Machu Picchu with Jamie, Patagonia Shorex Day Four

We woke up bright and early this morning and had a lovely breakfast at the San Blas Boutique hotel.  Nearly everyone reported having slept really well after such a long and exhilarating day yesterday… love those hot water bottles, it must have been down to about 8C overnight, which makes a real change from all our coastal destinations.

We were out of the hotel fairly early and off on a walking tour of Cusco.  Cusco is a much bigger city than any of us were expecting, with a population of around 440,000 people.  The city was built on the top of the historic capital of the Inka Empire which lasted from the 13th – 16th centuries, when the Spanish conquest put an end to that.  Most of Cusco, in true South American tradition, has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  It is considered the Historical Capital of Peru (didn’t see much of Lima – but from what did see, it’s not hard to figure out why), and gets about two million tourists every year.

We wandered through quaint winding streets, that are totally not pedestrian friendly – every time a car came down the street, everyone walking had to get up on the narrow, about two foot narrow, ‘footpath’ (and I use the term loosely), to avoid getting your feet run over.

Throughout the streets that we were walking were these puma symbols embedded in brass in the corners of some cobbled footpaths. Some maintain that the city of Cusco was designed in the shape of a puma, which is a sacred animal; but others maintain that it is people’s imagination, (like looking for imagery in clouds), that sees the puma symbol in the lay out of the city. Either way, these symbols are in the footpaths around the city.

A short walk brought us to an amazing Inka wall in the middle of a shopping street.  Luis spoke to us about how the Inka stonework, and specifically how researchers are not really sure how the large stones were quarried and transported to the city.

According to Inca (yes, I know I keep interchanging ‘Inka’ with ‘Inca’ but that is because everywhere we went here you would see either variant used, much like ‘Cusco’ and ‘Cuzco’… seems either are acceptable, and I should be consistent but I haven’t the motivation or inclination for editing at this point!) legends, the city was built by Sapa Inca Pacahacuti (also known as Pacahacutek?), the king who transformed the quiet city state of Cusco into the vast empire called the Tawantinsuyu Empire.  I’m pretty sure there was a lot more to this story, but as per usual Luis was imparting so much information and there’s me without a dictaphone.

We made our way through town to the Plaza des Arma which is also known as the ‘Square of the Warrior’ and was the site of several important historical events, such as Francisco Pizarro proclaiming the conquest of Cusco. The Square is lined with stone arched arcades and the two enormous Catholic churches – the Cathedral Basilican of Our lady of the Assumption (c.1650) and the Church of La Compania de Jesus (c.1570), which are both constructed in the beautiful old colonial baroque architectural style, both open directly onto the plaza.

the Church of La Compania de Jesus… The Square of the Warrior…

Also in the square is a fountain that contains a weird mishmash of cultural iconography – a very French influenced 17thC looking fountain with a statue of Patchacuti perched on top.  Apparently the fountain was a gift from a one time mayor or governor, who had been in the US and had bought back a statue of a native American Indian and had gifted the fountain topped by this inappropriate statue to the city… many, many people hate the statue as having nothing to do with the city and the people of Cusco and according to Luis, one night in the late 60s three drunk journalists threw ropes around the native American Indian statue, tied the rope to a car and ripped it off the top of the fountain.  That statue turned up for a while in a museum, but has since been lost again, and it was replaced by the city’s favourite ancestor, Patchacuti.

The Cathedral Basilica of Our lady of the Assumption…

After leaving the plaza, we went for a bit of a walk, taking in the sights of the city until we reached Qurikancha, or the Golden Place, which was the most important temple dedicated to the Sun God at the time of the Incan Empire.  According to the Spanish chronicles, Quirkancha was said to have had a large solid golden disc that represented the Inca Sun God, Into as well as walls lined in gold, and a Sacred Garden in front of the temple that had a garden of golden plants with leaves of gold, silver and life sized llamas all made in solid gold. 

Naturally the Spanish invaders plundered the city of its wealth and destroyed its idols, altars and shrines.  However, they unusually chose this site to build on top of the semi-destroyed Sun Temple a convent called the Convent de Santo Domingo, which is built in a Renaissance sale, with a single baroque tower and a large cloistered courtyard in the centre.  The building that remains now has strong and noticeable Inka and Spanish sections that show the alterations and renovations the building has undergone.

The Spanish Cusco school of art… The Moon chamber – that was once covered in sheets of gold. Spanish arches evident that were built above the Inka stonework. Niches in the Inca walls are quite common – this temple has these black lines (possibly painted with blood) running across the stonework at about heat height – the origin and purpose of the lines are unknown. When the Spanish plundered Quirkancha, they damaged much of the ancient stonework – this section of split open rock shows how precisely the stones fit together. A replica of the Sun God disc… it is full of symbology representing the beliefs of the Inka people and elements of their world that carried great import.  Sun, Moon, Ocean, Lakes, the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, Pumas, rainbows, the earthly world, man, woman, homes – this item is full of important iconography. The Milky Way with important Inka recontextualizations – images of llamas are evident in this painting. More Spanish archways evident above the Inka stonework. Cusco experienced an earthquake in 1950s and much of the Spanish construction was damaged – but the Inka work survived in tact.
View over Cusco from Quirkancha. The water space Symmetry and alignment in the stonework windows… The tiniest ever found, Inka stonework block – about the size of a 10c piece. The mosaic on the back of the Cusco fountain where the two rivers meet. The first train to take people from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Callientes.

I have had simply the most exhilarating, exciting, exhausting, magical visit to Machu Picchu and Cusco with Jaime and Luis from Patagonia Shorex.  I loved the buzz and atmosphere of Aguas Callientes, and enjoyed the lovely glass dome train rides to and from Ollantaytambo.  The local people were wonderful, the markets were colourful and vibrant and fun, the entire experience is something that I can not recommend highly enough.  I feel like we few, we very fortunate few, who got to experience Machu Picchu and Cusco with Jaime have all had an experience of a lifetime.  While our experience in a few days off a cruise ship is very likely not even remotely comparable to that experienced by those who undertake the trails and trials of walking the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu… I am certain this is the best way to see Machu Picchu from the ship with a tight time frames.

On the way back to our beautiful Sea Princess, Jaime said to us, “My friends, I am very sorry we will not be going to Tahiti together – your ship, I see her from the plane in the dock, and she is still here waiting for you.”, but not once was I worried we were not going to make it back to our ship – Jaime was so organised and so in control of our group’s schedule and our movements, and I had every confidence that all contingencies were covered, and he could solve any unexpected issue that might arise.

So, do yourself a favour, if you are planning a World Cruise, or doing a Circle South America out of Florida or LA… contact Jaime and book to go to Machu Picchu with him – it is a decision you will never regret, and an experience you will remember forever.

Machu Picchu with Jamie, Patagonia Shorex Day Three

Today, we go up to Machu Picchu! 

So, of course I am awake an hour before our wake up call is due!  Isn’t that always the way?  I took the opportunity of being up stupid early to catch up with the family back home in Australia… I’ve been gone for two months and I am missing them terribly, so it was wonderful to have some hotel wifi.

