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Our journey from Houston was a long one, and we arrived in Shanghai in early evening, tired but excited. First impressions are these: the people are friendly and helpful; everything is well organized and efficient; Shanghai is beautiful and huge and there is no visible bureaucratic overreach. We got a great night’s sleep and arose in the morning to explore our surroundings.
Our hotel is located in “the Bund” waterfront district–the heart of Shanghai and the financial and commercial center/hub of China. The Bund runs along the Huangpu River and features European colonial style buildings from the past on one side and striking modern skyscrapers on the other. Right out the door of the hotel was an alley that led directly to the old Shanghai shopping market. The architecture was everything one imagines China to be: narrow passageways and intricately carved wooden buildings with pagoda styled roofs and red Chinese paper lanterns adorning the shops. It was fascinating.
We walked the promenade along the Huangpu River and enjoyed watching the ships gliding by the amazing architecture of the city. We noticed that, in spite of its immense size, Shanghai is dotted with parks, and streets are lined with trees–many stately sycamore with white pealing bark. We walked through one park with topiaries, flower plantings and expansive green lawns. On one side, under the trees, Chinese music wafted through the air and people were dancing in the middle of the day. It was delightful.
We ate in a Dim Sum restaurant for lunch. I followed the instructions of the server and picked two “small” portions from each category. Oh my! Overall, I picked foods I have never eaten, i.e., dates in plum sauce with water chestnuts, Chinese congee with ham, crayfish in chili sauce with ? (I have no idea, but it was crunchy). It was all very tasty, but it just kept coming and I could not eat all the food on the plates. At the seventh course they brought a bowl of vegetable fried rice. I was maxed out and this bowl was anything but small. Literally, it could have fed three people for lunch by itself. I felt so guilty leaving so much food behind on the plates–think of the irony of it all–my mom telling me to clean my plate as a kid because of all the starving children in China! Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money to buy Kathy any food, so she just watched me eat. She said the wonderful smells soothed her hunger. (She ordered fried seafood with cheese and avocado.)
It was a relaxing first day and we are super excited for the ones to follow. WEG
We had no idea what would lie in store for us today on Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake that lies between Bolivia and Peru. The lake is beautiful with reeds growing in the shallows along the shore and ringed with low lying hills. At 12,500 feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. It is 103 miles in length and 27 miles in width and its deepest point is almost 900 feet. Big lake!
We took a boat ride on the lake from our hotel’s dock. We followed a channel cut through the reeds. Our destination was the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. We were immediately blown away when we approached the islands. They are indeed floating. In fact, they are anchored so that they will not float away into the deeper lake. When we got off our boat onto one of the islands, we were greeted by the inhabitants dressed in native dress and shouting out welcomes in the native language of the Uros people.
The best way to describe walking on the floating islands (there are many in close proximity) is to say it’s like walking on a soft mattress. Try doing that for several hours. The islands are covered in small homes built out of the reeds along the shore that our boat had passed through. Some have rounded and pitched roofs and others are “tepee” like. Everything is made of reeds–furniture, beds, flooring–even the island’s earth is of reeds. One of the women invited Kathy and me into her home where she insisted that Kathy try on some of her clothing. Fun! Kathy and I agreed that this was the most intriguing place we have ever visited in all our travels.
Why and how did these islands come about? Five hundred years ago the Incas were invading the lake’s native peoples in an attempt to bring them under the control of the empire. The people in this part of the lake realized that their future was threatened, and so they escaped by boat into the lake. After living in the boats and realizing they had no place to go, they noticed that mounds of tortora reed roots that had dried out in the dry season were floating in the lake. They tied the floating roots together and covered them with layers of reeds. Then, they constructed their housing on top using the reeds. This tradition has continued until today. However, maintaining the islands is labor intensive, and we were told that in the next twenty years, the islands will likely no longer be what we were able to experience today, since children are going to college never to return. The floating islands will probably become government maintained in the future with hired actors to welcome the tourists.
All of a sudden a large flock of flamingos flew overhead, portending the large migration of this bird from Chile to the lake. Lake Titicaca was an unexpected surprise that we enjoyed immensely. WEG
I heard the guide say several times that we were going to visit “Sexy Woman.” Kathy and I were curious to know what that might be. When we arrived, the sign read, “Sacsayhuaman.” All of our fellow travelers, who had also harbored a silent inquisity about where we were being taken, were in awe as the bus carried us to a major Inca Fortress on the hills above the Inca Imperial Capital of Cusco, Peru. “Sacsayhuaman” was impressive. The foundations of the ruins still remain–huge stones weighing up to 1,000 tons. Twenty-thousand workers labored years to build the Fortress–quarrying, cutting, transporting (on sleds pulled by human hands) and setting the stones in beautiful precision. Such ingenuity and persistence!
