A Travellerspoint blog

Canada: Toronto


sunny -5 °C
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John:.... it was so cold that I couldn't speak to the nice lady across the counter. Not that I was lost for words, of course. I couldn't physically move my lips. It was -5 degrees centigrade here but with the wind chill factor that is more like -10. Fortunately it was late morning and so had warmed up. This is unremarkable to the residents of Toronto. We heard comments like "when it gets colder later in the winter.....". We also heard that we were lucky to get in on Thursday. A hundred flights were cancelled and/or diverted from Toronto airport. Fortunately the weather is set to warm before Sunday when we are due to fly to the UK. Fingers crossed.

We began the day by following up on a 'phone number to try and do some voluntary work for a day/night. We took the tram along Queen's Street, west, off the map to Jameson street. I had spoken to a chap called Kyle at the Salvation Army who said "come and talk to me". When we got there the place was an op shop, Kyle was busy and it was clear that we/he had got the wrong end of the stick. Kyle gave us directions that were as complex as some of the thoughts he was grappling with so we thanked him and headed back to a Salvation Army shelter we had seen....this was a shelter for women and it wouldn't have been appropriate for us both and anyway they were OK for volunteers right now but thank you....The shelter provided us with a number for another shelter...."thank you but we already have enough volunteers but perhaps another shelter....". By this time we had used up half a day and served only to divert busy people from their work. It can't be easy having 'help' drop in on you cold like that, especially if they are only offering a few hours to one day before disappearing again. For us though it gave a chance to see the West end of Queen's Street that we otherwise may not have seen.

After a coffee at the Hudson Bay Company dept store we tracked down a tour bus and had a fascinating trip around Toronto. Happy to get out of the needle sharp, cruel wind we would have accepted any old thing but our guide was witty, informed and interested in her 'wards'. It seems that the winter has a long way to go down temperature wise yet. One of the chaps on the bus was from Edmonton and said how warm Toronto was compared to his home town. Unsurprisingly a lot of the retail part of the centere of town is indoors. Several huge malls and dept stores account for a large part of the shopping. In this context not a bad thing with numerous food outlets, an enormous bookshop and a fairly varied (with the inevitable leaning to shoe shops and womens clothes)set of stores. The HMV store is across the road and didn't disappoint on Saturday.

Before it was too late we hit the outstanding St Lawrence Market, just around the corner from here, for ingredients for a dinner platter; bagettes, carribou and fig pate (disappointing), a big Aussie red, some excellent red pepper dip, salmon gravad lax and the smelliest (and finest) brie we've had for a long time. All eaten in the hostel dining room in the company of people who had paid twice as much to buy miniscule pre-bagged micro wavable meals....

....and now it is tomorrow, Saturday. Slightly warmer today as the temperature raced past 0 degrees. We basked in a full 2 degrees centigrade during the hottest part of the day forcing me to remove the topmost of my 4 layers at one point.

We began the day by heading down to the St Lawrence Farmers' Market, just across the road from the permanent market we visited yesterday, which is only open during the weekend and a celebration of all things good; home made apple crumble and pies, hand crafted sausages, breads of many colours and smells, scrumpy cider with bits in it, herbs, seasonal veges...in short if we had been here for another few days we may have put on a fair bit of weight. Several buskers in the place playing gently so as not to disturb the produce...one old boy on the alto sax playing Christmas carols with just a hint of swing. From there to the enormous Eaton mall and a very tasteful shirt for the wedding. A drift around HMV for me and the mall for Jackie before lunch.

I then visited the excellent Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I didn't go to the King Tut exhibition, at 29 dollars on top of the 18 dollars admission for the time I had available it seemed a little steep. Before getting into the Art Gallery proper, the central courtyard was occupied by a trapeze artist who was re enacting a character from an early 20th century French painting in one of the galleries. Complete with trapeze and a busker's routine she jollied the crowd along...it went on a bit for me so I sloped off to the Contemporary and Canadian galleries. The former had some interesting photographic pieces from the 1960s to the present day, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Andy Warhol's 'Elvis', and a couple of other notable pop art icons including a very nice Hockney, some 'interesting' cinematic installations. More up to date work as well and the whole lot displayed well in plenty of space and light. The Canadian gallery housed a wealth of work from exquisitely detailed Inuit carvings in stone through paintings from the past couple of centuries to contemporary paintings of modern day Canadian landscapes. All very wholesome (and warm). As is often the case looking at artworks by people you have never heard of before from countries you don't know much about can be really interesting and the Canadian collection at AGO is worth a lot more time than I had...if you're visiting the City and art is your thing get to AGO and explore the Canadian gallery.

