Thursday, October 26, 2017

Machu Picchu to the end of the trip - Mon., Oct. 23 to Thurs., Oct. 26, 2017

Oma had a few coughing fits during the night, which some cough syrup and hot tea just barely controlled. With our relaxed plan in the next few days, I looked up what getting back to the States would look like and cost, or what our other options were. Consulting with my parents, we decided that finding a clinic when we got back to Cusco that day would be the best option.

Oma and I got to the train with twenty minutes to wait. Our seats were in completely different cars now, and, after we loaded, I realized that the hallways between cars were for employees only. I sent our car steward to her car with a note and some soles so she could buy a snack or drink if needed, and then I relaxed in my car.

This was the lowest class of train that went to Machu Picchu City, and it was still just fine. Only got served drinks, no sandwich or disappointing brownie, and there was no guided tour coming through the speakers, but we still had windows in the roof to see the receding mountains.

It was only a 90-minute trip, since we weren't going all the way back to Cusco, so I got to Oma's car to help her out and she was incredibly hoarse after talking to a German couple all the way back. They were about four weeks in, had done many of the activities along the coast that we had, but had also been waylaid by a stomach bug for a few days, as well as going further into Peru to see Lake Titicaca. Of course, Oma had to see if they had been to many of the places she had lived any visited with Opa in the '50s.

Our driver showed up with a hand-written sign that said Oma's name, and we piled the two Germans in to give them a ride to their hotel another 30 minutes up the Sacred Valley. We did some chatting, but once they left, Oma's coughing, lethargy, and hoarseness all started catching up with her.

We were close to Cusco, I told the driver to skip taking us to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to a clinic instead. I had found the name of one recommended in forums and travel books, but he asked if "clinca touristica" was where we wanted to go. Sounded as good as any, so we had him drop us off there. I used nearly the last of my cash to pay him.

Oma got into the clinic (which was now high above sea level again in Cusco) and sagged into a chair. They got a selection of insurance cards from her, then took us up to a room on the fifth floor to check her out. An English-speaking doctor heard her symptoms and scheduled an x-ray and fluids. The x-ray (which we took in the basement) showed a lot of fluid in her lungs, both from pneumonia and from altitude. Her oxygen levels were in the 80s instead of the upper 90s, so she got an oxygen tube. And liquids are always good, so she had an IV put in, with some antibiotics to help her fight. Her cough and sore throat got some cough syrup and cough drops, but, after perking up after a few hours on the IV, she was still most irritated about that. Her diagnoses of bronchitis, pneumonia, and altitude sickness causing edema in the lungs were all scary, but all treatable and being dealt with.

Talking to the doctor, it sounded like they were hoping to get her oxygen levels up and fluid down before our flight from Lima to Miami on Wednesday night. We weren't going to make the Tuesday flight to Lima, and instead look to get to Lima midday on Wednesday to give her more time at the clinic.

We spent the night with the IV and oxygen (and some not terrible hospital food), and I got the double bed next to her hospital cot.

On Tuesday, her recovery was not as quick as they had hoped, so we were moved into the intermediate care unit, and they added a heart rate monitor with metal sticker-clips on her chest as well as a blood pressure cuff to the tubes and wires coming off of her. I took a cab into the city to cancel our flight and pick up our bag from the hostel where we had left it before heading to Machu Picchu, and I found a bookstore to get some new titles to supplement our waning stock. I was back before lunch.

It was an afternoon of watching Animal Planet and trying to figure out how to fix the wires when they started beeping. Oxygen? Breath deeply and slowly, and move it around on her finger. Heart rate? Roll over a bit and try each of the five different connections to make sure none of them fell off. I wasn't impressed that the nurses never came in to help with the beeping unless we hit the call button. They did schedule her flight for Wednesday, the next day, to Lima with a doctor and supplemental oxygen for the plane.

The night, Tuesday night, was arduous. Oma would shift in her sleep, one of the monitors would start wailing, and I would get up to start moving and pressing things to get it to stop.

Wednesday morning, we asked for a sponge bath before our leaving time of 9am, and we were ready with Oma in the wheelchair with a mask when it was time to leave. I had been going back and forth to the front desk to call insurance and credit card companies about travel insurance, and so they wanted me a final time to get all the paperwork to take to the next clinic (including some very large x-rays) as well as a final payment.

It was an ambulance ride to Cusco airport, where we relaxed in the small medical room there before heading to the boarding area and climbing the stairs up to the plane. We switched seats with someone (who probably didn't feel very excited about sitting next to someone coughing with a mask on) so I was between Oma and the doctor. We had some empanadas to snack on, then, after landing, the doctor arranged the taxi and accompanied us 45 minutes to INCA Clinic, which specializes in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. (They were so good that, in the middle of Oma telling them that it was hard to draw blood from her veins, they had already finished when many others had struggled.)

It was a rollercoaster few hours. We got there at 3pm, and the first thing I heard was that they wanted a minimum 8-hour observation window for Oma. Our flight to Miami was at midnight - it was going to be close. We were not given many positive signals until about 5pm when Oma's oxygen was staying at normal levels without her nose tube in and the x-ray showed an 80% decrease in the liquid in her lungs. Her white blood cell count was still (understandably) elevated, but if she could walk back and forth down the hallway and keep her oxygen count at above 95%, they were willing to release her and we could head to the airport.

The wireless oxygen measurement device on her figure read "96", both rightside up and upside down. I could start making plans to get her back to Milwaukee and see a doctor there as soon as possible. I booked up an evening filght from Miami to Chicago (which was as close to Milwaukee as we could get), then booked myself an even later flight from Chicago back to Baltimore (which was as close to DC as I could get).

All told, that part of the trip went ok - the wheelchair attendant was ten minutes late picking us up from the lounge in Lima (where we had had a midnight snack before the flight), so making me anxious about missing our boarding time. The overnight flight wasn't the most comfy, but sitting up, Oma was only coughing, not feeling short of breath. Landing in Miami on Thursday morning, a lot of hotels were sold out, but we found a Fairfield Inn and Suites that had a room that we might be able to get into before noon for a morning nap. They let us have breakfast and tea from the buffet before our room was ready at 9:30. It was a five-hour nap before getting a shuttle to airport, with wheelchair service to the gate.

