Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Exploring Peru - The Series

Thanks to anyone and everyone who checked in on this blog over the past month or so to read about our trip to Peru this past August. I had fun reliving the experience, sharing some knowledge and posting pictures I took.

So that everything can now be gathered into one place, below is an aggregation of the entire series for easier reading now or later. Just click on the headlines to go to those pieces.

Series Kickoff & Cusco
Trekking in the Andes Mountains I
Trekking in the Andes Mountains II
Photo Feature - Peru
Photo Feature - Machu Picchu
Jungle Trekking & Machu Pichhu
Cusco Again, Lake Titicaca, Home

Details of our trip:

  • Dates: August 17-September 2
  • Route to get there: Seattle-Dallas-Miami-Lima-Cusco
  • Tour service: REI Adventures
  • Guide: Miguel
  • Cities visited: Cusco, Puno, Lima
  • Inca ruins visited: Machu Picchu, Tarawasi, Sacsayhuman fortress, Temple of the Sun in Cusco
  • Other: Salkantay Pass at 15,000 feet above sea level

For anyone interested, below are links to other series I've written about other trips we've taken...

Excursion to Egypt

The China Reports

Romania: On the Trail of Dracula

Visiting the U.S. South

La Dolce Vita: Italy

Friday, October 19, 2012

Exploring Peru - Cusco Again, Lake Titicaca, Home

Well, it's time for the big wrap up...the last post in my "Exploring Peru" series recapping our August trip to Peru. This time, I'll re-cap our second stint in Cusco, describe our trip to another part of Peru and our nine hour Lima stopover on the way home.

If interested in catching up on previous posts in this series, you can do so in sequence by going HERE, HEREHERE and then HERE.

And, as usual, I've updated my Flickr Photostream with new pictures that match this post. Just go HERE to see the entire set. The ones in the lower quarter of the page will relate to this post.


Cusco - Take Two
Our group at Chicha in Cusco
Our first stop in Cusco was short. Just about 24 hours. So, we did not have the time to really look around and check the city out. Sure, I went on that half day tour to see some of the historical highlights...and I was glad I did...but really seeing a place involves walking around, getting off the tourist track a bit (but not too much in this case), doing a bit of shopping...and eating...and just, well, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere. Luckily, on our second stint in Cusco on this trip we would have an evening, a whole day and then another half day to do just that.

After saying our goodbyes to our guides and, we thought, our fellow tour mates, Diane and I cleaned up and rested some at the hotel. We had made arrangements to meet up with our now good buddies Kevin and Josh for dinner, so we went to the lobby to meet them as discussed. As we waited, other members of the tour group filtered in. Naturally, they asked what we were up to for the evening. Learning that we were off for dinner, they all decided to tag along. So, suddenly we had a group of 10 and not four. Hey, the more the merrier! I also thought this was a good sign that our group overall had been a good one for the tour. After all, they would not have wanted to hang out if they didn't like each other - or us!

As it turned out, we found a great place called Chicha not far away and cajoled the greeter there to set up a table for ten people. Chica is an upscale place with a wide ranging menu...and hence why we thought it would be good for a group of ten people. Want nicely done and presented alpaca? They had it. Want delicious pizza? Done. How about some Peruvian classics done up in a "gastro pub style"? No problem. Something for everyone. And speaking of everyone, I was impressed with the camaraderie and openness exhibited by each member of our group. Diane and I had quickly go to know Kevin and Josh right off the top of the tour, but most of the rest of the group already knew each other...so, nice and cordial as they were, it took some time to break the ice. And at this last meal together, the ice truly was broken and we all had a great time. Full and contented, we called it a night after the meal...strolling back through the nigh time Cusco Plaza de Armas and back down the narrow streets to our hotel.

We awoke the next morning and saw that the weather was going to be very nice...perfect for a walking tour, shopping and lunch. By 10 a.m. we out of our hotel and checking into another for one more night in the city. We stayed at the delightful Hotel Arqueologo. After that, we were on the streets looking for knit hats, sweaters, art and souvenirs of all different types with Josh and Kevin along for the fun too.  We visited nice boutiques, typical tourist stalls and pretty much everything in between. Lucky for Kevin and Josh, Diane was there to lend her keen eye to their potential clothes and art purchases. I can summarize our shopping thusly: we went to a lot of shops, it took most of the day, it was fun, we bought many items (art, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves, etc.), it's all nice and unique stuff and it was a good way to see the old town.

Early in our adventure this day, we came across a woman dressed in typical highlands attire and holding a small baby alpaca. Very cute. Naturally, we had to get a picture. Now, with situations like this, you know you're going to have to pay the person something for taking their picture. Typically, you ask how much and they say, "whatever you want" or "it is your choice." Also typically, no matter how much you give ($1, $2, $5, $10) they respond with a look or a reply that is along the lines of, "you've got to be kidding...that's all you're going to give me?" So, the thing to do is just figure out how much you think the picture you're taking is worth to you and give them that amount undeterred. My feeling is not to be a cheapskate just because I can. So, I gave this woman the equivalent of $5 U.S. She didn't like it, but I didn't think twice about it.

In between all that, we all visited the Inca Museum for a short look around at art and artifacts from the Cusco and highlands area of Peru...you know, learn a little something! We also spent a little time at the Plaza de Armas to people watch. And, out on the street, we ran into a couple other members of our tour - Sally and Evelyn. Together, we hit lunch at a great little place in the San Blas area of Cuco called Jack's Cafe. Later in the afternoon, Diane and I toured through the big Cathedral on the plaza.