A couple of protests and demonstrations in the City today....a little megaphone work on Queen's Street by a group protesting against fare increases on the Toronto public transport system. Nothing on the dramatic and unpredictable scale of demonstrations in Peru, neither was the polite request to boycott products by Sri Lanka by a group marching down the side of the Toronto Easton Shopping Centre, shepherded by half a dozen or so bicycle police officers from the Toronto Police force. The only sign of trouble was when one of the protesters accidently stepped over the white line into the next lane resulting in a whistle being blown by one of the officers. The rest of us were searching hard, mentally, to see if we could recall any products coming out of Sri Lanka that we were likely to have bought. Anyway it was all very well mannered and that is my impression of Toronto. When a car horn sounds it is a head turning event. When a siren sounds the traffic moves to one side. When the traffic lights go red the traffic stops. After the anarchy of Peruvian traffic behaviour, where car horn blowing is perpetual, and perpetually ignored to the extent where people have wired up car alarms to the horn, this is a shock. The degree of road rules compliance in the absence of visible policing in Toronto is in marked contrast to the traffic chaos in the presence of huge numbers of police officers in places like Lima.

Back to our cozy little hostel on Church Street, through the general lounge area which reminds me a little of a university common room with pool table, juke box, computers. I am surprised at the relatively conservative music on the juke box...nothing too outrageous. We headed off to see The Cavalcade of Lights this evening by the outdoor skating rink in front of the Toronto City Hall - one to wrap up for as both of the 2 degrees centigrade had disappeared long ago and taken a few of their mates with them. Proceedings started at 19:00 with a band from Vancouver 'State of Shock'. These chaps worked hard to keep the crowd warm. Not my cup of tea really...the rhythmic inventiveness of early Glitter Band (remember them in the UK? Two drummers, one for each stick) and the melodic charm of Napalm Death. After a fairly unimpressed start the crowd warmed up and by the end of their one hour set the crowd was jigging enthusiastically.

A young man called Raven was the lucky winner of a free Gibson guitar given away by the band...some of us mean spirited types wished that they had given away the drums, bass and microphones as well. The Toronto City Council has put on a concert and firework display for 3 consecitive weeks. The firework display was spectacular and drew lots of ooohs and aaahs from the assembled congregation. Behind us the skating rink was very busy and the queue for skate hire was long. A young man had taken over a stretch of concrete, placed sheets of paper on it with 'EWELINA WILL YOU MARRY ME?' the whole show covered in red rose petals and tee light candles. It looked lovely and I hope Ewelina was impressed...she probably would have been if she could have forced her way through the ring of photographers who were taking pictures of the whole thing. We both hoped that Ewelina wasn't the young, bored looking lady with a cigarette drooping out of the side of her mouth and hand on hip....with all that effort by Romeo he deserved Juliet rather than Morticia.

Anyway Toronto, good show this evening and even if the band wasn't my thing they clearly were for quite a few people....I understand they have a recording contract....

Off to England tomorrow and ready to provide Air Canada with an opportunity to redeem themselves. Currently riding bottom equal with American Airlines in a contest that includes 2 Peruvian airlines, LAN Chile, QANTAS and British Airways they have a lot of work to do...

Posted by JohnandJac 17:41 Archived in Canada Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Peru: Lima to Toronto

...so many contrasts

snow 2 °C

John:... a day of contrasts. Some predictable like Southern Hemisphere to North, Summer to Winter; others less predictable such as The warmth and genuineness of the staff at the Hostel International in Miraflores Lima compared to the rude, sneering indifference at best and rudeness at worst, of the Air Canada staff at Lima International Airport, the delicious tastes of our last meal in Peru (gorgeous ceviche, lomo saltido with fresh pasta, passion fruit dessert, Pisco sour and a delightful Chilean Malbec) with the awful mess served up in the Air Canada flight (better to serve nothing and let people self cater).