When the sun did come up – what a beautiful surprise… Aguas Callientes is very happily situated straddling a ravine that is effectively the valley between several beautiful high mountains that tower over the village.  We couldn’t really make out the mountains on our little walk around last night in the dark, and so we were greeted with a beautiful view from the hotel over the rooftops of the town this morning.

Before long it was time to get dressed and head down for breakfast – another lovely spread of everything you could possibly want… fruits, pastries, cheeses, pancakes, waffles, cold meats, eggs, omelettes, fruit juices, tea and coffee, you name it.  Fortified by some fruit, a boiled egg and a cup of tea, we went for a short walk around to see Aguas Callientes in the day light.  The weather was cool but not cold, and I needed only a light scarf over my linen shirt, and the town seemed still very much asleep at 07:00.  We walked over the one of the bridges that traverses the ravine, did a walk through the markets that were not yet open and wandered down the Main Street.  It really is a beautiful little village.  I could imagine spending a couple of days here without any problem.

But, we had places to go and things to do – so back to the hotel by 07:30 so we could walk around the corner and catch a bus up to Machu Picchu.  We were in luck, the line for the bus was non-existent, though Jaime told us last July and August, the lines were horrendous – up to two hours wait to get a bus to take you to the site.  The problem is that the site is made to accommodate about 2000 tourists a day, which is quite a lot… but seeing that Machu Picchu is on every serious travellers’ “Bucket List” it has become a very popular destination and last year they were seeing as many as 5400 people going through the site on busy days in July and August.  Jaime said he felt this was no way to see this spiritual place, crammed in like sardines, and cheek to jowl with so many other people all trying to use the narrow steps and pathways.  Today, he estimated that maybe only 900-1000 people would be visiting… the low season here runs December/January through to March and the number of visitors starts to pick up in April to September (the northern hemisphere’s summer holiday periods). So we were here at a good time of year.

Our fearless leader, Jaime…

The drive up on the bus was… err ‘interesting’.  We couldn’t see much of the landscape above us as it was largely still hidden in the clouds, but we sure could see the sheer drop off the side of the road should our driver prove not as skilful as we all hoped he was!  At this point the scenery was quite pretty – beautiful mountains topped by clouds, with the sun struggling to shine though, and lush rainforest surrounding us everywhere.

Thankfully the bus made it to the top of the mountain without incident, and we arrived on site around 08:00.  Again we were greeted by that most auspicious of tourist phenomena – no queues!  And it was passports and tickets out… I have no idea why, but the hotel, the bus, the train, the national park – they all want your passports all the time and we seem to have spent and inordinate amount of time pulling out and putting away our passports.  We proceeded straight into the site whereupon we encountered a stone track with lots of stairs that wound upwards, ever upwards.  Jaime had said, ‘We have a walk up of about 20 minutes, and then it will be hours of wandering gently down, down as we do a big circular to the bottom of the site.’   I trusted that his description was accurate.

Twenty minutes sounded ok, and I’m thinking … I’m ready for this, having avoided the elevators as much as possible, I’ve been walking the stairs in the cruise ship to be prepared for this for the last two months! I was glad I had been doing the stairs, I am sure it would have been even worse if I hadn’t done that but it was still a strenuous walk up very uneven steps at roughly 7000 ft elevation.  Being a seaside dweller I was really feeling it – heart rate racing within minutes, laboured breathing and frequently stopping… and I’m roughly 20-30 years younger than the rest of my group!  I have no idea how they were managing, but I have nothing but admiration for every single one of them who made their way up that hike this morning with various bung knees, bad backs, asthma, sinus problems, and lord knows what else – talk about a great bunch of troopers! 

Eventually we finish our climb to ‘The Spot’, where we came out of the bushes and found ourselves looking down at ‘Postcard Machu Picchu’.  We were still up in the clouds and fog and watching the ever changing scene below us was amazing.  One moment the clouds were covering the site, and moments later, the clouds would move and a beautiful vista unfolded in front of you.  It was pure magic!  It is hard to describe the immense grandeur and beauty of this place and how seeing it all in front of you, and drinking it all in, affects you.  I don’t think there was a single one of us, who didn’t feel moved in some way by the experience. 
Most archeologists agree that Machu Pichhu is a 15th century Inka city that was built as a royal retreat for the Inka King, Pachacutek.  It was often called the “Lost City of the Incas”, though that name was more usually applied to the Inka city of Vilcabama.  Vilcabama, by the way, is the town that Hiram Bingham (an American historian and explorer) was looking for when he stumbled on Machu Picchu with the help of a small local boy in 1911.

The site was built around 1450 at the height of the Inka Empire, and took over 50 years to construct, but it was abandoned barely 30 years after it was finished in 1570 as a result of the Spanish Conquest.  It is suggested that many of its inhabitants died from smallpox before the conquistadors even arrived in the area, and those that hadn’t, took their valuables and fled from the invading Spanish.  Being so isolated and remote, the Spanish never found it, so it did not get plundered and was not destroyed – which is very fortunate, as the Spanish had habitually destroyed and defaced the sacred Inka rocks and sites they found elsewhere.

Over the centuries the natural jungle overtook the site and very few outsiders knew of its existence leading to it being hidden from the world for over 400 years.  The story goes that Yale University lecturer, Hiram Bingham was travelling the region looking for the “Lost Inca City” called Vilcabamba and an 8 year old boy said, (paraphrased of course) ‘I know a lost city in the mountains’, and the child took him to Machu Picchu.  It wasn’t what he was looking for – but it was equally important.   Bingham then arranged several expeditions in 1912, 1914 and 1915 to start clearing the jungle and vegetation out of the site. Bingham’s exploration efforts eventually attracted push back by local authorities who were concerned about exploitation and foreign intervention in this culturally significant site, so the excavation was taken over by local archeologists, but by this time many artefacts had been sent back to American institutions and reparation efforts are still ongoing. I can not imagine what it must have been like to be the first Western visitors to this place at the turn of the 20th century.  We were very lucky to be here in this cool overcast foggy weather – it meant no harsh shadows in our photographs, and none of us desperately hot and wilting as we progressed around the site.  And I took hundreds of photos, and have added a select few – okay, maybe more than a few – here, and I make no apologies for going overboard with the pictures in this post!  Once we recovered from our climb and took a finished taking multitude of photos of the indescribably beautiful scene below us, we climbed our way up a bit further to the Temple of the Sun, or Torreon. Luis giving us ALL the information – I am sure I have left out half of what he told us.The Temple of the Sun, Torreon, is a large tower that may have been used as an observatory or guard house – it is at the highest point in the complex and has impressive views down the valleys in every direction.  It felt like we had been through a lot to get to this point…  The architecture of the town is adapted to the mountains by maximising the famous terrace system.  The wide parallel terraces have been created around the central east-west open square for building and for agricultural purposes.  The buildings are built out of white granite and designed to utilize this terrace spaces, and their agricultural practices were also designed around the restrictions the terraces provided.  Each terrace has a metre of good earth on top, under which is a metre of riverbed sand (yes, they brought it all up the mountain from the river which is hundreds of metres below!), and under that is a metre of gravel on top of the bedrock.  This construction of the terraces allowed for excellent irrigation, drainage and filtration of the water system that flows through the mountain town.   I know – so many photos, but I just couldn’t pick the ‘best ones’. The pathways throughout the complex were made of stone like this, it was uneven and you had to be careful, but we were very grateful that it wasn’t also wet.
The white granite that the 200 odd buildings of the complex are built with is all quarried right here on the top of the mountain.  There are sections of the site that show that construction was still on going when the inhabitants decided to abandon the city. This building is a typical servant or commoner’s residence, in the Popular or Residential district of the site – it would have been a two story building, with a living, cooking and sleeping area downstairs, and a cool ventilated food storage area in the attic style roof. The Temple of the Sun is part of the royalty area set out for the nobility, it features trapezoid shaped rooms and a Royal Tomb.  The interior was used for sacred rites and/or sacrifices and you can see it was more finely constructed than the servants/slave/commoner buildings. Inside the Royal Tomb is a three tiered rock, which is representative of the three Inka worlds, which are:  the earthly world, often depicted as a puma, the underworld, associated with a snake, and the spirit world which is represented by the condor.

