“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Parabolic Journey to Nazca & The Nazca Lines

We knew our arrangements in Nazca may present and issue, so we had a backup plan.  Today was all about rolling with the punches. We called our hotel in Nazca three times but always got voicemail. Carrie tried the manager's cell phone but also no answer. She also never responded to emails. We were beginning to get worried that we'd even have a room. If we couldn't reach our hotel, how was our guide supposed to reach us later to tell us want time he was picking us up for the Nazca Lines flyover? So we ducked into a nearby hotel in Cusco that we knew had a branch in Nazca and made a new reservation.  Then I called back our old hotel and left another message that we cancelled.  I also called the tour operator and let them know we changed hotels.

We arrived at a the us station to get our tickets, and here was where my Spanish finally broke down.  I was getting a mental block and couldn't exactly discern that we were stopping in Nazca first. I started to panic a bit,but Carrie got the gist of some hand gestures and calmed me so I could finally ask another attendant that I could understand and we confirmed the route. Somewhere, somehow I had written down that it would take 8 hours to Nazca. When a European woman nearby overheard us, she said it was 16 hours.

Stunned silence.

You could have slapped us on both cheeks and we wouldn't have budged. 16 hours?? That gets us in at 6am. Overnight on a bus. This information we learned 10 minutes before departure time. We acted quickly, phoned the hotel to notify them of our next day arrival, changed the reservation, then laughed. We tried to find the bright side. 1) We had already purchased first class seats on the double-decker bus, which were more spacious than any American first class airline cabin. 2) We'd save ourselves from paying for another hotel night.

Good thing we were comfortable because I got motion sick. I won't go into detail but luckily I didn't need a barf bag. The bus steward took care of me, I begged the driver at a stop to let me get into my luggage to get the Dramamine, and we continued the trip. Andean roads were like riding a parabolic curve, back and forth, up and down, nausea. The roads are more like figure-eights than S curves, in the dark. I'm dizzy just thinking about it.

We arrived in Nazca 2 hours early, dumped at a bus station in the middle of the night.  Two men with a car were there for us, but were from the old/cancelled hotel. Really?? 15 hours ago we left a message that few cancelled with them and they didn't get the message? We weren't digging how they were doing business and found our way to the new hotel. They were gracious to let us have a room at 4am so we could catch some Z's. Hours later at dawn the guy from the old hotel stalked us in the lobby of the new hotel and showed us an email from Carrie. We explained our concern about their shoddy communication and our change of plans.  Luckily our guide still found us.

So off we went to the Nazca Lines! I forgot my passport but I had a copy on me, so after much begging the airstrip authorities and tour operator let me on the plane with my copy. *phew* Again, backups were handy. I was so psyched for this excursion! We were 6 in a plane so everyone had a window seat. The lines were amazing, vast and huge, perfectly straight, stretching out over the Nazca desert. We saw the whale, monkey, condor, parrot, alcatraz, dog, hands, tree, astronaut, hummingbird, and spider.  So very cool!

There aren't many tourists in Nazca and it's far less congested than Cusco. I'm glad we made this stop to see something so mysterious, and to get away from the crowds. Tonight we're going to a lecture at the planetarium about the lines and southern constellations.  We'll attempt some stargazing tonight, but we'll be doing that for sure in Easter Island in a few days.  A few days!!

We confirmed that our bus ride back to Lima tomorrow is just 7 hours, because we didn't want any more surprises.  Luckily this route is along the Panamerican Highway so there are no twisty mountain roads. I'm taking the Dramamine just the same.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu: Communion with the Gods

Only a deity could have created something so beautiful as the majestic peaks surrounding Machu Picchu. I would like to return to Peru with a geologist to find out exactly what marvelous an powerful forces formed this earth that we are so humble blessed to inhabit.  The bus ride up go Machu Picchu choked me up a bit and that was before we saw the ancient citadel.  As I write this we're on a train alongside the Urumbaba River, watching the power rapids slowly destroy the boulders in its path.  I am reminded today that despite our industrial feats, nature is more powerful than man.

I had no idea that Machu Picchu was a semi-tropical zone,  so the sheer cliffs and mountainsides were covered with a lush green jungle.  The Inca were on to something.  No wonder the Conquistadores never found this city.  How it was even built I beyond my comprehension.  Or first look as we approached the site was with a gasp.  I should back up here a tell the story from the beginning...