We scored Air Canada 4/10, putting them down there with American Airlines and that all down to the pilot getting us up and down on time and intact with the same number of wings/engines that we started off with. The ground crew were appalling, 7 people larking about at the departure gate, back slapping and huge jocularity as the boarding time (01:10) came and went, 30 minutes and more passed, not even the courtesy of an explanation, and single mums with small babies trying to juggle tired children and luggage as this was all going on. The crew completely oblivious to the needs of their company's customers. If this is flying the flag via the National airline I am sure that the Canadians present would have been ashamed as I would have been if this was an Air New Zealand flight. The service didn't improve on the flight....but we got there OK. Maybe in air travel customers have surrendered the expectation of service of any kind. I'm not talking about obsequeous, servile behaviour from staff but the genuine and professional business of caring for and about your work. Maybe it can't be recaptured for some cultures, the genie can't be put back in the bottle, but for others, Emirates, Singapore, Malay Airlines there is clearly huge profit to be made if you can get it right.

Toronto looked icy cold as we penetrated the low cloud over the airport. Dry snow on the roads and rooftops blowing in the light breeze. Not much traffic on the roads, anybody with any sense at 10:00 was indoors. Toronto Airport was empty. We were through the immigration formalities within 10 minutes and without a full sentence being spoken (apart from the lady at the currency exchange desk who chatted about the comparative washability of New Zealand and Canadian currency) which doesn't give the baggage handlers time to get your luggage out so the total time to exit the airport is probably the same. The taxi was great. Luxury leather seats, matching wheels, sober driver...you get the picture. Our last trip from the hostel in Lima to the airport was very different. Whilst previous taxi rides have been, for me, thrilling adventures in the fast lane, the guy that took us to the airport was, I am sure, either on some serious stimulants of a baked nature or else he had a serious mental health issue or two. When you wind down the window and start screaming at the heavily armed and seriously mean looking airport security staff you probably have at least one issue to deal with but.... we got there OK.

We left a warm, sultry Lima and arrived, at first, in an airconditioned Toronto airport soon to be welcomed into the freezing embrace of Ontario in the grip of winter. In fact we had just missed the tail end of a savage winter storm that had blown through the USA midwest and the southern Canadian states. Exiting from the airport was a shock. With scant regard for the finer details of fashion I gratefully reached for my Peru wooly hat and my (baby alpacca senor, best price) wooly jumper. We cruised out along the freeway towards downtown Toronto, past a very choppy lake side reminding us of a very rough Lake Titikaka a week or so ago. Off to the very nice hostel and, after a quick clothing adjustment, on out to the St Lawrence Food Market just a couple of blocks away.

Now for those of you who know us, phrases like 'hungry wolves' don't fit so easily but whilst we loved Peru deeply there are several commodities that we missed badly: english language newspapers and magazines, bread (I don't think they 'dig on swine' in Peru (a prize for the reference to this phrase sent in via the 'comment' facility) and bacon to name but three. All were avalable, in spades, and we fell upon them like.... well maybe the phrase fits better than I thought. The bacon sandwich at the St Lawrence Market was up there in the all time eating experiences and if we manage to read all the newspapers and magazines in the 3 days we are here we will have seen nothing else...the two bakeries in the market were of particular interest to Jackie. This market is just around the corner from our hostel. We will visit again tomorrow. The fresh fruit and veg was fabulous as were the various deli and fresh fish counters. We invested in some sensational looking sausages to cook for dinner, with mashed potato and onion gravy. The busker in the market was great, playing a repertoire that included Clapton, Hendrix, Lennon and the excellent Robbyn Ford. Cheesemongers, kitchen equipment, cooked food and coffee....all great

On a different issue I called around to the supermarket to get some bits and pieces including a bottle of wine. Outside the liquer store were a couple of recovering alcoholics collecting for the Salvation Army. After a few minutes chatting with them I remembered that it is just over 10 years since my best mate Steve passed on and, as we have no commitments in Toronto we think we will get on to the local Salvation Army hostel and do a days volunteering if we can; see a little bit of the other side of Toronto. Sleeping rough in these temperatures can't be easy.

Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere Winter is another contrast. In Peru lots of Christmas decorations were up and many with a Latin slant; Indian babies, principal characters in wooly hats, llamas and alpaccas in the stable...you get the picture. In some places there are fake snow flakes and the inevitable pan pipe versions of Frosty the Snowman and so on. There is no faux snow here, it is all the genuine article. It is bitterly cold and the men selling Christmas trees at the market have those fingerless gloves on. They're selling fir cones, wreathes, holly sprigs and they need to keep moving....because it is so cold but also because it gets dark at 4 pm. As I came home from the supermarket at 17:30 the sky tower was lit up in Christmas greens and reds, the red light showing up the steam rising from the top of the neighbouring tower blocks. It all looked very festive and for a moment I forgot how cold it was.....but only for a moment.

Anyway time to post this shortest of postings. Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends. Just 3 days until we get to the UK so looking forward to seeing as many people there as we can in the short time before we return to South America. Until next time....

Posted by JohnandJac 18:37 Archived in Canada Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


Viva el Peru Gloriosa

overcast 27 °C
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John:...Farewell Machu Picchu although I suspect you will be with us for many years to come. We arrived back in Cusco and found our excellent hostel, Mallqui on Nueva Alto, again. As with all bar one of the places we have stayed in there is a genuine interest in our travels; not just the good bits but the whole story. On the Saturday night we sauntered down to the Plaza de Armas for an easy meal to discover a place transformed. It transpired that this weekend was the 21st anniversary of the combining of the various regional police forces in to a national ´Policia National el Peru´.

The result for us was a Plaza filling rapidly with people and the Cusco branch of The National Police Force Band blowing up a storm as the warm up act for at least two other bands. The band numbered approximately 20 people; I say approximately because every now and again somebody in uniform would turn up with a tuba/trumpet/drum and some other fierce looking person would be drawn away by small child/wife/girlfriend. Regardless of the membership the enthusiastic noise continued unaltered. The chap on snare drums had 4 drums set up on a frame and at one point the whole lot disintegrated. Fortunately he had a spanner with him. Standard Police Band Drummer Equipment!

The next turn took the stage (the Police Band was on the road) and started to tune up...they took too long so the Police Band took off again with another stirring number by which time the second act had learned that you need to be quick....they launched into their first number at the required 10% overloading of the sound system, a little shaky but sounding promising. Spanish guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and electric guitar playing well known, in Peru, songs. We headed across the Plaza de Armas for a bite to eat at the local Italian where a young guy was playing a Spanish guitar beautifully. A few practices away from really ´going live` but really very good. When we came back to the Plaza the whole scene had changed. A 10 piece salsa band, resplendent in scarlet jackets, black shirts and trousers had taken the stage. These guys were very sharp. The 3 vocalists pleaded with us to believe how much they loved Juanita/Rosa/Martina, how badly they had been treated and that they never meant to hurt.....(insert name of your choice at this point)....when they ran out of words they had some great, snappy dance routines. The rest of the band, 2 drummers, 2 trumpets, trombone, piano, bass (I think) really pumped it out. At times it sounded as if everybody was hitting something; the trumpet valves were steaming and the trombone slide about to melt and if, from time-to-time the vocalists, drummers and brass lost each other a little it was ok. I was trying to keep the rhythm going for them with my feet although at times there were so many rhythms going it was hard to keep up! All very exciting.

Right next door to all this noise, Jackie spotted that, on Saturday night, a wedding was underway in the Cathedral. She went to check up on that while I helped the rhythm section out. As the evening cooled and the band got hotter, the wedding party headed off and we ambled off back to our excellent little hostel, Mallqui on Nueva Alta to get packed up for the first leg of our next journey. Cusco to Lima to Toronto to North Yorkshire.

Our last saunter into the Plaza de Armas on Sunday morning found us right in the middle of a full scale parade. Still celebrating the Police Nationale Peru 21st anniversary a huge gathering of (and the distinction between Police and Army is still not clear to me) infantry, special services, traffic police, mountain rescue, sea bourne troops, security services, dog handlers and so on. Two brass bands kept the whole thing moving and squads of police and troops all marched past the temporary dias set up for this purpose before heading in to the Cathedral. We retired to the Cafe de Armas for some apple pie and ice cream to watch the proceedings from the balcony and a very fine parade it was too.

