Archive for October, 2017

Macchu Picchu has an altitude under 2,400 meters, about 9,200 feet above sea level. But to get there, one flies to Cusco which has an elevation of 3,400 meters. More than 11,000 feet. That’s past the threshold when altitude sickness typically sets in. Those visiting Macchu Picchu ordinarily stay a couple of nights to acclimatize in Cusco. But there’s the option to stay in Sacred Valley instead which is about 2,900 meters — higher than Macchu Picchu, but lower than Cusco. A river valley “formed” by the Urubamba River, it’s really a perfect midpoint.

Sacred Valley is also home to many archaeological sites and Spanish colonial villages like Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Together with Cusco and Macchu Picchu, the area comprise the core of the Incan Empire. The archaelogical park in Ollantaytambo is no less challenging and is in fact a “climbing tour”. You need tons of energy for this, quite akin to tracing the Macchu Picchu trail. It is a pity Ollantaytambo is often overlooked because of Macchu Picchu’s majestic sanctuary up in the mountains. But Incan civilization in all its sophistication and grandeur manifests in Ollantaytambo’s stonework and dramatic setting both as a fortress and temple. One scales its stone stairways and steep terraces to gain a glimpse from the top of the quarries where all the stones were sourced. It was an engineering feat to transport these stones to put up this fortress, using (or diverting) the river’s current to ferry the stones. Go figure how smart these Incans were.

The Pisac Ruins include agricultural terraces held in place by stone walls. One can choose to take on this hike and impress everyone, or check out the handicraft and souvenirs market. There are also walking sticks, hats, water bottle holders to compose a hiker’s gear or a serious shopper may instead focus on gems, artwork, fabrics and fossils. The last one — please don’t buy! One person was offloaded in a domestic flight because of a fossil he bought which is not allowed to be taken out of the country.

While Cusco is bigger and busier, with its own set of attractions like big churches, monasteries, museums and plazas, Sacred Valley is more rustic. But our hotel for the night clinched it. Sonesta Posadas del Inca in Urubamba is so postcard-pretty, quiet and relaxing. Its charm rests in its sprawling complex of two-storey buildings, flower gardens, fountains, coffee nooks, tiny “instagrammable” chapel, and its breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains. Just imagine having coffee one morning with this view from any one of its many patios.

Even a single night here before taking on Macchu Picchu would be ideal. A train leaves regularly from this area to Aguas Calientes where one can ride the bus up to the citadel. There are coca tea available in abundance, and oxygen tanks are everywhere. Don’t be embarassed to ask the desk for a few minutes of oxygen to clear up your fuzzy brain! Tried it myself and it certainly worked.

My first reaction is why? How? This indigenous mammal has graced many homes as pets. Like the rabbits. But here, it has been a staple Andean dish for 5,000 years. They are actually rodents, more furry and cute! But here in Peru, they are either fried or roasted and called CUY. In some, they are served much like the suckling pig or cochinillo.

Tried this in Cusco, with ceviche (trout) on the side. They love their potatoes here so that makes up the carb component of one’s meal. I don’t know. Didn’t think I’d try it but then cuy is a Peruvian delicacy most locals would say no one should miss. But we opted for the better-looking cuy chaktado (fried under a stone) vs the roasted cuy on skewers found in most markets.

I like their ceviche with corn kernels (big kernels, long thin kernels) but I’d pass on their tamales and pisco sour. The tamales is too bland and the pisco sour too strong. In Lima, we’ve tried their lomo saltado and that’s ok. Won’t really crave for it. And no I won’t be ordering ice cream for dessert here. The texture and flavor just don’t make the cut. Nor would I order suspiro — a blend of egg yolks with condensed milk, cinnamon and port topped with meringue. Suspiro is simply too sweet for me. Each time it was served, I only managed a couple of teaspoonfuls. But I do like the variety of fruits we tried at the Food Market. Especially their custard apple, called chirimoya.

Do i have a favorite dish? I’m not particularly fond of meat but their salads, especially the avocado and lima beans as well as the variety of potatoes complete my meal. Trout is good too. And the quinoa soup is divine! For the carnivores, cuy fried or roasted, chicharrones (fried pork rinds), alpaca chops and lomo soltado should be IT!

