Saturday, April 16, 2016

Doing the John Wayne Thing or Horseback Riding in the Andes

Lucy, the owner of Janaxpacha Hostel had told me that we could do some amazing things in Ollantaytambo so I decided we should try a few. You can pay to see the ruins (you actually need to buy a Boleto Turistico Ticket for several sites which costs 70-140 Soles) or take a free hike up another side of the mountains which did look interesting. She also recommended a horse ride to the Pumamarca Ruins that she said was  pretty easy for the non equestrian types. Ok, maybe being American she is used to this sort of thing but for those of us that are only familiar with pony's at a fair this was a bit scary!

JanaPacha Hostel, Ollantaytambo

Free Ruins, Ollantaytambo

On our one day free in Ollantaytambo we decided to go with the Horseback Ride thingy because it sounded intriguing and would make us feel like real out-doorsey kind of people.  Carlos and Lucy packed us a picnic lunch to go and a very lovely young lady met us at some ridiculously early hour (honestly, I think these people get up in the middle of the night to start these things). When Lucy asked if any of us spoke Spanish I started to become a bit nervous about this whole undertaking but we carried on and followed the lady down a few streets. We soon saw five horses, all saddled up, being worked on by a fellow with a cast on his leg, seeming to organize things. A couple of kids and another woman were all helping out but none of them seemed to speak any English. Using hand signals, they directed us to our various steeds and I know that, I for one, made a rather unflattering spectacle as I kind of threw myself onto the horse and wiggled around until I felt like I was in the correct position. I admit that I was a bit nervous by the lack of riding helmets and then the sudden appearance of some other fellow who quickly exchanged a few words with the owner/operator who seemed to have very recently suffered his leg injury (probably riding horses along very dangerous Incan trails!) I'm pretty sure our substitute guide was a bit reluctant about the whole adventure and really didn't look too impressed with this crew of non Spanish speaking, horse nervous Canadians! As we traversed along the very remote trail into the mountains he actually had to ask directions from some scythe carrying Andean farmer, heading effortlessly up his terraces.

Since the horses were a quite a bit smaller than any horse I've been on in the past (all three times) I wasn't as frightened at first, but the stirrup thingys were more of a cage than the ones I've been used to, where your foot goes right through, so I didn't really feel fully in control. I know I didn't have a chance of controlling this beast, though, and put my total trust in my new caballo friend. We were kind of lulled into thinking this whole trip wouldn't be too bad as we travelled alongside the Urumbata Valley. Unfortunately, apparently the Incans, in their infinite wisdom, had opted to build all their little cities not along the sensible valley floors but way up in the most remote, ridiculous peaky parts of the surrounding mountains!

Our guide suddenly headed off the main trail and before we could object we were headed straight up the mountain along a very frightening narrow rocky trail with a shear drop to the right. I decided to just keep looking ahead, lean forward, and hold on as tightly as possible, as my horse delicately made his way up some very steep inclines. Unfortunately, one member of our party became a bit panicked and jumped off the horse, much to the alarm of the horse and the guide. After a few expletives this participant decided that since heading back wasn't an option, she would walk the hazardous parts of the trail rather than trust the instincts of her trusty mount.

Our horses pretty much ignored our poor riding skills and lumbered on towards their destination. Mine for one, seemed completely oblivious to the fact that I was sitting on top of him as he trumped through foliage and brush which mercilessly whacked my face and left large gashes along my arms. I stoically ignored all pain and pretty much just held on for dear life and finally, with blood running down my arms and scratches on my forehead, we reached our destination!

The fun wasn't over as we had a gruelling hike (at least for Shelby and I) to the top of the mountain, where we would eat our lunch and admire the various structures of the ruins themselves. The view was spectacular and having the entire place completely to ourselves was great (this journey wasn't for the feint of heart so I'm not surprised we only encountered natives along our way) but I was definitely beginning to have some serious doubts about my ability to trek to Machu Picchu!

We did eventually make it back to our little hostel all in one piece and decided to treat ourselves to a wonderful massage and dinner in the square that evening.

Apparently, the wounds on my arms weren't going to be my only injuries of the day. Ever hear of saddle soars? Neither had I until I took a look at my butt and saw two raw sores that looked pretty much like hamburger meat! The joys of trying new things...

Having lunch at Pumamarca Ruins

Me and an Alapaca

Getting directions?

Not looking too comfortable!

Bottom Line: $40 US per person with lunch booked with Janaxpacha Hostel

Highlights: the gorgeous views and having the Pumamarca Ruins all to ourselves; chatting to some local kids

Downers: being scared silly riding horses on very narrow trails with a sheer drop and the final hike up the mountain to the ruins.

So, are you ready to visit Peru? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, April 8, 2016

There Are Plenty of Reasons to Visit Peru

Have I ever mentioned that I hate morning flights. Ugh! I hate morning flights!!!!!  I especially hate morning flights when it is the start of a day and a half of travel before reaching one's destination.

