Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cuzco & Machu Picchu

Cuzco was both the my best and worst time in Peru.  Everything was amazing, except for when I was sick.  The first day, altitude sickness really hit me and I couldn't enjoy much of anything.  That being said, we saw some pretty awesome ruins that first day.  The city of Cuzco itself is beautiful.  I like it a lot more than Lima.  It's still a big city, but it has more of a small town feel.  The history of the city is so interesting too.  Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire.  Some of the modern buildings were built using some of the old Incan stone walls as a foundation.  I struggle-bused through that day and went to bed at like 7pm.

Day 2 was Machu Picchu!  It was so beautiful.  Photos don't do it justice.  The entire landscape, with the mountains all around, the mist, and the ancient buildings...amazing!  The history of the city was really interesting as well.  It was much smaller than I thought it would be population-wise, only about 400-500 people.  Machu Picchu was one of the only cities not to be discovered by the Spanish in their conquest of the Incan empire.  We ate lunch at a restaurant at the entrance to Machu Picchu.  Some natives played live music there.  It was nice to relax a bit there and head back down to the city to do some souvenir shopping.

Day 3 was the Sacred Valley.  By this time, I was pretty exhausted.  Almost a full week of traveling and days full of activities.  The Sacred Valley was pretty cool.  We saw some more ruins and ended our trip with a visit to where they make clothes and other goods out of sheep and alpaca wool.  I bought myself an alpaca sweater for just 40 soles (~$15).  Best money I ever spent.  I also got to take a picture with this guy that was dressed as Manco Capac, the founder of Cuzco City.

We travelled back to Lima on day 4.  I am really glad to be back in Lima and have some time to relax and not be hiking through some jungle or climbing a mountain.  But this week in the Amazon and Cuzco was probably the best week of my life.

The Amazon

The trip to Iquitos was amazing!  The days were super packed and very tiring, but we definitely got our money's worth.  We did so much in only 3 days.  Our fearless tour guide, Neil, showed us around the city of Iquitos and the Amazon.  Our first stop when we arrived to Iquitos was a market where we tried some new foods.  First up...a grub.  In a moment of weakness, I ate half of one.  It actually didn't taste too bad, but I kinda wanted to puke at the thought of it.  Then we tried a nut natural to the area and a blue, slimy fruit.  The nut was awesome!  The fruit tasted good but the texture was a little alien brains.

After all that, we hopped on a boat and went to our lodge, which was right on the Amazon River.  It was luxurious.  Definitely more resort-like that I was imagining.  All the food was fantastic.  Everything we ate was all natural and organic.  The fish was especially good!  We also had fresh fruit juices with each meal.  Delicious!

Our first outing was to go piranha fishing.  I caught a fish!  It was a tetra instead of a piranha but still. We also saw some pink dolphins!  It was crazy to see.  We saw glimpse of a pair of them right by where we were fishing.  That night, we did a night hike though the jungle.  I'd rather not remember it...way to many tarantulas.

The next day, we hiked again through the jungle.  It was way more enjoyable in the daytime.  Neil and his machete kept us safe!  My favorite part was seeing some monkeys!  We saw a small troop (12-15) jumping through the trees ahead of us.  It was awesome seeing monkeys in their natural habitat.  We also saw a bunch of different trees and plant species.  Next, we went to a village near the lodge.  We were greeted by 4 children holding a sloth, monkey, turtle, and little bird.  Holding a sloth is part of the reason I came to Peru, so this was the moment I had been waiting for!  Luis the sloth was a dream come true...  Then some of the villagers dressed up in their old, traditional dress and danced and played music for us.  It was really cool!

The third day was also our last.  We went to Neil's parent's house and saw how they made rum and molasses out of sugar cane.  There was also a pond full of gigantic lily pads.  After those 3 packed days, I was happy to return to Lima for a bit before flying out to Cuzco!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Trekking at Matucana!

On Sunday, we took a field trip to this awesome little town 2 hours outside Lima called Matucana.  On the bus ride there, we saw some slums just outside of Lima.  It was really sad to see.  Entire hillsides were filled with tiny tin shacks.  That area is so different from the area where we live.  In Surco and Miraflores, fancy shopping centers, nice restaurants, and pretty houses are common.  The disparity between the two was really shocking.  Some areas of Peru are extremely poor, but we don't see that at all in our day-to-day lives.

When we got to Matucana, we hiked up the hills near the city to a beautiful waterfall called Antankallo.  It was a 2 hour hike, but it was definitely worth it!  Our tour guide, Ivan, told us all about the customs of the little town and the trail.  It appeared that people in Matucana deeply respect nature.  Nature is a big part of their lives.  We saw some stables with dairy cows; the Matucanans make their own cheese from their milk and sell it at the town market.  They also grow and harvest certain flowers and plants and use them to make a living.  It was really cool to learn a little bit about how they live.  The hike up the hills was amazingly beautiful!  There were lush green hills all around and a stream running through the valley.  One of my favorite things was this geological formation called "Cabeza de León."  It was a hill shaped like a lion's head.  Antankallo was great too.  The cool mist from the waterfall was awesome after the long hike.  The trek down was just as difficult as the trek up.  All in all, it was a super fun trip!  It was nice to get outside of Lima and see some nature!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Going on 2 Weeks Already!