Peruvian cuisine has survived many many years. The many varieties of potatoes and potato dishes, the big fat kernels of corn, those bigsized peanuts all pre-date the Incas. Our local guide kept reminding us the world owes Peru for its potatoes, now eaten all over the world. Through the years, Peruvian cuisine blended Andean ingredients with the Spanish and African to produce Creole cuisine. Then the Chinese came, and the craving for fried rice a la Peruviano gave way to chifa. The world-famous Nikkei cuisine blends Peruvian with Japanese cuisine — anyone cares for sushi with pisco sour? No wonder Peru — Lima, in particular — is home to many inspiring and aspiring chefs. A real food haven where many restaurants rank among the best!

Machu Picchu. FINALLY.

It has been on my bucket list like a stain that won’t fade away. Been imagining this Incan citadel up in the Andes for the longest time. Almost went a few years back, only to cancel plans at the last minute. Days before this trip, I’ve been agonizing over my lack of preparation, my seeming “lost ability” to pack (for summery, autumn, and wet weather) for 3 legs of this trip. Promised myself I’d relax the week before this trip, but no – I booked all my days prior and now reeling, functioning on what you’d term as #confusedmode. I’m too old multi-tasking but there I was, booking more trips even before I started to scratch this one off my bucket list!

Well, I’m here now. Dripping with excitement to view this 15th century historic sanctuary of the Inca Empire. Its natural setting couldn’t be better. The Andes Mountain sets a beautiful panorama of mountain peaks, valleys and slopes. This mosaic of about 200 structures, terraces, walls and squares amidst a rugged, dramatic setting presents an architecture whose exact function and role in Incan civilization remains a mystery. Well-planned, yes. But abandoned and virtually forgotten until its rediscovery in the early 20th century. Thank God its awe-inspiring mystery and grandeur remain.

Initially, I worried over the weather forecast. Rain is not my good friend. Nor is high temps. I packed for cold weather but lately, temps have been rising. Plus the occasional rain. Because we can only bring a backpack for our 2-day visit of Machu Picchu, I had the backpack stuffed good with fleece vest, long-sleeved turtlenecks, and a raincoat/poncho. Last night, I replaced the turtleneck with a couple of cotton shirts. I also ditched my body bag and chose to carry my backpack to carry all my essentials, with thoughts of changing shirts depending on how the weather goes. Thank God I packed my cotton shirts — really meant as undershirts if the temps dip low.

But I forgot one thing. I’ve hiked up the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan and thought I’d have no issues with altitude. It took awhile before I accepted that I may have been hit with altitude sickness while in Cusco where elevation is 11,000 feet. I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. I reasoned that I always had headaches back in Manila. Then some slight dizziness. Worse, I kept taking naps in the bus. Finally, I checked my Fitbit and found my bpm (heartbeats) hovered at 100 beats per minute as I rested and prepped for bedtime. With all the anxieties that I came this far and NOT enjoy Macchu Picchu, my “resting” bpm soared to 127. I was really worried.

I did as advised. Just my luck that my roommate is my doctor friend. I waited this long only to find myself planning this trip with this childhood friend. Oxygen was my good friend. Available in the hotels and the buses we took while in Cusco country. Macchu Picchu is lower than Cusco and thanks to my oxygen morning dose, it kept my heart from pumping so hard off my chest.

The bus we took zigzagged around the mountains at dizzying speed. The weather forecast is RAIN the whole day but it only drizzled towards mid afternoon. Soft rain, as our guide said while we walked from the Temple of the Sun towards the Sun Dial and Sacred Rock. With a rainy day forecast, our guide said the crowd we found in this ancient citadel is nothing compared to the norm. We had good, sunny spells and all. Never mind that it was unusually warm this late October. A couple of llamas even followed us around, and there was a pair of rainbows in all splendor as we bowed out of Machu Picchu. Not one, but a double rainbow! Even our guide Alvin had to take shots as he found rainbows in all his guiding career here only 8 times. Breathtaking!

I’m so happy to be here! Never mind that the dust worsened my allergies and my MP wardrobe never saw the light of day. My favorite striped cotton shirt was perfect as I sweated while walking up and down narrow, uneven steps. When it drizzled, and grew cooler, I put on my fleece vest and light raincoat. I grew hungry during the walk and felt my sugar and electrolytes dipping. What I’d give for a carrot stick to curb my hunger pangs! Someone in our group walking with her mom fed me peanut butter. That alone boosted my energy for a couple more hours walk. Bless her.

