Rio 2016; Expectations vs Reality

Now that we have been here in Rio for a week I thought I’d fill people in on just how accurate (or not accurate) the news segments and reports broadcasted in the US are, and how safe and clean Rio currently is for the 2016 Olympic Games.

  1. Safety

Expectation- pickpockets, muggers, and robbers

Reality – really big military men with guns there to protect you

When arriving in Rio, I initially kept my backpack on my front side afraid that someone would be able to unzip it while on my back on the bus or subway. I never took my phone out because I know iphones have a high worth here and someone could just snatch it out of my hand. Some of us even kept money and valuables in money belts hidden beneath our clothing to say extra safe. These methods lasted all of 24 hours until we realized all the places in and around the Olympic Venues are HEAVILY guarded with military personnel riding around in big jeeps and armed to stop any violence from happening. Actually I haven’t seen any crime here, except for 2 adult men getting into an argument over the line to get into the park. Before this argument even escalated they were separated by the military and forced to settle down. Even at night, the streets are well lit and I have not once felt worried for my safety.

2. Cleanliness

Expectation- brown water, trash and smelly

Reality – a little smelly but cleaner than most cities
I thought there would be no way the water would even be a little appealing to go swimming in, but on day 2 we went to Ipanema Beach and enjoyed a beautiful beach day among other locals and Olympic goers. The water was a little chilly and the waves were massive but the water and beach was just as clean if not cleaner than those seen in the states.


I’m not sure if I would touch the water around the Olympic Park though, when walking around there is this constant subtle smell of what we now call “poop river”. When walking along the path from the main Olympic Park to Riocentro there is a man made small river that has a lingering aroma of sulfur and poo… that water I will not be going near.

With over 60,000 volunteers, and many of them on custodial services, the city has been very clean and kept up. Although it is easy to point out the areas that have not been finished as they are barricaded by a fence covered in Rio 2016 posters. All around the city there are places that amaze me; the Olympic park and village and the new transportation systems are huge and made to hold so many people, but these places are surrounded by not quite finished features like unfinished side walks and pile of building debris. It seems like they just didn’t have quite enough time to finish.

***I want to add that I know my experiences are going to be different than others here at Rio 2016. We are staying in a very nice area of Rio which I am sure was already a cleaner and safer area than those surrounding.

3. Transportation

Expectation; crowded but easy to understand, quick and convenient

Reality- confusing, sometimes convenient and really crowded

The public transportation has been below expectation for much of our trip. Either its slooowww or only available to those with credentials and tickets for that day. When we first arrived, we had to travel to the other side of the city (from Barra to Copa) to pick up our tickets at the Co-sport office. From looking at the public transportation map it looked like we could take a bus, transfer to another bus, take the metro, switch lines and then be there. A lot of transfers for a 15 mile trip. But we figured that we bought the $50US bus card specifically for the Olympics and that we will need to learn the system anyways. So we get on the BRT (bus rapid transport) and take it to where we thought we could transfer to another bus at the same station. False. We had to walk to another station about 5 minutes away to board the next bus to get us to the metro. Little did we know, but this bus was only for those with Olympic tickets for that day- there were no Olympic events that day!! They wouldn’t let us into the bus terminal even though we had the specific Olympic Bus pass and we were on our way to get our tickets. The buses that went by were completely empty. It seemed like a waste of resources having 10 volunteer and BRT staff standing there checking tickets when there were no tickets for that day and no people on the buses. So we had to walk 5 minutes back to the original bus terminal to ask how to get to Copacabana another way. With hundreds of volunteers around but none telling us we couldn’t use the transport and no signs directing us, I felt like we were just wasting our time and those around us because no one really knew what was going on or how to get anywhere. They finally directed us to the city buses, here we got on a bus that stopped ever quarter mile for the next 10 miles. 2 hours later we arrived at our destination. I can see why the locals are having a slight issue with the Rio Olympics, they are forced to take extremely slow and inconvenient public transport when faster is available. Now that the events have begun and we have utilized the BRT many times while having tickets for that day, the staff have completely stopped looking for tickets because there are just too many people to manage, I feel like we got totally screwed those first few days!! Not happy with the transportation system, not only is it not available to all but its also not intuitive and represented incorrectly on the map. The map shows stops that don’t exist and transfers that should be at the same stop but are actually 1 stop away or not even available. What should be a straight forward system is extremely confusing. If we are unlucky enough to be using the transportation when an event ends, the buses are packed so tight the doors barely close! For future Olympics, please think through the transportation a little better because EVERYONE needs to use it effectively and efficiently.