We arrived in Aguas Clientes late, grabbed a quick bite hit the hay in time to get up at 4am to line up to catch a 5:30am bus to MP. Why? To be two of the first and only 200 people to climb Huayna Picchu at sunrise.  They only let 400 people per day in 2 shifts to climb the mountain that overlooks the site.  You know the one.  Take any picture of MP and that steep looming mountain behind it? Yeah, that's the one.

When we reached MP and saw the line at the entrance, no way were we in the firs 200. More like 500. But we realized that not everyone wanted to make the climb, so we ducked over to the registration desk and asked to be put in the first line. We were numbers 95 and 96. Score! We then walked up a winding path, and at the top was our reward: Machu Picchu laid out before us, postcard perfect.

The sun was rising behind the peaks and as we crossed the site, the sun began to illuminate the mountain peaks. We spotted the llamas grazing on the terraces. At the far end of the site we lined up at the Warden's hut to sign in for the Huayna Picchu hike.  As we stood in line, a sign warned that the hike was only for those in good physical health, among other scary notations. I started to get that pit in my stomach I feel on the rare occasion when someone talks me into riding a rollercoaster.  We signed our name and time in to the log book and began our walk.  Hike.

Death march.

Up we went.  Most steps were placed stones, some were naturally placed, and some footholds were met with a reach and a prayer. We were pleased that where at the most treacherous, there were iron spikes with stabilizing cable to assist with the ascent. It was slow going and we were passed a few times, but this wasn't a race.  The sign by the hut indicated it may take at least an hour so we had a vague idea what we were facing, knowing it may take us longer.  This is where I am so glad that last year I started running to get my lungs into shape.  I fared far better than I expected of myself, and didn't use my rescue inhaler once.  However, I was so concerned about my breathing going up, that I never considered the descent.  More on that in a moment.

In 1 hour and 45 minutes we reached the top, but that was with some rests, snack attacks, gratuitous picture-taking, and admiring the views.  And perhaps on more than one occasion pondering the meaning of life (and if we were out of our minds). At the peak was a 360 degree view of the entire valley, with a view over MP the likes of which I had never seen.  Below we could hear the distant rushing of the river water, glaciers in the high distance, and nearly every other inch covered in dense forest. We stopped to pop a squat and dig out our lunches that the hotel had prepared for us, and rested our exhausted feet while looking down at clouds that had rolled into the area.  Yes, DOWN at clouds, for we were lunching at 7,500 feet. The rest of the journey would be back down, so no sweat, right? Gravity was on our side.  O so we thought.

How we were so very, very wrong.

Those crazy Incans also built a village atop this peak, for the love of sweet Mary and Joseph I'll never know why, but we had to use their steps to descend the initial few hundred feet.  Uneven stones paired not more than 18 inches wide with no rails, and dangling alongside a cliff.  We often chatted with fellow hikers and learned that some had a fear of heights, but it was nice to see opportunity conquer fear.

About a quarter of the way down a couple had caught up with us - James and Laura from New York - and we traveled as a foursome the rest of the way, cracking jokes to keep spirits high.  By this time, the 10am group was making their way up and we exchanged pleasantries and warnings with them.  Why did we look so painful to be descending?

James described it best: it was like holding a squat for 40 minutes. Every step was a controlled step down, torturing our thighs to keep control and prevent our legs from giving out and sending us tumbling down a precipice. Flinging ourselves to the bottom would have been merciful.  Our legs trembled with every step.  The last 1000 feet we were practically hunched over and limping, dripping with sweat and dreaming of a swimming pool. I still don't know which was more difficult: up or down. But in the end, it was worth every step for the view alone and the pride that we could look back at our pictures and point to that famous mountain and know that although it kicked our asses, to quote Carrie, "we climbed that bitch". We checked out of the hike in the log book at 11am: 3 hours and 9 minutes later.

After a brief rest (and considering pouring the remainder of our water bottles over us) we explored MP in more detail. You can't take bad picture here.  Everything s beautiful. Breathtaking. We met a woman from Tasmania.  Took pictures of llamas. Marveled at the perfect and almost intact construction.  Investigated the ancient (and still functioning) irrigation system.  Explored crevices. Retraced our steps yet again to get more pictures in the noon light. The grass was bright green, the sky a perfect blue, the clouds snowy white.  We covered the grounds from top to bottom, from front to back.  We got our money's worth.  Because our thinking was that we never knew when we'd be back, so we pushed ourselves to get every shot.