Landing in Chicago, we met my uncle at baggage claim, handed over the novel's worth of medical paperwork and x-rays, gave the detailed instructions for the inhaler, cough syrup, pain meds, and - most importantly - the antibiotics, then hugged goodbye before heading back through security to fly to BWI where my fiance lovingly picked me up for 18 hours at home.

I missed out on a meal or two of ceviche, but Oma was home and on the road to recovery.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Cusco to Machu Picchu - Sun., Oct 22

We were up and ready for our breakfast a tad later than I wanted, but we had built in enough buffer time to eat our egg and bread and yogurt, drink our juice, lock up our stuff, and hop in the cab with the other pair we had met at the hostel to head to the Poroy station just outside Cusco.

The guy in our car could speak Spanish, so chatted with the driver and arranged for him to pick them up from the Poroy station the next evening. Oma and I had a morning train the next day that only got halfway back to Cusco - we were going to take a cab the remaining two hours from the stop in Ollantaytambo (in the middle of the Sacred Valley) back to Cusco. The cab driver took down our information as well and said he'd meet us there at 10am to drive us back to Cusco - handy having someone doing the translating, since he didn't have any English knowledge.

Oma and I sat on the benches in the decently nice lounge, then we loaded into the same train car. Our seats weren't next to each other (due to my passport numbers being wrong and needing to change), but we had a nice gentleman who was willing to switch, so we sat across from each other on the aisle side of a table.

The train to Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Village, where the bus heads up the mountain to the ruins) had three different types of trains: an extremely fancy one that we considered, but would have doubled our trip budget; then two reasonably priced ones, one slightly better than the other. On the way out, we got the slightly better one because it fit our schedule better. Tomorrow, for the way back, it was the lowest class of train.

The inside was modern, with sky windows that could be "turned off" (dimmed) with a switch. A soothing English and Spanish voice gave us information about the couple small towns we passed on the first half of the trip - mostly farming towns with a church from 400 years ago. We went downhill from high-altitude Cusco, eventually following a lush green canyon with a gurgling mountain stream and walls that made the skylights necessary.

The train actually had to use Z-shaped switchbacks, going forwards, switching tracks, going backwards, switching, then continuing forwards to make the steep descent work.

I got really excited when the voice said sun bears could be seen along the river, so I kept my eyes peeled, but we weren't quite that lucky.

The trip was thoroughly enjoyable. I had emailed to ask to have the hostel (another Mama Simona hostel) meet us at the train. I had a map, but this way we could have someone show up directly. It was starting to sprinkle, so, even though another group was also being met, we got our personal guide to show us the uphill walk along a market, then two blocks into the small town.

We got a very new room with an immaculate bathroom and only one set of bunkbeds (that were so new, the room almost smelled like wood). We had two hours until our afternoon tickets were valid up to Machu Picchu, so we relaxed and thought about if we wanted lunch. We had had sandwiches on the train (included, along with tea and a brownie that looked delicious but was missing sugar), and Machu Picchu had a lot of rules about not taking in water in disposable bottles or food, so we decided we'd eat at the cafe on top of the hill if we needed it.

It was time, and Oma and I headed off, with water in reusable bottles, to the bus stop. I had heard horror stories about the wait for bus tickets and the wait for the bus itself, but midday on the off-season, we had no issues with either. I was also happy because the fact that it was census day didn't seem like it made a difference in the town - there were still places to eat, though most of the shops in the market were closed.

The bus station was across an old rail bridge (still with its gaps too!) over another mountain stream. The rain had stopped, but it wasn't blazing down on us, so we hit the rare and lucky weather where we weren't going to get burnt or drenched. I was amused that they didn't take Visa, only Mastercard, and sent my coworkers (at the Mastercard subsidary that we work for) a picture.

The bus rumbled on at least six switchbacks on gravel roads up the side of a mountain. I got a wee bit carsick (in the back of the bus), but enjoyed the view the half of the time that we got to look over the valley at the taller, tree-capped mountains next to us.

We reached the top, and the final stressor of the journey was upon us. Would these tickets, that I had bought from a 3rd party reseller, work? Would they turn us away because we didn't have a guide?

The tickets (which I had had Colca Lodge print a few days ago) scanned fine, and we were in! I had thankfully taken a picture of a large signboard at the entrance with a map with a few paths around the site, and we started down the green path - it had no initial switchbacks, which I figured was a good thing.

Down the path, around the corner, and Machu Picchu revealed itself. A set of stone houses with reconstructed thatched roofs was at our right, with the site covering a few acres in front of us. What I especially loved is that it was surrounded by deep valleys and mountains - it was a stone outline of a city on the roof of the Andes.

The path I chose led us right into the heart of the residential (they guess) section of the city. Far above us to the left was the Inka Bridge - I knew we weren't going to get to that. However, a set of stairs led up to the upper section which included the Sun Temple and overlooks to the valley on the other side, and I figured we could get up those.

Oma is nothing if not a trooper! The stairs were maybe three feet wide, but made of rough-hewn stone that varied from 6-12 inches high, not flat, and not even necessarily a single stone. After she started up, then moved to all fours, then turned around a just hoisted herself up while seated, we fielded some stares and comments about why we were going up this staircase at all. Well, we had missed the (probably nicer in retrospect) switchbacks to get to the upper circuit, so it was improvisation time.

Oma was (understandably) out of breath when we reached the top, so we sat and admired the valleys, the stone buildings that were around us, and the view down the terraces to the other few sections of buildings at Machu Picchu. I read out some of the names, but it was caveated by the fact that scholars have very little proof for the things they are calling "temples", "palaces", "houses", and "industrial areas."

We found the spot for the quintessential picture over the valley, then sat on some rocks to plan our next moves. Up another set of uneven steps (which had handrails, thankfully), and we were at the Temple of the Three Windows with its large stone altar and set of three windows to help measure the sun, especially during solstices. What I loved about the village and the hillsides around were the terraces that lined them. Since Arequipa, we'd seen any incline that was steep but not impassable, layered into potential fields. Just the sheer number of those represented a society that had been around for a very long time.

About halfway across the ruined city, we started descending, and we started seeing more wildlife than the midges and mosquitoes that had been warning us not to remove our long sleeves. Firstly, a few llamas started popping up. The grass between the ruins was well-trimmed, and I wonder if it is that way solely because of those grazing creatures.