Inca foundations on Spanish buildings in Cusco
One thing I thought interesting about Cusco was the architecture...at least in the old town...because the ancient Inca foundations remained on most the buildings. They were easy to spot: big, insanely tightly fit together blocks of carefully carved rock rising from street level. These were the foundations of Inca palaces, temples and everyday buildings. When the Spanish arrived and took over, they eventually tore all of those structures down, building their own buildings - what you see today - on top of the Inca solid foundations. I could not help think about what those original Inca buildings would look like today. How tall? How big? What shape? Some clues were given when we saw things like the Temple of the Sun across town, Machu Picchu and the ruins at Tarawasi. But who knows?

In the evening, we had a nice stroll around the old town - down cobbled streets, under pleasant streetlights and among the hustle bustle created by the mix of fascinated tourists, working people on their way home or our to dinner and school children trotting along to some sort of function or another. We ended up at a nice restaurant off the Plaza de Armas called Tupananchis. There we sat next to the window and had a great meal of causas (little pillars of potatoes with differing toppings), alpaca, Peruvian red wine and a dreamy desert. Behind us sat a large group of German tourists, clearly having a good time. As we ate, a few children came up to the window and inevitably tried to sell us something from the other side of the glass. The only thing that works to get them to leave you alone is to ignore them.
Cusco Plaza de Armas at night
After dinner, we met up with Kevin and Josh for a little bar hopping. Before we got started, curiosity got the better of us and we decided to try chewing coca leaves. Hey, why not? Your there, it's available. Just so happened that Josh procured a bag of leaves when he and Kevin visited the coca museum in Cusco earlier in the day. Excellent. With that we each took 4-5 leaves and stuck them in our mouths, chewed on them for a while, then repeated. After a few minutes, we all conceded that while there was  a mild stimulant affect (very mild) and a bit of numbness in the gums, the leaves were having  surprisingly little effect. After a while we just gave up and agreed that a good stiff drink was the better way to go. Later in our trip in Puno, Diane and I figured out why the leaves didn't have as big an effect as we thought they would. Check out the section of the blog post below for that.

Anyway, not much later that evening, we ended up at a place on the plaza called Mama Africa. This was a typical nightclub. As we sat sipping our Peruvian beers, we speculated that a couple shady guys sitting at the bar might actually be pimps for a few of the "service" staff. Who knows. I will say that a couple the waitresses seemed a bit over the top friendly. Another interesting thing was that while we sat there in a maybe 1/3 full club...all of a sudden a big pack of people came walking in all wearing some sort of wig. Yep. Wig party. Turns out these were recently accepted students to the Kellogg Business School. As they told the story, as a class they were given some options of places around the world to go to "bond," and Cusco was one of the choices. That's why they were there. As for the wigs? Well, even really smart people can have bad ideas.

The night got late and we called it...walking back though the nighttime Cusco streets bathed in street light glow. The next morning we had a few hours to kill before our flight to another part of Peru to continue our trip. We used the time to finish up our shopping spree, say our goodbyes to friends Josh and Kevin and to have a stunningly delicious ceviche lunch at Limo. Soon, we were back at the hotel and into a car headed to the airport for our next destination - Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca
That's right...Lake Titicaca. You read that right. Titicaca. That's the name of the lake we visited. Giggle, giggle, laugh, laugh. Yes, it is a funny name. But, it's ancient and translates to "Rock Puma" as many locals have said the shape of the lake resembles a puma chasing a rabbit. Pumas are another traditional sacred beast in Peru along with Condors.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, I can also tell you that the lake is at 12,000+ feet (higher than Cusco) and the highest "navigable" lake in the world. This means there is no other lake in the world higher in altitude that is also deep enough to enable "vessels" to ply its waters - vessels being large ships. It's also a huge, huge lake...and very pretty. Our thought was that after 10 days hiking through the Andes, it would be good to spend some down time at the lakeside and relax.

Following a few hours on our last morning in Cusco, we packed up our stuff and headed to the airport where we took the short 45 minute flight to the airport at Juliaca - the nearest one to our final destination. Juliaca is not a city you'd want to stay in as a tourist. It's large, dirty and without any real tourist or historical attractions. It literally was built around the airport and today serves as a trade center.

By prior arrangement, we were picked up by a driver and a local contact named Omar who drove us from the inner city of Juliaca out to the lakeside - and much nicer - town of Puno. As the sun set, we made our way through the Juliacan streets choked with cars, carts, moto-taxis, pedestrians, stray dogs. As we moved along in our nice private vehicle, we could see into each shop or dwelling we passed by - seeing what was up with the locals all along the way through town. We also noticed that on every block in this city, there were dentist offices - each with its own clever sign advertising dental services on offer. Diane asked Omar about this and he said that, yes, many, many Peruvians went to dental school with the thought that they could make a good living only to find out that the market is flooded and they cannot make enough money. He further said that the signs we saw were for actual businesses, but there were many more who either moved to another city or country to practice or just quit to become something else.
View from our hotel room in Puno

Our drive to Puno lasted just about an hour and a half. By the time we arrived at our hotel, the Libertador, it had been dark for an hour already. This big, white hotel is part of the Westin chain, and sits on a peninsula just outside Puno - situated so on one side you can look back at town and on the other you look out to the lake. We checked in and went to get dinner at the dining room on premises. It had been a long day and we had no desire to go into town. Funny enough, as we were checking in, we ran into the same German tour group who had been at the restaurant we had eaten at the night before in Cusco. We talked for a minute and went on our separate ways.