4. Lines

Expectation – long lines

Reality – mile long lines

Overall I feel like everything was underestimated at Rio 2016. All the lines are long, always! From food lines to venue lines, they are unavoidable. But what I don’t understand the most is the lack of anticipation for the influx of people. At opening ceremonies the food stations ran out of food, before opening ceremonies even started!! The system they have works well in theory but without food, there is going to be an issue. The way it works is; there is a line for purchasing food tickets, each food item is purchased here and you are then given a ticket that is good anywhere at that venue on that day. It’s smart if you can anticipate what you will need for the next few hours, because you will already have paid and stood in line and will just need to pick it up at the designated areas. This works well for the beer and drinks section so you don’t have to wait forever to get a drink. But the problem is once ordering your food its often either out of stock in some areas or they aren’t able to keep up on the demand of food and you’re stuck waiting 10 minutes for a hotdog. On multiple occasions I have ordered food to then learn that they don’t have any there and I need to walk all the way to the other side of the park to get what I ordered. It seems like their system could have worked well, if provided with the right resources.

Lines to get into venues seem to be improving from our first day. The first day we had an event at 10:30 so we arrived at the park at 9- it was our first time at the Olympic park and we wanted to see some stuff before the event started. Well we arrived at 9; the gates didn’t open until 9 so we had to wait almost 45 minutes just to get in to the park where we then had to wait in another line to get our bags checked and then a 3rd line to get our tickets scanned. All of this just to get into the park! Just after 10 we finally got in and had to walk all the way over the to gymnastics stadium where we had to wait in line again to get our tickets scanned another time, entering the arena and finding our seats just as the event started- so much for seeing the park before hand! Since the first day they have begun opening the park earlier, which is good because some people had events at 9:30 that first day and the lines caused them to miss some of it, and for the price we are paying for tickets, no one wants to miss anything!

But overall, this experience has been AMAZING!! Seeing the best of the best compete for their countries at the biggest sporting event there is has been nothing less than awesome. Seeing the USA Women’s Gymnastics Team get gold has been the highlight so far! The crowds and atmosphere at water polo and rugby were so energetic, I could feel the whole stadium vibrating with chants and excitement as the teams competed. Up next we will be going to Mens Gymnastics AA finals and Individual finals, Beach volleyball, golf and Track finals! So much has happened and there is still so many more events left to go!


PS. I haven’t event heard the word Zika yet while here.. It seems to be a non-issue, and to be honest I think the Olympic committee has bigger things to worry about (like poop river). I have not even seen a misquito while here!!!

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The Road to Rio; Buenos Aires (part 2)

So thankful to have had one of my closest friends show me around the amazing city of Buenos Aires. It was difficult to say goodbye, but Kristin and I will be reconnected in just a few weeks!!

As we depart for our final destination on the road to Rio I find myself realizing how many authentic activities we were able to enjoy in Buenos Aires thanks to Kristin and her very welcoming friends. Since my last post (Buenos Aires Part 1) we have participated in a tango class, paraded through the rain at the Santelmo market, walked the colorful streets of La Boca and tried maté for the first time. I believe many of these experiences wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have our very own tour guide!

Sunday

The morning after the Asada (an Argentinian BBQ) we were in need of a sleep-in and lazy morning. Too much meat and wine the night before and rain in the morning made me want to snuggle up in bed all day. Once the clouds parted and the rain slowed down we ventured into town to see the Santelmo market. Much like the markets in Cusco, the Santelmo market is held on Sunday’s and occupies tens of blocks of the pedestrian side walk through Buenos Aires. Anything and everything can be found here, hand made goods like leather belts and shoes, homemade foods like empanadas stuffed with chicken and veggies, and an entire flea market full of antiques!


After parading around the market we stopped at a small bakery to grab a quick bite to eat and to hide from the rain. 2 chicken empanadas later we were back on the damp street, meandering around the local salesman. We purchased a few handmade gifts and made it back to the apartment before the rain returned.

