This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cuzco in Color

Welcome to Cuzco

Cuzco is a really nice place to visit and a main destination on almost everybody's trip to Peru. It is steeped in history and considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. The past is oozing out from the Inca bricks, colonial courtyards, regal churches and narrow cobblestone roads that make up the center of modern day Cuzco.  

The city was first inhabited by some earlier peoples and was then eventually occupied by the Incas during the thirteenth century. Cuzco was the capital of the Incan Empire until the arrival of the Spanish in 1533. After 36 years of war the Spanish finally conquered the Incas, destroyed the city and then built their own churches and buildings on top of the remaining massive stone foundations of Incan civilization. Fast forward to 2011 and Cuzco has become a major tourist destination in Peru.
An homage to the Inca past

The Spanish used Incan blocks as foundations for their buildings
These Incan walls were built with large stones cut at odd angles and with incredible precision. They did not use mortar and the seams are extremely thin. Over the centuries these walls have survived several major earthquakes whereas some colonial and contemporary buildings have crumbled completely.
The Stone of Twelve Angles: The most famous and photographed Inca rock in Cuzco
The center of town based around the main plaza is extremely touristy. Hotels are only outnumbered by travel agencies which are probably outnumbered by tourist restaurants serving alpaca and guinea pig which must only take a backseat to the gargantuan number of places selling Peruvian handicrafts.

Click here for my post about and photos of handicrafts in Peru

Alpaca wool sweaters: an all too common sight in modern day Cuzco
Sit in the main plaza for just five minutes and you are sure to be approached by either shoeshine boys, pendant sellers, art sellers, sunglasses sellers or old men buttering you up to eventually ask for some money. A walk on the narrow cobblestone street to see the famous Inca stones is to run a gauntlet of massage girls, wool hat sellers, restaurant touts and ladies who charge money to take their photo wearing traditional dress and holding cuddly lambs. As you can probably tell, the tourism factor in Cuzco's center is off the charts. It is a bit obnoxious, but surprisingly not ostentatious. It seems to fit the city well and I think adds to the atmosphere of any visit to Cuzco.

The Cathedral at night

A photo of someone taking a photo of women in traditional clothes
 -- for a fee of course 

Taking a Pass on the Boleto Turistico

Well what can I say, there is a lot to see in around Cuzco and we see mostly none of it. I know this sounds pretty lame, but there are two good reasons for this:

The first is that soon nearing my one whole year of traveling anniversary I have hit a slight sightseeing wall. In Cuzco, and especially after visiting awesome Machu Picchu, I lose interest in chasing after every last (and first) guidebook recommended place of interest. Call it a mild case of traveler's fatigue. The second reason is that in Cuzco you cannot just visit your preferred places of interest. You have to buy a Boleto Turistico (Tourist Ticket) which costs about US $45 and offers entrance to sixteen different museums and ruins. There are a few places not included in the ticket that have individual entrance fees.
A free peek into part of the cathedral during a wedding 
I feel that if I buy this ticket I am obligated to run around and see everything. I am not quite sure why they do it this way, but in my opinion it is just another attempt to gouge as much money as possible from tourists. In the end there are maybe three archaeological sites, two churches and two museums that I probably would have liked to visit. Oh well, whatever.... by the way, saying "whatever" to places of significant historical importance is one symptom of traveler's fatigue.

Enjoying the beauty of Cuzco from the outside

The Real World Cuzco

Now I would guess that the majority of visitors do not leave the center of Cuzco. They arrive to their hotel, tour the sites, go to Machu Picchu, come back to Cuzco and soon leave. This plan is not so bad for people on short holidays because the center of Cuzco is beautiful and fun. The plaza and old churches are there, most hotels and tourist restaurants are there, and plenty of handicrafts shopping is in the center too.
The main plaza
Mika and I end up spending over two weeks in Cuzco which gives us plenty of time to get out of the historic/touristic center and explore. We find some good places just blocks away from the center where the local cuzqueños (people from Cuzco) shop and dine. Some days we are like an old retired couple with nothing to do but figure out where to eat. Finish lunch and soon begin discussing our dinner plan -- a true shout out to my Miami grandparents.
Quinua or quinoa (the little white squiggles in the photo)
is protein-rich, native to the Andes mountains and also known as Inca Rice

Juice seller
Our hotel is in a San Blas, a quiet, touristy neighborhood north of the main plaza. Every day we pass the main tourist drags to get to El Sol Avenue. Avenida El Sol is a main thoroughfare with wide sidewalks and lined with pharmacies, money changers, and shops. It is the fusion between tourist world and regular Peru world. Cross this road and in a few short blocks the number of hotels and tourist restaurants thins out dramatically. Just a few more blocks away and everything is just for locals. It is real world Cuzco. Peruvian Soles carrying foreigners are always welcome of course. Just do not expect to find a menu in English or German or Hebrew. These restaurants do not serve alpaca.