For the first of three full days in the Puno area, we decided to just relax, go into town for lunch, see the sights and go back later for diner. However, we had thought that as part of the "relax" portion of our stay at the hotel, we'd have access to a pool and pool deck, spa, nice gym and related facilities. We were wrong. Nice though it was, the hotel had none of those things. So all of a sudden, we had a lot more time to kill on our hands than we originally thought. This was primarily filled with extended shopping and walking around Puno town. Arriving in the sunny afternoon, we toured around the main plaza, went into the cathedral, strolled down the pedestrian streets, hung out at another plaza where we saw a kids parade and perhaps the aftermath of a wedding and just generally indulged in people watching.

We also took in the city's Coca Museum. Yes. The coca leaf is quite important in the tradition of the Peruvian culture. Dating back many centuries, the affect of chewing of the coca leaf for its stimulant powers, its utility as a medicinal substance...and related reverence of it for both those properties...made possession and distribution of the leaves a duty only for those in power or control - tribal or village leaders, shamans and similar. He who has the coca leaf (and it was always a he) shall be respected.

Oh, and just for the record...yes, the coca leaf is where cocaine comes from. But, making cocaine requires a complex process of extracting a specific alkaloid from the leaf and processing it in certain way. And apparently that "business" is still going strong because we learned that Peru is the number one producer and exporter of the raw coca leaf.

While there is a stimulant affect of coca in tea, candy or chewing the leaves, it's not a"cocaine" like affect. None the less, after learning from the various displays, one thing we came to realize was that our earlier attempts to chew the coca leaf in Cusco were not done properly. More specifically, we should have jammed a whole wad of leaves in our yappers and not just three or four. No wonder we were unimpressed.

The other thing the museum had was a pretty good collection of wild and traditional costumes that the locals have come up with over the centuries and wear in annual festival parades and celebrations - complete with a video to explain it all. What this had to do with coca was never explained nor evident. But, it was kind of interesting to learn about the different festivals, what each costume represented and why it was created.

More walking around, a rest back and the hotel and dinner back in town rounded out or first day at the lake.

Urus Islands
The next day, we got ourselves out on the water to visit some of the islands. The first stop on this clear, sunny day tour was to the Urus Islands. Not more than four kilometers from the Puno harbor dock,these islands were interesting because they are man made. That is, way back in the centuries, the Urus tribe decided it did not want to be dominated by the Incas, so instead of fleeting over land...they simply decided to make their own floating islands safely off in the lake. These would be much easier to defend and literally separated them from the control of the Incas. That tradition has held up over several hundred years, and today the islands still exist. Urus people still live on them. However, it must also be said that today their continued existence is directly related to them being primarily a tourist attraction.

After that, we boarded our boat again and struck out for an actual island way, way out in the lake called Taquile Island. The attraction here is not only the view, but also the traditional town and culture of the people on the island. Sure enough, as we approached the island, we could see a massive white capped mountain range on the horizon. We quickly learned that this was Boliva on the other side of the lake. Docking, we walked uphill to the town square. Every 50 yards or so, we'd pass under a traditional rock gateway or encounter girls and old women selling local handcrafts. Up at the town square, we took in the view again, and also looked around at the various shops - all offering island-woven hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters and other items. Lets just say, we went Christmas shopping in August. Next, our little day-trip tour group went to a local restaurant for a nice lunch of fish and frijtes.

View on Taquile Island
The rest of our time on the island was spent strolling across it's width on stone paths that took us through little villages and, ultimately, back downhill to the water's edge at a different dock where our boat awaited. Along the way, we got to chat with our fellow tour group members and met quite a few very nice people - including a guy named John from California and his girlfriend Stephanie from Australia. Satisfied with our visit, the boat cast off for the two hour ride back to Puno. Mostly, people in our group napped or read on the way back. We arrived back to town about 5 p.m. As we walked off the boat and up the ramp, we made plans for dinner with John and Stephanie. Later, we met up with them, hung out and even met some other travelers - a woman from L.A. and a couple backpackers from the Netherlands. That's a cool thing about travel, you can have these pleasant run-ins with fellow travelers, hang with them for a few hours and gain their perspective on things (from soccer, beer, politics, the country you're all in and more). It's one way that I think travel really is valuable - you gain access to very different world views and perspectives than your own. Whether you like them or not...well, who knows...either way you come away with a better appreciation of just how big and different AND similar at the same time the people of the world are.

Pre-Inca tombs outside Puno
Our final full day in the Puno area was spent half at the hotel resting and then an afternoon tour out to some ancient tombs in the countryside. These monolithic style tombs dated from pre-Inca, Inca and post-Inca time frames, but in total were quite interesting to look at. This is doubly so because of the beautiful place they are located near a pretty lake. Among the many things we learned was that the tombs really didn't fall apart and crumble as they appear to have over the centuries. Rather, the main reason most were torn down or have sections ripped out of them is that the Spanish who came to Peru in the 1500s deconstructed them because they believed that surely these tombs would have gold in them. They didn't.

On the way back to Puno, our group stopped at a typical Peruvian homestead...complete with housing, a courtyard, kitchen, llamas, and of course a pen full of "cuy." One last dinner in Puno and then back to the hotel. The next morning we were on our way back to Juliaca airport for our flight to Lima and, ultimately, home.

