Today marks our 100th day on the road! Our travels continue to surprise and delight us; today, for example, a simple excursion to the nearby town of Pátzcuaro evolved into a lakeside drive, an unplanned visit to the wonderfully-named Tzintzuntzán archaeological site, and a dinner in Quiroga, the carnitas capital of Mexico.
It’s been delightful to chronicle our comings and goings on this blog, and we’re grateful for all the love and support we’ve received here and through many other media. Here’s to the next hundred days!
Quick post about our experience in Guadalajara, which was itself pretty quick!
Because Laurie brought us our camping gear (in anticipation of our European bike tour), we decided to camp for a couple nights in the Bosque La Primavera, a big, wild forest just west of Guadalajara. Not only would this be a delightfully cheap form of accommodation, it would also be a nice change of pace from the monotonously indoors places we’d been staying for quite some time.
On the way from Guanajuato to Guadalajara, we stopped in the neighborhood of Tlaquepaque, on the south side of town, for a quick walk around. The neighborhood was very charming but we were both surprised to discover that we were kind of burned out on cities at the moment! Guadalajara is Mexico’s second-largest city, and while it seems like a lovely place, it felt somewhat undifferentiated, and so we were glad to head off to our rural campsite.
On the first night, we stayed at a formal campground just inside the main entrance to the Bosque. This was a really fun scene with a bunch of day-trippers and a few groups staying overnight. There were people on horses, people on bikes, a zip line that I’m sad to say we didn’t find time to ride, all in a lovely pine forest that was very different from many of the forested areas we’d seen thus far.
The following day we decided to camp in a different part of the park, a bumpy few miles into the unpaved interior, along a thermal river. When we arrived, it was a blazing hot Sunday afternoon and the river was dotted with families and groups of friends who had brought coolers, speakers, grills and floaties for a fun afternoon in the water. We pulled out our own makeshift cooler and jumped in, whiling away the afternoon under the forgiving shade of a tree overhanging the river.
As the day moved towards dusk, day-users packed their gear and headed home for the work/school week. We remained, watching the park empty out completely and surveying the now-empty river bank for the best overnight camping spot.
The one we selected was on a flat spot under the shade of a jacaranda tree. We slept without our rainfly – a luxury of desert camping – and awoke a few times throughout the night to a cloudless sky, lit by a bright moon. As far as we could tell, we were the only souls who had stayed overnight, the only sounds we heard were from the river, and some cows mooing on nearby fields in the morning.
After another morning swim, we packed up the Prizefighter and pushed onwards, west into agave country!
On April 16th, we picked up our rental car and set out on a road trip around central Mexico. We had a rough itinerary, a bag full of snacks, and a little white Chevy Aveo, aka the “Prizefighter.” Back in Oakland, on his way to work, Drew would pass through a parking lot just before getting on BART. In this lot, he’d often play a game examining the lettering of license plates and try to make words that contained the three letters, in that order, in his head. Some are harder than others, and our rental, with the letters PZR on the plates, was a real challenge! Pizzamaker was one contender, but Prizefighter somehow seemed a more stately title for our chariot (also, incidentally, the name of a bar we really like in Emeryville).
We headed out of Mexico City – an altogether simple task relative to all the warning we received about driving in CDMX – and headed first to Querétaro. As this was our first real day as drivers in México, we’ll share a few brief reflections. While not without quirks, it’s pretty easy. And if you’ve ever been in a car on the BQE around 6:30pm on a Thursday, it’s a cake walk. I can say that, since I have the important task of sitting in the passenger seat and alerting Drew to all the imminent dangers – real and imagined – that I see (we opted to save the money on paying for permission to have a second driver, which means Drew is Chief Maneuvering Officer, and I am Pothole Identification Staffer, Associate Director of Navigation and also Manager of Snack-to-Mouth Delivery).
The most perilous aspect of driving, which seems to be a nationwide phenomenon, are the topes. Topes refer to “buckets” but also “speed bumps.” We learned the former meaning on our first day in Mexico City when we had ordered too much pozole and they sent it home with us in a small orange tope with a handle. Yay! The second meaning was made abundantly clear within our first moments in the Prizefighter. Topes are everywhere. Here they are more like abrupt mounds of clumpy asphalt than the smooth hills of American suburban speed bumps. Equally importantly, the amount of warning you receive about one’s imminence varies from very little to none. This could result in broken axles (we’ve more than once been reminded of this same danger from the Oregon Trail and acknowledged that we certainly don’t have the skills in our wagon to repair and continue on to the Snake River) or a little airborne journey, but fortunately neither fate has befallen us to date.
