Cuzco, the Inca and Tourist Capital of Peru

We have found Cuzco to be a quite fascinating city, being the most genuine (with well preserved colonial architecture as evidence of a rich and complex history) and at the same time most touristy place we have visited so far in South America (where everyone and everything in the city center are there because of the tourism). It is not large in size, the airport is located inside the city and the whole city is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but still it is one of Peru’s most visited cities because it as the capital of the Inca Empire lies close to Machu Picchu, Pisac and other Inca sites in the Region.

For our five days here we stayed at Milhouse Hostel, which was a great base as they arranged free daily activities and was located as centrally as possible, close to both the main square “Plaza de Armas” and the main street “Avenida el Sol”. These both had lots of shops where we bought around 5 alpacca wool sweaters each to send home with other stuff that we did not need any more for our trip. Eight kilos set us back a hundred dollars including packaging, which we found okay considering that we had gotten the sweaters really cheap after lots of haggling. The city center also had lots of restaurants serving traditional Peruvian meals such as alpacca and “cuy”/guinea pig (e.g Nuna Raymi restaurant), which is considered a delicassy only served at special occations. I still cannot come up with an other reason to only serve this at special occations than the Peruvians not liking it much either. There was very little meat in the Guinea Pig, but it was still very filling. It tasted much like chewing on bones, and the meat was very dry and chewy, but after the meal, it still felt like we had eated a fattening christmas dinner in the stomache. Everyone have visiting Machu Pichu on their “to do list” when visiting Cuzco, but I think that both visiting the market in Pisac and eating a cuy should also be something not to miss when visiting the tourist and inca capital of Peru.

DIY Visit to “Mitad del Mundo” (the Middle of the World)

Mitad del Mundo is a monument marking where the Equator crosses through Equador. It is a must see for anyone who visits Quito, and lots of tour operators will try to sell you guided day trips there, but these tours are less flexible and usually much more expensive than doing it on your own.

The cheapest way to go there is by public bus from Los Rios, where you would pay 50 cents per bus ride and transfer just once. The easiest way, is just by getting a taxi which has a flat rate of 20 US dollars each way when travelling from the old city. I got a taxi there together with a Canadian student and a German guy with a Phd in Physics very eager to see the physics experiments at the Equator, and since we did not keep the taxi driver waiting for more than two hours he agreed to wait for us for free.

To get into Mitad del Mundo you have to pay three dollars at the entrance, and that is just to see a park with the monument, and if you want to go into the monument for a tour of the cultural museum inside it you need to pay anothe three dollars.

The Mitad del Mundo was where the old explorers figured that the Equator had to be, according to their old measuring instruments. Now the actual Equator has been found with modern GPS equipment to be around 250 meters south of the monument. And that is where you will find the most fun part about the Middle of the Earth: the Intinian Solar Museum. You have to pay four dollars to get in, but that includes a guided 45 minute tour with an English speaking guide which is the best guided tour I have ever done. The tour explains a lot about Equatorian culture such as how Cuy (Guinea pig) came to be such an expensive dish and how the natives used to shrink human heads. There ever was an actual shrunken head with a size of a golf ball that was over a hundred years old, and a more recent shrunken sloth head to show that the natives could still do it. The tour also explained a lot about the animals you can find in the Amazon such as the snakes (15m boa constrictors), spiders (huge tarantulas) and Candirus fish (that swims through your urine and bites on to the wall of your bladder to suck blood and grow inside you). The absolute highlight of the day was to do the experiments that can only be done on the exact equatorial line such as:

 

  • placing an egg on its top or bottom, to see it standing up perfectly by itself
  • trying to balance on the equatorial line, which was much harder than other places
  • Holding up something heavy two meters from the equatorial line, and right on it: you are actually lighter when standing on the equatorial line than anywhere else so it will be harder to hold something up in front of you there
  • The best of all was the water swirl experiment where we had a bowl of water that was let out on the equator where it fell down perfectly without creating a swirl. Doint the same just two meters North of the line it created a swirl counterclockwise and two meters south it created a swirl clockwise meaning that if you are anywhere on the Northern Hemisphere and flush a toilet the water will swirl the other way that it would if you were somewhere south of the Equator.

Less than two hours before we arrived at The Middle of the Earth we were ready to head home. All in all it was a pretty awesome museum to visit, and really easy to just do on your own, without any tour booked in advance. We spent less than 20 dollars total for the hald day tour, also leaving us plenty of time to do other things that day.

 

 

Going up to a height of 5000 meters in Cotopaxi National Park

6.45 a white pickup with bikes on the back was waiting for us outside our hostel. Inside was our guide and an 67 year old lady from England who were going with us up to the Cotopaxi Volcano, which has the second highest summit in Equador at 5897 meters above sea level.

On the way up we had to stop several times to acclimatize and let our bodies get used to the altitude bit by bit. Since our guide was a former park ranger in the national park, he used these oportunities to explain the map of where we would be going and to tell us all about the plants, animals and landscape which he seemed to know a lot about. For the first stop it was also possible to purchase warm clothing from locals waiting for tourists, and on the second stop you could drink coca tea that should help coping with the high altitudes. On the last stop before our walk there was also an oportunity to get a stamp in your passport from Cotopaxi stating the altitude you had been to.

