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Cebiche amigos!

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Full disclosure: I’m about to go foodie on you.

If you put me on the spot, I’d tell you that my three great loves in life are(in order): Sid, food, and food.  Sid’s at home.  So today I had a little fling with ceviche.  This lovely dish of raw fish(cured in lime juice) is the national culinary pride of Peru.  And Lima is right on the ocean, making this city ceviche world headquarters.  I was told no restaurant does it better than Pescado Capitales.  Now I can attest to that claim.

I started with  Tuna Tiradito: thin tuna slices marinated in lime juice, cilantro, black pepper, and olive oil.  Topped with a mixed sauce of honey, orange juice, olive oil, and oyster sauce.  This was amazing.


Next up, Capital Cebiche 3×3: sole, salmon, and tuna with three types of onions(white, red, and chives) and three types of chiles(yellow, limo, and rocoto).


And as if two entree-sized portions of cevice weren’t enough:



It seems like whenever I travel these days, I make an effort to seek out the best food being cooked in that given locale.  When I’m really successful in that endeavor, I end up finding that one special restaurant that I’ll talk about for years to come.  That’s what happened today.  If you’re ever in Lima, you owe it to yourself to check our Pescado Capitales.


Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Getting ready to fly to Lima this morning.  On an unrelated note, it always strikes me as curious how American celebrities allow their images to be used in other countries in ways that would never fly in the States.  For some reason, Edward Norton really wants YOU to eat this GYRO!


Can you imagine Ed Norton or Ben Stiller hocking 7-11 corn dogs in America?  Uh, don’t think so.

Blisters and aches and no regrets

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

It’s hard to walk 40 miles in 4 days, visit a remote set of Inca ruins, and then come back and bang out a quick, snappy blog post.  So tonight it’s the Cliff’s Notes version.  My trek to Choquequirao was successful.  Me and my merry band of mules made it there and back, and what a journey it was.


It was 33 km there and 33 back.  And day two goes down as one of the toughest physical experiences of my life.  We descended to the bottom of a river gorge, and then climbed 5000 feet over the course of 5 1/2 miles.  That is pretty damn steep!  The photo below captures that mountain side.  About three quarters of the way up, it took everything I had to simply put one foot in front of the other.


For me, one of the lasting visuals from this trek is from our 2nd night camping.   As I sat there — deep in Andes mountains, with not a single light for miles and miles — I found myself staring at the clearest night time sky I’ve ever seen.  The moon and stars were like spotlights, and the clouds were literally 300 yards above us, just beyond the ridge line of the mountain.  It was absolutely stunning.


The next morning I finally arrived at my destination: the Choquequirao ruins.  Choquequirao is far bigger than Machu Picchu, but the mind-boggling aspect of this site is the fact that it’s still only about 35% uncovered.  The best illustration of that is the photo below.  You can see a block of terraces that’s been uncovered.  Well the entire side of that mountain is terraced.  The ENTIRE side.  All that greenery is covering Inca ruins.  Same story on the other side of the mountain.


Speaking of the other side, the Incas did a clever job of creating Llamas in the hillside terraces.


It has an even greater impact when you step back a bit.


Many people say this is the golden age in terms of visiting Choquequirao.  On the day I was there, only 19 people visited the site.  Most of the time I couldn’t see another tourist anywhere.  Someday they’ll have the entire site excavated, and there will probably be a train running thousands of tourists there everyday — just like Machu Picchu.  There’s no road to Choquequirao.  And my guide said he estimates that only about 10 percent of the tourist population is fit enough to make the trek.  I’m glad I had this opportunity.





On the final day of the trek, it was surreal looking back at all the ground we’d covered.  I’m not much of a hiker.  Every time I go hiking I enjoy it, but this was way beyond anything I’d ever attempted.  And I’d venture to say once was enough.


Not another pile of rocks!

Friday, May 21st, 2010

I’d heard this can happen.  You spend day after day looking at one staggering set of Inca ruins after another.  Eventually they’re not so staggering.  Such was the case for me today, sort of.  I visited the Pisac ruins, about 30km north of Cusco.  But rather than dwell on the physical structures, I found myself focusing more on the hike itself and the surrounding landscape.


I had a taxi drop me off at the top of the Ruins, situated very high above the town of Pisac.  And then I hiked all the way down.  The path had some pretty hairy moments, like the staircase with no railing and a lethal fall waiting for you on your left.


At another point I was hiking along a path with a wall on one side and a hillside on the other.

path.jpg It wasn’t until I later looked back, that I realized I’d been walking on a terrace.  With the brown grass long and overgrown, you can’t see it when you’re actually on the terrace.

terraces.jpg Pisac was just a nice walk in the countryside.