Mostly, drivers ahead will notice the tope (sometimes at the very last second), slow down to a near crawl (from 60 to 0 in two seconds or less), put on their hazards (the universal Mexican signal for ‘something is happening’) and lob themselves over it. So we learned by doing, and Drew has now navigated hundreds of topes with great finesse.
Though I’m sure you’re very anxious to learn more about the peculiarities of car handling and road dynamics in Mexico, I’ll return to the real purpose of this post: the trip itself. As mentioned, our first destination was Querétaro. This is the fastest growing city in the country, located in a state by the same name (there are 31 states in Mexico, and as of writing this on May 4, over 1,500 miles in, we have spent time in only seven!). We assumed from its designation as “one of Latin America’s most dynamic places” and the fact that its industry is largely built on IT, that we’d find a modern, glassy city. To the contrary, Querétaro’s architecture and vibe turned out to be thoroughly mellow, and quite idyllic. Here are some photos:
A few hours and a stroll around a beautiful urban park later, we returned to the Prizefighter and headed further west towards our destination for the next few nights: Guanajuato. Guanajuato is a topographically curious place, built into a bumpy valley such that much of the city is, by necessity, constructed out of stairways and underground tunnels – to get anywhere is a labyrinth of short ascents and descents only achieved on foot. Fortunately, said labyrinth is just full of color, excellent stonework and charm.
We stayed in a house on the edge of town, just under the Cerro de la Bufa – a mountain full of rock formations that could easily have been somewhere in the American Southwest. This familiar desert climate brought wild winds, piercing blue skies, and a truly excellent nightscape.
We explored Guanajuato’s market, checked out the famous Teatro Juarez, watched a soccer game at an outdoor café, paddled around a reservoir, and enjoyed enchiladas mineras: the local specialty prepared with potatoes and carrots, and named for the fact that the area has been a center of silver mining in the country.
We also spent more time than might be reasonable hanging around our lodging, on account of two outstanding resident cats, Cosita and Francisca. The former is a Maine Coon, striking in resemblance to my last cat, Mazy the VII. Both share(d) a sweet, slightly neurotic personality and penchant for kitty dreadlocks in their abundant fur. Cosita slept with us most nights, and this only further confirmed our suspicion that our next home will be one with a(t least one) cat; the future is feline.
We took a day trip from Guanajuato to the nearby towns of San Miguel de Allende and Dolores Hidalgo. Ninety minutes of desert driving (in which the Shakey Graves cover of Neil Young’s ‘Unknown Legend’ earned its rightful title as Song of the Road Trip) put us in the center of the “Greatest Place to Live in the World” according to, I don’t know, Travel & Leisure magazine? San Miguel de Allende is also known as Gringolandia, as thousands of U.S. Americans have made it their home over the last half century. We had to see what all the fuss was about. We arrived just before noon on Good Friday, so spent a few hours watching an Easter-related processional make its way through the streets, and then we ate some gorditas.
San Miguel is undeniably lovely. The streets are cobbled and lined with art galleries, the built environment colorful, the pace slow (and not just because there was a morose Catholic processional going down). We concluded that there was fuss to be made, but no more so than any other magical place we’d been (seriously, when is the Tourism Board going to send us our commission?!), and there was maybe one too many hip, aging Californian ladies with red spectacles, patterned long skirts and chunky silver earrings for our liking (no offense meant to those stylish broads, though!).
Onward, we went to Dolores Hidalgo. But not before stopping at La Gruta hot springs on maybe its most popular day of the year. Hot Springs in the Hot Desert might not sound like a winning combination, but the hundreds of families who had descended on La Gruta clearly felt otherwise. A collection of roughly ten hot pools were filled (and I mean, filled) with people of all ages splashing in floaties, drinking Tecate, taking selfies, or attempting to drown their brothers. It was a scene of the best kind, and we enjoyed a few hours of people watching and pool-hopping (well Drew did. I kind of wimped out at the sight of the mysteriously cloudy waters teeming with so many human bodies).