Due to the rain we had a very lazy day, enjoying tea while huddled under blankets binge watching the new hit; Stranger Things (side note- this show is a must watch!!! With a quick 8 episodes, there’s no time to drag on the plot- it was a trilling season and I can’t wait for the next one to come out)

Grabbing some pizza for dinner, it was a great day of relaxation and regrouping. Much needed when budget traveling and busily exploring a large city.

Monday

With a few groceries left in the fridge we decided to make up the rest of the eggs and have a nice breakfast at the apartment before starting our day. We gathered our dirty laundry and sought out the closest laundromat. Much like when buying a new car, you never notice how many of that exact car there are on the road until you own one and begin to notice them everywhere. Well this same phenomenon happened with us and laundromats. Lugging around large laundry bags through the streets of Buenos Aires in need of a place to get them cleaned- we walked almost 10 blocks before finding one. A nice woman who seemed to have quite a lot of business was able to take our stuff and have it returned by that evening. By that time we were thrilled to not have to lug our stuff around any farther! But on our way back we saw two other laundromats that were much closer to the one we went to :/ funny how that works!

After dropping our clothing off we headed to the ferry terminal to get some more information on day Ltrips to Uruguay. While boarding what we thought was the bus to the terminal we were quickly kicked off and left on the curb. The language barrier was a problem and We soon learned there is not a city bus to the specific port we needed to get to. The bus we tried to take was an express bus that brought passengers to the end of the line. No stops between. What we needed was a private taxi and a little more research. We stopped for a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and decided what to do for the day.

After some research we decided Uruguay was a quite expensive day trip and wouldn’t really fit into our budget. Between the taxi and the ferry we would be paying close to $100 us plus food and activities while there. This didn’t seem worth it since many people have said Uruguay is so similar to Argentina- especially the town we would be visiting just across the border.

Kristin ended up suggesting a tango class that night- a must do for tourists in Buenos Aires! One of the most authentic things we have done, the tango class was great! Knowing nothing about tango we signed up for the beginners class and for a Monday night the class was surprisingly really full!! The building was an eclectic hodgepodge of art and furniture, making the place feel so unique and one of a kind. But to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to see the place completely lit. It was a little run down, but that added to the affect and made it feel that much more authentic. Learning first the basic feel of tango independently and then joining a partner. After learning the sequence of steps we were off. And surprisingly I think John and I weren’t too bad! The class lasted also 2 hours, followed by a live band and the more professional dancers took the floor. With a few glasses of wine and a few more dances, time passed quickly and next thing we knew it was 1am! South Americans really know how to stay up late, with everyone else still dancing and drinking, we couldn’t keep up and called it for the night. Tangoing our way back to the apartment!

Tuesday 

Our final day in Buenos Aires began of course with a nice hardy breakfast. Going to a local cafe, we ordered eggs and bacon (not really bacon though, pretty much just thinly sliced ham) coffee and juice! After filling up, we walked the streets which were bustling with vendors and salesman looking to hit the late morning foot traffic.


After class, Kristin and one of her friends came to our apartment to teach us about maté – a traditional loose leaf tea seen everywhere in South America. Kristin was so thoughtful and got John and I our very own maté cup and maté!!! Pouring the loose leaves into the cup and adding hot water, the cup is then passed around in small gatherings. The straw is specially made with a filtered end to ensure none of the loose leaves get sucked up. First taste was a little bitter but not too bad. After refilling the cup a few times with hot water but keeping the same maté for multiple uses we were ready to explore the town. Maté is caffeinated and most people use it as a coffee substitutes, refilling the cup throughout the day to stay energized.


We took a public bus about 20 minutes to La Boca, where the streets were lined with colorful houses and colorful people ready to pose for pictures as tango dancers. Along the streets were little vendors selling items very similar to those in the Santelmo market. We walked around a bit, stopping for a bite to eat. The restaurant had beautiful viewing areas of the streets and staged rooms to show how the original immigrants lived. La Boca is known for its immigrant population and those immigrants would live in close proximity surrounding a small courtyard, here at this restaurant they were preserving the history of the immigrants and allowing us to dine where they once dined. The food was great and after exploring the staged houses we went back to the streets to see the little shops. When the sun set it began to cool down and we were ready to return to the apartment.


It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to Kristin but I know we will be seeing eachother soon. It was wonderful having her tour us around the city and bring us to the asada and tango class! I really don’t think we would have had those experiences otherwise.