We took the bus back down into town, reclaimed our luggage at the hotel (which was literally a stone's throw from the bus station), and freshened up. A couple from California chatted with us, then a gentleman from Houston joined us and turned out to be catching the same train back with us.  These times I love about traveling, when people are on their own journeys, but cross paths, share a moment, and move along, but we'll all remember that due from somewhere, or that guy from so-and-so.

As I finish writing this we're on a 3.5 hour train ride back to Cusco.  Nice big leather seats, table runners, a lovely small meal, and a view to beat all.  This beat the backpacker express we rode last night, and it was part of our plan.  Run hard then rest well.  and we'll likely hit a wall at about 8pm.  Tomorrow afternoon we'll catch our bus for Nazca.  Eight hours. Good thing we bought upgraded seats in the double-decker bus. By the looks of my elevation map we'll be passing through roads as high as 12,000 feet.  But in the meantime, we're welcoming the ride because we're certain we won't be able to walk tomorrow, let alone stand.  Not from lack of will or trying, but that the gods of Machu and Huayna Picchu said so.  Please pass the Advil.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

WOW: Vistas, Glaciers, and Valleys

This morning we set out with our driver to take us to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley where we're about to catch our train toward Machu Picchu.  I'm so glad that we hired a private car so we had some peace and our own space for the drive of nearly 2 hours, although it felt like far less.  It may have seemed to go quickly because we were in awe of the scenery.

The term "scenery" doesn't do it justice. The mountains and glaciers were spectacular, especially the peak of Salcantay (18,000 feet!)  which was split at the peak like two donkey ears. We pulled over a couple times for pictures of the local mountain range, and left just as some tour buses pulled in and the Americanos tumbled out with their wide-brimmed hats and fanny packs. This was good, since any roadside vendor could attack the group with their wares, therefore distracting them from us before we quietly slipped away.

We saw vistas of awe-inspiring peaks, and deathly steep cliffs descending into valleys cut in half by tumbling rivers. "Wow" was the only word that seemed to leave our lips, as we were rendered speechless by the surroundings.  As beautiful as the Rockies are, the Peruvian Andes win the beauty contest. Again I thought of the phrase that I uttered 2 days earlier from the plane: a beautiful disaster.

Arriving in Ollantaytambo, we were dropped off in the main plaza, which was a petite town center compared to lively Cusco. The town is nestled in a valley, and as we sat at a sidewalk cafe facing the most treacherous peaks,  every few minutes we'd spy yet another Incan ruin that seemed no materialize from the mountainside.  A first look we could pick out two of the largest ruins that appeared to stick to the cliffs by some celestial glue.  But after about an hour of staring, we'd spy another ruin, and another, and hey! Look over there! It's another one! I was like staring at one of those "find the image" prints that are set up in mall kiosks that you have to go cross-eyed to see. I was also giddy to spot a cat on a hot tin roof (heehee) across the plaza. This was meaningful because this country is littered with dogs, about as much as Chicago has pigeons.  So a cat was a rarity indeed.

After lunch we wandered a back street of the town that had a open stream running alongside the adobes in order to channel the mountain runoff into the river below. Since we couldn't bring our luggage on the train, we were just carrying our totes and duffel bags.  At one adobe entrance, a child was standing in the doorway.  I looked past her into the courtyard to see two white cats inside. I talked to her a bit, asking if the cat had a name, which it didn't. With her permission, I knelt down to take a picture as I sometimes do, not realizing I still had 10 pounds on my back and 20 dangling off my left side.  Losing my balance, I promptly and awkwardly stumbled backward and fell on my butt, eliciting giggles from the young girl.  We had a nice chuckle.

Since we've been on the run every day since we arrived, today was our day to relax.  We roamed the town, and in the process noticed most homes had 2 ceramic bulls on the roof.  Talking to a vendor, he described that they brought good luck to the home, which I then recalled reading somewhere earlier.  The bulls always come in pairs, and we were able to negotiate a sale of a pair for each of us for just $3 total. Luck indeed!

Our train for Aguas Calientes (essentially Machu Picchu base camp) leaves at 7pm tonight, so we're just passing time in a cafe near the train station along side a river.  Notably across from a local Quechua woman serving up rice and chicken from her pots that are set up on a table with a little bench on the sidewalk.  Me want. However, as much as I enjoy guerilla street dining (and my successes of gastronomically handling street food very well)  I really don't want to chance it the day before Machu Picchu.  I don't think they have industrial flush toilets inside the ruins.