Lima and then Home
Sunset over the ocean in Lima
We arrived in Lima at about 3 p.m., but our flight back to the U.S. didn't leave until 12:30 a.m. the next morning. So we had about nine hours to kill. What to do? Not sit around the airport, that's for sure. Instead, before our REI tour had ended, we had asked our guide what he would advise we do. He said that going into the old center of Lima would not be a good idea after 2 p.m. because it was too dangerous for tourists. He'd lived in Lima for several years and said that we should trust him on this. Instead, he suggested we head to one of the upscale seaside neighborhoods - in particular a place called Miraflores. So we did. We went to a massive shopping center overlooking the ocean and spent our time eating, drinking and shopping. One of us also visited a couple spas for some face and nail treatments. I'll leave it to you to guess if it was me or Diane.

All and all though, not too bad! By 9 p.m. it was time to head back to the airport. We boarded our flight - first class seats! - and lifted off for home. After a three hour layover in Atlanta, we were on our way to Seattle.

And that was it folks. Trip over. What an adventure. Physically challenging, natural beauty the likes of which we had not seen, ancient culture explored, Machu Picchu visited, new friends made and a new culture experienced. Will we go back? Hard to say. Peru is like so many other places we've been...yes, notionally, we'd love to go back. But will we? Probably not...or not soon. There are just so many other new places around the world to go. However, I would say that our appetite is whetted for more South American travel. We've discussed going to Buenos Ares and Patagonia in Argentina, as well as Rio and the Amazon in Brazil. Those would be high on our list now because of our experience in Peru. We shall see!

Thanks to everyone who has read my posts about the trip. Soon, I'll do one more post that aggregates links to all the posts in this series, as well as the related photo set on Flickr so everything is all in one place long term.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn. No use of these pictures for any purpose is permitted without advanced written permission from Marc Osborn.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pac-12 Week 8 Predictions

Learned last weekend: UW's offense is a turnover giving machine, USC looks less and less a menace every week and Oregon State is shaping up to be a real threat for the North and League title.

This week...

Oregon vs. ASU in Tempe. A tough road test for the Ducks in a Thursday night matchup. But, I think ASU is a bit over-rated. As with other UO games this season, I see a close one into the third...then boom! Look out. Ducks 41-ASU 24.

Oregon State vs. Utah in Corvallis. You'd think OSU would roll on with their momentum and beat the Utes handily at home. But I say they actually choke a bit in this one...but win. OSU 21- UU 20.

USC vs. Colorado in L.A. Not close. USC 48-CU10.

Stanford vs. Cal in Berkley. Strange to see this rivalry game in the middle of the season instead of at the end as normal. None the less, Stanford is better and smarting after that oh-so-close OT loss to ND last week. I think they rebound and win 23-17.

Washington vs. Arizona in Tucson. Washington gets a much needed win and does so on the road. UW 31-UA24.

Not Playing: UCLA and WSU

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Prez Debate #2 - Who Won?

So, who "won" the debate last night? Well, I think the answer to that is better revealed by answering another question..."who exceeded expectations?" Yes, the expectations game. It goes hand in hand with debates. Lower the expectations before hand, then over-deliver on those expectations to be seen as a winner.

Anyway, I think both candidates did pretty well in their square off last night at Hofstra. Both had strong stretches. But I think there are two things that tip the balance to Obama.

First, I think Obama exceeded expectations. The expectation was that following his poor performance in the first debate (so...yes Romney fans, Romney squarely won the first debate, no argument), Obama had to come out and show energy, speak more from the heart, engage and challenge Romney. He did that, but I think he went a notch better to get in some really good, stinging points (47%, comparing Romney to Bush, women's health, taxes). Was it a Bill Clinton or Ronald Regan type performance? No. Was it effective? Yes.

Second, I think Romney - while doing fine on substance for his side - did not quite meet expectations for the second debate. He did so well in the first debate, his expectations were pretty high...he had to look just as good as the last debate and appear presidential. This is where he underachieved I think. Romney came off as a condescending bully towards Obama and the moderator through much of the debate. Plus, he said a couple stupid things - the most significant of which as his which "binders full of women" remark when trying to describe how he found qualified women to promote or put in positions of authority in his business (the point being, he didn't know qualified women because he himself had none of them at high positions and had to ask for binders containing info on women who might fit the bill for his plans). I'd also say his "I came up in small business" remark was so demonstrably not true as to be considered stupid. Anyway, I think Romney slightly underperformed in the expectations game with his demeanor and some of his answers. (Side note: the one thing that genuinely pissed me off was that Romeny, a Vietnam draft dodger and supporter of the false "find the weapons of mass destruction" Iraq war is using the tragic Libya situation as a political issue. Very, very hypocritical and shallow).

Will any of that matter when it comes to who wins? Not sure is the answer. Romney is probably ahead of Obama by a point or two in the overall voter preference polls this week, but here are some things to consider about that:

1) The popular vote tallies right now are within the margin of error. That means that if the election were held today, well, the numbers could go either way.

2) It ain't Nov. 5 yet. Debate performance impact on election results are difficult to judge. George W Bush was a horrible debater but won in 2004 (he didn't win in 2000, he was essentially appointed by the Supreme Court following the insanely close balloting in Florida and the lawsuits that followed). Reagan was a very good debater and won in 1980 and 1984. Probably the only real impact will be an aggregated one based on how undecided votes feel about either candidate after seeing each of the debates or at least hearing about them.

3) And finally, and most importantly, popular vote does not win you the presidency. The electoral college does. There, Obama has a lead and appears to have a lead in some very, very key states (PA, Mich, Ohio) that Romney would have to win to be the next President.