Now we our onto our final leg of the trip- RIO!!! I will be trying to post more throughout the Olympics to keep an up to date account of what we’re doing and what events we are attending 🙂

The Road to Rio; Buenos Aires (Part 1)

Arriving Wednesday evening, we have been non stop exploring the city of Buenos Aires. The public transportation here is awesome (and cheap) so it has made it even easier to see each of the neighborhoods surrounding us.

Day 1
We flew into the international airport on the out-skirts of Buenos Aires, and after doing a little research learned that taxi is by far not the most affordable way to get into the city. We decided on taking a Tienda Leon – a shared large bus which took us into center city and then broke off into smaller cabs that brought us straight to our destination. This method takes a little longer but was half the price of a traditional cab.

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At our air bnb we were greeted by the doorwoman, who was very kind and gracious. She showed us around the building; how to use the very confusing locks and keys, turn on the hot water and how to find her if any questions arrived. Our apartment was clean, simple, just what we needed although it didn’t quite look like the pictures on Air Bnb website (be careful of this, pics can be very deceiving. – The website made it look much more up to date and newer) This wasn’t really an issue though, the apartment still suited our needs. After relaxing for a bit we ventured out to find a grocery store to stock up on the basics to make our week long stay here more comfortable and convenient. Since eating out is typically a large expense when traveling, like in Cusco we went shopping for easy meals that could hold us over instead of going to a restaurant for each meal. We ended up getting pasta and sauce for a few dinners, eggs, cheese and bread for breakfast, some juices and tea.

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We returned to the air bnb to prepare some pasta and then we were back out to check out the area. The town was booming, not really sure why, but there were people everywhere; mostly children and parents were congregated along the pedestrian walkway cheering. On our way back to the apartment we tried out a local pub where the happy hour was until 10pm and the place was packed – so it had to be good. We tried a few of the local brews and called it for the night.

Day 2
Waking up and preparing our own breakfast of eggs cheese and toast we decided to venture out and learn the subte system (subway). It was quite easy, a refillable card that can be used universally with all the subte lines, bus routes and train stations. For only 0.33 each way, its a very affordable way to get around the city. On the map given to us by our door women we noticed a zoo in a nearby area so naturally that was our first stop! After navigating our way to the correct Subte line we grabbed a coffee and got to the zoo. Being Winter here in Buenos Aires, many of the main attractions are on their off season, this was great because the zoo had a discounted price, but many of the exhibits were closed or minimized for maintenance and comfort of the animals. Still much of the zoo was open and they had many exhibits with extremely lively animals. The bears were out saying hi to those who would stop by. Elephants were rolling in the mud. The king of the jungle- the lion was out sun bathing. Throughout the zoo all over the grassy areas were very over weight ducks and these strange rabbit-kangaroo-rodent things we learned were Patagonian Cavys. Very friendly, and roaming freely, the Cavy’s were lounging around watching all the people go by. Some were even feeding them!

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Later that evening we met up with my roommate from college- Kristin, who has been studying Spanish here in Buenos Aires for the Summer. We caught up over dinner and drinks, making plans to see the city of Tigre the next day.

Day 3
We woke up early to meet Kristin and her friends at the train station to go to Tigre – a city located among a delta with many ports and canals. Being a large tourist area we decided it would be a great place to explore. After a 45 minute train ride we arrived and sought out a cafe. The town was quite dead for being 11:30 on a Friday, but once noon hit the area was booming. We walked around the canals surrounding the train station, and made our way to Puerto de Frutos. Here the port was lined with markets and restaurants, with many tourists shopping around. We decided to take a river tour and loaded onto a boat that toured us around the canals. The houses here seemed to be fully sustained by the rivers, using them as roads rather than having cars and streets. It was amazing to see whole communities with docks as driveways and using the river as if they didn’t know any different. For lunch we had choripans – a chorizo sandwich with peppers and onions.

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Day 4
After making breakfast at the apartment we met up with Kristin to go the the Exposition de Rural- basically a town fair, with booths selling local goods, food and gifts. Cows, sheep and chickens on display to be voted as the best (not sure how they were voted, but there was a massive chicken there with a blue ribbon so it must have had to be determined by size) We went on an extreme test drive for the newest models of chevy trucks- this was quite entertaining! With a professional as our driver, we were taken up and over a 60 degree incline which felt like a roller coaster, over a teeter totter and through a lot of mud. There was a show put on by the police force where they performed a routine with horses where they did stunts on their backs!! It was amazing, for not being a horse person, these horses were very well trained and the police men were really talented themselves!