We find several good priced supermarkets, the main market with fresh fruit juice and S3 (US $1.07) lunches, a cake street, a chicharron - fried pork - street, a socks and underwear street and a shoes street. Maybe the best discovery is a very popular, slightly dingy vegetarian restaurant (we have to wait for a table at peak lunch hour) where for S4 (US $1.45) we get soup, salad, a plate of two mains with rice, bread, tea and a shot of yogurt.

My favorite lunch spot in Cuzco

Adios Cuzco

Grilled Trout
After what seems like quite a many days we finally manage to get ready to leave Cuzco. In the morning we buy our bus ticket for Puno and decide to have a big splash out for lunch. There is one restaurant that we have passed many times that has a large roasted chicken spit, bowls of crispy french fries and a fresh salad bar in the front window. It is always full of Peruvians. When we go in every single customer has the S12 ($4.30) 1/4 roasted chicken with fries on their plate. Since I do not eat birds I order the S18 (US $6.43)grilled trout with a pile of fries and salad bar.

After this terrific lunch we cross Avenida El Sol heading towards the main plaza when we see spots and spots of bright colors. Upon closer inspection we see streets filled with people in a rainbow of clothing. It happens that today is a festival where market workers put on traditional costumes and masks to march and dance around the main plaza. Every group is accompanied by live musicians. It is a very happy event and all performers are very obliging to our photography requests. The cobblestone streets and antique churches of the main plaza make a spectacular backdrop for this colorful dancing parade . It is also creates a very memorable last impression for our stay in Cuzco.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Handicrafts Overload in Peru

Artesania Overload

Being in the very touristy Cuzco - Machu Picchu region for a couple weeks now I am starting to suffer from artesania overload. Artesania in Spanish means any type of handicraft or art made from wood, leather, wool, cotton, ceramic, stone, metal, paint or other material I am leaving out. Quality varies greatly from cheap t-shirts to hand woven textiles costing hundreds of dollars; trinkets of pure silver to worthless baubles. Of course, these things make excellent souvenirs for visitors to Peru, but there is only so much a person can buy or even just look at.
A high-end weaving shop
In Cuzco, there are countless artesania markets, shops and stalls out in the open and hidden in courtyards. There are large markets in Aguas Calientes and Pisaq with smaller ones in other towns. Also, there are people setting up tables at every tourist point of interest along the road and mobile sellers who lay out their goods on a blanket or who hoof it around town hoping to find a buyer in the park or on the sidewalk.

Street sellers

Big Box Store: The largest handicrafts center in Cuzco
As you can imagine the handicraft and nick knack supply far exceeds demand. The superabundance of inventory being cranked out of factories and homes and put on display for prospective customers is quite overwhelming. I think that there are enough unsold alpaca wool sweaters hanging around Peruvian souvenir shops to keep all of Iceland warm for years. Seeing so many places with floor to ceiling items that are essentially similar to what is being sold by everyone else has me wondering as to how many people can actually eke out a decent living selling this stuff.


A pile of stuff


My personal favorite: The Conquistadors vs. Incas chess sets

Llamas, Alpacas and Condors, Ay Caramba!

Condors are mythical; llamas are practical; alpacas are fluffy and tasty (according to my non-vegetarian sources). All three animals hold a special place in Peruvian culture and history and the souvenir makers milk them for all their worth. Not literally, of course (they would if they thought people would buy alpaca dairy products). But these symbolic juggernauts can be found on just about any type of handicraft imaginable.  