All the various special forces were in their working gear; some looking very fierce with faces blacked and big lightning flashes made up across them, others had a little routine as part of their march, like the dog handlers had an impressive dog obedience exercise. Several yetti looking men in hairy camoflage suits stood out rather than blended in to the surroundings. The troops had their names on their tunics; Cpl Huaraz, Cpt Martinez etc. The 6 men in the mountain rescue team, dressed in bright yellow tops, all seemed to be called North Face.

A fine end to our stay in Cusco. A wonderful city full of life, history, music, fine architecture, good food and art. Troubled at times, certainly. Real poverty in evidence, without doubt but show me a city anywhere in the world that doesn`t have these problems. We loved the place for its own sake but also as a base for our excursions to Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley of the Inkas and to Aguas Calientes and Machupicchu.

We travelled the short distance to the aeropuerto, right in the centre of this rapidly growing city and climbed aboard the Star Peru flight to Lima. No messing about with `This is the 10th and final boarding call for Mr and Mrs Jones....` we were up in the air 10 minutes before the official departure time and within the hour the world turned misty brown as we entered airspace above Lima.

As for Peru; well we will be leaving in 36 hours and for me this has been a wonderful country to visit. Full of pleasant surprises, very affordable, and full of kind, tolerant, generous, hard working people. We have been really well treated during our time here and, as is the point of travelling, some of my preconceived ideas about South America have been challenged. We have been priviledged to see one of the wonders of the world, Machupicchu, and some of the other things and places we have seen have been almost as splendid. As it says on the hillside above Cusco `Viva el Peru Gloriosa`.

During our travel to the UK I may be able to get another posting done. If not, I`ll definitely fit a pre-Christmas one in describing our trip to Toronto.

Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends. Have a great trip to Rarotonga Rangi and Hinga. We think of you often. Please pass on our best wishes to Tinirau Road.

Posted by JohnandJac 08:54 Archived in Peru Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Peru: Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu

semi-overcast 19 °C
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John:..... On our drive across the high plateau to Ollantaytambo, the adobe brick houses seemed to emerge from the earth and, as the houses ceased to fulfill their original function they seemed to melt back in from whence they came. A kind of ashes to ashes, dust to dust for houses. The verdant crops and terracotta soil reminded me of the same colours in Devon. Our return to Ollantaytambo within a couple of days of our initial visit gave us the opportunity to revisit the ruins of the Inka temple and town. The nice lady at the gate to the ruins let us both in free as we had visited a few days ago. The elderly, blind, gifted, harp playing lady at the entrance (see last posting) turned out to be an elderly, blind, gifted, harp playing man. The music was just as beautiful. My apologies to him. I did some sketching of the Inka stonework while Jackie read up on the area and we both lazily watched the tour groups come on to the site, as we had done a few days previously, and rush through the tour around the ruins. Some looked fairly worn out after the climb to the top and back.

Ollantaytambo is an interesting little town in The Sacred Valley of the Inkas. Centred around tourism now, at one time it was directly linked to Machu Picchu through the Inka Trail. The temple and crop growing were crucially important to the Inka Empire.

Our hostel for the two days was nicely furnished, two minutes from the town centre and 15 minutes from the train station that we would be using to get to Machu Picchu. With only one exception the staff in the hostel were amongst the glummest we had seen anywhere on our travels. Reception, kitchen....all gloomy. We found a fine place to eat called ´Hearts´. Founded by a now 72 year old English woman, the cafe is a fund raiser for orphaned children and battered women in the Andean highlands. By all accounts the maternal mortality rate is high. I didn´t get all of the fugures but 13 women have died in childbirth in the last year. Given the way Andean society works this leaves a lot of children without a stable care situation and many elderly people without a home. The food was excellent and the project seemed very worthwhile. They´re on the lookout for volunteers, nurses and teachers. If anybody is interested, the website is www.livingheartperu.org

Not a lot else to say about Ollantaytambo. A pleasant little town surrounded by fertile high plains and graced with fabulous Inka ruins and a market square full of wooly, ' carved', and embroidered goods, a fine potter´s workshop and some good places to eat. The plaza de armas is undergoing serious rebuilding, making for a rather dusty dining experience for now but this should be fine in a few weeks judging by the number of people working on it.