Then on to DH. This town was once just called “Dolores,” but then Miguel Hidalgo had to come along and be a hero and get his name added in there. No, but seriously. Below is the statue in front of the church where Priest Hidalgo rang some bells from the bell tower, yelled “Death to Bad Governance!” and helped start the Mexican War of Independence. He was later executed by the Spanish, and is on the record as saying to his executors something along the lines of: “Though I may die, I shall be remembered forever; you all will soon be forgotten.” Bam!
Anyway, Dolores Hidalgo is like the introverted younger sibling of San Miguel – same genes, less gravitas. We shared some tortilla soup and guacamole and played cards in a leafy courtyard restaurant where the maître d’ invited us to come live in Dolores Hidalgo forever (perhaps he’s on the tourism board and can help us with the matter of that payment?).
We then sampled the local ice cream, which is regionally famed for its unique and/or downright strange flavors. We played it relatively safe with avocado and Mexican chili chocolate for me and for Drew, whiskey cream and elote (astute readers may recall elote from our first meal in Mexico City: it is, basically, corn).
We drove back to Guanajuato with a sugar high as the sun began to set over the mountains. It was a sweet day, followed by sweet slumber, and the launch of the next leg of our road trip: to Guadalajara and the Bosque La Primavera!
Please enjoy this post from guest contributor Dr. Laurie Zivetz, MPH, PhD, aka “Sara’s Mom,” who joined us in CDMX for five lovely days in early April.
This is my first blog ever. In my travels as a youth, I kept a handwritten journal and wrote long aerograms to friends (the handwriting sometimes indecipherable, apparently). My trip to meet Sara and Drew was my third international trip this year—after Delhi in February and Beirut in March, I joined Sara and Drew on their 21st century round the world adventure in a city they had fallen in love with—Mexico City.
I was swept up in the romance. My darling daughter had done her planning magic to entice me in: finding vegan restaurants sprinkled about the city; getting tickets that would bring us into the compelling story of feminist artist Frida Kahlo at the home she shared with Diego Rivera—now a museum; and bringing me to the world class Museum of Anthropology—a stunning, colorful celebration of Mexican culture.
Sara and Drew navigated us on walks through leafy neighborhoods, urban parks, Sunday walking streets, towards local watering holes and around the city of 20 million people. I had been to Mexico City as a child—the beginning of a yearlong family trip that would change my worldview—and while there this time, spontaneously remembered the name of the largest urban park in the city—Chapultepec—the grasshopper hill.
The day after I arrived was Drew’s birthday, and as is their tradition, they had an elaborate day planned. We dined in a restaurant reputedly where chefs choose to go on their day off. Ant eggs were theatrically stir fried and presented at the table and several types of indigenous spirits consumed. (I watched.)
More walking, more food, a pedicure and some planned activities deferred to later days (a massage, a trip to the top of the tallest building to view the city, various eateries) and so Drew turned 33 in Mexico City!
Travel has changed since I sent those aerograms, and presumably since I stepped foot in Mexico City last (I can’t remember). The GPS makes getting stranded a thing of the past. Uber, bike share, a metro system and on-line bus information make it almost effortless to move around this complicated city (or at least it felt that way—I was just following along). Drew was completely in his element, and we all racked up a satisfying number of steps on our iPhones.
More people speak English here than in other parts of the world, though Sara and Drew take every opportunity to practice their Spanish. And yes, I have changed too and thoroughly enjoyed the free passes for seniors on public transport and museums. I was tickled to have my identification checked at the pulquería where we tasted the local brew, pulque (reportedly with probiotic benefits).
For all of you who are tracking the travels of Sara and Drew, I can report they are doing fine, eating well, voraciously taking in each new experience and cuisine. It was a treat to drop into their journey and I hope to be able to do so again—maybe in a place where I speak the language!
It seems it is easier to write about a place that you just pass through. When you’re a visitor (and one could argue about how long it takes to shed the ‘visitor’ status – a week? a year?) you collect a handful of specific, vivid, vignettes from a place, prime for recounting. When you hang around, it becomes easier to perceive a place’s layers; the stories for retelling begin to accumulate, intertwine and blur. This is neither good nor bad, but it has made writing about our month in Mexico City hard.
