historical information.

Parts of the site are carved into the surrounding cliff-side while the moon hovers overhead.
Me (and my hair) in Ollaytantambo.
We stayed at a Franciscan monastery that had been converted into a hotel, with the backdrop of the Andes and clouds floating just overhead, seemingly close enough to touch.

Our hotel
Hotel courtyard
While in Urubamba, we also visited the Maras Saltpans - over 3,000 giant pits arranged on the side of a cliff, fed by a small salty stream that emerges from under the mountain and fills the ponds through an intricate system of channels.

Las Salinas de Maras, aka Maras saltpans. Note the narrow stream on the left.
The stream has been emerging for thousands of years. Not only has salt been harvested here during the Incan  empire, archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been using this salt for thousands of years, long before the Inca flourished in these parts. The salt pans are still operational, and are harvested every year during the dry season.

Even though the pans were not being harvested during our visit (it being the wet season), it's still one of the most unusual and geologically curious sites that we've ever seen. The stream is so salty, that it's totally safe for dainty tourists to dip a finger and try the water. It's utterly disgusting, but at least you can be sure no bacteria can lurk in water like that. Teams of geologists have tried to determine the origin of the stream, but no instrument is strong enough to penetrate far enough into the bedrock to track it. So, no one really knows where it comes from and what causes the wild level of salinity. One can only assume that somewhere deep inside the mountain there is an epic salt deposit, but the water does not share its secret as it gurgles quietly from that rock.

Salt deposits can be seen on everything

From Maras, we continued on to another Inca marvel - the terraced crop fields of Moray. This colossal depression, with enormous rings descending downward in a graceful and fluid geometric pattern, may look a lot like an amphitheater. In fact it was an agricultural site used to experiment on various crops. This is where we got a crash course on how the Inca dabbled in bio-engineering and wielded complex knowledge of geology and physics.

Terraces of Moray. It's hard to overstate how huge this formation is.
The rings take advantage of geothermal principles, and the temperature varies from one to another, creating a micro-climate on each step along the way. The Incas "bred" a variety of crops here, crossing various types of vegetables to achieve best results. Did you know that Incas developed over 100 types of potatoes, many of which are not even known in North America?  It's true. They were also first to make the potato edible. It was toxic as a wild plant until the Incas got their hands of it, and bred out the toxins. Pretty impressive for a bunch of "primitive savages".

Each "step" is about 6 feet high and you make your way up and down along these conveniently provided stepping stones.
The Serial Trippers, catching their breath, just before realizing they have to climb back out now.
The rest of the day was spent prowling the small towns of Maras and Urubamba. The settlements in this part of Peru are poor, there's no way around it. Aside from a couple of nice hotels, the valley is peppered with a bunch of one-horse towns where most residents clearly don't reap the benefits of tourists climbing all over their ancestors' achievements. But, despite the low standard of living, these rural Peruvians are all - without fail - friendly and curious and welcoming, easily inviting strangers to peek into their homes, or stopping for a quick hello. There may not be much glamour in these street scenes, but they want for nothing in authenticity and heart.

Inside somebody's kitchen. You can't see them, but there are guinea pigs and kittens running all over the floor.

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