Sunday, May 31, 2015

Looking Back at Machu Picchu

     Looking back at our second week, we went to the ultimate destination that for many people is the sole reason they go to Peru. We had the amazing opportunity to visit Machu Picchu this past Sunday, which represents the remnants of a vast and intelligent culture that displays genius engineering, arquitecture, and agriculture. Before arriving to Machu Picchu, we stayed in a town for one day that was built solely for tourists to stay in before Machu Picchu, which was called Agua Calientes. Unfortunately, the town is built in an area where it was not meant to to be. As a result, all of its goods have to be shipped in and this causes expensive foods and products. Also, the food was some of the worst we have had in Peru so far. Nevertheless, we still had a good time in the town and the hotel we stayed at was very comfortable.
The next day, we woke early for a 6:30am breakfast, so we could get to Machu Picchu early and beat the enormous tourist rush that begins around noon. Despite all of us being tired, that immdiately went away as we passed through the ticketing area and were able to finally the site that attracted many of us to this particular maymester. Much of the ruins were from the original material made in the 16th century with only about 30% of the ruins needing to be restored as a result of time and weather. At first, we took a short hike to what is called the Puerta del Sol or Gate of the Sun, which was an upward climb where at one point we were within some of the clouds. Once we arrived at the top, we had an amazing view of Machu Picchu down below and also saw the beginning of an Inca trail that leads from Machu Picchu to Cusco. We soon learned how long it takes for various people to embark on the trail. For the average person not acculamated to the altitude, it would take about 3-4 days, the average local takes around 12 hours, and the record for the trek is a little under 4 hours. From this information, we understood that it was an extensive path. Afterwards, we relaxed and then took a guided tour through Machu Picchu where we were able to learn about some of the sacred sites within as well as see what typical rooms were for those that lived there. Looking back on that day, it baffles me how they were able to create such a place in the middle of the mountains. The mere fact that they were able to transport material and build upon a mountain is fascinating and a testiment to the intelligence of the Inca culture.

Below are three pictures I took. The first is a view from right outside the door of our hotel at Agua Calientes. The second is when we relaxed after the hike to the Puerta del Sol with a view that overlooked Machu Picchu, and the third is a closer picture of the ruins.

A Random Act of Kindness

     On the last Thursday we spent in Cusco, we had the pleasure of taking a chocolate class where we were able to learn about the process of how chocolate is made, the different ingredients you can put into it, as well as the cultural and health benefits of it. After the class, we had a brief break during which we ate while the chocolate solidified a fridge. A few of us decided to choose McDonalds as a quick, cheap solution to our hunger and while we were waiting in line Paloma decided to help out a local. There was a boy selling keychains outside of the McDonalds that all of us except Paloma walked by without a second glance. There are of many people along the street selling items that we do not need or want, so we do not always stop to think. She took the initiative to ask the young boy, who reminded her of her little brother, of about 5 or 6 years old if he was hungry, and when he responded yes she offered to buy him a quick meal. This resulted in our dinner being accompanied by John Marco. The young boy enjoys Regae music, knows more about U.S. geography than most of us would know about his home country, and encouraged us to speak spanish. What was a seemingly simple act helped the rest of us leave our comfort zone and engage with a boy we would only have the chance to while in Cusco. All of us agreed that it was a very considerate, unselfish random act of kindness that we hope to mimic sometime in the near future.

To roughly quote Paloma,

"I mean, I could have bought one of his keychains, but that isn't going to change much. A meal has a much bigger impact on him."

Last Night in Lima

As the Maymester came to a close, it was sad to know there was only one night for us to spend together as a group. That being said, it was a great opportunity to enjoy the great city of Lima for one last night. We first walked to the crepes and waffles restaurant, where we enjoyed savory crepes. I never would have thought a pizza themed crepe would be so delicious. Afterwards, it was only right that we would all enjoy one last pisco sour before heading home. We went to a nice Italian restaurant and sat at the bar, where we all ordered exotic and nicely designed drinks for ourselves. If there’s one thing I know about Peru, it’s that they know how to make some nice looking cocktails. We then grabbed a table and enjoyed a delicious nice dinner together where we told some jokes and shared some of the highlights of our trip. It was the perfect way to end an amazing trip.

Lima was one of the more amazing cities I’ve visited. It provided the perfect combination of the urban lifestyle, traditional culture, and beautiful natural landscape. With so much opportunity for shopping, relaxing, touring, eating, and having fun at night, Lima was the perfect way to spend a 
week before heading home. I can’t wait to visit again.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

This wasn't on the syllabus...

While I attempt to be adventurous, I tend to stray away from planning wild activities. I am much more of a 'relax and chill' type when on vacation. When presented with an opportunity, however, I do take advantage and seize the day. In this case, days. Our last side trip was action-packed with adventure that I would never go out of my way to try. At least not before this maymester. I am glad that Profe planned these activities for us because they were hella fun but also because I think it was a great way to close out a great month. Nando provided us with unforgettable experiences.