Side note: foreign travel is the perfect opportunity to practice your multiplication tables, complete with division in order to convert currency and calculate prices.  Carry a calculator.  A couple times we had to pull it out when we were dealing with higher-priced items, o when we'd negotiate in local currency, then agree to pay in dollars, which warranted further calculation. Plus there are kilometer and meters, which is it's own set of math. So far so good, but we're dealing with an easy base of 3 in Peru.  Next week in Chile its a base of 500. That'll be a hoot.

Friday, May 27, 2011

We Fed the Alpacas, and the Alpacas Fed Us

More on that later. We started off the day by hiring our own driver to take us off the tour bus path. Germand was fantastic and a nice guy. W didn't expect it, but we stopped for photo ops along the way. Since we were going places that most tours didn't stop, there were absolutely no people when we pulled over. We saw vistas of Cusco, village valleys, techtonic fault lines, snow-capped peaks, Cristo Blanco (Cusco's version of Rio's Christ the Redemptor), and we were so high up, we could clearly see where the tree line ended. I kept taking deep breaths not because I was breathless, but because at 13,000 feet, the air is cool, fresh, and clean. Last time I experienced air like that was as the Continental Divide, and that was lower. I kept taking off my sunglasses to look at the sky because it was so blue I didn't think it was real.

Our first major stop was at Awana Kancha. Llamas and alpacas are raised here, free to roam about, and we were able to feed them  On another side, they were sheared, their hair dyed from fresh herbs boiled in a pot, then hand-spun. Local Andean women wove blankets and other crafts from hand and by memory in perfect symmetry. It was stunning. Plus the proceeds from the center are Returned to the community to support education and keeping the ancient craft alive. I had to leave with a table runner to match the 3 large vases I picked up yesterday (if you've seen my home, you know how I decorate).

Next we traveled on to Sacsayhuaman, aka "sexy woman" because it sounds similar. It was a large Incan fortress and a spiritual center until the conquistadores pillaged it for stones to build their churches. I overlooked Cusco and we spent some time taking in the city view.

Upon returning to Cusco and freshening up, we chose dinner at the Inka Grill rumored to be the best cuy (guinea pig) in the area. Not only did it not disappoint but it far exceeded our expectations. The only bad part was that we may not have an opportunity to eat this dish again after this trip. We also sampled the alpaca which was also delish, with a fruit-based sauce. W fed the alpacas, and they fed us.

Tomorrow we start our journey toward Machu Picchu. We'll spend the night at the village nearest the site, then climb up to watch the sun rise.  Since our train there and back doesn't have a luggage car, we can only take a small duffel with us.  Reconfiguring our packing  has been maddening since it feels like every few days we're repacking and moving on, and this is only day 4! W have 12 more to go! We continue to be stunned at how much we've done, and how much more is still left to see.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Andes and Cusco

No one told me mountains could look like this. These aren't your grandfather's mountains. These are the Andes. We took the first Taca flight out of Lima at the butt crack of dawn. As we ascended, we could see the mountains in the distance. However, nothing prepared me for what we were about to see. A we approached, we looked down to see jagged white snow-capped peaks, blue lakes, and red soil. Every peak was a new surprise. This is what results from two techtonic plates smashing together - a beautiful disaster.

The landing into Cusco was a tight steep turn as this town is nestled in a valley full of red clay-topped roofs. Canines roam the streets. It's cold. I'm hoping for s warmup or the gloves will have to make an appearance.

While the flight is fresh in my mind, Taca served us a lovely croissant and muffin breakfast on the brief 60 minute flight. I was a cheesy hammy sodium dream. There was more than enough legroom and comfortable. I Lima we stopped a Starbucks first to get our fix, forgetting that we hadn't yet gone through security. But it was a domestic flight and they let people walk through with our cups. The Lima airport is stellar and appears new.

We've arrived at the hotel, sipping on some coca tea, and waiting for lieu room to be ready then we'll catch a siesta. This afternoon we'd like to spend shopping in San Blas so I'm sure the hotel can arrange a car for us. Speaking of the hotel, the driver picked us up at the airport with another couple. The male counterpart's hometown is in Muncie,Indiana, where I wen to Ball State. And in the breakfast dining room, a table across the way was full of businessmen from Chicago. 310 million people in the US, and we keep running into neighbors.
Fast-forward 8 hours. We did some damage in Cusco. So much has happened since we arrived that I'll try to recall it all. First off, we were concerned about altitude sickness. We're a full day in and there is no sign yet (knock on wood). We're feeling just fine as though we were at sea level, although we tried whenever possible to have our driver drop us at the top of the San Blas barrio so we could walk downhill into central Cusco. At one point we did walk back up, but we took our time, then ducked into a tiny 5 table eatery run by the nicest woman. Carrie had the loom saltado and I the papa a la huancaina. Nom nom. Side note: Inka Cola, notsomuch.