The day began with a Cusco city tour to the archeological site of the Temple of the Sun. Covered in pure gold, it was an instant attraction to the invading Spanish conquistadores, who took all the Inca gold (22 carat) and silver (pure) that they could find and had it shipped to Spain. The temples were often torn down to use the stones in other construction, and colonial cathedrals were built on top of the remains. An earthquake exposed the Temple of the Sun’s foundations, and now it is a protected site.
We arrived in Cusco on the major holiday in Peru, Corpus Christi. Huge parades had brought ornate, larger than life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary from churches in the area to the city cathedral. When we toured the cathedral, the statues were on display. We admired the altars clad in 22 carat gold. “Look, but don’t touch, and no pictures.” We gazed in wonderment at the massive painting of “The Lord’s Supper” by a Peruvian artist as he used the inspiration of Leonardo daVinci’s famous painting, but personalized it for a Peruvian audience using tortillas for the bread and roasted guinea pig for the meat in the Passover meal. Judas was portrayed as Fernando Pizarro, the invading Spanish conquistador.
Outside was a big party! Thousands of people–young and old–were parading in native Indian costume (do not think North American Indian–there is no comparison in dress or music) with bands playing native music. It was beautiful and an explosion of color. You really did want to dance along.
We had another evening of “dinner and a show.” Kathy and I had mountain trout, and we both thought is the best trout we have ever eaten–and we have eaten trout around the world! The music and dancers showcased the Peruvian art forms over time. It was fast-paced, colorful and entertaining.We have met some outstanding folks on this trip. I have a special fondness for two widows from Florida who were New York transplants. They could be my older sisters. They are not only cute but funny! They both have a joy for life and, although alone, they found each other and risked traveling together. What a hoot! They do not cook any longer and Marcia told me Charlotte doesn’t even own pans. I tease them about this and, when they went to the cooking class, I told Charlotte that I was going to be watching closely. She responded that I would have to eat her food! Marcia said that would be the end of my trip. Well, I’m still standing. WEG
P.S. We could not post this blog yesterday. So, it is a day late. Today, we flew into Juliaca and then drove to Lake Titicaca, taking most of the day. This short note will suffice for today’s blog. There will be pictures and descriptions of the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world in tomorrow’s blog as we get back on schedule.
Traveling the mountain highlands at 13,000 feet above sea level, the farmlands stretched out further than the eye could see. Above them loomed the ever present Andes. At one point, I could count five over 18,000 feet peaks that were snow/glacier covered. It was breathtaking. One could think I would get used to the sight, but I am mesmerized every time. We boarded the domed PeruRail in the early afternoon in Machu Picchu Town for an almost two hour ride to Ollantaytambo. It was fun. The staff dressed in costume for dancing and also for a fashion show of native arts. Of course, the scenery along the way was fantastic, since we followed the river the entire way.
Once in Ollantaytambo, we boarded a bus for our ride to Cusco, the imperial capital of the Incas and now a city of around 500,000. We stopped along the way at a brewery named the best in all of South America. We had a tasting of five of their beers that have won major awards as the brew master explained each one. Really cool!
We have been treated to some excellent food along the way. Our hotel in Machu Picchu Town hosted a cooking class for us. We learned how to make Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru, as well as cerviche. We learned some important culinary tricks, such as, squeeze only 3/4 of the juice from the lime used in cerviche because, if you squeeze the lime next to the pith, it will sour the fish used in the dish. It was a great time, and we have an apron to prove we passed the class.
Our food has been excellent, and I did try the grilled alpaca. Delicious! One thing we have noticed is that much care is placed on appearance of the dish. The food looks good before you ever take a bite. Next, we have learned that only fresh and organic foods are used. Finally, Peruvian food is complex. The cerviche, for instance, had twelve ingredients, each used in a specific way at a specific time. I can say that Peruvian food is some of best looking and best tasting food I have eaten.