The following morning, I chose to rest it out. I know, it doesn’t sound like me, hungry for adventures, eager to suffer challenges. But I’m listening to my body, as well as to my doctor roommate. Rest the body. (Read: Have some retail therapy) Besides, I’m happy with my day in Macchu Picchu the day earlier. My resting heartbeat is now 80-90 bpm. Swell. I prayed as did many others I’d get here in fine health and weather. A slight “scare” just days before the hike, but I’m here now. Grateful, feeling blessed. This means much more than just ticking one off another destination off the bucket list.

I’d be quick with this one. You may be all agog strolling the Art Deco-lined streets of Miami, but not as agog over a plate of stone crabs with the special Joe’s mustard and mayo (and whatever else) dip. An institution around here, many say it would be a crime to visit Miami without dropping in.

We had salad before digging in into those fat crab claws, and a slice of chocolate pecan pie after the delightful seafood platter. Too bad they ran out of key lime pie, which I hear is another bestseller.

The place is housed in this yellow building not too far away from the Art Deco strip and that building one always sees when watching CSI Miami 🙄 . Best to go off peak hours if you want to get seated. I noticed though that many locals pick up their takeaway here. The idea crossed my mind too even AFTER we’ve lunched here. For sure, I won’t mind getting stone crabs for dinner on the same day. But then, there’s the business of checking out the nearby Art Deco buildings and the crabs would have to be left, stoned and cold, in the car. 😩

So there. Take your pick. Dine in or takeaway, or both? By the time you’re done meticulously cleaning out those claws of all the crab meat you can get, you’re ready to check out those background scenes in your favorite TV series 😜

Then head back for more.

Coming from a tropical country, I always always looked forward to trips to cool destinations. And I meant that literally. Lower temps are every tropical babe’s luxury, and I bask in the comforts of no-sweat, non-humid climates. But no, Florida is a major exception. Miami sizzles as did Manila when I left it. So, what best to do in this sunny paradise?

Bayside in South Beach offered many options. I’ve never done the tour of celebrity homes in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious. The boat tour of homes by the waters owned by the rich and famous beckoned and what better way to spend a hot, humid afternoon? The sea breeze will be refreshing and besides, I am now really and seriously curious.

I find it utterly mind-boggling to hear of over US$100 million homes and palm trees from Somalia costing $10,000 each. But then again, who’s to stop Dr. Frost from spending his money like a madman? Not many ladies know this doctor who invented the blue pill but many men of a certain age, stature and “habits” may remember this medicine man of Viagra fame.

And how about La Vida Loca Pop Star Ricky Martin? His white mansion confirms his sweet life on earth. Or rather, by the water. More Hollywood trivia: Michael Jackson gifting his celebrity bestie with a luxury home here. Such a generous gift for Elizabeth Taylor! Leonardo Di Carpio’s Villa looks like a location site for his movie “Great Gatsby”. And there’s also the white mansion of Emilio and Gloria Estefan.

Can i make a confession at this point? I couldn’t remember which house belongs to whom. 😔 Mi apologia. But if you come visiting, don’t be surprised to bump into Alicia Keys, Madonna, David Beckam, Shaquille O’Neal, Shakira and many other celebrities.

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Most visitors will hit the beaches and the stroll along Art Deco buildings in South Beach. Or perhaps they’d hop on a boat to view celebrity homes and if lucky, bump into suntanned Hollywood stars or the rich and famous. But I was drawn to visit this Spanish Monastery in an obscure place in North Miami Beach area. I was driven by my Miami-based friend who has not in fact visited this site the last 30 years she’s lived here.

There was a sprawling garden even before the Romanesque and pre-Gothic monastery was reconstructed here. Reconstructed, yes. The original site was in Sacramenia, Spain in 1133. That marks it a good 360 years before Columbus discovered the New World. Originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Monastery was renamed to honor the famous monk Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Cistercian monks lived in the Monastery for 700 years until a social revolution broke out in the 1830’s. The cloisters were then seized and sadly converted into a granary and stable.