The different areas of the site can be distinguished by the quality of the Inca stonework construction in each building.  All the central buildings use the classical Inca architectural style of dry stone walls of regular shapes fitted tightly together. There are varying levels of workmanship evident in the stonework, varying from the rougher ‘rustic’ style which did use mortar… To a finer, ‘noble’ level of workmanship which appears on the priest and nobles residences and is dry stone…
To the near precision perfect ‘imperial’ style of stonework, that is so perfect there isn’t even gaps for a piece of paper.. The Main Temple is dedicated to the Earthly world, which the Inka believe is represented by the Puma.  This was a sacred place of ritual and sacrifice, and it is built with the same typical Inka stonework techniques.  They used heavy large stones in a trapezoidal shape that lean inwards, and this construction is very stable –  however this particular building has subsided on one corner where the edge of the building was supported by earth and not bedrock, which over time, has resulted in damage. The Inti Watana Stone – ‘inti’ meaning ‘sun’, ‘wata’ meaning ‘to tie up or hitch’; Inti Watana literally meaning, ‘a stone or place to tie up the sun’.  In English it is often called the ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’ and more often called the ‘Sun Dial Stone’; it is one of the many ritual stones on this site.  It is arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice, at which time it casts no shadow whatsoever.  The Inka believed the stone held the sun in its proper spot on its annual movement across the sky. The Sacred Stone is so shaped to mirror and honour the mountain of the same shape which is directly behind it from this vantage point – unfortunately today, the mountain is hidden in the ‘cloud forest’.  Offerings and small sacrifices to the mountains were often made at this stone. Luis, our expert guide, Jaime, our super friendly, ultra organised travel guru, and some of our now weary, but very happy hikers.The Temple of the Condor – the large diagonal stonework represents the wings of the condor, and the stone in the ground, it’s head.  It is a rather small spot in the site, and it was difficult to get a photograph that displayed the condor outline well… this temple honours the spirit world, that the Inka people aspired to ascend to.   As we were moving around these lower terraces which held all the commoner housing and the Temple of the Condor, the clouds had started to roll back in and we had a bit of light rain occasionally… I for one, was really appreciating the beautiful, moody weather – it somehow seemed perfectly suited to this sacred site.

It was now nearly midday and we had been exploring the site for over four hours, and many of us were definitely feeling the effects of all these narrow and somewhat perilous steps and walkways, and feeling very fortunate that we were not attempting to navigate these well trod smooth cobbled paths in properly wet conditions. Just as we were exiting the site feeling exhilarated and energised, and for some of us a sense of achievement we didn’t think was possible – the clouds started to roll in properly and the rain went from sporadic moments of drizzle, to us pulling out all the wet weather gear.  The timing could not have been more fortuitous – perhaps the Inka Sun God was smiling on us this morning.

After a quick stop to stamp our passports with a special Machu Picchu stamp (Bother!  I forgot to take a photo of it, and the ship has my passport locked away now), we then went to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge for a buffet lunch, in what must be the busiest restaurant for hundreds of kilometres. As well as having the busiest eatery in the Sacred Valley, the Sanctuary Lodge also has the distinction of being the most expensive hotel in Peru, or so I am told, costing up to USD$1000 a night to stay here!  Lunch was lovely – all sorts of salads, ceviche (no peanut butter!), roast chicken, grilled trout, rice dishes, potato dishes, and of course, awesome guacamole.  After walking approximately 30 flights of hard stone stairs and approximately 6km on very uneven ground (according to my tracker), it was a very welcome meal and a nice, if noisy, rest.

Around 13:00, just after we finished lunch we joined a shuttle bus queue, with other damp tourists, to get back down to Aguas Callientes.  The queue was quite long, and there was no shelter from the rain, and we must have looked a bedraggled and somewhat soggy group of people, who still had huge smiles on their faces after having just enjoyed one of the most amazing life experiences ever.  Wet?  Sure, but I felt so glad I had been able to come to Machu Picchu and to see all this grandeur in real life, and with such a wonderful group of people and some truly amazing guides in Luis and Jaime.  A little rain wasn’t going to dampen my spirits.

Just as we were boarding our buses to head back down the mountain – we happened upon friends from our ship…!  The Princess shore tour people had just arrived on site at roughly 13:30, having taken the train from Ollantaytambo this morning instead of last night.  My heart went out to them, they were heading into this amazing place in what was now solid and steady rain, and no doubt much of the site would be heavily under cloud by now.  We didn’t have time to chat, but I do hope the weather cleared for them and they got to see something of this incredible site – I am sure we will hear how it went, and why their schedule was arranged the way it was, when we get back to the ship, but Jaime (who used to work for the ships), indicated to us that this was situation normal for ship tours… arrive late, stay short, and leave early.  :/ 

The bus trip down was quite twice as ‘interesting’ as the bus trip up, thanks to the now slippery and muddy conditions.  Aunty Mary was not at all keen on it and was trying not to look out the window, so I did my best to cheer her up, “Don’t worry about it, Mum, at least if we go over the edge we will make a good headline, ‘Twenty-Two Aussie and Kiwi Tourists Killed in Tragic Machu Picchu Bus Accident’… ‘cos there’s no way we are surviving if we go over!”  Strangely, my observation didn’t seem to put her at ease… Oh well, never mind, our driver handled it like a champ.  Such a winding, twisting, crossing back mountainous road, like you’ve never seen, but these drivers were unfazed and confident (ok, maybe a little *too* confident!).