As we close out the day, we are encouraged and at rest. We have been blessed to have an adventure far beyond our expectations and, since it is fall of the year here in the Southern Hemisphere, the weather is gorgeous. WEG
One mountain peak stacked upon another and another and another; deep valleys running in several directions with more mountain peaks, like ducks in a row; tropical foliage with bromeliads growing in the trees and colorful flowers, even orchids, adding color to the green landscape and then steep sheer cliffs adding drama. This was our amazing ride up from Machu Picchu Town to the World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the wonder city of the Incas, Machu Picchu.
We arose early from our mountain retreat and took the dome car PeruRail, itself known as one of the best train rides in the world, to Machu Picchu Town at the base of the mountains leading up to the famed ancient city. The sights were wonderful. First, we were in high country farm land, and all of the sudden, in the tropics along the river that is a tributary to the Amazon, which originates in Peru. Snow-capped mountain peaks could be seen here and there. We pulled into the handsome train station in Machu Picchu Town and walked across bridges above rushing streams to the bus terminal, with buses leaving every five minutes to take visitors up the mountains to the famed archeological site. What a ride! The bus drivers make those hairpin curves quickly.
And then, there it was, the mountain city of Machu Picchu. Only the leader of the ancient peoples was known as the Inca, the Son of the Sun, his wife, the Daughter of the Moon. The Temple of the Sun was clad in gold and the Temple of the Moon in silver. While the imperial city was in Cusco, the Incas loved Machu Picchu, and it was a royal retreat. I can see why–the scenery is stunning, overwhelming, impressive, captivating, astounding! It was a citadel, surrounded by imposing peaks, some snow-covered with steep cliffs. It was isolated, in fact, so much so that the Spanish conquistadors did not find it to destroy it as they did every other Inca city. Canals were built from the glaciers of nearby mountains to bring fresh water into the city for hygiene, irrigation and drinking purposes. Here in Machu Picchu, the astronomers developed the calendar that was precise. By watching the stars, through water plates that reflected the stars on the surface like a mirror, strategically located throughout the city, they mapped and chronicled the movement of the stars and created an accurate knowledge of the heavens, and their sun dials were marvels of time keeping.
Machu Picchu is a wondrous city. Its buildings climb up and down the hills. There was a place for the common people, with a farming area, with fabulous terraces built down the mountain sides for agricultural purposes. What human might it must have taken to carry the stones and build the walls on such steep inclines. And, there was a place for the Inca and the elite. Here the temples were built and the royal homes. There were gates to the city and garrisons for soldiers. It is a large archeological site. We walked up and down steps, marveling at the sites and listening to the history and explanations of the site given to us by our guide. You had to be careful in walking. It was so marvelous that you could easily forget your bearings. While we walked, in fact, two tourists had major accidents–one backing up too far to take a picture and falling over the ledge for a five foot drop, and another gazing in wonderment, not noticing the steps and breaking her leg in the fall. I held onto the rock walls to stabilize my path! What can I say about Machu Picchu but that it is a marvel of industry and might and ingenuity and science. It is breath taking!
Our evening is spent in a very nice hotel in Machu Picchu Town. We were greeted after our rather grueling day with iced tea and hors d’oeuvres. Hors d’oeuvres were also delivered to our room. The mountain stream passes by and the mountains rise up before us. My mind is and will be occupied at how these people built such a magnificent place for us to marvel over today. WEG
We entered the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s today. The ancient Inca’s were astronomers and they saw that the river in the valley seemed to go toward the Milky Way. They believed it was from the heavens; and, therefore, sacred. The valley is mystical and magical. It varies from only 1/4 mile wide to 1 mile wide, goes forever and has wonderful mountains on each side with the sacred river running in the middle. It is rugged territory and the Incas built their cities on the mountains so that the valley below could be kept for farming. Because the need for food was great, the Incas developed a system of terrace farming on the steep mountain sides that is still not only visible today, but in use as well. Kathy and I simply soaked in the wonderful scenery.
Our plane landed in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas, but we immediately boarded a bus for a six hour journey to our hotel into the Sacred Valley. Along the way we stopped at an Alpaca farm to get up close and personal with alpacas, llamas and vicugnas (the fiber from which is considered the rarest and most expensive on earth). Further along, we stopped in Pisac Village, a market village, where the finest Peruvian folk arts are practiced and sold. Colorful and active, Kathy shopped until she dropped or ran out of money–you choose. I found a woman cooking Inca corn (hominy) on the cob–white and tasty served with a mountain cheese and in its corn husk. I couldn’t resist! Finally, we stopped at a ceramic studio where the ancient Incan art form is kept alive. It was a most appealing setting and we watched native craftsmen and women practicing their craft.