After stopping by the llama shelter (with another dozen llamas, including some crias - babies) and the Sacred Rock - which had no other explanation, just "Sacred Rock" - we took the lower path through a tangle of houses and walls. I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye, and we stumbled upon a squirrely-looking rabbit. Research after the fact revealed it was a viscacha (I had asked a Peruvian couple and did not understand they word they used). We came across a few more as we finished up peeking through the houses and doorways in the residential and industrial sections along the bottom of the city.

The Temple of the Condor had a grouping of people, each of which had their own interpretation of how the rocks and carving there were meant to represent the giant vulture we had seen a few days earlier. I decided the carving on the ground was the face, and the two ten-foot boulders on either side were the wings. Oma thought the wings were also along the ground with the carving. A teeny bit of water was along the next building, which the guidebook said was for a natural mirror as well as drinking, when it was flowing during the heyday.

It had been nearly three hours of poking around, walking, sitting and admiring the mountainsides and the craftsmanship of the city, and it was still a quarter mile back to the entrance along the same terraces we had walked in on. My stomach was ready for food, but we continued the slow pace that had served us well throughout the site and found a few more natural curiosities (a giant spider, a plant with red that we couldn't tell if it was leaves or flowers).

The walkway emerged to the last set up stairs up to the bus stop, and we got in the fairly short line, then were ushered onto a bus within minutes. The ride down, we saw a few hikers down the stairs straight down the hill, and we were glad we had bought the roundtrip tickets.

I put back on my layer I had taken off when we got back to Aguas Calientes twenty-five minutes later, and we climbed along the river and the market to the street with restaurants. At the single open stall at the market, we finally found the glasses case Oma had been looking for and bargained (badly) for it. Then it was a pair of soups and teas at the first restaurant, and then back to the hostel for some relaxing before dinner.

Dinner was at around 7:30pm, with darkness cloaking the few blocks of city that there was. We heard a few trains, and a lot of dogs patrolled the streets (most with collars or sweaters on, I will say), but will still found the first place that was open. Opening the menu, it was exactly the same as the restaurant we had been to after visiting the park - same typos and everything. Guess the street with five distinct restaurants weren't so distinct after all.

We both got warm but slightly mediocre food along with more tea. It was slow service, slow cooking (maybe because they had to run everything from a single kitchen who knows where), but we weren't in a rush. All that was waiting for us was more rest before the morning.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Arequipa to Cusco - Sat., Oct. 21

Our hotel manager offered to get up at 5:45 to give us breakfast, and she called us a cab as well. (The breakfast was giant hunks of bread and too sweet juice, but it was a good touch.)

We were at the airport about two hours before our flight, checked in, checked our bags, and went through security. I hadn't even bothered to look if any Peru airports except Lima had the Priority Pass lounges, and, for Arequipa, it was only about 15 minutes before boarding that I saw the sign. Oh well - had to sit with the crowds. And pay exorbitant prices for water. 

I fell asleep before take-off, and woke up 15 minutes to landing - which meant I was only asleep for maybe 30 minutes. The quick plane is much nicer than a 9-hour bus trip. 

We had just one evening in Cusco before our train the next morning, so we got a taxi to our hostel to drop off our stuff and check out a few things before the one-day tour. It was the first of two of Mama Simona’s hostels we were staying in. I had booked one in Aguas Caliente (for the next evening, after Machu Picchu) and they emailed about the others they had, including this one in Cusco. 

We originally had a double room, with a single double bed in it, but we switched to a room with two bunk beds (but still a private bath), splurging on a heater. 

The sights lay along a clear walking path that was all downhill. We were trying to play it safe with the altitude, so decided to go as far as we felt, then take a taxi further (or back to the hostel).

Our first stop was the San Pedro market. Our guidebook said to get juice there. Once we entered, I understood why. On the smaller side, as warehouse marketplaces go, the market still had a quarter of its 20-odd rows filled with station after station of juice makers. Each had a veritable bouquet of fruit tastefully arranged in front, and all had the same fruits and same prices. 

We sat down at one that another couple had just vacated (when eating street food, always find one with as much turnover as possible) and picked our favorites. A base of either carrot or orange juice (we both chose orange) and then I picked strawberries as Oma picked mangoes. Just like old fashioned malts, we got our full fountain glasses full of the thick and foamy juice, then an extra top up with the remainder in the blender after we were done. The only negative was the large amount of bees and fruit flies around - none bothering us, but many trapped in with the fruit or honey in the glass cases in front of us. 

We wandered the aisles afterward, full of liquid, looking for something sweet and solid. Instead, I found a granadilla! These grey “brain” fruits with a crackable skin were so fun and good to eat in Colombia with Mark - I had to get one to have Oma try it. She, like most, was not enthused by the grey matter inside, but I think she didn’t mind it after she tried it. 

We had to stop by a PeruRail official office to get our tickets printed for the next day - we had tried to do it in the airport that morning, but their system was down. Thankfully, they had a couple offices close to the squares we were planning on visiting anyway, so we stopped in next. 

When we were booking everything before we left, I had accidentally copied my known traveler number instead of my passport number while making some reservation. Since nearly every reservation we made asked for our passport number, from hostels to the Machu Picchu tickets, I had hoped it would be on a reservation that wasn’t very important. 

Getting the tickets, it was as I feared - my passport number was incorrect.

I figured there was a high chance that no one would ever stop to compare more than the name, but I didn’t want to even take that chance if it was fixable. So I asked them to update it. 

A woman who sounded as hoarse and sick as Oma had to call up the main office, then we had to wait for 15 minutes until they called her back. When the tickets finally got switched, I was no longer sitting next to Oma on either trip. They said the conductors would help us figure it out day-of. We had the correct tickets, and it was time to explore more of Cusco. 

The next square over with the Plaza Mayor of Cusco, with its cathedral on one side. The guidebook said it was actually three churches, but we were having trouble figuring out the distinct churches or buildings or what. A completely different church - or maybe it was two others - were on the south side of the square, but we were facing east. 

We entered something, and it turned out to be correct. By this point, that fruit juice was sitting in my bladder, so I rushed in, walked quickly through all three churches, then backtracked (picking Oma back up on the way) to find the bathroom.

Now it was time to dawdle our way through. The Catholics really go all out. Each side altar was gold, gold, gold. Many had Mary with precious stone crowns. The middle alter was gorgeous carved wood (with a black Jesus. Unknown if that was fancy ebony or just connecting with the indigenous people.)