From the sandboarding in the desert that left me with 4 big bruises and many potential desktop backgrounds
to the boat ride in the Pacific that allowed me to see penguins, sea lions, and dolphins in the wild

and even the romantic yet laborious leg day on the "oasis" with dad
After those two days, I think that I will try to venture into things that seem extreme. Even though I am not a swimmer and am terrified of drowning, white water rafting was possibly one of the best experiences of my life. The dune buggy roller coaster was so much fun and looking back, I'm surprised I didn't scream more. ATVing with cows at face-level was just madness. Ask Conor. I can honestly say that this maymester has made me reconsider vacations. I want to try everything because I now know of the fun I am missing out on. So thank you Nando, Profe, and Aventuras Peruanas. You have changed my life.
Sun setting on my Peru adventures.

“Olive” You, Peru

     One of the things I had looked forward to the most before coming to Peru was getting to try all kinds of new and delicious foods. Peru certainly did not disappoint. Alpaca steak, beef hearts, fresh ceviche, gas station empanadas, and all the wonderful exotic fruits are some of my favorites. Andean cheese and that terrible pizza from Aguas Calientes will forever haunt me, but can be overlooked due to the countless other delicious food options that Peru offers. However, there is one food that I was surprised to find in Peru. When I think of olives, I don’t think of South America. Italy and the Mediterranean region come to mind, but Peru sure doesn’t. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that olives are a part of a decent amount of Peruvian foods. After doing some research, I discovered that olives were brought to Peru from Spain during their conquest and have been integrated as one of the agricultural products of the country.
     Many restaurants offered olives with the bread before meals, one had an olive dipping sauce, and olives were one of the main ingredients in many of the foods we ate. In fact, during our cooking class in Casa Elena we stuffed olives (among other ingredients) in our papas rellenas. Luckily for me, I was one of the only people in our group who liked olives. This meant that every time we were served olives, they all went to me. As such, I ended up eating quite a bit of olives during my time in Peru, and enjoyed every bite.
     I went into Peru with an open mind and a determination to try all kinds of new and strange foods. My palate was certainty put to the test as I expanded my culinary limits. After putting aside my dislike for seafood, I found a new favorite in ceviche. Ignoring the cuteness of alpacas, I was able to discover one of the most delicious meats I have tasted. I found out that gas station food doesn’t always have to be revolting and/or probably toxic, but can at times be delicious (in Peru at least). However, it was always nice to be able to take a break from my gastronomic adventures and return to a classic favorite of mine: good old olives.

Me encanta Lima

If I ever had an online dating profile, one of my interests would be long walks on the beach. Hours before our inevitable and sad departure from Lima, Steve was kind enough to take us a beach side stroll/power walk. Still full from Parado’s chicken and sorbet, I had to trot to keep up with. Steve led us through park after small park, some filled with parents supervising kids and playing with dogs, others filled with people staring out into the ocean or at each other. He explained how when he visited Lima previously, he and Vanessa (I hope this is how you spell her name) had walked along the same trail. Despite the car horns, building and ubiquitous pedestrians, the shore of Lima reminded me of Chincheros, of the serene hike, waterfall and starry night we were rewarded. Both filled my ears with the incessant flow of water and made me consider how vast the world was, one by looking up into the constellations, using modern day Iphone apps to pinpoint the location of Jupiter or Venus and the other by looking across the ocean toward another continent. Stumbling among the jagged and slippery rocks, we skipped stones, played chase the tide and touched the pacific. Lima is truly an amazing city, allowing one to experience the urban bustle of shopping and late night entertainment in the downtown areas of Miraflores as well as the tranquility of nature all within walking distance. It exhibits an obvious western influence with Avengers shown in English and name brands like Steve Madden; yet, is also representative of evolving Peruvian culture with downtown plazas that date back to the 1960s and catacombs buried in cathedrals. There are certainly tourists but it isn’t like Cuzco and the ones that I did meet were all incredibly and interesting. For instance, at the airport in Lima, Andrew and I met a tall, lumberjack looking American that was a NatGeo photographer who had just finished the trip of a lifetime doing everything we had done but also had explored the Amazon. I am also an avid fan of Chifa, which is Chinese food influenced by Peruvian cuisine. 
To sum up my experiences in a sentence all I have to say about Lima is scenic beach, indoor/outdoor modernized malls, delicious buffet food such as cowheart and other foods sin leche, ability to buy alcoholic drinks/gamble responsibly, humid, great empanadas, name brand shirts at a discount, walking, overcast, cars, sea level, touristy and homey.