And, neither Drew nor I have been quite as excited about a place since our respective arrivals in Berlin and New York City, about a decade ago. As urbanists who both came to the profession from a deeply emotional connection to the ‘sidewalk ballet’ of cities, Mexico City moved us. For this reason, no single or sequence of blog posts could possibly convey all we absorbed and relished, nor do justice to the entirety of the place and our slice of experiences in it.
But I do remember our first morning. We stumbled back into North America the night before, dry mouthed and bleary eyed, with the awe of Machu Picchu on our backs. We took a short taxi ride to our lodging, where our mom-of-a-host greeted us warmly and without complaint at 2:09 a.m. She demonstrated how to use the purified water dispenser, warned us not to look at our phones on the street, told us to have fun, and said goodnight.
We crashed and awoke a heavenly nine hours later to a Mexico City morning. Outside our yellow building on a dead-end street, we greeted a sun-drenched day in Roma Sur. A leap away from our front door, a bursting jacaranda tree released a handful of its endless purple petals onto the sleepy intersection below. The air was dry, clear, and cool, though the sun had warmed it in patches. We walked towards breakfast in silence, taking in this new home.
The buildings in this part of the city are colorful and old, charmed with wrought iron and a largely pastel palette. Roma Sur has all of the easy charm of its neighbors Roma Norte and Condesa to the north and west, but less of the polish. Parts have a colonial feel, while a strong art deco theme also makes its mark. Cars move slowly and the abundant, leaf-heavy trees have been leaning over the sidewalks with wisdom for decades.
Our first meal consisted of several different components (my favorite way of eating), including panqué de elote (a kind of dense, cake-y corn bread), café de olla (coffee with cinnamon, a little cane sugar and other spices, traditionally prepared in special ceramic pots), fresh squeezed orange juice, enchiladas, chilaquiles, and fresh bread (because why not?). We lingered over it, smiling, and smiling again.
Having nothing to do with the morning’s meal whatsoever, later that afternoon we went for a run. Our destination was the public office of Ecobici, the city’s bikeshare system. There, we took a brief digital road test to confirm we understood CDMX traffic safety laws (we both proudly passed the test – in Spanish – with 100% scores) and paid our $25 USD for an annual bikeshare membership, allowing us to freely zoom around the city on two wheels.
That is about where, more than a month later, my memory begins to blur (though I’m fairly sure our next stop was tacos). So, in no particular order and again, without anything close to completeness, a few other things from the next 27 days that blew our minds:
In the end, the best thing about this city was everything about it. We were fattened, stirred and inspired.
Certainly, Mexico City is not without flaws. Like any big city, poverty abounds outside the well-trodden corridors. Sanitation and lack of clean drinking water are major issues, and income/employment inequality – particularly for indigenous populations – are very real issues, as is a fragile judicial system and rampant corruption (we might someday share our tale of paying off a cop to avoid a night in prison for a minor infraction in a public park).
And I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many ways in which our brief life here did not, could not, mirror that of true residents. For one, most of the time, we had nowhere to be. We could wander, sleep late, avoid traffic, act on impulse. For another, we were treated as visitors, all the more welcomed for our earnest attempts to crack jokes in Spanish and our goofy and constant excitement for everything we saw, ate, and experienced. This kind of enthusiasm tends to endear oneself to others, and we were largely rewarded with treatment that typical residents may not enjoy from the average street vendor or subway station attendant.
Concessions and admissions duly noted and fully factored in, it is still the case that we fell in love. And we’ll be savoring these memories and this rare thrill as long as it takes to return (which we hope, is not long at all).
p.s. Our initial explorations of CDMX were guided by a handful of helpful resources shared by various friends who had come before us. Building from a great map created by our planning school classmate, friend, and Mexico City native, Ulises, we tracked a lot of our destinations – food-based and otherwise – in the map below! For anyone who’s planning their own visit (or just curious) feel free to peruse for more insights on what we did and where we went, including some personalized commentary within each pin.
Like the place itself, the internet is crowded with tourists’ tales of their visits to Machu Picchu. Rather than pile ours on, we’ll keep this brief.
Machu Picchu was awe-some. It’s hard to fathom the how of it all. We loved being there as much for the mind-blowing structures and grounds as for the epic natural beauty; the landscape that surrounds Machu Picchu is other-worldly.