All of that to say, it was an interesting debate last night, I give a slight edge to Obama, but their performances only really matter at this point for either of them when it comes to key electoral college states. One more debate to go...then the election on Nov. 5. I think it's going to be really, really close but the electoral college will probably (probably) be in Obama's favor.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pac-12 Week 7 Predictions

Well, we learned a few things last weekend in Pac-12 play. Among them:

1) Oregon is for sure the class of the league right now. Latest evidence: an absolute curb stomp of UW for the ninth year in a row. There seems to be a bunch of teams that could finish in second place, but nobody is matching the offensive AND defensive firepower of the Ducks.

2) Oregon State, while still a threat, may not be all they are cracked up to be. Latest evidence: struggling at home to be beat WSU.

3) UCLA is proving once again they are the college football equivalent of "fools gold." Latest evidence: losing to Cal.

4) Stanford is a Jeckle and Hyde squad. Latest evidence: after losing to UW in a low scoring affair two weeks ago, they follow up with a high scoring OT win vs. Arizona.

Looking forward to this coming week's games...

Washington vs. USC in Seattle. What to think? UW rebounds at home against a now suspect USC squad? Or, USC is USC and the come in a beat the Dawgs soundly. I'll go with the latter...USC 35-UW 17.

Oregon State vs. BYU in Provo. I'll go with the Beavers until proven otherwise. I will say this though, BYU is probably better than the WSU and UCLA teams OSU has beaten so far. It would not shock me if they lost this one, but I'll go OSU 24-BYU21.

WSU vs. Cal in Pullman. Cougs are done. Cal is coming off a win and no doubt look at this one as a way to get further back on track. I say they do...Cal 28-WSU 19.

Stanford vs. Notre Dame at ND. Could be a very good game. ND is over-rated, and Stanford is - as mentioned - different each week. I'll say they show up and upset ND. Stanford 28-ND 17.

ASU vs. Colorado in Boulder. ASU big. Sun Devils 44-CU 10.

UCLA vs. Utah in LA. A battle of pretenders. UCLA is at home and does have some weapons, so I'll pick them...UCLA 37 - Utah 21.

NOT PLAYING: Oregon, Arizona

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Exploring Peru - Jungle Trekking & Machu Picchu

OK all, below is the next post in my retelling of our recent trip to Peru. You can catch up on the series by reading previous posts HERE, HERE and HERE.

Also, I've updated my "Peru" set on Flickr with new photos that are related to this new post HERE. Note that I've created another set exclusively on "Machu Picchu" with, well, probably more pictures of the ruins than you want to see! If interested, you can check it out HERE.


Dusty Downhill Day
Dusty downhill day
Our next day trekking after acceding to Salkantay Pass was actually downhill the whole way. While not without its charms - valley views, white water rapids to hike beside, a few humming birds to see, horse "trains" clopping by - I'd characterize the day as a "transit" hike to get us off the mountain and into the valleys and jungle environment that would lead us to Machu Picchu.

I'll note that this hike in particular is where the bandannas came in handy. Those of us who brought them on the trip were glad we did, and those who bought them in that village a couple days earlier acknowledged that our guide had been right. Why? Well, the trail all day long was very dusty...to the degree that you needed to tie on your bandanna "bandit" style across your face to keep the heavy, dirty dust out of your mouth. We spent most the day walking downhill and many of us commented that we felt lucky not to turn an ankle or worse.

Firing up the BBQ
Anyway, our efforts were rewarded with a fairly early arrival at the next lodge...early enough that a big late lunch BBQ was arranged for us following the standard wash up needed after hours on the trial. Now, many of the items put into the coals were your standard issue meats - chicken, lamb, beef. So were the vegetables. Can you guess what else was put in to cook? Yes, cuy. If you've been reading my previous posts, you know that is. That's right. Guinea pig on the barbie.

When it came time to sit down and eat, I grabbed one each of the meat types and a big bunch of vegetables. Everything tasted good, and at some point I turned my attention to the cuy. Should I eat it? Keep in mind, this was nothing like the elegant, minimal presentation of the same animal meat we had back in Cusco. No, this was basically a half of a guinea pig minus the head, tail and feet...BBQed up and ready to eat. I tried. But, you know, I gave up. Not because it was gross or tasted bad, but rather because it was really difficult to get any meat off the thing...and when I did, it was so small and bland that, well, why would I eat that when there's other great stuff on my plate.

The rest of the day and evening was spent resting, having a little wine and learning some more from Miguel about native culture. A late dinner helped cap off the night and we were off to sleep once again - sleeping the sleep of the exhausted but pleased hiker.

A 10 Mile Hike
Morning brought a 10 mile hike along the Santa Teresa River Valley. Most of the day, the trail went up and down, along the river, away from the river...valley views, river views, jungle views. One of the more interesting things was our lunch spot. Arriving in a clearing that featured a covered dining "hall" and a few other huts, we quickly saw the lawn out front was home to a host of animals - animals such as pigs, horses, donkeys, a couple friendly dogs and...yes...a big old turkey. Just like you think of on Thanksgiving. If you made a funny noise with your voice, the turkey reciprocated with it's own "gobble, gobble" call. Funny.