We arrived back at Aguas Callientes with a few hours to spare to go check out the enormous markets that were closed when we passed through this morning.  Again, we were greeted by a colourful plethora of local textiles, and having purchased a new backpack to house the goodies we had picked up in Pisaq – we felt perfectly happy trying to stuff it to the brim with more beautiful scarves and pashmina! 🙂

All shopped out, we joined The Nookies for quick happy hour pisco sour, before we had to pick up our luggage and head to our 16:00 train.  

On the wall in the restaurant where we were having a drink – I saw this most bizarre artwork… it appears to be Jesus Christ in front of Machu Picchu surrounded by disciples, at the Last Supper, but on closer inspection, it is Jesus Christ, in front of Machu Picchu, surrounded by the 14 Inca Kings!  Just a fantastical blend of cultures and beliefs in this bas relief artwork – I had to share it here so I wouldn’t forget it.  Completely bizarre!Next we were off to the train station to head back to Ollantaytambo. We had a ‘special carriage’ on the way back – again with the aerial dome roof to enjoy the view, which was magnificent, but this train trip also came with snacks, drinks, dancing and a fashion parade.  It was a fun light hearted way to finish a magnificent day.  🙂  The views were amazing, and plenty of Inka ruins were visible out the windows on the ride. The city of Machu Picchu sits on a saddle between two mountains, the larger Machu Picchu mountain and the smaller Huayna Picchu (pronounced Wayna Picchu) – Machu Picchu literally means ‘older mountain’, while Huayna Picchu translates to ‘younger mountain’.  While we were on the site – we could see adventurous climbers trekking up Huayna Picchu to get a different view of the sacred city.

On the train heading back to Ollantaytambo, I was sitting with a young man, named Han Bing who lived in Hong Kong, but hailed from Beijing, who happened to have been one of the lucky climbers on Huayna Picchu this morning.  They allow only 400 people a day to climb Huayna Picchu mountain, and Bing was kind enough to air drop a few photographs he took from that vantage point.  He said it was a wonderful experience, climbing up into the clouds, and then patiently waiting for the clouds to gently drift aside to reveal incredible views of the city… Bing’s photos from Huayna Picchu:
And when the clouds lifted entirely – the view is nothing short of spectacular!  When (not if!), *when* I come back to South America, and to Machu Picchu, I would love to try and climb Huayna Picchu – even if it takes me an entire day.  It is simply amazing.  The train entertainment – I am not sure who this guy represents or what his dance signified, but he was a whirlwind of upbeat music, clapping hands and colourful costume.   This blurry mess of a picture very much captures the moment in my humble opinion.  😉  After the dancing, there was a fashion parade as our waitstaff donned some of the lovely alpaca textiles that the region is famous for and showed us many different ways to wear a humble poncho or serape.  Lovely stuff, but we had already filled our bags beyond capacity!  Finally we arrived back to Ollantaytambo (and yes, I keep writing that O-Place down in this blog in the hope it will solidify in my brain and I will remember it without having to reach for it!), and we then had a one and a half hour drive back to Cusco.  While many of our group took the opportunity to have a nap on the bus – I was the crazy lady on the bus balancing an iPad on a backpack/desk, attempting to write all this down before the sequence of events ended up muddled into yesterday or tomorrows sights. So far, I think I’ve done an okay fist of it – but there’s probably plenty of room for improvement!

Cusco at night was really beautiful – the lights climbing the Cusco hills emanating from the town centre, seemed to twinkle like stars in the sky… just to the right of this photo was a pair of young lovers enjoying the view and canoodling under the star.  I was tempted to include them in this photo, but something stopped me from intruding on their intimate moment.  We had a bit of a wander to find our B&B… We were staying at the San Blas Boutique Hotel in the San Blas region of the city.  It is a lovely part of town full of restaurants and bars, but we were all so exhausted after such a big day, that we took advantage of good quality beds, lovely big warm comforters, and (would you believe it? what a lovely touch) hot water bottles all round, and everyone went to sleep early.

So this was my day in Machu Picchu.  It’s been hard to put into words how I felt about this amazing place.  I’ve been trying to draw comparisons of how expectations meet reality, and the only way I can describe it is to draw on other experiences.

I remember seeing photographs of the Mona Lisa many, many times, and then finally going to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, and being completely underwhelmed at the experience, ‘Is that it, really?’ was the general feeling.  I also remember seeing many photos of places like the Colosseum in Rome or the Empire State Building in New York, but upon seeing those places in real life, I found myself thinking, ‘Wow, what an amazing testament to human endeavour’.  They are impressive, they really are.

But Machu Picchu?  Machu Picchu has proved to be so difficult to capture on the page, and as many of you know – I am rarely at a loss for words… I have seen photographs of this wonderful place, and I can honestly say, none of them, absolutely none of them, do it any justice whatsoever.  That impressed feeling I experienced at the Colosseum or the Empire State Building, was amplified by a magnitude of 100, of 1000… it is positively indescribable (though I am trying!).

There is something so unique about this place, it has an energy, a peacefulness, a sense of true awe comes over you, a certain je ne sais quoi that I have rarely experienced anywhere else in the world.  I will never forget this day or this place, it has left an indelible mark on my memory and I feel truly privileged to have been able to experience it.

Machu Picchu with Jamie, Patagonia Shorex Day Two

Sleeping on a bed that isn’t rocking me to sleep was a dreadful inconvenience last night!  I don’t know what I am going to cope once I get home.  Like, actual home, home… not home to our beautiful Sea Princess in a few nights time.   🙂 

We have a big day of planes, trains and automobiles in front of us so we started off the day with a lovely buffet breakfast at the Costa del Sol, comprising of fruits, eggs, crepes and whatever you wanted really.  The odd addition of cacao tea for people heading to places of elevation was welcome and while I have no idea of its actual efficacy, if even a placebo benefit was to be had, I was going to try it.  I’ve had elevation sickness before and while not terribly debilitating to me personally, it isn’t pleasant – headaches, nausea, and if it gets bad, nose bleeds.  The tea itself was like a mild green tea, but rather flavourless; but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We made our way all the way back to the airport, – the entire arduous 120m journey that it was. Seriously, it was so good to be right there!  And checked out luggage and went through security.  Now Jaime had told us that Lima airport on a Monday morning was always, always a nightmare of work commuters, but today we found ourselves whipping through check-in and breezing through security and instead of standing in queues for a couple of hours as expected, we were in and then slothing around the boarding gates and checking out the airport shopping with heaps of time before our flight.

We ran into several Princess friends, while buying cacao chewing gum at the newsagent, who were also heading to Machu Picchu, but who were travelling on one of the ship’s tour buses – they told us they had been up since sparrows fart because they had a one hour drive to get from their hotel back to the airport, and had also catered for the fact that Monday mornings at Lima airport are traditionally madhouse.  When I told one of them that we had got up and simply walked across the street from the Wyndham, she was positively jealous!

Our flight was fine, I sat with two local ladies I think, and unfortunately was allocated the aisle seat – when we came in to land in Cuzco, I was desperately straining to see the mountains out the window, while the lady who had the coveted window seat was busy playing solitaire on her iPad.  Le sigh… Oh well, thems the breaks.