We caught the Peru Rail train to Aguas Calientes, the town for Machu Picchu, at 09:00. A fabulous train journey of 90 minutes took us along the valley cut by the Urubamba river, by now a chocolate coloured boiling, raging river trying hard to be the irrestistable force whilst enormous boulders are smuggly confident in asserting that they are the immovable objects...we all know that the river will prevail in the end, especially one that sets about its work with such ferocity! We caught glimpses of groups walking along the Inka Trail, a four day hike to Machu Picchu. The ones we saw were clearly still on the relatively easy day 1, yet to face the worst stage the next day (Jackie overheard a group talking the following day at Machu Picchu and the drop out rate was fairly high). Small homesteads along the way with a few chickens, a patch of maize and figures half visible in the doorways of adobe brick and thatch roof houses, the women wearing their trilby-like hats...

Our plan was to stay in Aguas Calientes for two nights. We arrived at our hotel, one of the friendliest we have stayed at in Peru....also one of the noisiest as there is a major expansion project underway in the kitchen. The same commitment to hard work and tenacity that built Machi Pucchu on top of a mountain is here in our hotel. The breaking of rock began early, 07:00, and the standard model of amplification in Peru (any loudspeaker, however large or small, is overloaded by at least 10%) accompanies the efforts of these vigorous artisans. The station the workmen are tuned to plays mostly Peruvian Criolles music; wonderfully complex rhythms and often with a steaming brass section. All overlaid with the angst ridden stories of ´how his baby done him wrong´ or ´how her man ain´t no good´.

We beat them yesterday though. The benefit of staying over night in Aguas Caliente was that we could get up to the ruins at Machu Picchi early; before the people travelling over for the day from Cusco got there. Up with the lark, we were on the bus at 06:30 and took the white knuckle ride up the unsealed, multiple switchback road to the top of the mountain. We were dropped off outside of the extraordinarily overpriced Machu Picchu hotel and, as we had an hour before our guide arrived at the site we ventured through the entrance gate and out on to the mist shrouded magnificence of Machu Picchu.

I had been worried that after seeing so many wonderful historical sites and after the hype that surrounds Machu Picchu the place would be a bit of an anti-climax. No such thing. In fact the opposite really. No photographs can prepare you for the site itself, shrouded in mist, the light changing by the second as the sun attempted to burn off the blanket of cloud. Now and again the mountains that surround and shield Machu Picchu broke through the cloud and then disappeared. On each reappearance the light was different and the whole scene changed. All the time the roar of the river, many hundreds of metres below us, was clearly audible. In much the same way as the adobe brick cottages on the farm land seemed to have emerged out of the soil, this whole city has grown from the mountain. It was built from rock quarried from the mountain it sits on. The sense of order, self sufficiency and completeness is almost overwhelming. Terraces stretching down the mountainside provided hundreds of different micro climates for growing a huge variety of crops. Temples, artisans houses, plazas, water channels for irrigation, ceremony and drinking, solar clocks for mapping the seasons and all built with extraordinary masonary skills and consumate town planning. The beauty of the place is enhanced by its mysteries. Why was it built? Why was it abandoned? How exactly did it function as a city?...and with all the might of the conquering Spanish army under Pizzaro, Spain never knew of its existance.

It is now nearly 100 years after Hiram Bingham brought it to the world´s attention (local people had known of its presence long before HB ´discovered' it; in fact some families were living in the ruins during the late 19th and early 20th centuries) there are still artifacts being found by archeologists working on the site. At the museo at the bottom of the mountain items, terracota vessels, stone carvings, brooches, ceremonial items are on display as part of a really informative permanent display. Another advantage of getting to Aguas Caliente early is that you can visit the Museo the day before and load up on information that will maximise your visit to the site but will also give you the freedom to enjoy the place without the hammering in of information that you will surely forget!