A few pro-tips (with accompanying photos!) below in case you’re planning your own trip:
There are no roads in and out of Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You have to take a train*, which is an expensive, but beautiful ~ 2 hour ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town adjacent to Machu Picchu). As our prior blog posts confirm, we recommend a few nights in Ollanta before your train ride!
Once in Aguas Calientes, you can hike to and from Machu Picchu (about 90 mins up, 60 mins down, depending on your walking speed), or you can take a bus ($12 per person per direction), which takes about 30 minutes. We recommend saving your legs for the grounds and bussing up, but hiking down. The trail down the mountain is surprisingly lush (but note: it is all steps, so not great for weak knees).
*You can also opt to take a bus to a nearby town, Hidroeléctrica, which is a cheaper, more time and labor intensive option. Google it; many a backpacker has paved this path.
While You’re There
Our hostel hosts (Pico’s House – a bit hard to find but very comfortable stay with friendly proprietors) recommended we first visit the Incan Sun Gate, which is a 20-30 min walk away from and above the main grounds. It provides a beautiful vantage point from which to get a lay of the land – you can see the citadel and surrounding landscape, and escape some of the more intense crowds. We concur with this recommendation!
If you can handle heights and are up for a few hours of good physical challenge, book tickets for Huayna Picchu. It is the vertiginous mountain famously backdropping the Machu Picchu citadel, and hiking up and around it was thrilling, mystical, and rewarding. (Only 400 people per day are permitted to hike Huayna Picchu, so book your entrance tickets well in advance.)
First you hike straight up, up, up to the peak and marvel at the fact that there are more stone structures built there at the top, and then most people hike back down. We strongly recommend following the trail to the back of the mountain, where we saw only a handful of people for the rest of the hike. This trail goes down, down, down (including straightdown some precarious ladders, see pic below) until you reach the Temple of the Moon. This is said to have been built by and for Incan women specifically, and the stone work and views were breathtaking. Return to the citadel via another tough but beautiful (and shorter!) ascent.
Whatever you plan to do while there, we recommend spreading your time at Machu Picchu over at least two days. Taking it all in on day one, and then really engaging and exploring on day two made the experience that much more memorable and meaningful. Plus, it’s a chance to see Machu Picchu in potentially different weather conditions, which is a real treat!
Without planning it this way, Machu Picchu ended up being our last real stop in South America. We left on an afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo, where we switched to a bus which took us, under a rising full moon, through the Sacred Valley back to Cusco. We slept and caught a flight the next morning to Lima, where we spent five hours wandering the airport before connecting to our flight to Mexico City.
In 55 days we walked over 300 miles in the cities and towns, mountains and beaches of three amazing countries. We took 21 buses and flights between destinations, and dozens of tuk-tuks, taxis, Willys jeeps, motorcycles, subways, gondolas and other forms of transit within places. We spent time in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, explored the world’s longest mountain range (the Andes), visited two of the continent’s most populous cities (Lima and Bogotá), and spent a week in the second highest capital city in the world (Quito). We sampled so many new fruits, vegetables, spices and meats, shared meals and time with family and friends old and new, and thanked countless strangers for their kindness, welcoming warmth and helpful guidance as we explored a small segment of this vast continent.
As we took off to the west over the Pacific Ocean from Jorge Chávez International Airport, it felt both as if we’d just arrived, and been there for years; covered significant ground, and hardly scratched the surface. With mixed emotion, we said goodbye to South America and flew north!
One of the things Sara and I loved about Ollantaytambo was the wide range of strenuous outdoor activities on offer. In addition to exploring the ruins of Pinkuylluna and Ollantaytambo fortress (see last post), we undertook two such adventures. Here’s the story about each.
We went with the divide-and-conquer approach on Saturday the 16th: Sara took care of a variety of business items and went for a peaceful walk around town, while I rented a bike and pedaled up the Abra Málaga, an Andean pass that reaches nearly 14,200 feet in elevation and crosses the South American continental divide. This was a very challenging ride, consisting primarily of an uninterrupted 23.7-mile climb that ascended just over 5,000 feet – from a starting point of 9,100 feet! Fortunately, it got less steep the higher I climbed, so it remained feasible throughout.