We arrived at our outstanding mountain country lodge hotel. It is in the hills all to itself, and it is the image of what I would have expected a South American mountain lodge to look like. Tiered up the mountain side, with manicured green lawns and beautiful flowers and an open fire place in the lobby, the staff stands at attention in strategic places along the way. Our room is white washed, plaster and stone walls and timbered ceiling–white washed. It is rustic and comfortable and roomy and modern–a 65″ TV built into the wall. It is cool in the Sacred Valley. We are no longer on the equator, but have moved closer toward the South Pole. We will sleep well tonight after our long and wonderful day. WEG
P.S.–I forgot about the Peruvian national drink, the Pisco Sour. It is Pisco brandy, key lime juice and ice blended with egg white foam (with bitters) on top. You can add a simple syrup to sweeten it, if desired. It is delicious, but one will do ya!
Lima, Peru–where do you start? Historic, yet modern. Huge, yet intimate. Rich, yet poor.
Our first impression was that Lima was modern. Huge electronic billboards greeted us both in the airport and on the roads from the airport in the dark of the night. In the morning, the impression continued in our Hilton Hotel in Miraflores, an upscale suburb on the Pacific. We had time to stroll the area around the hotel and along the Pacific. We ate an early lunch looking out on the Pacific on a balcony cantilevered over the cliffs. Cool! Kathy and I agreed that the area reminded us of the Houston Uptown/Galleria area, with one big exception–there is an ocean! Indeed, the ocean side mall is called, “The Galleria.”
In the afternoon, we toured Old Colonial Lima. It was grand! Beautiful parks surrounded by majestic colonial era buildings/palaces/churches were abundant. We spent time in the UNESCO World Heritage Site San Francisco monastery and catacombs. Beautiful, with imported Spanish tiles and fine handcrafted wood features and frescoes on the walls, it has open courtyards and magnificent rooms and chapels. At one time 400 priests lived here, and it is still a working monastery today. The catacombs were discovered in the mid-20th century. The priests cleaned the bones and rearranged them with similar bones put together in rooms. What a sight!
Our guide was an 18th generation descendant of one of the thirteen Spanish explorers who came with Francisco Pizarro in the early 1500s. That was a treat. She showed us her ancestor’s tomb in the cathedral along with the mausoleum of Pizarro. The mosaic tiles are of 18 carat gold. What caught our attention was the beautiful woodwork in the altars. Then, we were told that they were gold, and the gold was painted over and then scratched away in the crevices to give it a unique look. Awesome.
We strolled the pedestrian streets and saw one beautiful building after another. We toured the oldest colonial mansion in Lima–started in 1535 and still inhabited by the same Aliaga family for 18 generations. It is a magnificent house and, if by chance a girl was the oldest child and next in line to own the home and family fortune, her husband would have to change his name to the family name or the inheritance would be lost. Lima is the capital of Peru and has a population of over ten million. While we saw the magnificent parts of the city, there are shanty town neighborhoods where we were told not to venture. Peru, while now stable, was quite unstable around 25 years ago.
With an ancient Inca culture and the Spanish new world exploration in 1535, Lima has a rich and long and proud history. WEG
Flying to Quito from Cuenca and then to Lima, I figured today would hold little travel interest. I was wrong. As we sharply lifted up from the runway in Cuenca, I could see the mountains in the distance and realized we needed to reach high altitude quickly. It was a cloudy day and as the plane jiggled and shook in the cloud turbulence, I waited for it to pierce through the clouds and reach the sunny sky. We did. As I looked out the window, I saw mountains also piercing through the clouds close to the plane and realized we were skimming close to the Andes. The plane continued its upward climb and I thought we had passed by the mountains. Several minutes later, I was amazed because right by the plane was a majestic snow capped mountain, Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest at almost 21,000 feet. What a sight! Several minutes later, Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth tallest at over 18,000 feet appeared with its snow capped top, and finally, Cotopaxi, the second highest at over 19,000 feet appeared. These three snow capped mountains are on or very near the equator and so the snow capped tops are unique and amazing. What a beautiful flight!
As we approached Quito, I noticed that the plane was not in a steep descent, but more of a glide slowly downward. That was because as the plane descended, the ground below ascended. In fact, as we approached the Quito aeropuerto, the ground seemed far below and then, immediately, the plane was making a smooth as glass landing. The airport is on a high hill.