The Two Realities of Cuzco

     One of the first things that I noticed upon arriving to Cuzco on the first day of the trip was how dense and bustling the city was. Cars were zigzagging every which way, tourists and locals alike packed the narrow sidewalks, and vendors and shop owners competed for attention and sales. In some areas of the city, especially near the central Plaza de Armas, the touristy side of the city dominated. On a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the San Pedro market, one could expect to be offered 15 massages (of questionable quality and possibly legality), 6 “baby alpaca” hats, 23 llama key chains, 4 pairs of knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses, menus to 8 different restaurants, and an uncountable number of other goods.
     At first this was great, as it was all new and exciting. However, by the second week in Cuzco it became tiring. It becomes evident that all the vendors are selling the same things. The last thing you want to see right after finishing a meal is a menu for another restaurant. If you’re wearing a rain jacket, it should be obvious that you don’t want a rain poncho, but they still shove them in your face. After seeing the same painting by “Pablo Picasso Junior” for the fifteenth time, you begin to question whether there is actually any original artwork in the city. The vendors can be ruthless, following you for blocks if you accidentally show a hint of interest in their product. However, this is not the only reality of Cuzco.
     On a few occasions I got the chance to venture out a little farther to the less touristy areas. Avenida el Sol and the nearby streets are noticeably different. The gift shops and street vendors were replaced by things residents actually need, such as barbershops and shoe shiners. You can walk in peace down the street and not have to worry about someone getting in your face to try to sell you something. People went about their daily business, and it seemed just like any other small city I have ever visited. This was really refreshing, taking a break from the tourist-dominated historic center of town to get a glimpse into how the real residents of the city lived.
     However, one thing which I really appreciated from the touristy area where we stayed remained constant throughout the rest of the city. The streets of Cuzco were all pedestrian friendly, and the shops and businesses were all densely packed. One would not have to walk more than a minute at most to find a bottle of water or some snacks at the nearest convenience store. Nearly everything one could need was within walking distance. Since the streets were in fairly rough condition and traffic was almost always heavy, it’s a very good thing that the city was so walkable.
     Cuzco has a lot to offer, but it’s easy to get stuck within the touristy area. I highly recommend to anyone that visits the city to get out and explore some more, because there is so much more to Cuzco than the countless gift shops and the Plaza de Armas.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Vandy in Paracas

Two days after we touched down in Lima, everybody packed up a hiking backpack’s worth of clothes and headed down to Paracas, a quaint, sea-side town located south of Lima. While Lima’s beach is quaint and expansive, the clear waters and flocks of seagulls of Paracus are another level of picturesque. One morning, we were fortunate enough to board a boat and sail around the bay area, capturing photos of diverse bird species, sea lions, PENGUINS and archaic looking rocks that looked like that had been molded from the ocean’s constant battering. The cool breeze blowing in my face, being sprinkled with ocean water was an entirely new and welcoming sensation and a sharp contrast to the arid sand deserts we traversed and conquered later. Sand boarding was one of the most fun experiences on the trip because it was so head-on and physical. It even got competitive when people were trying to wax up their boards for maximum velocity in order to surmount two hills or get the farthest distance. Getting so physically involved in such a thrilling, yet entirely safe activity was a welcome contrast to the church tours and historical ruins we had visited (both of which were still great). A couple of us even got to row a boat on a small oasis near the sand dunes. Armed with only a one and a half functional paddles, we managed to use our wits, teamwork and coordination to complete a whole lap without tipping over in what was most likely very close to an Olympic record time. One clumsy rower even managed to get us stranded on the other side and rip the paddle from its holder and in the process, meet some friendly tourists that helped us repair our yacht and return to the other side. Paracas was fun in the most adventurous and childish way that made me remember days of going to Disney land or theme parks where entertainment and fun were the top priority. It is definitely worth the bugs bites and long car rides. 

Gucci Sushi

As the designated dad of the trip, I felt it was my duty to see off all my lovely kids and my beautiful wife as they all left in waves spanning from last night to this morning. As a result, I've been exhausted all day. Showering was a struggle. Packing was a struggle. Eating breakfast was a struggle. The biggest thing I was looking forward to by far today was our plans of eating at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant that only cost 60 soles (~20 dollars). Eliott had caught a glimpse of it on our way to the nice buffet that we ate at for lunch yesterday (Quinn blogged about it below), and he and I were super excited about saying how ridiculously cheap it was.

We get to the restaurant, after checking the Trip Advisor reviews thoroughly as we learned after our Orisha's Cafe experience, and it looks incredibly promising. The barra libre (all-you-can-eat) menu had plenty of options; I don't think we even tried them all to be honest. Each roll is 28 soles, but the buffet per person is 60 soles, and between Adam, Profe, and myself, we cleaned up 10 rolls. So instead of paying 280 soles, we paid just 180, and left with our hearts and bellies content.

After lunch, we strolled around Larcomar, the beach side outdoor mall, again and drank some juice and ate dessert. All in all, it was a great way to spend our last day in Lima. 

Have a great summer, kids!