Don't believe for a moment that a hardened traveler like myself would be immune to the irresistible charms of these critters:
My leather notebook
Condor finger puppet

Pisaq Market

From Cuzco we decide to take a day trip on Sunday to the market in Pisaq. I am coming here hoping to see many ladies coming from the surrounding villages to sell and buy fruits and vegetables, like a traditional small town market. But unfortunately this "real" Peru only covers about 10% of the market. The remaining 90% is dedicated to stall after stall selling handicrafts stretching through several streets and covering most of the plaza.
The remnants of traditional market day

Traditional tourist handicrafts souvenir market
Since we are here already we might as well enjoy ourselves. We have good lunches, do some browsing and Mika purchases a hand woven hat band right before my head explodes from handicrafts overload.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Aguas Calientes: Everyone Goes, No One Wants To

Editor's Note: The town Aguas Calientes is called Machu Picchu by the locals and is probably the more politically correct name to use. For this blog I am going to stick with Aguas Calientes so that readers will not confuse the town and the ruins of the same name.

On the Doorstep of Machu Picchu

Train station
Let's face it, no wants to be in Aguas Calientes. Yet everyone comes here. We have to if we want to go to Machu Picchu (or leave for those who come via the Inca Trail). The train station is here. The buses and trail up to the world famous Inca ruins are here too. Being the gateway to Machu  Picchu means that tourism abounds. For a small town there are so many hotels, tourist restaurants and stalls and stores selling an innumerable amount of souvenirs.

Aguas Calientes might just have the most handicrafts per capita in the world
Most people will come and go as quickly as possible. But unless on a whirlwind Peru tour, everyone has to sleep at least one night in Aguas Calientes. Mika and I stay three nights because we are too exhausted from our visit to Machu Picchu and need the extra twenty-four hours to recover. This is about twenty-four hours too long. The additional time does, however, give us the opportunity to find small patches of non-touristy Aguas Calientes.

Basically, the town is divided by a river. On one side is the main plaza, the market, most of the tourist restaurants and hotels, an ATM and the uninspiring hot springs from which the town got its name. Aguas Calientes = Hot Waters. The other side of the river has the train station, an outdoor tourist souvenir market and of course a healthy amount of hotels. Also, this side of the river has more homes and services for local residents.
A mother's day event at a school
Dining Nightmares

If I have learned anything from Chef Ramsey it's that it is better for a restaurant to be good at just one thing than to be bad at a lot of things. The restaurants in Aguas Calientes obviously do not watch his show, Kitchen Nightmares. All around the main plaza and up the hill to the hot springs is one tourist restaurant after another offering the same, overpriced, over-itemized menus hoping to please everyone while actually pleasing no one while trying to rake in as much tourist money as possible. These restaurants also sneak in a service charge not mentioned on the menus or by the wheeling and dealing waiters. This is definitely not a place where they are concerned about repeat customers.

To say competition is fierce would be putting it lightly. Pause for 10 seconds in front of a place and menu prices drop dramatically. Free drinks are thrown in as further enticement. Only a few places have more than two tables full. Many are barren.

On our first night it is really impossible to decide where to eat. I am not kidding, they are all the same. We finally select a place with a too-good-to-be-true pizza and pisco sour deal. The pizza is bad enough that Mika feels obligated to explain to them standard wood burning pizza oven operation. Even with the menu price drop this is still one of our most expensive meals in Peru and one of the worst.

The next evening after returning from Machu Picchu we are very disheartened by our dinner options and the thought at having to eat at one of these tourist nightmares is unsettling. After some waffling a nice waiter at a tourist place points us in the direction of the town's market hidden away in an alley just a few meters from the plaza. The market is an oasis of normalcy - like finding a Subway restaurant buried behind the $7 hot dog stands in the Magic Kingdom. A meal here with soup and drink is 7 soles (US $2.5); a blender full of juice 4 soles; breakfast 5; coffee just 1 little sol. Now these prices are still a bit higher than other markets in the country, but keep in mind that everything has to be brought to Aguas Calientes by train. In the market we even find real, honest-to-goodness Peruvian people eating next to us.

Breakfast at our travelers' oasis
So after the one tourist restaurant pizza mishap, we eat all remaining meals at the market except for one lunch at a restaurant for locals that we find on the other side of town a block from the soccer field. By the way, this establishment is the only place in town that has every table occupied with diners.

Fraternizing with the locals at the main plaza:

Click here to read about our exquisite visit to Machu Picchu

Click here to read about the cheap way to get to Aguas Calientes and some Machu Picchu basics