San Blas is an artists and backpacker neighborhood with some great shopping so we thought the best way to take it easy today would be to get all our souvenir shopping done here. Almost all. We obviously do not blend in with our pale skin and red/blonde hair so we were bombarded on the street by roaming vendors at every turn. Some of them ran better deals than the stalls so we also picked up a few gems from them.  Some Quechua locals in traditional Andean attire walked by and asked to take a picture of them with their baby llamas and lambs, so we did in exchange for some coin.

I'm so glad we did our research via Samantha Brown and Bourdain because it pointed us to some gems off the tourist path that we werent aware of. We found the ancient Incan city walls, walked the narrow cobbled streets, and ran some hard bargains. We are also blessed to be staying at a treasure of a b&b called Torre Dorada. Although it's located in a residential part of town, they offer free pickup and drop off at the city center, and even took us up to San Blas. This morning one of the kitchen staff made homemade queso tomales. The front desk is beyond helpful and they're going to purchase our Machu Picchu entrance tickets for us tomorrow. It'll be nice to have them when we return from tomorrow's excursion.  We asked them to arrange a private driver for us for a half day when we go to visit the llama and alpaca sanctuary, Awana Kancha (again, thank you Samantha Brown), then he'll take us down the road to Sacsayhuaman, a massive Incan fortress. Then we'll hop that free ride again back to central Cusco and San Blas. If I'm not exhausted and Carrie will put up with me, the bus boy at the restaurant says he goes salsa dancing near the Plaza de Armas. Baila!

Central Cusco is lovely.  The main square is surrounded by Catholic churches built upon Incan foundations, with a gardens and a fountain in the square. The Plaza is also surrounded by restaurants, pubs, souvenir shops for every budget, and tour companies. It's great for people watching but can get tiresome trying to ward off the roaming vendors.

I'm very much looking forward to our first full night's sleep in days. When the lady as the restaurant asked when's arrived in Cusco, I had no idea. That's because we got up at 2:30am in Lima today. We're running on coca tea and pure curiosity. The Sandman beckons.

PS - It gets colder than a witch's *** when the sun ducks behind the mountains. By about 30 degrees. Layers and gloves are a must.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Barranco, Lima

After sleeping like the dead, and the best scrambled eggs ever had from the hostel cook, we spent the day exploring Barranco. Many a stop was made to sit by the water or on the cliffs jus watching the waves roll in and soaking up the sun. For lunch we visited El Mueller on a recommendation from a girl at the tourist office. Carrie had a sharp eye to realize that the Biblioteca also had a tourism office.  They were really helpful with maps and the reco for lunch. Ceviche, arroz con camarones, yuca, papas, and corn.  I tasted as though it was straight from Neptune's garden. Glorious bliss.

Barranco is clean, neat, and has some of the most gorgeous modern residential architecture I have ever seen. I feel very comfortable here, and although foreign it's not like being a stranger in a strange land. We've mastered crossing streets and maybe at one point may brave mass transit.

We walked a bit longer and found some hidden eateries in some back alleys where the locals were lunching, so we may go back next week for more good eats. These are the very Bourdain-esque pull-up-a-stool and sit down to a bowl of soup with the neighbors. We've had some success navigating the menus, and what we couldn't translate, we pretty much got it in the ballpark and haven't been disappointed.

We couldn't resist one last time visiting the waterfront and watching the surfers and others along the promenade. The haze had cleared and the breeze was comfortable, and we were reminded that we were well above the waterline to avoid any impending tsunamis.  I only say this because we did ake note of signage for tsunami and earthquake evacuation routes.  We are, of course, sitting at the edge of a tectonic plate after all.

My Spanish is holding up far better than I had expected and am surprised myself. At the very least, I can be understood. I'll give Chicago credit for helping keep some skills sharp. We'll just see how long this lasts before I errantly redirect us to Bolivia. Hey, who doesn't want to see Lake Titicaca anyway?