On our arrival we were met by our local guide, Luiz who, (instead silent squee! here…) is a qualified archaeologist with a speciality in Inca history!  I was thrilled to hear we were going to be guided through one of the worlds most important ancient sites by someone with a real passion for this amazing place.  First things first though, it had been a long flight and we were now in Cusco, and at 3.300 m (11,200 ft), I was immediately feeling the effects of the altitude.  Not in the form of any elevation sickness symptoms, but most definitely a heaviness on my chest that made breathing feel a bit difficult.  The cacao gum may or may not have helped with other symptoms but nothing was going to change the fact that I live at sea level, have spent the last two months on a ship and was now sucking in thinner oxygen than I’m accustomed to.  Thankfully, my overly cautious GP had packed me off with a Bricanyl inhaler, which is a bronchial dilator, for just this purpose because I had a bad bout of pneumonia last winter.  One puff on that and I felt like I was breathing as easily as I do at sea level… being perpetually pessimistic and therefore prepared for nearly any eventuality, really does have its advantages sometimes.  

Cusco is a city in southeastern Peru with a population of around 400,000 people; I don’t know why I was expecting a quaint little mountain town really, but I was.  It is the historical capital city of the Inka Empire which was arguable from the 13th to 16th centuries (arguably, because historians are aware of the Kilke people who lived in the region for thousands of years before this, but through 1200 -1500AD, they had an increasingly empirical structure).

We took a quick drive through downtown Cusco on our way to our lunch stop which was at a farm/colonial hacienda outside of town.  Cusco is a really beautiful town with red Spanish style tiled roofs everywhere. This waterfall is located at the Y intersection of two of Cusco’s main streets – the rondel in the centre represents the sun, the Inka people worshipped the Sun God, much like the people of Egypt and their worship of Ra.  The two water falls joining into one large waterfall is a depiction of the two rivers that now run under the two main streets of Cusco and join at this site. 

Pachacuti was the 9th Inka King who, according to legend, transformed the Kingdom of Cusco from a quiet city-state into a vast empire called Tawantinsuyu (yeah, no matter how hard I try, I can’t pronounce that one).  However, archaeologists feel the evidence shows a slower more organic growth of the city that started well before Pachacuti.  This occurred due to a tradition of split inheritance – when an Inca died, his title would go to his son, but his property and his wealth would transfer to all his relatives, which would then compel each relative to go find new lands to build their own house and as such the empire grew. In 1533, the Spanish conquest occurred and by all accounts, the Spanish seized control over thousands of Inka people fairly easily due to their cavalry, armaments and superior military technology; heralding in the city’s colonial period.

Our first stop was a lookout at the We went first to the Christo Blanco – the White Christ, which is placed at an amazing high vantage point that gives fabulous views of the city… and then it was on to lunch. The lunch venue that greeted us was an unexpected delight… a beautiful old building with a lovely history, and a passion for local food.   

We were greeted by our hostess, Ana Maria Milla Hurbado (what a fabulous name!) and all all welcomed like old friends and made very comfortable.  The room was amazingly beautiful and lovingly presented, and then, oh my goodness, then Ana went through the buffet and explained the dishes we would be sampling.  Ana, as it turns out was born in Peru, but had spent a year as an exchange student in a small town in Kansas, so she had excellent English which she put to good use, sharing her passion for Peru’s traditional foods.  Ana has researched and studied the food of the region dating back nearly 14,000 years and our menu today reflected much of the rich cultural heritage of the area.

I had a good long talk with Ana after lunch about the various dishes and she was very obliging in writing some of them down… There was Lomo Salgado – a beef dish with tomatoes, onions, yellow peppers, wine, vinegar, soy, french fries and parsley.  This is the sort of dish that everyone knows how to cook in Peru, and if you ask, everyone will tell you that their own mother makes the best Lomo Salgado.  It was fantastic.

We also had Yuca balls – made from mashed potatoes, stuffed with cheese and deep friend then served with a cheesy, slightly chili sauce.  Warm corn salad – made from a local variety of giant white corn, tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, cheese and olive oil.  

Causa Limena – which was a truly unusual layered dish.  Mashed yellow potatoes made  with puréed yellow peppers and lime juice, then layered with tuna mixed with mayonnaise and layers of avocado, and all presented looking like a lovely cake.

We also had one of 3000 species of potatoes – which out which Ana tells us the global population would be down 200 million on its current levels, served with a spicy smooth salsa verde sauce that was to die for, just the right amount of bite to it.

There was also had pasta with a rich bechamel sauce, a traditional rice dish, a chicken and current scroll dish, and my favourite, the Camote – which are sweet potato chips served with a mango and ginger sauce.  This is a real local dish as well, but also with a bit of tradition about it – people in the region use the word ‘camote’ for anything connected to crazy beautiful love, that in the first flushes of romance sort of thing.  So they would say, ‘Aaah, you have camote for Juan Guillermo’ or, ‘He is totally camote for her’, but it has nothing to do with sweet potatoes! 

All up, it made for a very colourful lunch, and I tried to have a tiny bit of each unusual dish… Juice made from the purple corn:

Ana and her team of cooks have a real passion for what they do and it was obvious to all.  We had one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in a long time – and this coming from someone who has just spent the last two months being catered to on a cruise ship! if anyone is interested.

After lunch we had a quick look around the lovely kitchen gardens attached to the hacienda and then it was off to investigate the area surround Cusco.

We did a bit of a fly by photo stop to see some Inka ruins at the Saqsayhuaman National Park.   And I was a little disappointed not to be able to go in and explore somewhat, but we were on a schedule and I was assured there would be plenty of Inka ruins in store for us.  Our bus ride took us through some amazing countryside through the towns of Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay as we traversed the Andes mountain range above the Cusco Valley.

This pass marks the highest point that we were going to be travelling through, and also the highest point on the traditional Inka Trail.  At 3,700m the air was pretty thin here, and some of us were getting a bit headachy at this point.  Amazing views over the Sacred Valley… so called because it aligns under the Milky Way.  The Inka people were very in tune with astronomy and nature. 

In spite of our hectic schedule, we drove a little further into the Sacred Valley and did get an opportunity to quickly visit the fabulous little town of Pisaq, and a chance to shop in the famous Pisaq markets.  Pisaq too, has some amazing archeological remains surrounding the city in the mountains, and is a very beautiful town… lots of tiny winding streets which our bus driver skilfully navigated – and I mean skillfully… there was bare inches between nearly every corner of our 30 seater bus and brick buildings at some points!

First thing we were greeted by when we arrived at the markets were some children dressed in colourful traditional Peruvian outfits, and carrying baby llamas, inviting us to take their photograph; their mother looking on from nearby.  They looked adorable and of course many of us pulled out our cameras and gave the children some money – this is a common thing in South America… we saw it with the ladies in Cartagena with the colourful clothing and the fruit bowls on their heads and we have seen it other places too.  However, while I think it is nice for the tourists to be able to have an opportunity of seeing some locals in their native dress, it also concerns because these children are effectively being pressed into begging by their parents to make money off the tourists.  Both of these kids were school aged and obviously not in school in spite of it being a regular Monday afternoon.

