Category: South America

I just realized I didn’t do a blog summary on my 2017 trip to Peru. Specifically, on my adventures ticking Machu Picchu off my bucket list. Instead, I lumped my blog links on Peru, Miami, Utah and San Francisco, California all together. Not very neat. Especially for a trip where I honestly worried I could die. And so, this blog summary which I can now share with you.

Machu Picchu

Sacred Valley



Andean Delights

Touchdown, Manila! I’m back now after a month-long trip. This Oct-Nov trip had me packing and “improvising” for all 4 seasons. I know layering works but I never thought I’d experience extreme weather.

Miami was hot and humid, even in the evenings. The day we drove to Orlando and Hutchinson Island, it was in the high 20’s C. I was sweating while standing in line for my banshee ride in Avatar Land (Pandora) in Disney World. More beads of sweat as we took the boat ride to view celebrity homes in sunny Miami and checked out some Spanish Monastery. Oh, how it sizzled! It only grew more comfortable when we leisurely drove around Central Miami to feast on Joe’s stone crabs!

Peru had us moving from summer to spring. A blessing, given the rainy forecast for the day we visited Macchu Picchu. Weather was so unpredictable I had to strip to my undershirt during the day and then layer up towards late afternoons. I worked up a sweat climbing up and down this Incan sanctuary high up in the Andes. Temps dipped a bit as we moved from Aguas Calientes, Sacred Valley to Cusco and Lima.

From Peru, we flew back to Miami before flying to San Francisco, then Vegas and Utah to enjoy crisp autumn season. Halloween beckoned and the orange colors ruled the days especially when we visited Zion National Park and Red Rock Canyon. It was a great day for riverside walks and breezy, autumn afternoons.

The weekend in Lake Tahoe took over 3 hours of driving from San Francisco area. It rained, grew foggy and on our drive back, experienced snow at Donner Summit. But the lake view before that was breathtaking! By nightfall, we only managed a dinner in the hotel and a few casino hours. Slot machines bore me so I turned in early for the night while my friends played.

Back in San Francisco, we didn’t waste time visiting Napa Valley. The Riverfront, Ox Bow Public Market, the drive to Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena. Earlier, I wasn’t keen on doing yet another Napa day out. Now I realize there is simply too many, too much to cover in one visit. Mondavi the last time, Beringer, Hall and Far Niente now, perhaps Calistoga’s castle and wineries next. It was an exhausting, eventful month-long trip. Covered as much ground as possible in a month. Experienced all 4 seasons in one trip. Met up with as many friends and missed just as many too! I should be making another trip if only to visit more friends I sorely miss.

Many people go to Peru primarily to visit Macchu Picchu. Lima, its capital, has thus become just an entry point for most everyone’s coveted dream of setting foot on this wonder of the world. Perhaps not a fair assessment of what Lima can offer. But what’s going for it is how many of us visitors have very few expectations of this Peruvian capital. In fact, I’d dare say many of such expectations dwell on Lima’s gastronomic delights. After all, Peruvian cuisine has attracted global interest and many of its restaurants rank among the best. But that should not take away the charm off Lima’s unique attractions.

The capital has a very charming plaza with an ancient fountain, cathedral and monastery. After having your fill of archaelogical sites, fortresses and temples, it is refreshing to feel the ocean breeze as one walks along the promenade facing the Pacific.

For sure, you can’t miss that most erotic monument to “The Kiss” — strategically situated along the coastal park while paragliders hover above it.

Peruvians are proud of Lima’s major scenic attraction: the Pacific. If your first agenda is to try their cebiche and roasted or fried cuy (guinea pig) , you can check out the bistros lining the promenade serving these Peruvian delicacies. And if you’re there on a happy hour, go ahead and take sips of the Pisco Sour before checking out the core of the city: the Plaza Mayor or Plaza de las Armas.

In 1535, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro “founded” Lima and created this beautiful square with all the important buildings around it. One can only imagine all kinds of Peruvian festivities and entertainment being held here. It does have its dark history as well, having stood as venue for public executions relating to the Spanish Inquisition. In the past, the same square was also used as arena for bullfights or corrida. Seeing those ladies in tiered skirts and bow hats sitting on benches or just strolling around the square add charm to the place.

The market in Lima gave us our first taste of the many, exotic fruits of Peru. I’m a big fan of chirimoya and I was eager to have more than a slice of it. The papayas were very sweet and there were many other fruits whose names I can’t recall now. If only for these fruits and the local vibe of mercados, one shouldn’t miss a visit to the market.

Many visitors will spend 2 nights in this capital, just before and right after flights to and from Cusco. That’s alright. You can take in the square, the oceanside promenade, the Nikkei restaurants, a couple of museos or monasterios in those 2 days. Lima may be underrated, even ignored, but it is certainly a good break after your Incan adventures.

Getting High In Cusco

To reach Macchu Picchu in Peru, one needs to fly to Cusco and from there, either drive or take the train to Aguas Calientes where shuttle buses take you up to the Incan citadel. The train ride takes 3.5 hours from Cusco and stops at Ollantaytambo Station from where the last 90 minute-train ride terminates at Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Macchu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is a lively, vibrant town now called Macchu Picchu Pueblo. One finds many souvenir items on sale here. Very touristy, but if you ask me, I like the touristy vibe of this town.

Cusco is higher than Sacred Valley, which in turn is higher than Macchu Picchu. One may choose to acclimatize in Sacred Valley and save Cusco AFTER a hike in Macchu Picchu. From Sacred Valley, it is only half an hour to Ollantaytambo, where one can visit a massive Incan stone terrace cum fortress / archaelogical site — another testament to Incan mastery of architecture and astronomy. The way from Ollantaytambo to Cusco may consider a pitstop in Sacsayhuaman — another fortress-temple ruins site situated close to and overlooking Cusco. Here, marvel at Incan engineering skills using boulders and stones so firmly hewn together sans mortar. It is mind-boggling how each humongous stone seems custom-carved and fitted so precisely to make up a fortress wall & structure. Unbelievable.

After having one’s fill of archaeological sites and fortress ruins, Cusco offers the alternative of visiting Hispanic settlements, churches and colonial-inspired plazas. Just around Plaza de Armas in Cusco, there are 3 significant churches and monasteries worth visiting.

Inside the main cathedral hangs a painting of the Last Supper where a guinea pig called “cuy” takes centerpiece. Very, very Andean. After all, where else in the world do they serve guinea pig as local delicacy? Just right across this Cathedral is the Jesuit Church (Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus) whose grandeur seems to overshadow that of the 16th century main cathedral that honors the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. Plus, there’s the Convento del San Francisco de Asis and the catacombs. This San Francisco Church and Monastery is attracting crowds mainly for its catacombs but quite frankly, I am not keen about seeing human remains as they give me the creeps.

Before flying back to Lima, we spent time in Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The churches, convents, catacombs and plaza remind one that this is truly an amalgam of Incan heritage and colonial influences. The heart of Incan ancestry and colonial heritage beats here. How they’ve integrated both and preserved each heritage is an experience to be seen and felt. One can easily overread on Peru and the Incan Empire. I resisted the temptation and allowed my books to occupy space, undisturbed, in my suitcase. Instead, I delighted in chatting with Peruvianos, eating their food and listening to our guides whose Incan pride cannot be dismissed. I like that about ANY people or race. Peru. It must be experienced.

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.