Then came William Randolph Hearst. This media tycoon bought the cloisters and outbuildings in 1925. Stone by stone, the structures were dismantled, numbered, packed and crated in hay, and transported to USA. Unfortunately, hoof and mouth disease broke out in Segovia and the 11,000 wooden crates were quarantined, broke open, and the hay burned. But the stones were not replaced back in their original numbered boxes before being stored in a warehouse in New York where the stones remained for the next 26 years!

Meanwhile, Hearst ran into financial woes and it was only a year after he died in 1952 that the collection was again sold, and then resold in 1964. A wealthy philanthropist finally purchased the cloisters for the Episcopal diocese and the Monastery has since remained here with an active Episcopalian congregation. Now popular for weddings, photo shoots and as locations for film and TV shoots, it has been maintained very well to be enjoyed by visitors. The Museum Shop houses some antique decors from the original structures such as a series of corbels, coat of arms, bas reliefs, altars and religious statues. Worth a visit, if you ask me.

Lest I forget, the first time we visited (yes, we went twice) we even met this flamenco dancer posing, posturing and dancing in the gardens. Olé!

We came for this. Happy seniors in that Happy Place. Avatar opened only last May 2017 and we simply had to try those 2 new rides: that 3D Flight of Passage on a banshee and the Na’vi River Journey through a dream-like cave world full of bioluminescent light from the Avatar movie. All inspired by that all-time top grossing film by James Cameron.

We went on a Thursday, thinking it won’t be crowded but passing by a FULL parking lot on our way to the Dolphin Hotel within the Disney compound could only mean we should expect a huge crowd. Then again, we thought the huge throng of humans in Disney’s Animal Kingdom must be there for that popular safari ride. We were wrong again. Every human seems headed for Pandora. And yes, everyone wanted to ride the banshee!

The lines for the rides were long. More than an hour. But we can’t be deprived. We drove more than 3 hours from Miami to Orlando for this, so what’s another hour? We chose the 3D banshee ride first. The line weaved through a laboratory reminiscent of scenes from the top-grossing Jim Cameron’s epic film. We even passed Jake’s avatar floating in an aquarium-like space. Finally, we were in a room, ready to be paired with our respective Avatars. Mine looked like the rest — blue, wide forehead, big eyes and all.

It was a marvelous ride. I screamed at the top of my lungs as my banshee soared high, dove low, flew through the floating boulders, got entangled with some floating trees, went through the falls, nearly collided with another banshee and other banshee-like birds, and simply paused to float in the air to take in the whole lovely panorama comprising the Na’vi world. I heard there were a few medical cases since the Flight of Passage in Disney’s Pandora opened last May. Mind you, not every collapsed person was a senior. Thankfully, I was completely aware of every minute of the ride and enjoyed it tremendously. Will I recommend it? Of course.

After “surviving” the banshee ride, we were ready for some Na’vi food. We were so curious we ended up overordering. Had a piece of the burger pod which looked like steamed Chinese buns we call “siopao” except that the Na’vi pods were dry and tasted bleh. Most reviews I’ve read recommended it though. But this Oriental knows her Chinese buns and the pods I tried just don’t make the cut. As for the grilled beef with potatoes and chimichurri sauce, we hardly touched it. Beef looked half-cooked, sauce could have been better. Another bleh. Good thing I added a kiddie meal of grilled chicken with rice which I liked. I also liked the “lumpia” (rolls filled with pineapple custard) I bought with the Na’vi drinks from the Pongu Bar. Now, the desserts looked really good but tasted overly sweet. They were left half-eaten. As for the drinks, forget the Night Blossom. They just look good but not worth a sip.

After a heavy meal of stuff we hardly enjoyed, we went for the River of Lights Show. No fireworks but the lights display in the pond in Asia World in the Animal Kingdom was worth seeing. Then, we trooped back and queued up for the boat ride through the Na’vi River. The journey didn’t elicit as much excitement as the first but it was relaxing, and cooled us through this hot, humid day. It was however just a boat ride, not much different from the “Pirates of the Carribean” or “It’s a Small World” but certainly not much more enjoyable as these last 2 Disney boat rides. And that ends our day in that Happy Place. Best part was the banshee ride. A few letdowns on the Na’vi food, but we’re too happy to be upset about it. 💕