En Route to Lima

Most air travel is uneventful.  Security checks, a snack, boarding passes, passports. What wasn't nearly as fun was the cattle class setup on Spirit. I've never had my knees touch the back of a seat at my slight 5'4" frame. I'm only thanking jeebus that it was a 2.5 hour flight and I prayed we wouldn't encounter the same on the next leg. We were disappointed to face a 3 hour delay (for lord knows what reason), but satisfied that the international flight had normal seating and enough room to breath. After Carrie was crammed between a rock and a hard place on the way to Florida, I'm sure she appreciated the extra room this time.

I fell asleep watching Hot Tub Time Machine on the iPad, but we'll blame that not on the fine storytelling, but on the two Xanax and wine we a had at the airport bar. A I write this, we should be landing in about an hour. Since we were so long delayed, Carrie emailed the hotel to notify them that we'd be late when they pick us up. Then we sat on the plane for another hour so I hope they're still waiting for us when we land.  Luckily we carried all the phone numbers and email addresses with us so we could coordinate a new pickup time.

I'll be happy to be out of an airplane but we're hopping night back on one pin Thursday for Cusco so tomorrow we'll just take it easy in Lima and get to know the neighborhood.

Ps - I'm starting to get used to typing on this iPad.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

South America: The Agenda Ahead

When I'm on the road, I'll blog as often as possible about our adventures so I can keep the details fresh and down on record before details of the memories begin to fade.  When I'm home, I blog only every few weeks, but I love writing on the road.  I often look back at my own entries from years later and I'm flooded with memories and smiles, and sometimes the slightest scent riding on a breeze of where I visited.  So if you're interested in following along with my travels, subscribe with your email address at the bottom of the page, and/or look for updates on Facebook.  Our itinerary is outlined below in case you're interested in some of the sites we'll be visiting and know when to look for updates.

May 24-26: Lima
We'll hang out here for a couple days, just to settle in.  We won't explore too much since we'll be kicking off the trip pretty quickly the next day, but it'll be good to rest up before we head inland.  Per my friend Nancy's recommendation, we'll be staying in the Barranco neighborhood, just south of Miraflores.

May 26-28: Cusco
Cusco, the capital of the ancient Inca empire, is where we'll be camped for a few days in order to acclimate to the altitude, approximately 11,000 feet.  As an asthmatic, I've been training my lungs for months to get into shape and be able to breathe better.   I hope it pays off, because at just 9,000 feet in Breckenridge a few years back, I experienced some struggles with the altitude.  A few days at the B&B with free oxygen tanks, some coca tea, and we should be good to go.  We're also pretty excited about visiting Awana Kancha, a llama and alpaca sanctuary outside Cusco.  Samantha Brown visited during one show and with Carrie's enthusiasm for llamas, and as much fun as I had at the elephant sanctuary last year, it'll be nice to get out of town and into nature, up close and personal with the animals.  Here the animals are sheared, and local women dye and weave it into blankets, ponchos, hats, and whatnot, then the proceeds are returned to the surrounding villages to support schools and welfare.  I'm a fan of conscious tourism (or as much as I can be conscious of what I do and visit), so this place appeals to us on a few levels.

May 28-29: Machu Picchu
Well, there it is, folks.  My only fear here is encountering fog.  Rain I can handle.  Fog that obstructs the view... well... Let's cross our fingers and pray to some Incan god for sunshine.  It's supposed to be the dry season, but the 10 day forecast shows rain in Cusco.  We shall see.  As Samantha Brown did, she should have just waited it out and she'd see the ruins just fine.  (And no, we did not plan this trip around Samantha Brown.  She just happened to visit a lot of places that were great reference material for our trip)  We'll be taking a taxi up to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, from where we'll catch a train to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo, then find our B&B for the night.  The next day we'll be up at 4am to catch a bus up to the ruins, and climb Huancaya Picchu to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu.  They only allow a limited number of people to climb the neighboring mountain and ancient trail per day, so we want to be among the first.  If I've learned anything in my travels, it's this: If someone tells you that getting up at the crack of ass to see the sun rise is worth it, you do it (see also: Cambodia/Angkor Wat).  After our visit, we'll hop a 3hr train ride back to Cusco.  It'll be nice to settle into some big cozy seats for a train journey through the Andes.