Turkey at the lunch stop
We continued on after lunch along the river, eventually arriving at clearing where we were picked up by a vehicle for a short ride through an area that, according to our guide, offered no views and where the trail was not well maintained. As we bumped and rumbled along, I thought to myself that this was probably the most dangerous thing we'd do the entire trip...riding in a vehicle on narrow, windy, poorly maintained dirt roads high up on a ridge. In fact...sadly...just how dangerous riding in a vehicle in the third world countryside actually is was proven anew in a story I read once we returned safely back home to Seattle. Unfortunately, a couple from the Seattle area celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary in a dream trip to Peru (actually in Peru the same time we were) were killed when the SUV they were traveling in plunged off a 1,300 foot cliff when their driver misjudged a corner of the road. Very sad.

Lady roasts coffee
Soon, we disembarked from our bus and resumed hiking - this time on a section of the actual and original Inca Trail. The track was mostly uphill through the jungle. After about 45 minutes of walking we pulled off to explore a small coffee plantation ensconced on the hillside. This was pretty entertaining. We saw the plants, viewed the small production line facilities (such as they were) and then entered a small hut to get a demonstration on how coffee is roasted, ground and served - hot and fresh. This in and of itself was neat, but while all this was happening...quite a few cute little guinea pigs scurried around on the floor near our feat as they chased after some leafs that had been scattered there for their meal. And speaking of meals, while these little animals are cute, they were not the coffee lady's pets. Nope. They were for sure a future meal for she and her family. Heavy sigh.
"Cuy" on floor of coffee hut

We bought some of the local coffee beans to take home and turned our attention to finishing the day and getting to our final lodge of the trek. Luckily, this wasn't far. Once there, Diane called it a day and retired to our room. I did the same, but did join the group for a meal and an after dinner beer.

Jungle Pass: Final Day of Trekking
In the morning, we saddle up and started off on our last big hike of our trip. This time, we were to hoof it up an over the Llactapata Pass - topping out at 8,900 feet. This was almost exclusively up, up and up. For sure, an aggressive workout. We paused many times to catch our breath and take in views. Once over the top, we walked about a half hour to a clearing on a ridge overlooking the Urubamaba River valley. Here stood a small Inca building in ruins, a view across the valley to where Machu Picchu could just be seen hugging the top of one of the peaks...and a lunch spot where we settled in.

View from our lunch spot
Lunch this day featured perhaps the very best avocado we've ever had. Prepared with tomatoes, spices and, well, who knows what else...these things were divine. Throw in a beautiful view and you've got an astounding stop. We continued on after eating, this time going down the other side of the ridge we had just climbed. Down we trod, down through the increasingly hot weather on a twisty path, down through more lush green jungle trees, down past the occasional hut and a lazy dog or two and finally down to the Urubamba River where we crossed one-by-one over a suspension bridge and into the shade. The next part of the walk hugged the riverside. Earlier in the day, our guide Miguel mentioned that we'd made very good time. Now, he turned us off the trail and down to the river. Turns out, we had completed the pass hike and decent fast and had an hour to kill before we needed to catch the train that would take us into the town of Aquas Caliente - our home base from which we'd explore Machu Picchu.

Relaxing at the Urubamba River
The river respite was a welcome surprise given how hot the weather had become and how hard we'd hiked. Peeling off shoes and socks, rolling up pants and wading into the cold, clear Urubama felt like heaven. Achy feet relaxed, warm skin cooled and all felt better. A couple of the group did the full on dip into the river, but not us. Rest over, we walked another half hour to a little train stop where we sipped on some cold beer and then loaded up on the train for the ride into Aquas.

Sliding throughout he jungle, the train delivered our weary group to the town in the late afternoon - time enough for checking in at the wonderful Inkaterra Hotel, take a shower, get some rest and meet up for dinner. All of which we did, happy in the knowledge that we'd completed our trekking and tomorrow we'd see the famous Machu Picchu ruins. As we walked back from dinner a few drops of rain fell, which we ignored.

Machu Picchu - Holy Crap Part One
OK...so far in our trip, we'd experienced nothing but beautiful weather. Sun, virtually no clouds, warm daytime temperatures and all around goodness. It had occurred to me before we left for Peru that it could come to pass that on the one full day that we would have a Machu Picchu, it could rain, clouds could obscure our view or both. But, I put those thoughts aside in favor of optimism. After all, what were the odds?

Oh how naive I was. Those little rain drops we ignored on our walk back to our room after dinner? They turned into a massive rain storm that lasted all night long, into the morning and all the way up to our boarding the bus that would drive us from the valley up to the ruins at the top of the mountain. "Holy crap," I thought, "My worst fear has come true." The one f-ing thing that could turn this "dream trip" into somewhat of a disappointment was playing out right in front of our eyes.

Our fist "view" of Machu Picchu
Indeed, when we finally got to the top of the mountain and exited the bus, we were hit by an ABSOLUTE DELUGE of rain. We all had gortex or similar gear on, but we all were soaked instantly by what was happening. I cannot understate this enough. It was major, major rain combined with cold temperatures and wind. Oh, and clouds. Clouds that...guess what...obscured our view of the ruins. The complete quad-fecta of doom - wind, rain, cold, clouds.

I took pictures during this part of our visit, but I have to say that these photos do not capture how miserable that day was.

Slightly better view on day one
Our guide attempted to show us the sites despite all this, and bless him for doing so. He cannot control the weather and he knows we are there to learn what we can. But, things were so bad that even he conceded after about an hour in this stuff that the responsible thing to do was cut it short and head into the nearby restaurant outside the gates of the park to warm up, dry off and hopefully wait for the weather to clear. Guess what? It didn't. Or, at least it didn't for the next three hours. About half of the group, including Diane and I, decided to bail and go back to town to get a hot shower, get out of the rain and drown our woes in some lunch, drinks and shopping. This we did. The rest of the group decided to stay at the top none the less. Later in the evening we learned that about 4-5 p.m., the rain did stop up there and some of the clouds cleared...so those who stayed did get a pretty good view. I was, of course, bummed when I heard that. But, what are you going to do? Luckily, we knew that we had a full morning the next day up there, and we hoped that the weather would continue to improve so we could experience Machu Picchu in its full glory.