Some of Jackie´s photo´s are in the photo gallery. Unfortunately the camera has run out of juice so I will load more on tomorrow. Great photo´s but no substitute for the real thing. Visiting tips: if you are in Peru and planning to visit Machu Picchu bite the bullet and book in to Aguas Calientes so that you can get up the mountain first thing. The magic of the place early (first bus leaves town at 05:00) in the morning will compensate your wallet and your sleep loss. The biggest crowds are there from 10:00 - 14:00. What we did was to have a guided tour early (07:45). this lasts approx 2 hours. I then went up an adjoining mountain, Waynapicchu which you can see on one of the Machu Picchu photographs, and took the fairly tough path to the top, 45 minutes, for the extraordinary view of Machu Piccu from above where you can see that the layout of the town is shaped like a Condor, one of three sacred beasts (snake and puma are the others) to the Inka people. This is the other advantage to arriving early. Access to the mountain is limited to 400 divided in to 3 timed slots so the early tour gets you ready to go up the mountain at 10:00 thus getting you away from the crowds as they arrive. Be warned, the walk is tough. The legs, heart and lungs will work hard. For me the other aspect was the sheer drops at times off the side of the ragged path. I don´t have a great head for heights and at times it was a case of not looking to the left or right.

We were glad to have had the opportunity to see the town half shrouded in mist and mostly empty of people. It gave us the chance to imagine how it might have been hundreds of years ago. We hope you enjoy the photo´s. There are countless others if you use google, images, Machu Picchu.

We stayed for a second night in Aguas Caliente and enjoyed, as we had done on the first night, a great meal in the French/Peruvian restaurant called Indio Feliz. Started by a French boating enthusiast and Chef called Patrick 15 years ago this is now the best (and by no means the most expensive) place to eat in Aguas Caliente. The restaurant is painted from floor to ceiling with nautical pictures. A large and very busty figurehead greets you at the front door as will Patrick himself. The food is based on the excellence of the raw materials he uses, cooked simply and with little fuss. Unusual in our experience in Peru so far the wine `by the glass` was a very good Cab Sav from Chile. Patrick maintains a high profile in the dining room. Attention to detail is what you would expect from a place charging three times the amount. If you are going to Aguas Caliente Indio Feliz is well worth a visit.

The following day we packed up our bags and after a last wander around the town we headed to the railway station to catch the 16:45 train back to Cusco, from where in a couple of days we will be leaving for Lima and the UK. The journey back on the Peru Rail Backpacker Service was one of the more uncomfortable train rides I have taken. Nearly 4 hours on a crowded train and half of the journey in the dark. Still it couldn`t take away from the Machu Picchu experience; that will remain with us for a very long time.

Posted by JohnandJac 11:33 Archived in Peru Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Peru: Cusco

Capital of the Inka Empire

rain 20 °C
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John:... Before starting this blog I should say that whilst I am writing the text, most of the excellent photographs (see photo gallery) are the work of Jackie. Enjoy.

We have really enjoyed Cusco. Our hostel is just 10 minutes walk from the impressive Plaza De Armas, surrounded by restaurants, cathedrals (yes, two), shops (mostly souvenirs), and, at the centre, a great fountain and manicured flower beds. The look is of colonial Spain but the reason it is all still standing is because the foundations and lower walls are often Inka dynasty. The latter had building techniques honed over many hundreds of years from previous Peruvian cultures designed to withstand earthquakes. Walking around the city shows just how much of modern Cusco is built on Inka foundations.

We have enjoyed the range of eating available in the Plaza from a fine (but very reasonable) Italian, to Peruvian cuisine (but no Cuy thank you) through to a pint of draught Old Speckled Hen and a burger in a pub called Norton named in honour of the British motorbike and themed accordingly. Eating in the Plaza usually means a balcony seat on the floor above ground level (first floor in the UK, second floor most other places), just close enough to hear the buzz of conversation, instruments played by buskers, and see the detail of costumes and uniforms (at least 5 types of policemen and women that I can see). All this and there are numerous other Plazas in the city, each with its own individual character.