A local painter had done the Peruvian version of the last supper. On the table were tradition food, with the main dish a cooked guinea pig - on the plate whole. Still didn’t convince Oma to give it a try. You’d think if it was good enough for Jesus, it’d be good enough for her!

I peeked down into the crypt once we had enough of the massive amounts of excess, then we plotted our next move. It wasn’t so much hunger as a lack of substance from the morning that drove us to go behind the cathedral, up a narrow one-way street, to eat. 

The street would have been quiet, except that - despite a one-way sign - cars were stacked up, facing each other, 50 feet deep in both directions. By the time we left our Italian-inspired meal with some leftover thin crust pizza, the traffic jam had gotten unsnarled. 

We had one more sight to see - Qorikancha, the sight of an Incan place of worship that then became the base for a church with monks built on the same foundation. We walked up to the crowded entrance, and we were greeted by a man, speaking excited but fluent English, who wanted to be our tour guide. 

My dad will listen to accents until he copies them - my Oma doesn’t have that same skill and has had a hard time understanding many of our guides. When she said she understood him the best, I decided that the $10 was worth it to get the tour. 

In we went, and off he spouted. The temple was centered against the solstice, so it measured the seasons for the Incas. It was one of the ways they kept their power - by being able to predict solstice, as well eclipses, those the Incans controlled believed in their power.

When I heard a church was built on top of the Incan temple, I wasn't expecting so much temple to be exposed. The massive walls we had passed earlier that day in a taxi were part of the temple, but it was behind the church that had a courtyard and set of 8 or so rooms from the temple days. Our tour really only covered the temple, so we dove deep into the wonder that was this construction project.

First, it was the orientation of the windows and walls. June and December every year, the light comes directly through the window and in the middle of the set of 7 niches. The Incan calendar our guide described was something like 12 months of 28 (each of the middle niches were used twice as the sun swung back and forth - so the five middle ones, used twice, plus the two outer ones equaled 12), with a dozen or so feast day within those which made it equal 365.

The next building marvel was the stones used. They were a dark volcanic, like many we've seen, but were carved into perfect blocks, so no mortal was used between them. The stones lay so close, a knife (or credit card) couldn't fit in the cracks between.

A few earthquakes have happened since the Incan times, and some of the blocks were slightly misaligned, but another smart structural decision was to use one single block above the doorways and windows, so, despite the walls shifting on either side during a quake, the roofline wouldn't collapse.

Our guide showed us a few maps the Incas had created - one of the solar system, with a round Earth by a round sun and other planets they had observed, and one of Machu Picchu, where roads radiated outward from a center point, with city dots along the straight lines. The second painting gave over 200 sites of worship around the trading center, and ruins have been found accurately in many of those locations. It gives just one more guess as to Machu Picchu's function - a trading post.

Our guide left us to peek into the Catholic monastery and church that was over a part of the temple as he went to find other tourists to supplement his income. A modern choir loft (the older parts of the church had faced either an earthquake, a fire, or both, so only new was on display) and a few different rooms for the monks, and we were on our way.

I wanted to see the front of Qorikancha again, since it had looked spectacular from the road. The entrance was opposite, so we picked clockwise to walk around the massive building. It was the wrong choice. A few small roads dead-ended into a set of stairs that put us at the very downhill side of the green lawn out front. With ominous clouds, it was time to hail a taxi and head back.

Oma took a nap as I read most of a book from the lending library at the hostel. She woke up with her cough and sore throat worse, and on the end of her cough drops. I ventured out at 7 or so to find a pharmacy, explained her symptoms, and got cough syrup and pain meds. She wasn't very hungry, so I heated up our pizza leftovers for myself and bought a ramen noodle cup from the front desk to make for her.

I asked the front desk about getting to the train station in the morning - I knew it was about a half hour from city center. The woman on staff had another pair of guests leaving for that train and that station as well, so we agreed to share a cab. Oma and I also decided to leave a bag at the hostel - we were going to back in Cusco after one night in Aguas Caliente, and the train had baggage restrictions, so why not leave some of our dirty and unnecessary clothes.

We packed then had a restless night as Oma continued coughing.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Colca Lodge to Arequipa - Fri., Oct. 20

Check out time was noon, and we were going to use all the time we had left. Maybe most of it for sleeping, but still, more food, bathes, and relaxing (aka trying to get well).

The sun was hot when, after breakfast, we changed into our suits and robes and walked down to the hot springs. The air was cool, but we used Oma's umbrella for shade. 

We watched an alpaca wander around with a rope around its neck on the other side of the river, where the alpaca ranch was. No one seemed to be chasing it, and it kept circling back to the pasture anyway, so it wasn't a grand escape. The first evening here, I had seen them release the alpacas from the pastures in the evening - to a barn, to another pasture, or to roam free, I don't know. 

I checked out the "cool" pool at 22'C, and then went back to Oma at the hot one. It occurred to me that these springs didn't smell like sulphur at all - in fact, it is all Peruvian water that all just smells a little like fake, hot butter. 

Oma changed by the pools, and I took her robe and wet swimsuit back to the room, so I could change and meet her at the reception (and so she could minimize the number of stairs at altitude).

We checked out and sat in the lounge, waiting for the taxi. At about noon, we left Colca Lodge - a perfect vacation within a vacation. I always recommend doing that, especially if you are bouncing from city to city like we are. 

We arrived at the terminal for buses at Chivay (never did see the downtown area of that mountaintop town), picked the one that was leaving in 40 minutes, and ended up with the last two seats in the back of the bus. I was hoping we could sit on the left side, since that had the vicuñas when we drove in, but it looked on the sheet like we were on the right. 

I was happy to be wrong when we loaded the 15-person bus and we were on the left. It was about an hour to get over the first set of mountains, an hour of vicuña spotting (my favorite - they were so much closer today than two days ago!) and an hour and a half of getting into the city and fighting traffic. At least this driver didn't go off on dusty roads, just tiny side streets in residential neighborhoods. 

We had lost Oma's black coat at some point the previous day, and I thought it was probably on the bus. The info desk was near where our bus dropped off, but not very near, so I dragged our suitcases over rugged cement, accidentally led Oma across a ref light (got lots of honks, but no one ran us over), and made it to the terminal next door before finding the right terminal. The info desk was closed. 