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We explored the area surrounding Kristins place and went to La Recolata Cemetary. A place where Argentina’s famous and royal citizens are buried. Each family having a massive tomb dedicated to them.

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That night we were invited to attend an Asado- basically an Argentinian version of a BBQ. We brought salad and wine and the meat was to be provided by the host. With many of Kristins classmates and friends there, I was worried that the language barrier would be an issue but it ended up being not a problem! We were greeted so kindly and with a LOT of food. The meat was cooked right in front of us on a grill and passed around as it was ready, slowly filling up on chorizo, pork, sausage, chicken, steak, you name it, they had it! It was great learning the traditions and being apart of am authentic Argentinian celebration!

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For the remainder of our trip we are hoping to make a day trip to Colonia in Uruguay, see the Galileo Planetarium and visit some more with Kristin before going to our final stop in RIO!!

 

The Road to Rio; Valle Navado- Premier Ski Resort

Waking up bright and early for our well anticipated ski trip was totally worth it! After getting a quick bite to eat we met the concierge and loaded up the vans for our trip up to Valle Navado. Along with us there was a french family of 6 that piled into the van for what was expected to an hour and a half ride up to the Valle Navado Mountain.

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Much like Cusco, to get to the top of these very steep mountains we must traverse from side to side, up and up, winding back and forth across the mountain side- unfortunately this takes a while. Once we reached the snow level, we could see the rain we received the night before was snow here! Powder everywhere!! With the snow, came some sketchy roads, with warning signs of icy conditions and avalanches lining the sides of the roads. With those warning, our driver put chains on the tires and proceeded to climb the icy mountain. Unfortunately, shortly after putting the chains on we were stopped by mountain control. Up ahead there was an avalanche blocking the roads – it would be 45 minutes until it was cleared. So here we were stuck! A line of traffic in front of us and behind us, with no other route to reach the top. So we waited.. Waiting patiently we got all of our gear on so we could go straight to the slopes. After the roads were cleared we cautiously continued up the mountain, to the very top where we were welcomed by the snow bowl that was Valle Navado!!


After lacing up and strapping in we were on the gondola up to the main lifts! The place was beginning to get crowded but the mountain was big enough to maintain the constant increase in skiers and snowboarders. The rental equipment from the hotel was not the greatest, so after a run we needed to get a little tune up in the shop and then we were off! Spending the remainder of the day trying every trail and lift. By lunch time we needed a break, my legs were already so exhausted. Getting some food from the concession we sat and enjoyed the 40 degree weather with sun shine and no wind. It was perfect!


The mountain was so open compared to those in Vermont. Being used to trails cut into the woods with predetermined routes, here it was wide open. With portions groomed and the remainder left covered in powder; it was a dream come true. To my surprise the actual ski lodge was pretty small. With one small room for lockers, a rental shop and information desk, it was much different than the resorts back home where every main lift has a lodge for food and warming up. But the place didn’t seem too crowed, the line for food was long but other than that the lift lines were kept to a minimum and some trails were left untouched!

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At 5pm the sun began to set and we were beat. Ready to crawl into bed and warm up, we met our van driver who would bring us and the french family back to the Hyatt. Winding and turning back down the mountain we arrived to the hotel later than expected and crashed. One of the best snowboard days I’ve had in a while, the fresh and easily accessible powder was great!!

Nothing beats a great day on the mountain – especially in the middle of JULY!!!

The Road to Rio; Santiago, Chile

We were definitely living the high life in Santiago at the Grand Hyatt! Arriving to luxury, and welcomed with a mountain view king suite. The bi-level hotel room was beautiful but the best part was the view. The juxtaposition of the booming city of Santiago with the snow capped mountains in the background was just stunning.


