Saturday, May 5, 2012

Gringo nightmare

Aguas Caliente is a small village boxed in by high mountains. It has a train station, a bus terminal, and as many hotels, pizza restaurants, and massage salons as can possibly be stuffed into the limited space in between. There is totally no reason to pay this tourist trap a visit - except that it's the gateway to Machu Picchu. You don't pay rent here, you pay ransom.

That said, we just had the best food here in our entire south America trip, at the Indio Feliz restaurant. The Lonely Planet guide book recommended it with the words "You have one night. Eat there." This place would succeed in France.

Our hotel room looks out on a raging river. Better than the techno beats in the center of this gringo nightmare.

Friday, May 4, 2012


There's an Inka ruins park here that covers a large section of the mountainside north of the town. They terraced the mountains and built forts and storage buildings on top. Some look almost glued to the wall. Everything is connected with narrow stairs and footpaths hewn into the rock. The scenery is dramatic.

We could also see the steep mountain overlooking the town (photo), and saw some people mounting paths to several scattered Inca buildings clinging to it, about halfway up. So we went there next. Those paths are very narrow, occasionally have rough steps, but often simply rocky slides. The ascent is occasionally a little technical and vertiginous, but not really dangerous. A walk in the park if you just spent a year hiking in Marseille's Calanques. The sign "danger, closed" with skull and bones, and the barrier we had to climb over, were really uncalled for. Wimps.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Took a taxi to Ollantaytambo. The taxi costs 20 times as much as local buses but saves hours of time in diesel-filled sardine cans, so we'll file this under rich Europeans supporting the local economy.

Ollantaytambo has its own Inca ruins hanging impossibly from the hillsides that box in the town. We'll explore those tomorrow. The town is small and still uses the old Inca layout, foundations, and many of the old walls. Roads are very narrow and most have a channel with fast-flowing water on one side.

A modern square with tourism infrastructure is tacked onto the village on one side. For the first time, the first few hotels we walked into were fully booked; we ended up at Casa de Mama. No wifi, I write this using an AP irresponsibly left open.

Inca ruins at Pisaq

We are in the Inca Sacred Valley, and there are Inca ruins all over the place. After visiting the main ones near Cusco yesterday, we took a local business to Pisaq, hired a taxi, and went up the hills to follow the trail there. The trail hugs the edge of the hill, and the views of the valley and surrounding hills, and the old Inca towns, are fantastic.

The way they brought huge stones from a quarry many kilometers away, up a hill on trails barely wide enough to walk, and then fitted them together without cracks or mortar, is amazing. Too much free manpower I suppose. The walls still stand today as they were built, although the roofs were lost.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Heart of the Inca kingdom

Cusco in Peru's sacred valley was the center of the Inca kingdom. They fought against Pizarro here, and lost. Today Cusco shows almost no trace of its Inca heritage, apart from some foundations here and some walls there. The city was rebuilt by the Spaniards, often by tearing down Inca monuments to build their own churches.

One of those Inca monuments is Saqsaywaman, a huge Inca fort on a hill at the edge of Cusco. Only 20% escaped destruction, but the remaining triple walls, built from tight-fitting stones up to five meters high, are amazing. So is the panorama up there.

Cusco is a pleasant and beautiful town, with all the amenities. Our hotel has a wonderful hot shower, internet, and even heating. You'd think that heating would be obvious high up in the Andes, where the winters get really cold, but it isn't.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Luxury train through the Andes

Perurail runs a luxury train from Puno to Cusco in the holy valley of the Inkas. It feels like a 1920s Orient Express: everything is paneled with dark wood, there are comfortable big chairs, tablecloths, brass lamps, and vases with real roses. Got an excellent three-course lunch and afternoon tea. The next car was a bar/panorama car, with an open back and windows in the roof. All very posh.

The ten-hour trip first runs across a flat plateau. It passes through villages that have discovered the value of the train tracks as an outdoor market. When the train arrives, they move their carts and umbrellas away and put them back when the train has passed. Blankets with wares between the tracks stay where they are, we simply roll over them. Reminds me of Saigon.

Later the terrain rises to 4300 meters, and the hills on both sides become steep, and some are capped with snow. Our slow descent to Cusco takes us through greener and more wooded countryside. A travel day can't be much more interesting and scenic than this!

Monday, April 30, 2012


This will be the last country in South America before this blog returns to its mission, promise. We spent a little time in Copacabana's markets, marveling at cubic-meter sized bags of popcorn, and trying Inca Kola, à pale yellow soda that tastes like children's bubble gum balls.

Getting from Copacabana in Bolivia to Puno in Peru, at the other end of Lake Titicaca, is easy, it's four hours by bus and simple border formalities.

Our first impression of Puno is that Peru does seem richer than Bolivia - excepting Bolivia's jewel, Sucre. Modern shops replace wares on blankets spread on the ground, there are restaurants not lit by fluorescent tubes, and no animals. But Puno isn't beautiful and doesn't have much to see, apart from Lima St and the green plazas at both ends, and a handful of monuments.

After a week of pretty uniformly awful Bolivian food, we gave in and had typical local food: pizza. And it wasn't bad. I'll be more enthusiastic about the food when I reach Asia.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The birthplace of the Inkas

There's just a few scheduled boats to and from Isla del Sol and they are not convenient. So we hired our private boat to take us to the north of the island, and from there to the ruins of Chincana, which is said to be the birthplace of the Inkas. Chincana is a maze of twisty little passages and rooms, with very low ceilings where ceilings still exist, built halfway up a hill over a large bay. We had it pretty much to ourselves, and a horde of local children playing hide-and-seek, because the inconvenient boats arrive later. We had a local guide but he spoke mui poco ingles, and my Spanish consists mostly of pattern-matching French words.

We are now in Copacabana, after a microbus ride over the worst dirt road in the world.

I wish I could show one of my fantastic pictures but my SD card broke, and my last backup was on the night before. (I do backups because I am a software engineer so I know for a fact that computers are out to get me.) Third failure of a Transcend card, and this time losing all data... I suppose I will never give Transcend another chance in my life, a brand, once burned, stays dead.

Anyone know a good FAT image recovery tool?

Isla del Sol

Titicaca is said to be the highest navigable lake in the world, at 3800 meters. Its largest island is Isla del Sol, reachable by a very very slow boat. There is no way to go from the harbor but up a very long stairway. At the top is another very long stairway. Followed by another. Then some stairs. And some more. All that in Bolivia's thin air. But not a single direction sign. When we finally got to our chosen hotel, we had once again topped 4000 meters.

The upside, so to speak, was that the place was right on the ridge, and our room had fantastic lake views on both sides. What it didn't have is heating (but good ventilation due to cracks in the wall), and it has no Internet. Neither do the restaurants advertising Internet access. There are no motor vehicles on the island, perhaps because there's scarcely a level path here, no asphalt, but lots of donkeys and llamas.