Machu Picchu - Holy Crap Part Two
Awakening the next morning, signs were looking good as, well, it wasn't raining! Also, we could see the tops of the surrounding mountain peaks. Our group gathered, ate and got on the bus once again. Slowly, as our bus made its way up the steep switch back road, we became more and more convinced that today would be good weather at the top. And indeed, as we got closer and closer, we started seeing things from the road that we had not a day earlier - peaks over here, remnants of Inca ruins over there, a valley showing through.

As we exited the bus at the top, the whole entry area of the park just looked different - open skies, people walking around a leisure, brighter. This was at about 7 a.m.We showed our tickets, walked through the turn style and entered the park. Following the path from the entrance to the ruins, we got our second - and far better - view of Machu Picchu. And this time, I was thinking, "Holy crap, this place is so spectacular."

Miguel took us next to a series of places we had not visited the day before in the rain - the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor, the Inca king's apartments and a few other such notable areas of the ruins. We went up stairs, alongside still-functioning fountains, through narrow passages, underneath doorways, around corners, skirting building facades and always looking to see something new. We learned about the construction of the ruins, saw the differences in the type of rocks used and observed the results of different techniques deployed by the Incas for building the walls. And we learned that the whole structure was a royal Inca retreat - a "Camp David" for the Inca king if you will. We also picked up the knowledge that the city had very likely been abandoned about the time the Spanish showed up in Peru, and that this played an important role in the place not being rediscovered until the early 20th Century. This was our walk. As we went along, the clear but still gray ski gradually started turning blue as the sun came on to do its job for the day. This had the effect of "lighting up" the ruins and surrounding mountains - not only bringing their color to life, but also putting them into greater relief. What a view!

After an hour or so of this, we had a decision to make: should we continue rambling around the main part of the ruins or should we hike up the close by Huayana Picchu peak for an unbelievable view back down on the ruins? There were benefits to both of course - don't hike and get to explore more of the ruins, do the hike and get the exercise and the unique views. We opted to do the hike and went for it. Let me just say this...that is one STEEP ass trail. This was steeper than anything we'd hiked on our trip to date, and in parts dangerous if you weren't paying attention. Also, keep in  mind that you are still at 8,000+ feet above sea level. But all the huffing and puffing, sweating and pulling ourselves up along the cable handrails was worth it because when we neared the top we were rewarded with one of the most jaw dropping views we'd ever seen. Check it out below right.

View of Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu
That's right, that stuff way, way down there that kinda looks like it might be a town? That's the Machcu Picchu ruins we'd just been at. Woah. It's like you're flying in an airplane and looking down on it.

Now, the other thing about being way up high on a steep peek is that...well, you are way up high on a steep peak. It doesn't exactly make for comfort. You literally feel like you could fall to your death with one wrong step. And, the ledges and edges around you are on such a steep incline that the only thing you see over their edge is the massive drop off. I say you feel that way, but in reality most places on the trail were not literally on the cliff edge. If a person did slip, they might hurt themselves, but probably wouldn't plunge to their death. Probably.

We made the final push for the very tippy top. In doing so, we had to crawl through a narrow cave and up through a hole back into the sunlight. Once through that challenge, we were at the top. There were more people up there than you'd think! We decided that we weren't going to linger because we wanted to get back down and look around the ruins some more before we had to leave. So, that's what we did...slowly. We precariously made our way down the steep steps and trails and eventually made our way back to where we started a couple hours earlier.

By this time, the sun had really come out to bathe the ruins an bring out the brilliant green of the grass and the colors of the rock. Also, a few friendly llamas had now strolled out onto the grounds and were in various stages of lounging, grazing or scratching. We went back to a few places we had been the day before, but wanted to see again in the good weather. This was well worth doing because 24 hours earlier, all we could do was concentrate on staying warm and dry rather than what we were looking at. In our re-visit venture, we knew we had to make our way back to the entrance to catch our bus to the bottom of the mountain by 11:45 a.m. So, we tracked along and made it back to a beautiful viewpoint looking back on the ruins. Here we stayed for a while just soaking up the views...and the sun. Below is a picture I took then. I think you can see why we lingered...

Machu Picchu in all its glory
View from train taking us toward Cusco
After that, we said our goodbyes to Machu Picchu and exited the park. Just before doing so, we stopped at a little desk where you can self-stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp. Kinda neat.

On the bus, down the mountain, back to the hotel, change of clothes, a civilized lunch and then onto an afternoon train that would take us about half way back to Cusco - and in doing so, give us a tour of the sacred Urubama Valley.

Off the train, into a private vehicle, ride the second half of the way to Cusco through the valley - passing through towns, villages, crossroads and even a city. Political slogans painted on the sides of buildings, stray dogs, Inca ruins on some of the hillsides, run down houses, snow capped mountains, and people walking on the sides of the road made for an unending supply of visuals to look at as we cruised onward back towards the town we started our adventure in.

Our tour completed its loop when our bus pulled up outside the hotel where we started nine days earlier. After unpacking and checking into our rooms, our group met in the lobby for a farewell to our guide and, at least officially, to each other. Each of us said our goodbyes to Miguel for his expert leadership, knowledge and friendship as our guide. I think a great guide transforms a trip like this from being an sight seeing trip into a full fledged adventure...and I thanked Miguel by telling him that I thought that's what he did for us.