We picked a taxi, showed him the hotel, and got into one of the better cars we've driven in. Sadly, it was rush hour and (I learned later) a saint's holiday, so a procession was blocking some streets, even though we didn't see it. 

We arrived 45 minutes later (far too long for a 5-mile drive), hungry and tired. The taxi got stopped by a work van parked in the middle of the road, so he walked us the last block to a tiny, cute hotel. Our room was on the third floor - but we were at a lower altitude again, so a little less huffing and puffing (though Oma still doesn't have much energy from this cold she's still fighting).

We were much closer to Plaza de Armes than we thought - just a frogger-type crossing of a busy road (at least it had a crosswalk) and two blocks to the monastery. We ate at Chichas, recommended by our host. Oma's lamb rice was huge! A skillet full of rice with the lamb shank, and her "wellness" mixed tea poured out the bottom. My shrimp stew was good too! The churro I found on the way home was good as well. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Colca Canyon - Thurs., Oct 19

We woke up, hoping that the 5:30am breakfast buffet would be great, and it was just ok. Tomorrow we'll go for the eggs, because the pastries were hard and the granola for the yogurt was like puffed rice. 

Regardless, we were sated and ready for our tour along the canyon - specifically to Cruz de Condors - at 6am when our taxi wasn't supposed to call down to the front desk and meet us. No call, so we headed up to the pickup area to be there as soon as he got there. 

The driver who we had been assured was "never late" was 17 minutes late. Not a relaxing start to the morning. It was only a 13-minute trip to Yanque though, so we definitely hadn't missed our bus. 

The square of the sleepy town was the liveliest it would be all day - a dozen children in traditional wear danced in circles around the fountain in the middle, stands had their wares out, and a row of women had llamas or eagles to take pictures with. I loved the old church, with wooden scaffolding propping it up, on one side of the square, and a smoking volcano in the background. 

At about 7, a woman holding a piece of paper printed with our names came to the bench we were hanging out by. Rosa was going to be our tour guide for the rest of the day, and she told us that the two seats on the back of the bus were ours. 

We climbed in after the ten minutes was up, and the tour group (which had been up at Arequipa at 2am to make this tour) continued on. Rosa talked about the terraced structures along the canyon, dating from the 10th century, and the crops of potatoes (2,400 varieties), quinoa, and corn (with its many colors). She talked about how Colca Canyon is twice as large as the Grand Canyon, but still 1000 meters shallower than one in China. She pointed out the source of the Amazon River at Mismi, a snow-capped peak that we stopped to take pictures of. Oma found a trio of llama, alpaca, and vicuña finger puppets at that stop - her first purchase of the trip. 

Rosa told us about a couple take went hiking and only the woman was found - a potential murder mystery. Everything she talked about was in both Spanish and English, and she switched between them so fast that it was fun trying to keep up (or fun to stare at the gorgeous canyon on our side of the van and the staggering dropoff and just let her words wash over you).

Rosa took a group on a small hike to Condor's Crossing, but we stayed on the bus and got straight to the parking lot. Two viewpoints, one higher, one lower, were at the end of two long paths. We started toward the higher one, thinking downhill would be a nice break between. 

Getting up there, about a hundred other tourists were along the walls and sitting on the rocks as well. We sat down on a wall and peered at where binoculars and cameras were pointing with no luck. 

And, you guessed it, Oma saw the first condor before I did! A juvenile (without the white scarf) was soaring underneath us, then out into the canyon a bit. A second joined after a minute, and we spent five minutes watching them between the cliffs they would disappear under. 

After a lapse, we decided to go to the second viewpoint, since it seemed that the giant creatures were getting closer to that one. We approached, found wall space, and again saw nothing for the first few minutes. I was glad we hadn't gone on that hike if those two juvenile condors were the only ones we'd see. 

Then, coasting along was one, then two adults with their white neck pieces. Their wingspan is nearly ten feet, but even they are dwarfed by the canyon. Just as we were needing to leave to get the bus back, three more joined in, and we saw up to five condors over the edge of the cliffs. 

While walking back, we paused to both catch our breath (altitude, man) and see the condors when they sailed above the viewpoints. Sadly, right at 9 when we head to get back to the bus was the best viewing, with the birds coming right over the viewpoints (that we were no longer at), but we were happy to see the wild creatures at all. (Though Oma commented later that she didn't realize that we were just watching vultures - yup, condors are graceful, but they are just hunting for carrion.)

Back on the bus, Rosa told us about a sour fruit that looked like a kiwi and a "Colca sour" that was made with it. Oma loved both - tangy is her thing, and at that stop I saw llamas spitting and guinea pigs being farmed. Oma can't get over the fact that they eat our pets. I'm still looking for the chance to try them. 

Our next stop was hot springs... and ziplining. I had read about a company that was past Chivay that did ziplining, but when we stopped at the hot springs nearly within view of our hotel, I got worried. Sure there was ziplining here, but was it safe?

Oma was more concerned about the hike to the top of the hill where the zipline started. We had to wait while until the employees showed up to open their shop, and once I saw the state of the equipment (and the back-up carabeener), I decided it couldn't be too bad. 

Rosa was back from dropping off the hot springs soakers, and she helped translate - no, you don't have to stop yourself. No, you can't get stuck. Yes, we do have to climb this hill, but we'll do it together!

Rosa was a life-saver. She didn't let Oma cop out, and we took it very slow going up the hill, stopping on rocks whenever necessary and getting lots of water. The view from the top was great, but now that the climbing was over, the reality of swinging over a canyon set in. Brakes? Getting stuck? What's he saying in Spanish?

First an employee went down, then I was next. It was awesome - you could feel the coolness of the water even from that height over it, and it sparkled from the sun. The employee had a stopping guard that he used with a rope, so all we had to do was hang on. 

I videoed Oma, who, with one little scream and one hand off the rope, soared over the river. She was unhooked and had the biggest grin. 

Once more across the canyon, then a final line back to the stall where Rosa met us with my backpack and camera. She was so impressed. 

With us being so close to our hotel, we didn't want to get on the bus and wait another 30 minutes, then go back to Chivay to catch a taxi. Rosa pulled out another miracle and got a taxi driver that was waiting for a family at the springs to take us the ten minutes up the gravel road to our hotel. Thank God for Rosa. 

We were back at the hotel, a bit windblown, and it wasn't even noon yet. What a great morning. We decided to check out the barbecue happening by the hot springs, then cross over to check out the alpaca ranch.