I had been planning to visit Peru for some time and finally took the plunge. It had seemed like a daunting task to plan such a trip, since it would involve quite a bit of moving about and I had found that many online sources of information were somewhat conflicting. When I began my research there was definitely an abundance of warnings with regards to safety, travel, illness and so on. If you tell anyone you are going to Peru they will gleefully tell you that a friend of a friend once went to Peru and either contracted some weird Peruvian disease, fell off the side of a cliff, was kidnapped by warlords or their tour bus was hijacked and they were never seen again. Seriously though, just like any place, if you take reasonable precautions and be sensible there in no reason not to visit Peru...and plenty of reasons to visit!

Now Peru isn't a large country, at least compared to Canada, but it does boast a large number of very diverse ecological regions and transportation can be a challenge. Due to work obligations (that work thing really does interfere with my travelling), my travel companions and I only had 10 days, so we decided an a couple of main regions to visit. To seriously do justice to this country and not kill yourself by travelling at a break neck pace it is advisable to spend at least a month. Since this is only possible if you are retired, independently wealthy, a trust fund baby, or write a sponsored travel blog (shameless hint to CAA, National Geographic, Lonely Planet or anyone else out there) then you may need to visit this country a couple of times.

We intended to head straight to the legendary Machu Picchu spending about 4 days in the Sacred Valley Region and then heading to the desert areas of Ica and Paracas for our remaining time. Many visitors to Peru will follow a route known as the Gringo Trail and if you have the time and plan to do this route you will find information here. Gringo Trail

You can take a direct flight from Toronto to Lima which takes about 8 hours, but since I like to do things the cheap way we ended up with a 14 hour flight with a layover in Columbia. As rain began to fall in torrents in Bagota, accompanied by the occasional blast of lightening and the flicker of lights I began to wonder if we would ever make it to Lima. We ended up being only an hour or so delayed and Jose, the owner of the nearby B& B Wasi Aeropuerto Lima, and wannabe NASCAR race driver, was standing at the gate waiting for us! The Wasi Lima is a great option for anyone looking for a place to rest their head for a few hours since it is only a five minute drive from Javier International (at least the way Jose drove!) but you probably wouldn't want to stay in this area for any longer. Both native Peruvians and non natives are always quick to warn that the area around the airport is not someplace that the tourist should venture. I suppose if you are Spanish speaking and comfortable in South America you could venture out to seek somewhat cheaper public transport but since I do not Habla Espanol, have embarrassingly, never visited South America and possess the typical white deathlike pallor of a Canadian in winter, deprived of sunlight for many months, and therefore would never be mistaken as a native of this great country, I opted to arrange my transport for a slightly higher cost but still much less than our rates in Hamilton (even Uber rates).

When Jose pulled up to the hostel he quickly ushered us inside, closed the gates and locked them so that we only had a brief glimpse of the notorious neighbourhood. We spent a somewhat comfortable few hours in the basic surroundings before heading back to the airport to catch a flight with Star Peru to Cuzco.

Street view outside the Wasi Lima

Cuzco was once the centre of the Incan civilization and is the starting point for anyone who wants to visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Since it is actually the highest altitude point for a trip to Machu Picchu at 3399m ( 11,151.57 feet) I decided we would only spend a few hours here finalizing our hike plans with Eco Path Trek and then try to get a ride to Pisac for a look around the most extensive market we came across in our travels.

A short ride into the central square of Cuzco and then getting a taxi to take us to the Collectivo area to travel by mini van and we were on our way. Driving through the mountains can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated but it did provide spectacular views of mountainous regions and ruins. If we had more time we would have stopped along the way but we did have a mission in mind. We were dropped off in Pisac to the welcome of various chickens and whatnot and then headed to a little restaurant called Ulrike's Cafe I had read about for a little refreshment.  A little advice is, if you see something you really like in Pisac, go ahead and buy it. We didn't and regretted that we never did see the same items anywhere else on our trip!

Ulrike's Cafe, Pisac
After a terrific lunch of pizza, alpaca, and Pisco Sours we headed to the market to wander around. We decided not to explore the ruins of Pisac. (I know, the historians out there are now groaning, but we only had 10 days and were lugging our cases along with us after almost 18 hours of travel).

Apparently, to get from Pisac to Ollantaytambo was going to be a bit tricky as a Collectivo would only take us to Urubamba and then we would need to get some other transport to Ollantaytambo. It all sounded a bit complicated so when some nice looking fellow in one of the market stalls asked us if we needed to go some place, we worked out a reasonable fare (80 Soles or about $35 Canadian), we agreed and once again hoped we weren't going to be kidnapped by Peruvian militant warlords or something. It turned out that our driver was a great fellow who filled us in about the Quichua peoples of Peru (his heritage) and the cool sites along the way including Lamay (Guinea Pig Town) where numerous vendors roast guinea pig or Cuy (a national dish somewhat like our turkey).

Best pizza at the Ulrike's Cafe in Pisac!

Very cute children grabbing a Sole or two for a picture from the turistos!

The Colours of Peru

A fabulous trip through the valley and we reached our destination of Ollantaytambo, with some of us snoozing along the way, and the Janaxpacha Hostel. This wonderful place is owned and operated by Carlos and Lucy. I can't say enough about the wonderful feeling of walking into this little piece of paradise and chatting to Lucy, an American expatriate! We were finally able to rest our heads for a couple of nights before our great hike on the Inca Trail!

View driving through the Sacred Valley
Map of the Sacred Valley
Urumbata, Peru

Janaxpacha Hostel, Ollantaytambo, Peru