Beginning on the lush valley floor, I climbed up and up, through sweeping switchbacks, along an insistent stream. Though my legs ached and my lungs burned, the biggest challenge was actually the aggressive dogs I encountered along the way. (Get off and walk past the worst of them, holding the bike between them and me.) Gradually, trees dwindled, then smaller shrubs; I was making my way into a remote and desolate world of fog and wind. At the top, a pair of indigenous women welcomed me into their shack for coffee by a small but crucial hearth, amid a family of rabbits, a scraggly cat, and a couple of hens.
Then, of course, I got to enjoy an hour straight of descent back into the Sacred Valley. Here’s a Strava link and a photo gallery from this ride, one of the hardest I’ve done:
On the 17th, we decided to warm up for our upcoming Machu Picchu explorations by going on a huge and taxing hike! (This was also my idea of a recovery effort after my continental divide bike ride the day before.) Our goal was the Inti Punki, or Sun Gate, an Inca ruin located on the ridgeline of the Sacred Valley, supposedly located so as to frame the sun’s rays as seen from the Sun Temple in Ollantaytambo, on some date, at some time. Along the way, we would also pass a series of quarries used by Inca laborers to source massive stones for the Ollantaytambo complex.
This hike was not so dissimilar, actually, from my bike ride the day before. From Ollantaytambo we climbed and climbed, until there wasn’t any more climbing to be done, then we returned the way we came. In this case this meant climbing more than 4,000 feet over a 12.4 mile hike, almost all of that during the 6.2 mile outbound leg. Now imagine doing this regularly, barefoot, while hauling heavy things. The Inca must have been jacked.
Check out the Strava recording and a photo gallery, below.
Rather winded but eagerly anticipating the next day’s travels (to Machu Picchu!), we gratefully concluded our time in Ollantaytambo.
Peeling ourselves off the sweaty seats of our colectivo (shared mini-van) as it pulled in to the center of Ollantaytambo, we knew within moments this was our kind of place. As dusk waited in the rafters, the sweet town square welcomed us with a bevy of friendly dogs, trees and a few people, sweet shops, small restaurants, and the mountains of the Urubamba Valley painting a striking backdrop.
The streets that lead off the main square – including the one that led to our home for the next four nights – could hardly be called that: no cars could squeeze down their narrow width, and they are better described as perfectly-laid stone walkways lined on both sides with perfectly-laid stone walls. A rushing brook is built into the side of the paths (presumably for plumbing purposes) and from within the courtyards of the houses that fronted the paths, tree limbs spilled over and bloomed in view.
These paths hold the structures for what are said to be some of the longest inhabited dwellings in South America, dating back to pre-Incan indigenous communities who lived on this valley floor. We walked the short distance to our hostel, K’uchu Wasi, where we met owners Andrés and Silvia and their Bernese mountain dog, Beethoven. Their property sits on the edge of town, almost directly under the Pinkuylluna ruin site, with an incredible flower garden, and one of our most comfortable beds in our travels to date.
After dropping our bags and reassembling ourselves, we ventured out in search of dinner. We decided to treat ourselves to Chuncho, a second floor restaurant overlooking the town square, known for its modern takes on traditional regional fare (and pisco-oriented happy hour!). After a few tasty cocktails from the balcony, we moved inside and enjoyed a multi-course feast featuring lots of root vegetables, corn, a ricotta-like cheese and yes, alpaca meat! (Cuy, or guinea pig, was also on the menu, as it is all over Peru, but we abstained.)
Since becoming a sometimes-meat-eating person in my late twenties, I have slowly made my way around the edible animal kingdom, exploring the culinary possibilities afforded by this new (to me) food group, and always trying to remember to express gratitude to the animals when I eat them (“thanks, fishy!” is a common phrase in the Levitt-Draper-Zivetz household). So it went with the alpaca skewers: a word of thanks, a bite off the stick, and – at least for me – almost instant remorse. 2/10, wouldn’t try again. But Drew loved it! The texture of alpaca is tough and the taste is gamey, with an aggressive flavor that leaves little chance for any accompanying sauces or seasonings to compete for attention in your mouth. With our divided house on this one, we can’t make a Scheme-Based-Adventure Official Endorsement, but we can request you report back if you get a chance to try alpaca yourself!
Anyway, enough about the food. (Haha, yeah, right). The highlights of our time in Ollantaytambo were multiple and varied, including several feats of physical strength. I will leave the vivid descriptions of those to my brawny husband in a forthcoming post, and instead share a bit about what brings most people to this place: the ruins.