Using points for our accommodations really paid off. Since the standard room and mountain view rooms were the same cost in points we upgraded to the mountain view, and along with that came a complimentary breakfast buffet. (Typically the buffet would not be included for points users, but luckily for us the receptionist messed up in our favor so we benefited)

Arriving late at night, we quickly checked in, took the glass sided elevator up to the 9th floor and passed out for the evening. The following morning we woke up to rain, unfortunately… We took our time at the buffet, including scones, fresh fruit, made to order omelettes, mini pancakes, coffee and juice!! It was great to finally have a big filling breakfast since it’t our favorite meal!

Once we filled up and got ready, the sun started peaking out and the clouds were disappearing so we decided to venture into the city. A 15 minute walk got us to the metro line and for $1 we boarded the metro and went 8 stops to the city center. Here we walked around, exploring the shops and sites of the center. Following a pedestrian walkway we ended up in the Plaza de Armas, a beautiful park surrounded by even more beautiful buildings. Stopping for a cup of coffee and enjoying a brief people watching session we decided to walk to the nearby zoo.


Unfortunately the zoo was closed on Mondays 😦 but the park – San Cristobal, provided a funicular (cable car) ride up to the top of the mountain where we enjoyed beautiful 360 degree views of the city. Up at the top there was a cathedral with small foot paths surrounding to explore the mountain sides. We decided to explore, taking a foot path to the very peak and enjoying a small snack and the view. But on the way back down we took a wrong turn and ended up on a nearly un-trekkable path! Covered in mud, the path was slippery and steep. After sliding around and continuing to make wrong turns we finally made it back to the main path covered in mud! We figured it was time to go back down the funicular and take the metro back to the hotel.


That evening we met with the hotels concierge service to book a day at the mountain for the next day. We were fitted for our equipment and told to be there at 7:15am the next morning.

There was a large outdoor/indoor mall near the hotel so we decided to check it out. Complete with an ice rink, the mall was huge. All the American stores found back in the states along with new ones- we window shopped for a bit and grabbed some food at the food court before turning in early for our much anticipated snowboarding trip 🙂

To my surprise, Santiago was HUGE! Seeing he whole city from San Cristobal showed me just how spread out the city is. Although we only had a half day of good weather; the city was great and I feel we got to see the parts that appealed to us- although I do wish the zoo was open!!

Upcoming – Valle Navado – Premier Ski Resort

The Road to Rio; 24 hours in Lima, Peru (day 9&10)

As we await in the airport for our flight to Santiago, Chile I sit here and wonder about how different Miraflores Lima is to Cusco. It felt like we were in a totally different hemisphere between the two cities; Lima hot. Cusco cold. Lima humid. Cusco dry. Lima urbanized. Cusco native. But in reality, one could say the same between New York City and Reading Vermont (my home town).

It’s funny though, the differences in cultures between the two cities. That cultural difference would not be found between NYC and Reading, on the most basic level – food and eating habits – the rituals remain the same between the two American towns. But here in Lima, it couldn’t have had a bigger difference between eating habits with Cusco. Here in Miraflores Lima the eating was urbanized, and American – finding a chain restaurant at every corner, Burger King, Pizza Hut, chilis, even TGI Fridays (basically the most Americanized thing ever). And I do not mean this in a derrogitory way when I say that Miraflores is “Americanized”, it actually was quite comforting after spending the last week without hot water or familiar food. It was just unexpected.

We landed in Lima yesterday late morning and after collecting our belongings we hailed a taxi to Miraflores (a coast town on the outskirts of Lima). The ride was about 30 minutes along the beautiful coast, watching surfers and runners enjoy the Pacific Ocean.


We stayed in a low budget hotel-Ibis- which was perfect for our stay. For $48 we had all of the ammenities of any other hotel; wifi, clean room, towels, hot shower, security, all for a low price. Since I was still feeling ill upon arrival, I couldn’t have been happier to check in early and lay down. My fever was beginning to break and I was starting to feel better but I really didn’t want to over do it right before heading to Chile.


After a nap and some comfort food we decided to walk around the town. It was amazing to see how the coastal highway was cut right into the earth, leaving a steep bank with moss and vines growing to secure the land from land slides. Lima could really benefit from a little Inca terraces here! We walked to Larcomere; an “outdoor” shopping center equipt with American stores and Chain restaurants. The temperature was perfect for walking around, so the place was packed! We ordered smoothies and window shopped around, finding prices at Nike, Quicksilver, Adidas to be equivalent or more than those in the US (no surprise there). There was also a local micro brew fest going on, we meandered through but I was in no shape to try any. I still enjoyed seeing how similar it was to the states. Once walking around the entirety of the mall, including a bowling alley and movie theater, we headed back to our hotel to call it for the night.