And that was that...at least in terms of the tour. Diane and I would spend the next day and a half in Cusco and then head south to visit another part of Peru and relax following the hiking portion of our trip. All of which will make up the last two posts in my series recapping our trip. So, come back for those over the next few weeks.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn. No use of any kind is permitted without prior written permission from Marc Osborn.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Gas Prices and the Election - Revisited

With the Presidential and other big political races coming down the homestretch, I thought it would be the right time to check in on a little pet theory of mine - namely that gas prices go up or down in an election year based on which situation will favor the energy sector. See my posts HERE, HERE and HERE for my previous thoughts on this issue.

Energy companies tend to favor policies and politicians that are apt to deregulate their industry and cut their taxes. Sound like one of the two U.S. political parties you might know? Right. The Republicans.

OK, so, say you are a "big energy" company. You want as many conservatives in the  government as you can, and if you can help voters choose the conservative candidate for President all the better. What to do?

A Republican in office you want to see re-elected? Like in 2004. How about an open seat election like we had in 2008 following eight years of a Republican President? You might be apt to see to it that gas prices are lower so people are apt to feel better about the economy and not blame your candidate for gas prices. And that's just what happened in those years. Sure enough, in the midst of a two wars in the middle east and the aftermath of 9-11, gas prices actually went down in the months leading up to the election in 2004. Same thing in 2008 in the middle of a major, major economic meltdown on Wall Street and housing, gas prices went down right before the election.

Democrats in majority or the Presidency? You want the electorate to feel like the economy is bad and, therefore, more likely to vote for the other party in hopes of change...your party, the Republicans. Well, you jack prices up so people feel the pain every time they go to the pump. This will make them more apt to feel the economy is bad and, hopefully for you, vote Republican. And indeed, we can see that gas prices - while going up and down over the summer - are now higher than they were a year ago as Election Day 2012 comes closer and closer.

For example, at our nearby Shell station here in Seattle, gas is at $4.19 a gallon for regular gas. Back in March in the middle of the primaries, it was $4.09.

Now, I understand there is no way to prove that the price of a gallon of gas is directly tied to election cycles and which situation and candidate favors the energy sector...I'm just saying its erie how that is exactly what appears to happen every four years. I'm just sayin'.

So, will gas prices continue to go up until election day? I predict they will.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pac-12 Week 6 Predictions

Another good week in the Pac-12 just past. What we learned, at least from a Pac-12 North perspective...

Oregon is still looking good, undefeated and #2 in the land following their 3 TD+ win over WSU. But, but one wonders how they will fare against the likes of USC, Stanford and ASU...those teams ain't WSU.

Washington finally grew a pair on defense. They manned up and really played well against the big, straight ahead run game of Stanford...and won. However, most teams UW will play from here on out have far, far more diverse offenses, more speed and better QBs. So, live it up for now Dawg fans.

WSU is done. Well, in terms of a winning season and a bowl. They just don't have it folks. They might pick up a few wins along the way, but based on last week vs. Colorado (worst team in the league) and this week vs. Oregon (best team in the league), it's clear to me that the Cougs ain't going anywhere this season.

OSU is starting to look like a real power broker in the race for the Pac-12 North and overall Pac-12 title. Civil War should be fun!

OK, looking forward...

Oregon vs. Washington in Eugene. The Ducks have beaten the Dawgs eight seasons in a row, by a lot. My feeling is that this year, the Ducks will win again...and maybe even by 2-3 TDs...but it will be a close game into the fourth quarter. I will say UO 34-UW 21.

WSU vs. Oregon State in Corvallis. Is Oregon State the real deal or just off to a hot start...and destined to fall to earth? We will not find out this week becuase WSU is not good. Beavers win at home 29-13.

Stanford vs. Arizona at Palo Alto. Should be a good game with both squads looking to bounce back after unexpected losses. I'll give it to the home team. Stanford 24-UA 17.

Cal vs. UCLA at Berkley. I think UCLA's season continues on an unexpected positive trajectory and Cal's woes continue. Bruins 34-Bears 13.

Arizona State vs. Colorado in Boulder. Sun Devils big. ASU 44-CU 10.

USC vs. Utah in Salt Lake City. Trojans big. USC 38-Utah 9.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate Overview

This just in from Republicans...Mitt Romney totally dominated the debate this week and established himself as a serious threat to Obama.

This just in from Democrats...President Obama did just fine and, oh by the way, Romney said a load of stuff that are demonstrably false and contradictory from his previous statements.

Somewhere between these two perspectives lies the reality.

My opinion? Obama failed to nail...absolutely nail...Romney on the many, many bogus things he said...things that we know are not true and or completely discredited by history.

I think Obama probably took the perspective of "I'll just endure this, appear 'Presidential' and hope Romney says something stupid." Guess what? Romney did not say anything stupid. Sure,he said lost of things that were false, disingenuous, opposite to his previous stances, etc. But not stupid. Also, he was more upbeat.

The battle is joined. Romney did well tonight. Obama underachieved. We're only talking about a small percentage of undecided voters who will be using these debates as input on how they will vote. So, I think Romney "won" the debate. Will it matter come election day? Not sure. I mean, think about it. George W bush put on HORRIBLE debate performances...horrible...in 2004 and he won. So, debate performance alone is not enough to swing things in today's media saturated America.

We'll see!