May 30-June 1: Nazca
This is where it gets interesting.  Riding a bus through Peru.  Disaster stories abound.  At least we picked a reputable bus company so I hope I don't have to envision us plunging to our deaths over a Andean cliff, pushed aside by an overtaking chicken bus (or is that in Guatemala?).  It's a 6 hour journey to Nazca, and I may be more excited about this place than Machu Picchu (but only slightly).  On the 31st we'll go to the local airstrip where we'll board a 12-seater (one of the larger planes) to view the Nazca Lines.  My wristbands and Dramamine are packed.  The lines can be seen best from the air, as they're lines carved in the hard desert ground thousands of years ago, in the shapes of men, monkeys, spiders, birds, and other figures.  It's still a mystery why and how they were created, but fascinating nonetheless.  I was obviously leery of boarding a tiny plane in rural Peru, but after some FAA research and advice from very reputable travel agents, we settled on a tour company that contracted through the best airline for this treat.  And thanks to Allison's pilot dad, he helped me overcome my fear of flying so one day I'd be able to do this!

June 1-2: Lima
Upon leaving Nazca we'll board another bus for the 8 hour ride back to Lima along the Panamerican Highway (which runs from Alaska to Ushuaia).  Back in Lima we're staying at a hotel that has been reviewed as "tacky", "horribly gaudy," and "old" that we couldn't resist that kind of charm and character.  Plus it's in an old palace in the heart of the city so at least for a day we'll be exploring a new neighborhood.  Carrie located Iglesia de San Francisco where we'll be visiting the catacombs below.  Bones!  Also in this area is where we'll find the national soccer - er, football - stadium so it'd be fun to try to catch a game.  Someone just has to warn us what colors NOT to wear.

June 2-5: Easter Island
Reality still hasn't set in that we'll be visiting Easter Island.  We even took horseback riding lessons a few weeks ago to prep for this leg of the trip, since it was my bright idea (to Carrie's protests) to rent horses for an afternoon to explore the moai around the town.  However, for the next full day, we'll likely be renting a Jeep so we can get around faster and keep the horsies to a minimum.  There are no hotel chains or "brands" on this island of only 105 square miles, so our "hotel" is actually an private cabin outside town, by the water.  I don't know what else to write about Easter Island, since information is scarce even on the internet.  However, that doesn't make me any less excited!!

June 5-8: Lima
This is where we relax and wind down for a few days.  Maybe some salsa dancing.  Some ceviche by the Fisherman's Wharf.  Some shopping.  And after San Pellegrino released their annual list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, we secured a reservation at #42: Astrid y Gaston on our final night.  We'll take these 3 days for some R&R before we head back stateside.

Friday, May 13, 2011

How Do I Travel Affordably?

I get this question a lot.  Many people think traveling is really expensive, but it's not if you know how to milk the system, look for deals, and make a hobby out of research.  However, there are a few travel staples that I resort to on a constant basis that help keep costs minimal.

To my lovely friends at Orbitz, you're actually by BFFs.  And I don't just mean Orbitz in general, but I tell my friends that actually DO work at Orbitz how much I love their flexible fare finder.  It was through this tool that Carrie and I found and scored our bargain-basement plane tickets to Peru for $400 r/t.  You can search month-by-month for the best fares, then it displays in a matrix for comparison.  Brilliant.  This is perfect for visiting a place, but when you go doesn't matter, as long as it's cheap.

Airfare Watch Dog
Sign up at Airfare Watch Dog for daily emails and alerts on special fares from your city.  I love this site because it also includes unpublished fares, and last-minute domestic and international airfares.  Believe you me, I am keeping my eyes open for a convenient time to run off to Mexico City for a chance to dine at Pujol or Biko.  And for fares hovering under $300 from Chicago, it's cheaper than getting to LA.

I'm addicted.  This site might bankrupt me.  But the deals are fantastic, and include not only airfare, but entire vacation packages.  I had this wild idea that instead of taking 1 giant 2 week trip every year, I could take about 5 or 6 last-minute long weekend trips around the world, just by taking advantage of all the last-minute deals.  This year is spoken for, but maybe later next year?  Or the year after?

Frequent Flyer Programs
Become a local expert in your favorite frequent flyer program.  I'm a sucker for frequent flyer miles giveaways, but if it's getting me a free ticket to Dubai or Easter Island, I'm a happy sucker that's not paying a lot to have a fabulous vacation.  First, focus on your favorite airline.  If you don't have one, sign up for an program on an airline that has frequent flights from your nearest airport or watch for fare trends.  If you're in Chicago, American Airlines or United are great choices because both airlines have frequent flights, which will make it easier to rack up miles on a single airline for convenience.  Some frequent flyer experts may advise signing up for a program on an airline that does not have a hub in your home city (a hub means you'll have to compete against more passengers for award seats), so you'll have more of a selection of award seats when you want to cash in those miles.  I"m more of a miles accumulator than a spender, and if you redeem your miles well in advance of traveling (6-8 months) then finding an award seat may not be a problem in a hub city.  The alliance you select is also important, because you want to ensure that the partner airlines fly to some places you may want to visit.  Star Alliance has an excellent and far-reaching network (United has a huge network).  I'm a oneworld member and am pretty happy, although the fares are higher on some destinations I visit (love flying British Airways, and American domestically, but isn't great for South America unless you can cash in on LAN).  Skyteam is great for Asia some European destinations, but their alliance network is small.  On the other hand, Korean Air is one of the most comfortable long-haul airlines in Skyteam.  As you can see, it's up to you to select your alliance on which to accumulate miles.