The markets themselves were so much fun!  We were given barely 45 minutes, as we had a train to catch, to go speed haggling!  The markets were full of beautiful textiles: blankets, jumpers, shawls, ponchos, pashminas, tablet woven bands, table cloths – you name it.  As well as ceramics, paintings, wood work, jewellery, stone carvings and all of it in a multitude of rainbow colours.  We found some gorgeous alpaca shawls and of course had to buy several, with limited time to haggle, we found the best deals were to be had by buying in bulk.  😛  Sound familiar Dr Nick?!   😀

Tablet weaving…

After our visit to the markets, it was back on the bus and driving through the villages of Lamar, Coya, Calca and Urumbama doing some speed landscape photography, before getting to Ollantaytambo, where all the trains leave from to Aguas Calientes – the town at the base of Machu Picchu National Park, where we would be staying for the night at the El Mapi Inkaterra Hotel.  

Not far from the train station in Ollantaytambo, we saw the hotel where our Princess friends on the Princess Machu Picchu Overland shore tour were staying – we had a train booked for 18:30 that would get us to Aguas Callientes by about 20:30, in time for a rather late dinner, but the ship tour stays in Ollantaytambo, and they don’t take the train to Aguas Callientes until mid-morning for some reason. Not sure why…?  We walked to the train in a light rain on precariously narrow footpaths and plenty of traffic, only to then find ourselves walking on the train track to get to the right train.  It was very hectic!

The train trip went okay, we were all feeling the full on, ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ theme of the day by this point, but were buoyed by the expectation of the adventure to come tomorrow.  The trains are all fitted out with glass domed roofs, but given our train ride was at night – there was not much to see. Our view on the way back was promising to be more interesting.   We arrived to Aguas Callentes amid a real buzz that felt like complete organised chaos!  It was raining a little, dark, and there were hundreds of people alighting from the train, collecting their luggage and then trying to find their way to their hotels.  The town itself has no transport within it – it is pretty much a pedestrian town with a huge set of rapids running through the middle of it, and a train station.  We all marched like ducklings following Jaime to the El Mapi Inkaterra hotel, where we had a speedy check-in process in what turned out to be a lovely modern hotel…

… and then it seemed barely minutes after arriving, we were sitting in a lovely terrace restaurant and being served a gourmet meal, with a free pisco sour and (very importantly) free wifi!  😉 Delicious soups, quinoa tabbouleh, lamb shanks and lemon pie for dessert.  In spite of having had a simply delicious buffet lunch, most of us enjoyed a lovely dinner as well.  

By the time dinner was over, the rain had stopped and a few of us went for a wander around the wee village.  Everything looked like it had been washed clean, and while many of the shops were closed, the restaurants and bars were mostly all still open.  The town is a crazy blend of cultures and influences and it is like no where I have ever been.  Cute little cobbled laneways off the two main streets, and a square in front of a large church.  I was very much looking forward to exploring more here tomorrow. 

Pachacuti welcomes you to Aguas Callientes and the gateway to Machu Picchu… it was about this point, that I was in disbelief that we were actually here.

There were a couple of people in our group who were starting to feel the effects of the altitude during the day – one friend ended up being sick on the way to the train, and a couple of others were having some issues with breathing, but seemed to be revived with a bit of oxygen. So far, I hadn’t had any problems – I had been drinking the cacao tea, chewing my cacao gum, and had a second dose of Bricanyl before bed, which seemed to be enough to keep me on an even keel. I had a bad headache, but honestly couldn’t tell you if that was from the elevation or from my crappy neck/back being jostled around on buses all day?!  So it was an early night all round – we had alarms and wake up calls all sent for 06:00, so we could have time for breakfast and checking out in order to catch a bus up to Machu Picchu for 07:30!

Machu Picchu with Jamie, Patagonia Shorex Day One

Like everyone else who travels to South America, or indeed, like any traveller of any description, Machu Picchu has been ‘on my list’ for years.  When we decided to do this huge South American cruise nearly two years ago, I started exploring options on the best way to accomplish doing a Machu Picchu overland tour to see this world famous heritage site.  There is, of course, the Princess ship shore tour option… but once we saw the price of it – over AUS$5,000 per person (far out – that’s a whole ‘nother holiday!), and read reviews about the ship tours that seem to render it as a somewhat haphazard experience at best, it was time to do some research and find a better option.  

So I hit the cruise forums and the travel advice websites and asked the good people on the Princess Cruises Passenger Forum on Facebook, and one name kept coming up over and over again – Jaime from Patagonia Shorex. ‘You have to do Machu Picchu with Jaime’ … and, ‘Jaime is absolutely the best for MP’.  So I contacted Jaime and gave him the dates that our cruise was going to be in Manta and subsequently Lima, to see what he could do for us.  Within hours, I had a proposed itinerary and, comparably, very reasonable rates… and within 24 hours, we had booked to do this amazing experience with Jaime.  As time went on, I had more and more people join my group – people who had seen my post on Cruise Critic, or on Facebook, and some other people who had gone to Jaime directly after recommendations from their various travel agents.  Over the course of the last 8 weeks on the ship, we have gotten to know most of our little group of Machu Picchu adventurers quite well – there was 22 in our group, and if the others were half as excited as I was about our impending detour of a lifetime, you could have bottled the anticipation.

Because I had booked first, the tour became “Robyn’s Group”, and we had arranged to meet in the Crooner’s Bar at 08:30 while I went down to administration to wait for Juliar – the lady who was holding out passports hostage! The plane to meet so early was because Juliar had told me that the Manta port in Ecuador has one of those horrid little shuttle systems to get you to the cruise ship terminal, and I thought we might need to get ourselves into the shuttle queue as early as possible – but late the night before I had word from Jaime, that he had managed to gain permission to bring his buses onto the port, right beside the ship, so we wouldn’t have to line up for the shuttles.  Thank god for small mercies.  Unfortunately the processing of the passports was taking longer  than anticipated (very likely due to the local officials processing approximately 200 Princess ship tour passengers before processing any for private tour people) and it wasn’t until about 09:50 that I finally received all our passports and was able to disseminate them to our group so we could proceed ashore. 

Eventually we walked off and there was Jaime waiting for us as promised.  Big sigh of relief on my part – I willingly admit that I am never want to be head counting tourists again, I was so happy to see the professionals on the dock to take over.  🙂  Onto the bus, and off we went – headed for Guayaquil airport.  On the way, we had a local guide, Daniel who was full of interesting information about Ecuador and the local area… if you’re not keen on reading about Ecuador, then skip down to “HERE!” below.   😛   

Ecuador was so named because the equator runs through it literally 0 0 0 degrees.   Plenty of countries are on the equator, but French researchers who explored the country named it Ecuador and so it stayed.