On a side note, tomorrow morning I embark on my 5-day trek to the Choquequirao ruins.  It’ll be somewhere around 62km round trip.  But the killer part will be day two, when we ascend 5,000ft in one day.  I’ll have to earn my visit to this site.  So no blog updates until the evening of the 26th.

(I’ve included some photos of Cusco below, because most of what I’ve featured so far has been the rural areas.)

Plaza de Armas

guitarist.jpg  alleystairs.jpg


A real set of stones

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Spent the day on a hill overlooking Cusco.  And keep in mind, I’m 6-foot-1.

mattsacsayhuaman2.jpg It’s anyone’s guess how the Incas transported these stones to a hilltop overlooking a town that’s 11,200ft in elevation.  But there they are.  And stunningly, the Incas didn’t have the wheel.  This site is called Sacsayhuama(pronounced something really close to sassy woman).  It was first a temple, and later used as a fortress.  And it was the Incas’ inability to hold this fortress that would end up being the pivotal turn in the fall of the Inca empire.

sacsayhuaman.jpgThere were also three towers inside the walls, but I’ll give you one guess what happened to those.  If you guessed “torn down by the Spanish”, you are correct!  My favorite photo of the day was near the entrance, where a group of native women were trying to sell their assorted tourist garbage the the guy in red.  But note the white chalk line on the ground.  The peddlers aren’t allowed beyond that line.  As soon as I saw the line, I found myself  making a beeline for it, like the group of ladies that goes to your local mall before the stores open to get their speed-walking exercise.


All said, Cusco is a really nice town, albeit a bit touristy.  I think that latter is unavoidable given the constant influx of people on their way to see Machu Picchu.  It has a district with a maze of narrow alleys, some really impressive cathedrals and Spanish Colonial homes.  And if you have to land somewhere on the way to Machu Picchu, it sure beats Detroit.


A word about William

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

If I may, a word about a gentleman named William.  Further down in the blog I wrote about my 4am wakeup call to go visit Machu Picchu.  (Anyone who knows me knows I am NOT a morning person.  4am Peru time is about the time I generally go to bed on the West Coast.)  So I found myself at the crack of dawn, waiting in the sort of line you’d expect the morning Springsteen tickets go on sale.

Before hopping in line I saw a guy I met at the airport in a different line.  He asked if I already had my ticket, and I did.  So I skipped past his line and went directly to the bus line.   That’s where I struck up a conversation with a guy from Cusco named William.  Turns out he earns a living as a guide at Machu Picchu.  He was  really friendly from the get go… the sort of friendly that when you’re traveling, sometimes makes you skeptical, if only for a fleeting moment.  After a while the line started moving, and it was at that moment that I noticed everyone around me had a thin slip of paper. William said, “Do you have one of these?” I replied that I do not, I have my Machu Picchu ticket.  That’s all I need, right?  RIGHT?!  Nooooooo.  I needed a bus ticket as well.  And that was a separate line — the one the guy from the airport was in when I arrived.  Now, I needed to be one of the first 400 people up to the site to be able to climb Wayna Picchu.  So I dashed from the bus line… over to the bus ticket line.  I was 12 deep in what looked like a very slowing moving process.  Just then, my buddy William also sprinted over to the line.


As a guide, William knows people — in this case, the guy who was at the front of the line.  William waved me to the front of the pack, I handed over my $14.  (That’s correct.  Peruvian Soles were not accepted.  Only American dollars.)  Just like that, William and I were back in line.  I made the next bus.  And I climbed Wayna Picchu.  I owe this man a debt of gratitude.  What are the odds that I’d end up in line behind a well connected Machu Picchu guide.  If you don’t believe in fate, you might ponder it some more.

Me, donkeys, and sheep

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Today I hit the town with a few buddies.


This was truly one of those instances while traveling when you have no idea where the day will take you.  I had three things on the agenda: a town named Maras, an Inca site named Moray, and the Salineras.  The day started on a collectivo packed full of Peruvians and me.  Just when you think they’ve squeezed as many people as possible into a small Toyota van… they stop and pick up one more guy!   I eventually made my way to Maras.  It’s a town that usually sees few tourists as  it is.  I was there early enough in the morning that I was the only gringo in town.  Pretty cool; a bunch of locals staring at me, the donkeys, and the sheep.


From Maras, I planned on making my way to Moray.  Now taxis aren’t plentiful in these parts.  Most people hire them in Cusco and take a taxi tour of the area.  By design, I had mine simply drop me off.  So just as I was resigned to embark on the 8km hike to Moray, a tourist minivan rolls up and offers me a ride for 5 soles(about $1.65).  Cha ching.   15 minutes later I’m staring at Moray.