No one was at the bar and grill at the hot springs, so, hungry and thirsty, we continued on to the exhibits across the bridge. My throat got more and more tickly, so I left Oma to get some water from the bar (which thankfully had a staff person this time).

We learned about the giant hummingbirds (literally called giant hummingbirds, the biggest hummingbird) we'd see hanging around the flowering bushes - called cantuta, the national flower. More about condors was in there, that mostly matched with what Rosa had told us. Not eating for up to six weeks, monogamous, and only maturing at age seven all correlated. However, she had said a lifespan of thirty years and the exhibit said 70-100! A bit of a difference there. 

The second exhibit was on alpacas. What I found most interesting was that they could interbreed with llamas, but it decreased the quality of their wool, so a center on genetics has been set up to keep the bloodline good and bring back the highest quality of alpaca wool. Oh, and I found it interesting that there are two names for the curly and straight haired alpacas. 

We were starving at this point - breakfast at 5:30 shouldn't need to last until 2 - and headed back to the main lodge and the restaurants there. I had trout tartare (with avocados) and Oma had a good looking salad. 

Post-lunch, it was nap and chill time. We were waiting for the hot springs to go into the shade, because it was a little hot (and exposed for my poor, sunburning skin) to hang out in them in directly sunlight. At about 4, I decided we had waited enough and we got our swimsuits and robes on and headed down. 

The demographics were much different than yesterday - a family or two of Peruvians, then some older Spanish-speaking couples. No British people to compare Peru notes with. Oma was in the process of losing her voice from the coughing fits she was getting with her cold, so I was hoping that the stream and hot would help. Less coughing, but also less energy to stay long and a smart warning to make sure she wasn't getting light-headed. We sat in then out of the first pool, then she headed back to the room, slowly, up the hill. 

I hopped into the next pool over, which was a similar temperature to the first, and sat and thought for a bit before realizing the key to the room was in my pocket. I hopped out, grabbed my robe, and met Oma about halfway up the hill on a bench. She had realized it too, so was being extra slow. 

With that kerfuddle avoided, I went to the last big pool. Turns out, it was the coolest of all of them at just 36-38 degrees C, abs I stayed there through sunset. 

At 6:30, rinsed and changed, we headed back to the lodge. I had unpacked my backpack and didn't find Oma's black trench coat that she had brought with her to the canyon. We probably left it on the bus before ziplining, thinking we'd be back on, so we had the front desk try to reach the tour company. It was late, their cellphone was off and their landline was disconnected. The front desk took down our details and said they'd check again in the morning. It's nothing but service at this hotel! (We are also headed back to Arequipa in the morning, so will check with the information guy at the desk. Our hotel is sort of near their main office, so we'll walk and ask there too.)

Dinner was soup, and then dessert for me, since my soup wasn't as substantial as Oma's with its entire slab of trout. The corn soup was good, but not as thick and hearty as I wanted.

It was another early night - Oma is trying hard to fight off this cold, and I'm happy with keeping myself hydrated and rested to kick the end of my slightly itchy throat. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Arequipa to Colca Lodge - Wed., Oct. 18

Up a little after 7, we were on the early side for our second hot breakfast at Los Andes B&B in Arequipa before packing up and stumbling our way towards our hotel outside of Yanque, which itself is outside of Chivay, a three-hour bus ride. We took a taxi to the station, bumbled toward the terminal, and immediately found a respectable and English-speaking information booth. 

The staff member there was wonderful. He confirmed my knowledge - that a bus to Chivay was the best and cheapest way - but added something I didn't know. Yanque doesn't have many taxis. All the towns, as small as three-block Paracas, had drivers honking at us to ride with them. Chivay had more, and our hotel was not walkable, even from Yanque. 

Ok, so a taxi all the way there from Arequipa directly sounded tempting, but expensive ($90 for over three hours - expensive for Peru). We could take the bus for $10 each then a taxi for another $5 each instead. Great. 

He also worked with us to buy tour tickets to see Condor Crossing with a tour group the next day. They would pick us up at 6:40 in Yanque at the main town square, and we'd continue on with them for the day. Great - paid for and done. 

He walked us to the bus departure two blocks away, but there we discovered the next bus was full and it'd be over an hour to wait. Oma wasn't happy with that, so they called other bus companies and found us seats to Chivay on another bus in fifteen more minutes. 

The bus attendant from the second station then walked us to our actual bus, and we got two back seats after shoving our luggage in the small back compartment. The bus held 15, but had two extra seats when we left, so Oma moved up to the single window seat in front of me to let the family with a lap-sitting child spread out. 

We picked up another passenger on the way, but I was never forced to squeeze. The three-year-old (Oma asked his age, and I used my small vocabulary to translate) and his dad sang a counting song about elephants as our driver tried to avoid traffic by going down side streets full of dust and construction in a non-air conditioned bus. Not the best thirty minutes of the drive.

We stopped at a final outpost on the edge of Arequipa, and the two women in native garb (mostly just their hair and bedazzled cowboy hats) hopped out to get fruit from the stands while other peddlers poked their heads and wares in to drum up business. 

We also picked up a conductor, who found that other rider by yelling "Chivaychivaychivay" out the half open door. We dropped her off maybe half an hour later at another outpost. Maybe she just hops on the next bus for this company returning to Arequipa?

We were driving along, and I told Oma that on our side of the van was a nature reserve, according to my map. Not five minutes later, she tries to point out something to me as it zooms by - a "deer with a long neck." Ok, an alpaca, they are kind of like cows in their ubiquity in the high altitudes. 

Not a minute later I see a sign: "Zona Vicuñas" - "zone of vicuñas", which just happen to be alpacas smaller, wild cousin. Now I was on the lookout too! 

The next hour flew by as we spotted small herds of the mostly brown animal (with a cute white kerchief) off in the distance, blending into the scrub. Every five minutes or so, we'd spot another, but towards the end, llama and alpaca herds started cropping up and confusing Oma, who assumed those were sheep instead unless they had their heads up from grazing. She started asking them to stop drinking as we drove by creeks so she could tell if it was an alpaca or a sheep. 

We got to the very edge of Chivay, and someone on the bus asked if we needed a collectivo (a minibus) to the center of town. Instead, we asked about a taxi, and a local perked up his ears and offered us a ride as a taxi. His truck was not a certified taxi, but it was clean and he seemed to know where Colca Lodge was, so off we went in the back seat of some strange, old man's truck (sorry Mark).