One of the first places we drove through was a small town called Montecristi which is famous for its woven straw hats – better known as Panama Hats.  Apparently, those ‘Panama’ hats actually originated in Ecuador.  The weaving techniques used to make these hats had been used by indigenous people in this region for thousands of years, but Montecristi became famous for their hats when Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for all the workers on the Panama Canal being supplied with them in the early 1900s.  It takes up to 7 days to hand weave a genuine Panama hat and they can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars.  Genuine Panama hats will always have a ‘Made in Ecuador’ label in them, so we are told, and the locals here refuse to call their Ecuadorian hats, Panama hats, instead they call them ‘sombreros de paja tequila’ which means, ‘tequila straw hats’.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortuitously depending on how you look at it), we did not have time to stop in this little town to go hunt for potentially expensive, genuine tequila straw hats.  🙂 

Ecuador has several different regions consisting of the Pacific Coastal region, the Mountain region, the Sierra region and the Amazon region. As such it is very diverse in its agriculture, economy and even its population.  Europeans, primarily Spanish, came to Ecuador in search or gold, silver, stones and spices, and they found some, but many of the indigenous learned to quickly hide these things from the Europeans.  

Once away from the Coastal region, the countryside has very strong wet and dry seasons, which are predictable and happen abruptly ‘the seasons, they turn on and off like a tap’ according to Daniel.  During the dry season, water is literally obtained from the excessive humidity in the air, and people use large areas covered in fabric to capture condensation and use this as a reliable water source.

The soil in much of Ecuador is of very good quality, thanks to over 75 volcanos, 15 of which are still active.  The very rich volcanic soil allows most crops to grow anywhere from sea level regions to 4000 feet above sea level, and agriculture was once their biggest export – but now, it is oil.  Coffee is still a major export crop, however Ecuadorians are not fond of their own strong coffees, and they send it all overseas… and I couldn’t believe this, but in Ecuador, they actually prefer crappy old Nescafé instant coffee over the beans they are famous for.  Go figure.

Being right on the equator means Ecuador gets 12 good hours of sunlight every single day, all year round.  So they are able to grow all sorts of tropic fruits, mango orchards everywhere in the regions we are driving through, and rice of all things.  Ecuador is huge on rice and they serve rice with nearly every meal, and lots of it as we were to discover. Oh and corn – I’ve never seen so many miles and miles of corn, and apparently they cultivate a gazillion varieties of the stuff.

Another famous and prolific export is, of course, the cacao for chocolate.  Ecuador has exported cacao for over 200 years apparently and most of the cacao has been used in the US and Europe to turn into sweet milk chocolate products.  But in the last ten years, Ecuador has changed their tactics, and started value adding by processing chocolate locally to create jobs and add a boost to their economy.  They now produce many very fine chocolates – mostly dark chocolate products, and in particular they make unique chocolates with other local ingredients. For example, rich dark chocolate with the pink salt crystal mined in Cusco.  We saw some of this at the airport, it was ridiculously expensive, but I may have to find some to take home for some of my chocolate loving friends, even though I don’t like the stuff myself.  

What else?  WWII saw some major changes in Ecuador, in part due to war rationing and a drop in demand for chocolate products, they needed a different income stream, and it was around this time that oil was found in Ecuador and has been a major export ever since. Oil is found in the Amazonian region of the country and according to Daniel, is largely responsible for the country’s prosperity now. Seriously, what prosperity? Everywhere we look, we see people living in poverty in lean to shanty housing and with no proper sanitation?!  Really makes you wonder what it was like before the oil income?  Diesel here is really cheap, around USD$1.00 per gallon because the government controls the prices and it has not changed in price for the last ten years.  Speaking of money, Ecuador has no local currency, in 2000 they adopted the USD as their official currency, though they have the right to mint their own coins, these coins are not legal tender back in the US.  It’s a weird arrangement – a completely independent nation that entirely uses a foreign currency.  Very odd.  

The saint of Guayaquil, who isn’t actually from Guayaquil and whose name I’ve forgotten… whoops. (Maybe I’ll come back and fix that if I ever return to the land of decent internet). Her name is Narcisa de Jesús Martillo y Moran.

“HERE”  😛

Anyway, many mango orchards and rice paddy fields later, we arrived at Guayaquil.  First things first – lunch.  We went to a really lovely local restaurant called,  Puerto Moro, where we started in on some fresh made lemonade and weird, but delicious, cheesy rice balls for a starter.  We then had a big choice to make, ‘chicken or meat’.  I’ve noticed that in South America, chicken is always distinguished from meat, but if you want to know if they are offering you beef, pork or lamb in that ‘meat’ selection – you’ll have to actually enquire.  Lunch was very nice – I opted for the chicken and it was cooked in an unusual herb mixture and served with salad, plantains, and (you guessed it!) a big pile of rice  

After this we made our way to the Guayaquil airport, where I was surprised to find a large international airport as modern as any I’ve visited anywhere in the world.  It was really quite incongruous with the obvious poverty we had witnessed on our drive to get there – huge duty free store, expensive straw tequila hats for sale, gift shops, book shops, coffee shop and a bar… and all very modern and clean.  It’s easy to see where recent infrastructure spending has gone.  Processing through customs was a bit err… interesting though.  We waited in a queue for about 45 minutes to get through customs in spite of the fact that there was about 8 people processing and seemingly not that many people in front of us.  When I got to the front of the queue, it became obvious that something was amiss. Some passports were scanning fine and being processed relatively quickly, but many were not – including mine.  The customs officer who processed my passport was pfaffing around a lot (I’m used to this, given my previously documented experiences with a passport with a prominent Pakistani visa in the front), but it wasn’t scanning for her.  In the end she gave up and took a used what looked like her personal mobile phone, the gold sparkly phone cover was a giveaway, to take a picture of the page with my entry and exit stamps and the photo page of my passport!  I was somewhat perturbed by that, but saw other customs officers doing the same thing!  Hmmm…. 

Then it was time to wait.  Transit days tend to be filled with ‘hurry up and wait’ and this one was no different.  We were all processed in and in the boarding gate and we had over two hours until our flight was scheduled to depart.  We chatted among ourselves, and mostly engaged in that most enjoyable pastime, people watching, until eventually our flight was called and we all boarded.

The flight was just the way we like them, uneventful.  The only oddity was being handed a customs declaration form to fill out – in Spanish!  We muddled through the forms as best we could and tried to get assistance from the airline staff, but I still felt uneasy about signing a document in a foreign language that I couldn’t read!  We arrived at Lima after barely a 1.5hr flight, and again with the customs nonsense, though this time the process went much smoother.  I think we are a bit spoiled in Australia, being such a large continent with a singular national government means you can travel quite a long way on the one mainland before you need to deal with customs. 