Cusco was capital of the Inca empire until the Spanish moved in, is the hub from which many visits to Inca ruins are made. Our first foray to the ruins saw us on a small bus roaming around Cusco picking up people from hotels early in the morning. Almost last onto the bus as we drove up and out of Cusco was our guide for the day. Mark Anthony (yes, truly) sprang on to the bus, all youthful exuberence, hair gel, puffa jacket and bad jokes. He turned out to be an excellent guide, proud of his country´s history and his knowledge about it. If he got some of the detail wrong it didn´t matter too much. (With the huge amount of detail flying about it is the impression that remains) That the Inka trail is very long is what counts, not the precise length and the answer to the question ´how many types of potato are there in Peru?´ the most useful answer is ´many´. Sometimes numbers and measurements used in pride can detract from meaning.

It is hard to convey the scale and magnificence of the various ruins that we visited. That these are world class archeological sites is shown in the number of international universities represented at the various sites in the area. The scale and significance of the work is such that the text books on early civilizations (pre colonisation) in South America have been totally rewritten in the past 10 years. The scale of the stone masonary is perhaps the most immediately striking feature, massive boulders, weighing many tons, smoothed with sand, water and hard labour so that they fit so closely together you can´t slide a cigarette paper between them.

Zooming out a little shows that the masonary work was not just empty showmanship. Many of these ruins have withstood the frequent earthquakes in the region (many of the buildings in the small town we are in at present, Ollantaytambo (oye-an-tie-tam-bow are built on Inka era foundations and stonework). In Ollayntaytambo we visited the spactacular terraces used for farming, creating numerous micro climates by manipulating the altiutude for crop growing. At the top, looking down onto the current town, is the temple to the Sun and Moon. As I gazed around at the surrounding mountain tops at over 5500 metres a school party of unsupervised, excited children jabbered away until a suddenly and appropriately stern Mark Anthony shooshed them up reminding them that this was a sacred place and to treat it with respect.

Silos for storing crops are located halfway up mountainsides, not just as a defence against enemies but also because the food stayed fresher for longer. During the Inka period in Ollantaytambo, the last bastion before they were conquered, enough food was stored to feed 100 000 people for a long time. It is now thought that one factor in the frequent demise of coastal cultures in Peru was the impact of el nino weather patterns causing even less rain (none for 35 years in one spell). The Inka dynasty and empire was well defended against such things....and having said all of that the Inka dynasty only lasted around 100 years....nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition. Different but equally spectacular ruins being conserved, investigated, restored were on our schedule at Pisaq.

A lot of detail about these sites is available on the internet (google iPeru) so I won´t use up blog space on that. For those coming to visit these wonderful places it is well worth doing a little reading about them first. I have just invested in a great little book called The Ancient Civilisations of Peru that provides good illustrations of pottery, stone work, carvings. (away from Peru for a moment, another great South American read is ´In Search of the Lost City of Z; a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon´. This tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an explorer in the early 20th century and the attempt to find out what happened to him on his last trip. Gripping stuff)

Knowing that we were coming back to Ollantaytambo for 2 full days gave us the luxury of relaxing on this short visit. On our return journey to Cusco we climbed high up onto the fertile plain and travelled to Chinchero, a small town built around agriculture and weaving. We called in on a small cooperative of men and women producing woven and embroidered fabric. Not the flourescent (but still striking) woolen garments on sale in the cities but garments made from wool spun in the village (every women in the village is spinning Alpacca wool as she walks, talks; all the time in fact). The wool is then shampooed in water with grated cactus befor being dyed using a variety of vegetable dyes and locally produced salt then dried and woven). To make a piece of woven material incorporating the motifs and patterns unique to the area takes nearly a month, working 8 hours per day. We chose to buy a piece from them at their Fair Trade price. For anybody visiting Peru, buying this kind of souvenir as close to the point of manufacture helps to stop the migration of people away from the countryside by ensuring that the actual craftspeople benefit more from their own work. It will cost a little more but in our case the purchase included demonstrations of all the points of the process, a nice cup of Mate de Munya and conversations about weaving and other types of manufacture.

Before long we were heading back to Cusco in the dark. A long but wonderful day. I have already mentioned the lunchtime musical interlude in the previous blog posting but I should say, in marked contrast, was the playing of an Andean harp by an elderly blind woman in the market at the gate into the ruins at Ollantaytambo. Absolutely beautiful...now if only she would make a CD!

Off to Aguas Caliante tomorrow and Machu Pichu. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 08:12 Archived in Peru Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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