I can't believe I've already spent two weeks in Lima!  On one hand, it feels like I have been here for a long time; on the other, it seems like time has flown by.  I live with a Peruvian host family.  They are all super nice!  There are four people in my Peruvian family.  Milly is the mom.  She always makes sure I am well fed!  She doesn't speak any English, so it is difficult to communicate sometimes but usually I at least get the gist of what she says.  Julissa is my host sister.  She just graduated from the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Applicadas (UPC), which is the university that I am taking classes from, in December.  She knows a little English, which is nice if I don't know what a certain word means.  Jonathan is my host brother.  He is an electronic engineer and he travels a lot for his work.  He speaks practically perfect English, so it's nice to take a break from strained conversations in Spanish and talk in English.  We talk in both English and Spanish so I can practice my Spanish a bit more.  I already feel like I've learned so much Spanish since I got here.

Last weekend was our first family outing!  They took me to a mall called "La Rambla" and we went to a movie.  We saw "Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent."  It was in English with Spanish subtitles.  That was one of the things that surprised me during my first couple days in Peru.  Much of the entertainment (TV shows, movies, music) is American and in English.  There are also a lot of American shows that are dubbed with Spanish actors.  I was expecting TV and other entertainment here to be solely in Spanish, but now that I'm here, it makes sense that many shows are from the U.S.  There is another mall called "Jockey Plaza" close by too.  Jockey is way bigger than La Rambla; Jockey is the biggest mall I've ever seen.  Again, there is a lot of American influence.  Many stores and restaurants there are American.  Jockey has all the fanciest stores like Armani and Chanel and a lot of awesome places to eat like Pinkberry, Cinnabon, and even a Chiles (good ol' American food!).  Being in Jockey and seeing UPC's campus (it's beautiful) makes me think that we are in a very nice part of Lima.  I'm interested to see a poorer district of the city.  I know there are areas of extreme poverty, entire hillsides full of makeshift shacks, but I haven't seen anything yet.

The food is surprisingly normal!  At home it's usually rice, potatoes, chicken, and bread.  I like it so far...but I bet at the end of this semester I will never want rice again.  There is a special Peruvian dish called ceviche.  It is fish only cooked in lime juice and there are various spices involved too.  I haven't had it yet.  I'm not a huge fan of fish, so I'm not sure if I'll like it.  One thing different from the U.S. is that we can't drink the tap water.  It's okay to the locals because they are used to the bacteria.  I really took for granted clean, free water.  Water (and food in general) is really cheap here; you can get a 2 liter bottle of water for about $.75.

I had my first day of class and first day of exploring last week.  People here walk a lot more than in the U.S.  It can get pretty tiring!  Like any huge city, not many people have cars; however, public transportation is really good.  There are three main ways to get around: taxis, buses, and combis.  Taxis and buses work just like in the U.S., but combis are completely unique to Peru.  A combi is a big van that has about 15 seats that runs a route like a public bus.  If there aren't enough seats, you can stand and hold onto the bar on the ceiling.  Standing in buses and combis is pretty hard because drivers here are pretty hard on the brakes.  Traffic laws in Peru seem basically nonexistent.  People weave between cars like it's nothing.  Honking is a pretty common occurrence, I guess a replacement of the strict traffic rules in the U.S.  At first traffic in Peru seemed pretty scary, and it still kind of does, but I'm getting used to it.

We went to the beach last weekend.  It was pretty beautiful!  It was cool to see Miraflores, which is the touristy/rich district of Lima.  We live in a district called Surco.  We all took a combi there and then walked the rest.  There was this alleyway with a bunch of tourist restaurants down both sides.  It was pretty cool.  The walk down to the beach was really beautiful.  The area was really decorated and landscaped well.  The beach itself wasn’t the best if you wanted to get into the water because the beach was made of rocks instead of sand.  The drop down to where the tide came in was really steep.  And then when you got to a certain point, the tide would be strong enough to move the rocks and they would smack your shins.  I finally got past the initial waves but by that point I was pretty tired so I only spent like 2 minutes in the water.  It was still nice to relax and soak in some sun!  There were a bunch of paragliders flying above us there.  I found out where to do it so that is definitely on my to-do list.  There is a big park in Miraflores called Parque Kennedy.  It was really nice.  It was a little weird that there were stray cats there; they only stayed in the park from the way it seemed.  I had yet to see a cat until being there.  There was a little market area there with a bunch of people selling knick-knacks and clothes.  I bought a knit hat for only 10 soles (~$3.50).  Pretty solid deal!

We have a couple trips planned through the school the beginning of February.  First up is the Amazon!  I'm really excited to see the jungle and fulfill my dream of holding a sloth!  After that is Cuzco and Machu Picchu.  Everyone says it's the most beautiful place in Peru!  It will be interesting to see all the ancient architecture and history of the Incas.  I still have a lot of the country to see!