It was not even 15 minutes to Yanque. We left the town square and headed down to the canyon. He pointed out Colca Lodge on the other side of the canyon and river - idyllic grounds, green, with round blue hot spring pools and thatched roof houses. Very excited to be there as soon as possible!

However, the way the crow flies and the car drives are very different. We headed down on a switchback the opposite direction, crossed the car bridge around the next bend, then started a jostling ten minutes on a mostly gravel road, with more rocks falling down the hill next to it to add to the gravel all the time. A few small fields, hardly more than garden patches, had stone walls built up around them, some with crops and one or two with four-legged creatures of all sorts. 

We reached the drop off area, and it was still a flight of stairs down (though some hotel workers checked our name on a list and took our bags) to the reception. And our vacation within a vacation had begun. A welcome tea, a map of the property, and a guided walk to our "habitación", on the second floor of a thatched house, with a donkey braying their hello. 

We sank into the downy covers and relaxed. Oma took a shower, because we thought the hot springs were part of the spa and not included, but during her shower I called the front desk - hot springs are free and always open! She decided not to come in with me, but we walked toward the river together. 

Oma isn't one for hills, is what I'm learning, but the added stress of being at altitude for the day means that she is extra cautious. We sidled our way down, and I hopped in while Oma took in the steam from the bench. 

A few elderly couples were scattered around speaking English and all complaining that they only had a single night at this paradise. Oma and I were extra excited about our second when we could make them envious. We got some tips on Machu Picchu (it'll take 90 minutes to get on a bus back, just deal) and I got toasty. Oma headed back, and I caught up for my evening shower and took my wet head with us to dinner in the quieter, smaller, more intimate of the two restaurants (which serve the same food, so it's more like two different dining areas for the same kitchen). 

The menu was amazing - the Peruvian specialties were dressed up, the ingredients all sounded great, and the portions were perfect - on the small side, so we could get two desserts. My chicken and her cheese curry-like dishes came with heaps of rice - traditional enough. The brownie I don't think was traditional; the apple pie was more of a savory tart, so don't know about its Peruvian heritage. 

With a wake up call at 5am, we decided to head back to the room. A phone call let us know that our tour company wanted to remind us that it was 6:40 at Yanque. We were surprised and impressed that the man we worked with at the info desk had remembered us and our hotel, but our taxi had been confirmed for 6am twice, so we were confident we could make it there by then. Comfy beds (with a heater and lots of covers for Oma) for bedtime. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Arequipa - Tuesday, Oct. 17

We woke up at 9:30 to get our taste of the breakfast that ended at 10. We ordered our eggs, but the larger operation meant that the bread wasn't warm and the juice, while frothy, came out of the pitchers much thinner. Still, it was a big breakfast, and late as well. 

We got our day started with a look at the Plaza de Armas, which was half a block out our doorstep. As we entered the square from one corner, a chanting, marching group of school children entered on the same side, other corner. Mark has made me cautious of marching groups, but the fact that most of them weren't five feet tall reassured me. I looked up what "salud mental" meant - mental health! - and we paused to enjoy the children's signs and banners. At the back of the pack was a car with a brain on top. 

We sat on a bench to take in the church that covered one side of the plaza, and inadvertently watched the kids line up against the church steps for photos and chants. Oma was enjoying the sun and I was remembering that I hadn't put on sunscreen, so tried to stand in the mottled shade. Oma gave the once over to every tree in the well-manicured square, finding names (or making them up, I don't know) for a few of them. She is such a flower person - even when all we saw were cacti, she could find the ones with the yellow buds. 

Oma realized that the time to get into the church would be before the children moved on and blocked the entrance, so we walked up the steps ourselves (except off to the left) to get to the ticket area. A guide told us it was 10 soles to get in, then another 10 soles to the guide afterward as a "required tip." $6 was fine, so in we went. 

First we oohed and ahhed at the room of treasures. The Cathedral of Arequipa had burnt down after a tremor caused all the candles to fall over in 1844. The really rich bishop took care of it and expanded it to the full city block it is today. During the rebuilding, they found gold crowns for the Virgin Mary, goblets, jewelry, and these giant statues that we for processionals in hidden nooks. The guide told us that those that were out in the open had much of their beauty and treasure snatched away by needy hands. The hidden ones were fully intact. 

Natives had been using gold for a millennia or two before the Spanish arrived, so the prettiest were the pure gold pieces. Apparently, the gold is so soft you can't even polish it. 

The room ended with a crown with something like two thousand small diamonds in it that looked much too heavy for a statue of Mary to wear, but it was gorgeous. 

We climbed a double set of stairs to get up to the balcony overlooking the organ. A room of old books showed the difference between paper and cotton when it comes to aging (cotton wins) and showed the damage that the 2001 earthquake caused the front of the organ - pipes were dinged when one of the towers collapsed and the other fell over. 

A room of priestly garb with pure gold thread in some, and we were headed up to the roof. Neither of us realized stairs would be in the tour, and Arequipa isn't exactly at sea level. We made it up fine, taking in the views after the first set. 

A walkway ran around the pretty bland rooftop, with uneven concrete and stone, to the bells that are only rung yearly. We tapped them and heard their soft chime, then turned around to look at Misti, the still-active volcano. She erupted in the mid-1400s, so she's not scheduled for a bit. She does cause 20 or so tremors a day (that we couldn't feel) - if she were on the verge, it'd be more like 200. Nearly perfectly conical, it was nice, but the weirdness of the roof ruined the view for me. 

We walked down the flights, then entered through a giant side door into the sanctuary. Getting midway to the altar, Oma could smell the lilies covering it. Weekly, they get a shipment in from Colombia, though during the week before Easter, it changes nearly every day. 

We tipped our guide on the way out, and found ourselves back in the square to sit for a bit. Mid-70s and sunny, it was a good day to take it slow and not get too hot. 

Santa Catalina Monastery was two blocks more, so we got there, bought our tickets, and picked up another guide. 

The monastery has housed nuns since before 1500, not long after the Spanish arrived in Peru. A second daughter was given, with a large dowry gift, to the nunnery to become an apprentice at age 14, then be added to the order around age 18. Since many of the nuns came from privilege, individual houses were built for them inside the walls of the city within a city, with a room for their non-nun servant. Some nuns took in female pupils, with the students living with the most days, sort of like a finishing school so they could go on to be good wives. 