As mentioned, we were staying just under Pinkuylluna, the lesser-visited of the two ruin sites in town. On our first full day in town, we followed an unassuming sign leading from a path in town up a mountainside towards what turned out to be a phenomenally in-tact granary/store-house. We speculated that one builds a granary precariously into the side of a mountain some 30 sweaty minutes vertically up from the town for… security purposes (more protected from attacks and floods?)…but we can’t be certain. I will let the photos speak for themselves.
Later that afternoon, after a lunch and rejuvenating juice, we walked over to the other side of town (a trying adventure of about three minutes) and paid the entrance fee to the other, much larger set of ruins. We opted against paying for a tour guide, so can’t relay a whole lot of context for these ruins to you all, but we did pick up a few snippets here and there as we surreptitiously listened in on other Spanish, English and German tours that were underway in our proximity. Around six hundred years ago (mid-15th century) the Incan emperor Pachacuti built this estate for himself and other Incan nobility. It’s sprawling (maybe 1/2 km from end to end of what’s left) and includes multiple temples, military outlooks, residences, and farming terraces. It was notably the site of an important victory against the Spanish, preventing (temporarily at least) their advancement into the highlands.
Drew was particularly blown away by the stonework, and I loved imagining the harvests – in such proximity to everything else! – on the farming terraces that were still remarkably intact.
Other highlights included the amazing water temples which still have running water to this day – and the Temple of the Sun. The whole experience felt like a potentially dangerous warm up for what was ahead; could Machu Picchu really stand up to this?
Below is a 360-degree panoramic photo Drew took from the Inka Watana, the lookout post above the Ollantaytambo ruins. You can see the town of Ollantaytambo beneath the ruins, and beyond the town, Pinkuylluna with its own antiquities on the hillside. Farther afield, you can appreciate the strategic value of this lookout, with its long views down the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River to east and west as well as up the Patacancha River to the north.
It’s not easy (or even necessary) to choose favorite places, but we both agreed this was nonetheless a strong contender; we’re grateful to Howard and Wendy who visited a few weeks prior and encouraged us to spend some time here. Stay tuned for more tales of epic hiking and biking that rounded out our time at this wonderful stop!
Our stop in Cusco came at a point in our South America travels where the novelty of colonial architecture surrounding a leafy and lively central square – in this case Plaza de Armas – had begun to fade. Though we have mostly only nice things to say about the city – it is walkable, attractive, welcoming, and has the requisite excellent market for snacking and shopping (San Pedro, for those who wish to know) – the particulars of what sets Cusco apart aren’t coming to me easily.* That is, except for a wonderful experience we had one afternoon near the entrance to some Incan ruins on the outskirts of town.
After a walk across the main part of the city – which sits on a valley floor (if you can call it a floor at over 11,000 ft) – we made our way up through the hillside neighborhood of San Blas. Beautiful cobblestone streets and staircases led us up towards Avenida Circunvalación, which, as its name implies, hugged the northern perimeter of the city (and would later be the road we took out of town to the Sacred Valley).
We stopped for a selfie at the eight foot high Cristo Blanco – a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II – and found some nearby trees to sit under and share our picnic of Peruvian bread, salty cheese and Botija olives.
After lunch, we wandered down the road to Saqsaywaman, one of the better-known Incan ruins in the Cusco area. With a (relatively) high entrance fee and threatening rain clouds gathering in the middle distance, we opted to remain on the exterior of the grounds to enjoy the perimeter’s stonework and begin our descent back into the Cusco Valley. We paused for a moment so I could tie my shoe, and Drew could check out some birds in the distance through our binoculars.
Just then, three young boys in school uniforms walked up to us and, knowingly eyeing Drew’s neck candy, asked if they could look through the binoculars. They each took turns, patiently helping each other see through the lenses. After a few minutes, they thanked us, reluctantly handed the binoculars back, and kept walking home.
Behind them, another, younger boy was lingering shyly on the other side of the path, clearly wanting his own turn, but too afraid to ask.
I offered him a chance to look in, and when he first held the binoculars we realized he’d never used them before. We explained how to look into the lenses and adjust them, and Drew helped him get them working. As soon as things came into focus, his mouth broke into a huge, open smile. He pointed and with a soft shout, told us excitedly about each of the things he was seeing.