Eventually we popped out the other end at Lima and made the arduous trek to our hotel… the Costa del Sol Wyndham Hotel at Lima airport – literally two minutes walk from the airport doors!  It is a lovely modern hotel that is very well appointed.  What an excellent choice, for proximity and convenience, seeing we are flying out first thing tomorrow.  We wheeled our little cabin bags across the road, handed over passports, had room keys, stashed our stuff, freshened up, and were then happily situation in the hotel bar enjoying complimentary pisco sours, all within about 30 minutes of having left the airport.  🙂 

It was a long, but strangely informative, transit day and most of us were all free wifi’d out by 11:30pm so we turned in fairly early.  

Tomorrow: Cusco… onward and upwards, literally!  

Pura Vida Costa Rica.

Puntarenas in Costa Rica today and a ’10 in 1 Tour’ of Cost Rica lined up with a company called Odyssey Tours.  Our guide, Andres, and driver Alvaro, met us at the port bright an early and we were off in a brand new Mercedes (that thankfully had excellent air conditioning!) to see the countryside.

Cost Rica literally means, ‘Rich Coast’.
The population is approx 5 million people, nearly all of whom live in San Jose
Costa Rica has no standing army after a civil war in the early 1900s
Education is not free in Costa Rica, but many scholarships are available for disadvantaged students (though how this is determined is beyond me, as they all seem disadvantaged by our standards).
The economy was agricultural, but now includes finance, pharmaceuticals and tourism
Costa Rica has a plan to be carbon neutral by 2021 (which our guide thought was a joke)
Coffee is a big deal in Costa Rica and has been exported since the mid 1850s
You can not hunt recreationally in Costa Rica it is illegal
The climate has a dry season (summer) and a rainy season (winter) and no in between
There are over 900 bird species in the country

Puntarenas was discovered by Hernan Ponce de Leon in 1519 and is located south of Nicaragua and north of Panama… on one side of the country is the Pacific Ocean side and to the other, the Caribbean.  The city of Puntarenas is surrounded by lush rainforests full of tropical plants, exotic animals and plenty of outdoor adventure activities.  The rainforest here is really quite odd – it is a strange blend of dry forest meeting the edge of typical tropical rainforest, but because we are here in the middle of the dry season, everything has a thick layer of dust over it… it was very unusual to see rainforest looking like a tinderbox and covered in dust.

Our first stop on our day trip was to see The Point which extends on the jutting ‘finger’ of Puntarenas, and overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  In the distance you can see the islands of San Lucas, and The Point makes a favourite place for locals to recreate on weekends.

We then went for a quick drive through the town – well, not so quick really, the roads here are in a sad state of disrepair, and we were forced on many occasions to slow down so as not to rattle everyone’s teeth out of their heads – and head out into the countryside in search of rainforest and wild monkeys and macaws.  Most common in this area are the Howler Monkeys and the White Faced Capuchin Monkeys (think, the cute little monkey who nearly kills everyone in the movie, ‘Outbreak’).  We found a large group of Howler Monkeys, and you could see how they got their name, but unfortunately my photos of them were seriously dodgy – but I have managed to get a couple of pics courtesy of Terry (one of The Nookies, of Afternoon Happy Hour fame)…  no Macaws though today, but given the large flock of them we saw at Cartagena, none of us were too upset to miss them.

Costa Rica is very famous for its lush tropical fruit exports, and we made a quick stop at a fruit stall to sample all the beautiful fruits and to stock up on lovely cold fruit smoothies.  The mango was absolutely delicious!  So many beautiful fresh fruits, I can imagine if you came down here on holiday from somewhere like Michigan or something, you’d think it was paradise.

Also for the tourists to try, was some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, and they demonstrated for us how it was traditionally extracted from the cane.  It was very sweet and brought back memories of chewing and sucking on raw sugar cane up in Hervey Bay when i was a kid.We stopped also at a cashew orchard, and while all of us knew that cashews were a tree nut, none of us had ever seen a cashew tree before… the cashews comes from this enormous fruit, most of which is barely edible and part of which is actually toxic.  And seeing this, and seeing how much is wastage, I now understand why cashews are so expensive.

One little cashew nut per, one of these…

After this we were off to do a quick river cruise to see some crocodiles.  Costa Rica has some of the most densely crocodile populated rivers in central America… some of their river systems have thousands of them.
This fellow was named ScarFace – I couldn’t quite make out the reason for his name sake, I was too distracted by Ruiz our boat driver climbing out into the water to hand feed the bloody big thing with a piece of chicken!  ScarFace must have been close to 4m long and probably a few hundred kilos, and I’m pretty sure he could make short work of Ruiz if he decided to… There is something very sly looking about crocodiles when they are just still and watching you…  :/  This big one was closer to 5m long, and nicknamed Tornado ever since he was seen death rolling a COW that had come down the bank to drink from the river.  A COW!   Grey-blue great heron… very pretty, and presumably very fast if they can survive here with their snappy aquatic neighbours.

Next we went for a drive up a mounting into the Carrera National Park to some lookouts to see the view over the Pacific side of the country.  Gorgeous countryside.
Quaint little restaurant at the top of the mountain – the Waterfall of Love, which sounded like a tacky carnival ride, but was closed so I couldn’t go and see what I was certain was going to be very interesting decor!
After this we went to Villa Lapa, which is a resort area that has been built in the style of a traditional Costa Rican village.  Andres was very well versed on all the plants, trees, fruits, animals and insects of the region and pointed out 1001 different tropical plants… many of which were very familiar to Australians.  We did try to communicate that a lot of the plants he was telling us about in some detail, were growing quite happily in our gardens at home, but alas, he persisted comments like, “My friends, look here, you must see this – it is called a bromeliad/cicada/poinciana.”  Le sigh… Village entrance. Typical village Catholic church A barn/tavern After the village we drove to Playa de Leone for some lunch in a very colourful local restaurant with lovely food and cheap ice cold beer… very welcome given it was about 34C and 85% humidity.

I found myself having lunch with this guy – who I had seen around the ship quite a bit and who looked very familiar.  I assumed (incorrectly) that he looked familiar because we had been on tour together at some point… but after barely two minutes conversation over lunch, he said he too thought I was familiar and it turns out we both belong to the SSAA at Belmont and have both been volunteering there for RASA days for the last few years, just in different disciplines!  Talk about going half way around the world to meet someone from just around the corner!

After lunch we went for a stop down to the beach, it was a beautiful, fairly quiet beach with lovely palms for shade and grey/white sand – most of the beaches here were black sand only.

From here we made our obligatory souvenir shopping stop.  Costa Rica has lots of beautiful timber products made from Rosewood, Tigerwood, Purple Heart, Cortex, Fustic, Ironwood, Teak, Lacewood and Guapinol to beautiful effect. On the way back to the ship, we made another stop to see even more crocodiles at a bridge that has shallow flowing water where the crocodiles like to hang out to stay warm and to catch small fishes in the steam. I counted 25 of these monsters and they were all 4-5m long.  It was like the sort of bridge the villains would hang James Bond from and then turn their backs of him and wait for the crocs to get him.  We have plenty of big crocs in Australia, but I’ve never seen so many of the large prehistoric beasties in one spot like this.
It was then back to the ship.