Thankfully, the Quito airport is brand new and sleek and modern. That is good since we have a six hour layover before heading to Lima, Peru. I told Kathy I wanted a hamburger for lunch and the airport has a Johnnie Rockets. Cheeseburger-$18; fries-$7; shake-$8. Nope! Looked around and found an Ecuadorian steakhouse. Cheeseburger-$7 and that includes fries and a salad; carafe of Sangria-$6. Lets see, $33 or $13. Easy choice and the steakhouse has free wifi and a wonderful fresh air balcony overlooking the Andes to boot. This won’t be as difficult a layover as I imagined. WEG
P. S. I did let Kathy have some of the sangria–along with her vegetarian plate. After all, it is a long layover.
Cuenca was the northern capital of the Inca Empire in the 1400s and was known as Tumebamba. Impressive buildings were constructed with 1,500 pound stones being brought from Cuzco in Peru almost 1,000 miles away. Brought by hand labor (no draft animals or wheeled conveyance in the Empire) through the Andes, it was an arduous task. The important Temple of the Sun was covered in gold and silver with turquoise and emeralds. Today, all that is left is the outer parts of the old capital, Pumapunku and Todos Santos. An Incan civil war destroyed much of the city and when the Spanish arrived, they used the impressive stones for building the current Cuenca and thus, most of the imperial city lies underneath the modern city.
Kathy and I spent a good part of the day exploring what remains of the ruins of the imperial city and the magnificent gardens surrounding it on the River Tomebamba. We had a magnificent time. It is sobering to realize the great empire that once existed and the grand history that shaped our American experience. The remains are extensive and so the mind imagines how large and grand the imperial capital must have been!
Kathy loves gardens and so this was a special day for her, since the gardens by the ruins were beautiful. An aviary in the gardens contained Ecuadorian birds: parrots, parakeets (big ones–not our little birds), eagles, etc. A tranquil lake was surrounded by lush greenery and flowering trees. The ruins and the gardens intermingled, and we often stopped to sit and contemplate.
Once we had walked ourselves silly, we realized we had a long walk back to our hotel and I told Kathy, “Just remember, it is good for us!” We could have hailed a taxi, but then we would not have been able to walk along the rushing river in the cool afternoon/early evening. So we walked and stopped along the way for a respite at a riverside cafe for a beer for me and a mojito for Kathy. Refreshing. That gave us the umpf we needed to make the rest of the way home to our wonderful Cuenca Suites, where the owners had washed and dried our clothes while we were away for the day. Couldn’t ask for more! WEG
Did it! Climbed over 600 feet almost straight up to reach an altitude of 14,200+ feet above sea level. Still, the Andean peaks were another 1,000 feet higher in Cajas National Park, just outside Cuenca, Ecuador. The park contains over 1,000 lakes/lagoons, and I could see them in every direction from my vantage point. As our tour bus drove into the park, we were astounded by the sights—deep valleys cut between towering peaks, rivers flowing and waterfalls feeding the flow, pine forests and then grey green cliffs and mountain sides and, all along the way, small lakes to large lagoons.
Kathy and I felt guilty–our beautiful tour bus belonged to us! No other tourists had booked and so we had the bus, chauffeur and guide to ourselves. It turned out to be a private tour for the day, and it only cost $70 for the two of us. The majestic sights soon drove the guilt away! Our first stop was to the holiest place in Ecuador, Sanctuario de la Virgen del Cajas, an outdoor pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to an indigenous woman. The setting was amazing, a valley running one direction and high peaks the other. A tall crucifix stood to one side with a mountain chapel with straw roof, and across from the chapel stood the rock upon which the apparition of the Virgin was said to have occurred. Our time here was both tranquil and uplifting.
We stopped at lagoons, and at the the “three crosses,” a short climb to a vantage point with three crosses where pilgrims place rocks in honor of those people who have died in the mountains. Of course, we also took “the climb” to the vantage point. Honestly, I was huffing and puffing at these high altitudes, but I was determined to see the sights. As the tour ended, we stopped at a restaurant in the lower park and had a wonderful traditional mountain meal of trout, lima beans, rice and marinated salad. We also got a glass of steaming hot agua de tipo, an indigenous drink made of medicinal mountain plants and drank to give energy for these 13,000-15,500 foot heights…all for the cost of $9 for the two of us.
Once we arrived back at the hotel, we were ready to put our feet up for awhile. We also thanked God for His beautiful creation and for blessing us with the opportunity to experience it! WEG