For minutes, his expression went from joy to disbelief and back again, never once daring to remove the binoculars from his eye-sockets. After a stretch of silent, determined looking (in which Drew and I just stood there reveling in this kid’s pure apparent joy) he lowered the binoculars and looked straight at us: “un zorro!” he whispered breathlessly. He had seen a fox.
As raindrops began to fall, we reluctantly took the binoculars back and said goodbye to our new friend. As we parted ways, the temptation was strong to gift him the binoculars – he clearly the more voracious and enthusiastic consumer of their benefits – but as this particular set is a family heirloom, we ultimately opted against it.
We made our way back down to our hostel with big smiles of our own. We spent the rest of our last evening in Cusco on the roof watching the sunlight fade and the lights of the city come on. We cooked our favorite cheap traveler’s meal – pasta with tuna and cheese – and prepared for our next morning’s departure – to the Sacred Valley!
*Important caveat: in fact what sets Cusco apart is that it was the actual center of the entire Incan empire. I don’t mean to overlook the importance of the city, which is obviously quite significant both in history and for its nearly half a million residents today.
Honestly, we’d heard mixed things about Lima: it was a foodie’s paradise; it was big, loud, and dirty; it had great neighborhoods; it was boring. So when we were planning our Peru leg, we allocated only two nights in Lima.
We flew in from Talara airport in northern Peru (only three departures per day, all heading to Lima). After a short flight we arrived in the mid-afternoon, and after we had collected our bags, ridden the taxi from the airport in the northwest of the city to Barranco, a cool neighborhood in the southeast, and checked in to our hostel, it was about time for an early dinner. So we headed over to La 73, a charming and slightly spendy spot nearby, for a round of pisco drinks and a Peruvian paella. So far, so good.
(Our hostel was a real mixed bag. The location was great and it was run by a lovely family, but it was dingy and unkempt, and our room smelled musty. Sara and I like to think we’re willing to overlook a good deal of polish in return for good price, location, and companionship, but there are limits to these trade-offs.)
After our snack/dinner it was time to take in the sunset off the Pacific coast – Lima marked the last time, for a while, we’d have the chance to see an oceanic sunset. We stopped at the Malecón de los Ingleses (“malecón” is a little difficult to translate – it kind of means “boardwalk” or “pier” but this and other spots in Lima were all up on plateaus above the actual waterfront) and took some sweet photos of such a gorgeous evening sky.
Then we headed into the neighborhood of Barranco for drinks and adventure. We got a real Brooklyn vibe from some of Barranco, including the open-air crafts and foods market and the old mansion converted to a cocktail bar and art space. We also ate dinner at a chifa, a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant in central Barranco.
Unfortunately, something disagreed with Sara (possibly the chifa stir-fry) and this was all she was really able to see of Lima. I spent much of Sunday taking care of Sara and trying to keep her spirits up, then went out for a few hours in the afternoon to see just a little bit more of the city and to bring back some chicken soup. (The soup, not pictured, was a big hit. Peru is known for two great chicken soups, dieta de pollo and caldo de gallina.)
I walked up from Barranco to Miraflores, kind of the Upper East Side of Lima, where I grabbed some ceviche to go; sat in a lovely park; visited a big and bewildering grocery store; walked along the promenade; observed the urban and cultural fabric; and finally returned to our hostel.
A few urbanist observations. I was struck, both in Barranco and Miraflores (which are both high-rent districts), by the obvious obsession with quality-of-life infractions. Prominent signage prohibited things like blaring car alarms, dog poop, and unauthorized tourist bus stops. And everywhere there was evidence of extreme security measures on affluent homes – a sign that either crime, or paranoia, or both, are pronounced in Lima. Elsewhere in town, we saw some pretty good bike infrastructure and bus rapid transit; these systems are ubiquitous in South American cities to an extent that makes you really wonder why we can’t seem to get them going in North American cities…
And – that’s really it. The next morning we taxied back to the airport and were off to Cusco. On the way to the airport we passed broad boulevards and grandiose buildings in central Lima – I was vaguely reminded of Washington, D.C. – but we really came and went through this city of eight million people in just a handful of hours. Perhaps we’ll return someday to check out world-tier restaurants like Central or Maido; or take surfing lessons by the Miraflores pier; or visit all the museums – but for now we have to be content with the briefest handshake with the place.