Next, you don't have to step on a plane to collect miles.  I wrote an entry a few months back about holiday shopping and earning miles.  If you're going to shop online, shop with airline partners that earn you miles at the same time!  If you're an AAdvantage member, install the AAdvantage toolbar on your internet browser to earn miles, often without shopping!  Years ago I got a telemarketing phone call: "Switch your long distance telephone service now and we'll give you 10,000 frequent flyer miles."  Okay!  And last month I received a letter in the mail: "Change your electricity service provider and earn 5,000 miles."  Done.  If you can, sign up for a credit card that gives you miles.  There are promotions going on now where you can earn up to 100,000 miles after your first purchase in some cases.  When you travel on an airline and have over 100k miles, you can often get a free upgrade.  Party bonus.  With AAdvantage, I signed up all my credit cards with the Dining Program, so even if I spend $10 on take-out, it might net me 30 miles.  I feel like I'm earning without paying attention.  Always check your frequent flyer program's web page for promotions, offers, and alerts for opportunities to earn miles.  AMEX has a great program in which you can transfer AMEX Membership Awards points to select airline programs.  A recent AMEX promotion allowed me to transfer 25,000 miles to my BA account with a 40% free bonus.  I went from 2,000 BA miles to 37,000 in 1 minute.  That also keeps me a couple thousand miles away from a part/cash, part/miles reward ticket, or a few thousand away from a free r/t European ticket.

What does this all get you?  You can be one of two different earners: One who earns and spends immediately.  As soon as you see you've earned enough for a free r/t ticket to Moscow, you'll cash those miles in for tickets.  Some programs also allow you to pay part cash and part miles.  This is good when you don't have enough miles to fly totally free, or you don't want to use up your miles.  The other strategy is to be a collector.  Sure, you cash in miles for a free ticket, but if you continue to accumulate miles, you start to become an elite member and/or qualify for free upgrades.  I have to say, paying for a coach ticket was great when I was surprisingly upgraded to a fully-flat bed pod in business class back from London.  That would have been a $3000 ticket, at least.  It was worth it to save the miles and get the perks.

Lastly, before you spend your miles, look at your travel habits or wish list.  If you're going to be an international travel, your miles will often get you further than if you paid cash.  However, cashing in 25,000 miles for a free domestic ticket from Chicago to New York isn't worth the miles if the ticket is only $200.  Those same 25,000 miles is getting me a free ticket from Lima, Peru, to Easter Island.  That ticket was at least $533 if I bought it.  First do some research on lowest fares, then do the math on what the cost per mile would be. 

Couch Surfing
Find a friend or relative that lives anywhere, give them a call, and go visit.  Free lodging, and maybe bring some goodies from home for them.  Or literally, go Couch Surfing.  This site brings together a network of charitable travelers willing to give up their sofa, futon, or guest room for the avid wanderer.  You may have to cook your own food and clean up after yourself, but for a free place to rest your head, it's a great idea if you're really on a budget, or would love the advice and guidance of a local.

Think outside the box of hotels.  Try for a B&B, or even a hostel that may have private en suite rooms, wifi, and hot water (I find these to be a step above a hostel, nearly a B&B).  Get a group together and rent a villa or small apartment.  You could fit 3-4 people in a hotel room, but watch out for additional guest fees if there will be more than 2 people.  I love TripAdvisor for finding alternative lodging options.

Lastly, there are times when you really don't want to pinch pennies and cut corners.  Set some money aside for any airport arrival/departure taxes.  Pony up for travel insurance.  Get your vaccinations, malaria pills, and antibiotics.  Make sure your passport doesn't expire for at least 6 months at the time of your trip, and has at least 2 blank visa pages, if you're traveling outside the US.  I also welcome anyone else's tips on traveling affordably!