Our trek started at the end of the road, at a parking lot at 4600 meters. The wind was blowing heavily and the snow hit us in the faces like small mosquitos would do when driving a motorbike. Luckily we had brought lots of warm clothes, and the guide provided us with some ugly boots that kept our feet dry. The weather was not in our favor, but that seemed to make it a bit more exiting and challenging, and despite the small snowstorm we all were motivated to get up to the top of the tourist trail.

We walked slowly, foot by foot. Both because our sunglases were filled with snow making it almost impossible to see anything and because of the guide stating the importance of not going up too fast to avoid altitude sickness. Panting was not allowed at all.

Cotopaxi

At 4864 meters we reached the refuge, where people would normally take a break and drink a coca tea before continuing, but since it was under reconstruction we did not get to go in and just made a small break outside by the sign instead. At that point the British woman had to lay down, and it did not take a long time before she started vomiting because of the altitude. And that was a woman who had walked the Inca Trail and climed to the top of Kilimanjaro before, so our guess was that she was not in shape that day or that she had just not been in the height long enough to be doing the trek. As we were determined to get to the top, we continued without her and the guide and made it to the glacier, meaning that we had reached our goal of passing 5000 meters! Going down afterwards was quick and easy with the thought of the achievement in the back of our minds. In total it took us between three to four hours round trip to do the trek.

When we got back to the parking lot at the bottom the guide and the girls got in the car to warm themselved, while I jumped on one of the bikes taking me almost a kilometer downhill past the Quilota Lagoon and to the place we could get our passport stamped before, where the bicycle was loaded on to the car again to drive back to the city. It had been a great tour and the fact that the weather was at its worst just made it a bit more of an achievement.

 

 

Quito: La Luz De América

When getting into Quito in the morning were determined to just get the sightseeing of the old city over with, both to having explored the neighbourhood where we were living and to see the things that the city was famous for. The highlight of our totally random walking city tour, with no goals or directions at all was to see the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest gothic cathedral in Equador. For just a dollar we could get on the top of the bell tower to get a view of the city, or just get a free walk around the church to see the gargoyles inspired by tortoises, iguanas and pumas, all which are animals found in Equador.

On the way back we strolled through the street of La Ronda, which is also known as Calle Morales where we found a great, small Equadorian restaurant serving banana tortillas with chicken and other Equadorian combinations for just a dollar and a half. The neighbourhood was also beautiful with balconies decorated with flags and flowers over stone paved streets where children were playing.

After spending some time in the old city, we took a taxi up to the Teleréfico ticket office, which like all other taxi rides in Quito cost us only 3 dollars. The gondola took us all the way up to the Cruz Loma Viewpoint at 4100 meters, which was enough to get us all dizzy while strolling around the viewpoint. Although the landscape was much more impressing on todays cable car ride, yesterdays ride up the Teleferíco de Monserrate in Bogota gave us a much better view over the city as it was not as far up as the one in Quito. Once the sun set on the top, it got dark and cold pretty quick. When getting back to the city in the evening, the streets were all empty, meaning it was time for us to head back to our hostel and just call it a day as tomorrow there will be more adventures awaiting.

 

 

 

A Weekend in Bogotá

Bogotá, like every other cirty in Colombia has street numbers instead of street names. A system that is not always working too well for us and the taxi drivers, so when going from the airport to our hostel we gave my cell phone to the taxi driver to help him find the way with my GPS app. When we got there he hurried us out and left, and just a few seconds afterwards we realized that the taxi driver had stolen my phone!

We went straight to the airport and ended up spending the whole Friday there, looking at the taxi companys security tape and trying to get in touch with the driver through radio. Magically enough, after several hours of waiting we saw the taxi drive by and ran into the street to stop him. The driver was quick to give back the phone and excuse himself, and afterwards I got a lesson from the taxi company about the papaya rule (see this post for explanation), stating that it was my own fault that the phone got stolen and that in the future I should take more care of my stuff.

So we got a few extra taxi rides to the airport, and even though it was quite time consuming we enjoyed the ride to the airport watching all the grafitti along the roads. We enjoyed the art enough to sign up for a free graffiti tour the next day, where we were walking through streets of Bogotá listening to an insider talk about how the graffiti was made, who had made the different art pieces and why it was made. The two hour tour was like walking through a live art gallery. We paid the guide 10US tips, just to make the tour keep going for others, and promised that we would reccomend it to other travellers going to Bogotá.

After the tour we went straight to the tram going up to Monserrate, in order to get a good view of the city. It was not before we came out of the tunnel at the top that we realized how big the city really was, stretching as far as the eye could see. We took the cable car on the way down, bringing us almost to our hostel Colonial La Quinta in the Candelaria area: the historic bohemian neighbourhood, filled with young people drinking in the streets already at noon, while watching the stand up comedians, live bands and djs performing for free. If you are looking for a place to go out, get your creativity pulsing or just experiencing a lively city, then Bogotá is the place to go.