The Incas took a massive sink hole and terraced the whole thing.  And I mean massive.  In the above photo there are people standing in the middle of the bottom ring.  Trust me.  This thing is massive.  There’s a 3 degree celsius temperature difference between the top terrace and the bottom.  The Incas used this phenomenon for crop experimentation.  One thing I love about a lot of the Inca sites is the built-in staircases — stone slaps sticking out of the wall, just as functional today as they were in 1420.



Once I hiked back to the top of the Moray terraces, I discovered my tourist bus left without me, in spite of the driver’s promises to the contrary.  No worries.  I quickly found a taxi that had been hired by two wacky French guys, and it was headed where I was headed: the Salineras.  The Salineras are nothing short of jaw dropping.  More than 5,000 salt beds created because — for some inexplicable reason — a natural spring at the site spews salt water.  No one’s quite sure why, but it was a site to behold, and I think you could travel the world and never see anything like it.  The salt beds are actually pre-Incan, and still actively producing salt today.




It was an enjoyable day, in which I winged it and took a variety of transportation methods, met lots of people with varied and interesting stories.  And I saw some pretty cool things along the way.  For now, South America’s best self-portrait photographer, signing off.



Monday, May 17th, 2010

It’s funny, sitting in my living room in Portland reading about Inca history I read the name Ollantaytambo 50 times.  And even though I know how the double-L is pronounced in Spanish, in my head I kept pronouncing the L’s in the English way.  Now that I’m here, no chance.  I have an hourly reminder.  Ollantaytambo is a small town that many tourists pass through on their journey to Machu.  Too bad.  It’s an old Inca town,with the old town grid and houses still in use today.  Plus it has this massive Inca fortress on the hillside overlooking the town(at least what’s left after the Spaniards came through with their Catholic wrecking ball):


This was one of the few places the Incas were able to defeat the Spanish in battle, mostly because the fortress is on a steep mountain side, rendering the Spanish calvary useless.  It also has the effect of rendering tourist legs virtually useless. I was absolutely amazed by the irrigation system that’s still functioning today. In this photo, underground irrigation channels pass under a field appear at this wall, and then they disappear again underground.  And this pattern repeats itself field after field. (To be clear, there’s still watering flowing out of those openings!)


Ollanta is just one of those places you don’t mind spending a couple of days, even if you’re not sure what the itinerary looks like.  Sort of like an Andean Tuscany.



Machu Picchu: check

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

machu-matt.jpg Today was unbelievable.  Not because I visted Machu Picchu, but because I got more done before noon than I have in a long, long time.  But the site was pretty impressive in its own right.  I got out of bed at 4am so I’d be on the mountain in time to see the sun’s first rays hit Macchu Pichu sometime around 6:50am.  But really, I needed to be there early because only the first 400 people receive a pass to climb the peak that overlooks the ruins.  My stamp read 363!  Without going into extensive detail, it’s a real ordeal getting up to Machu Picchu, but so worth it.  I’m in awe of the fact that the Incas were able to build such an extensive city in such a remote location more than 500 years ago.


As for my trek up Wayna Picchu (the aforementioned climb limited to 400 people), it nearly killed me.  Between the high altitude and my, ahem, lack of proper conditioning… wow!  But I’m glad I pushed on.  The view from the top:

wayna1.jpgBottom line: really remarkable day. I catch a train in about 90 minutes for a small town in a nearby valley.  I’ve never looked forward to a good night’s sleep as much as I am tonight.  Hope everyone’s well.

Happy Machu Picchu Eve

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

It really should be a holiday for a lot of the tourists here.   I’m in Aguas Calientes tonight, a pure tourist-trap-of-town cultivated for no other reason than the fact that tourists needed a launching pad to Machu Picchu.  There was no other town in the vicinity when the Peruvian government decided to start pimping out the ruins in the early part of the 20th century.

Back to Machu Picchu Eve.  Many of the people who are visiting the ruins have been dreaming of this for years.  I’ve been dreaming of it for months.  Not that I’m not totally excited about the fact.  But it was never on my radar in the way that the Pyramids at Giza have been.  Or the Roman Coliseum was.  So while I’m completely in awe of the pending visit, lots of my tourist colleagues are realizing a long time dream.  So for these people it is indeed Machu Picchu Eve.

I’ll rise at 4am tomorrow, mostly because they only let 400 people a day climb the peak that overlooks the ruins — the site from which all the famous photos are taken.   And one recent visitor said he got in line at 6am and he was way too late.

So sleep tight my North American friends… tonight Machu Claus is coming, only he prefers ceviche to cookies and milk.