An earthquake damaged the property, and they left one section with the stones still slightly askew to show how the keystone above all the doorways kept them from collapsing. On top of that, all of the beds were built into the wall with an arch overhead - the strongest structure against a quake. 

The colors and gardens of the monastery reminded me so much of Spain, with the internal street names of Sevilla and Córdoba harkening back to those old town. The cloisters had orange trees, adobe red and bright blue paint, and great places to sit as Oma and I finished the tour and relaxed, looking at a tree that Oma managed to find the few flowers it was sprouting. 

I left her for a bit to climb to the roof of a building by the church, but the view was of mostly ugly rooftops, though Misti still looked out over it all. 

While we sat, a child fell into the cactus surrounding a bed of flowers. Her pain-filled cries definitely woke us out of the calming stupor of a cloister, and we headed toward a craft market. 

The market was hidden inside walls that made it look dead. It was dead - we were the only shoppers there - but it was open. A dozen stalls along the sides of a courtyard selling a lot of alpaca wool stuffs, woven trinkets, and keychains. I bought a coin purse, but we mostly browsed. 

Next stop was lunch. We had had a filling and late breakfast, so 3:30 seemed fine for food. A "nouveau Peruvian" place had caught my eye in the guidebook, so we stopped by. The alpaca ribs were slightly disappointing - fine enough meat, not too gamey, but paired with an incredibly sweet BBQ sauce that overpowered it. And the quinoa was just kinda bland. Oma had a giant Caesar salad with "bacon" (which was ham). We could have done better with our orders, or maybe our restaurant choice from a 2-year-old guidebook. 

The guidebook also mentioned a free art museum inside a bank building that used to be a bishop's mansion. We found the building and wandered as much as we dared with guards watching us, but I couldn't find the museum. Even looking up the address, it was right where we were, right where we looked, and right where it wasn't. 

Ah well, just another reason to cross the Plaza de Armes again and go back to the bed and breakfast/hostel. 

I had given Oma the guidebook to see if there were any other sights she wanted to see in Arequipa, but it was bordering on 4, and most museums closed at 5, so we were essentially in for the night. She nodded off, and I did some blogging. 

Back to internet, I get an email from the third party that we booked our Machu Picchu tickets through - Sunday, Oct. 22 is Peruvian census day. There is a curfew from 8am to 5pm, including foreigners, to be counted and fill out a questionnaire. The trains and buses probably won't be running. Hope you are getting to Aguas Caliente the day before and ready to walk the hour and a half uphill to Machu Picchu from the village!

Forums were saying to "always expect the unexpected" and "that's why you leave yourself extra time." The UK's website on travel to Peru said hotels and tourist spots would be operating normally. 

First, I tried to reconfigure our schedule. We could fly to Cuzco a day earlier ($$$), switch trains (no $ but ticket change), add a night in Aguas Caliente (switch, so no $), then buy a new ticket for Machu Picchu ($$).

After Skype failed me, I emailed the train company. They would be running the train we bought a ticket for. Ok, so it's just the bus up to the Sun Gate from Aguas Caliente. The tourist operation that we bought the ticket through said no. Oma said she'd just have me do the hike if they weren't. 

I happened to get an email confirming details with our hostel in Aguas Caliente about that time, and, emailing with her, she said the buses would definitely be running. 

That was about two hours of making Plans B-F before getting that final email confirming the buses, and, with all of the options except the original costing money, we just decided to stick with Plan A. 

(Corinne from the future - the next morning I got a final email from the tour agency saying that, never mind, they got confirmation that the buses were running. I just about threw my phone across the room. They started the panic, and now, twelve hours later, they say just kidding.)

Oma, the pinnacle of health, had finally come down with one of the two colds I've had in rapid succession. Coughing, she couldn't deny it anymore - and she hadn't gotten a cold in five years!

We kept it chill, and I challenged Oma to look through the map for a restaurant that looked good. Of course, the one she found after a 15-minute struggle was closed permanently when I checked on Google. The plaza had places overlooking the square, so at 8pm we headed out to see the lights of the cathedral, get a pre-dinner drink, and find some food. 

The cathedral was magnificent at night - slightly eerie how the bell towers were lit up with white lights on the inside, and yellow lights on the exterior. Face- or skull-like. 

At 8pm, nearly as many people wandered the square as at 10am. It was a mild night, just at mid-60s and sweater weather.

Some of those people in the square were trying to drum up business for their restaurants on the patios above the colonnades. One offered us a free drink, but we turned him down to complete our strolling circuit of the plaza. Beautiful colonial architecture, with music rolling out of the balconies above us, and I did a lot of people and street dog watching. A child's scooter, making its way rider-free down the path; a pair of teens taking a selfie with the church; a couple leaning against a tree in the shadows. 

Returning to the side with the restaurants, it was time for a sit-down. I had checked a few of the places out for reviews before going out, so we avoided the low rated one, but let another guy chat us up as I tried to find their restaurant on Google Maps to check it out. 

They didn't exist on the map, and, after Oma asked if we could have a free drink, and he asked if pisco sours would do, we were sold. 

A pipe-and-guitar band played in one corner, so we sat in the other. Our miniature pisco sours arrived - shockingly complete with three drops of bitters on top!

The meal went slowly. I was talked out of a full grilled guinea pig (mostly because Oma said she couldn't eat next to me with it on my plate, and it didn't actually look appetizing to me either). We found some starters - yucca, so Oma would finally know what it looked like and stop calling every random starch or vegetable yucca, and tequeños, because why not have a fried tube of cheese with avocado to dip it in?

I decided on the avocado stuffed with a potato and shrimp salad, since I'd seen it on a few menus, and Oma had the cream of mushroom soup to try to fend off her cold. And another order of pisco sours, since wine was only by the bottle. 

As we were finishing up (with the third pipe or guitar band making its rounds), we heard some hellos - and we found the California couple we had chatted with (and partied with) at Huacachina two nights earlier! It was a quick chat - me telling them about the craziness of Peruvian census day, and them telling us that they were getting up at 3am to take a tour to Colca Canyon (after just getting in that morning at 5!). We said our goodbyes and headed back for as much sleep as we wanted before figuring out our way to Chivay, Yanque, and ultimately our hotel in the canyon, in the morning.