This morning I woke up feeling 100%!! We grabbed a hot coffee and walked around for a bit. Everyone was out biking or jogging along the coastal paths. I really enjoy how every small town in Peru has a little park to enjoy. On our walk we found a park that had a little turtle pond! The pond was full of every sized turtle!


After enjoying the park and watching the turtles we returned to the hotel to pack up and check out. Leaving our bags at the front desk -our flight wasn’t till 5:45pm so we had some time to kill. We walked down the steap cliffs to the coast where we found tons of people surfing! Beginners and experts all enjoying the waves and semi cold water. Along the beach were vintage vw buses full of rental equipment set up for people to try out surfing. We continued walking to the pier where we got a great view of the action!


We then trekked back up the steap bank to get some lunch at the Larcomere. Just your standard pizza 🙂 and began walking in the other direction, window shopping and enjoying a local bookstore while we killed time before our flight. At around 3 we headed back to Ibis hotel to collect our belongings and call an uber.


Now that we have gone through security and I’m sitting here reflecting back on my time in Peru, I couldn’t be happier from my experiences here. After just a week I feel I have been introduced to a whole new world. I have never been to a place so culturally different, yet very inviting. Everyone has been more than happy to share their experiences and knowledge with us without making me feel out of place. Although we were only here for 10 days it feels like a month! I believe we were able to see the majority of Cusco and the highlight of this portion of the trip was by far the Inca Jungle Trek. Trying new food, mountain biking, hiking, holding monkeys and Machu Picchu were just few of the many things we packed into a short trip. I look forward to what is to come, especially going snowboarding in Santiago!! 🙂

The Road to Rio; Inca Jungle Trek (Day 5-8)

Now that we have returned to our hostel and have sufficient internet I want to catch you guys up on our 4 day, 3 night Inca Jungle Trek!!

Day 1 of Trek- Mountain Biking

With our bags packed with just the necessities for the 4 days, we were promptly met by our guide at the hostel and brought to the bus that took us up into the mountains for our first day of the trek.

After a 2 hour bus ride in a very cramped bus full of many nationalities, languages and backpacks, we arrived at Abra De Malaga. Like many of our other bus drivers, it was a hectic ride of climbing the mountain, passing with on coming traffic, and hitting speed bumps wayyy to fast. But the ride was amazing, as we climbed up and up we were above the clouds, looking over the Sacred Valley.


As we stood among the clouds our tour guides handed out some heavy duty mountain biking equipment including shin guards, spine protectors, elbow pads, gloves and a helmet. We were fitted to our bikes and given a short instruction speech. Then we began our 50 km ride to Santa Maria. Mostly down hill, we were reaching high speeds as we traversed across and down the mountain through rivers and over bridges. In total it took us about 3 1/2 hours to cover 50 kilometers to make it to the small town of Santa Maria.

In Santa Maria we were checked into our hostel for the night. Surprisingly it was very nice! I wasn’t expecting such nice accommodation while on this trek, but we were given our own private room with bathroom with a magnificent view of the mountains. Once established, we met the rest of our group – one dutch girl, 3 Brazilians (Dad and 2 sons) and our tour guide and Cusco native Denis.


A short walk from our hostel we ate lunch- creamy potato soup (I soon learned that soup is a staple in the Peruvian diet), sweet tea and the main course of lentils, beef and rice. The meal was somewhat familiar but with a twist. After lunch we explored the small town of Santa Maria and went back to the hostel to get acquainted with our tour group and play some card games and pool. Those that choose to do the river rafting arrived around 6 and we then went to the same small restaurant as lunch and had dinner. We opted to not go white water rafting, it was an extra expense and both John and I have already done it. So we decided to stay warm and out of the freezing cold mountain water.

At dinner we had soup again with hot tea with coco leaves, chicken rice and vegetables, with a coconut chocolate bar for dessert. Our meals were all pretty similar without much variation, but it was good to fill up when we could because our activities really took a lot out of us. Since the sun sets so early here, and we needed to rest up for our big hiking day we all went to bed quite early.


Day 2 of Trek – Hiking and Hot Springs

Day 2 arrived quickly, we woke up before the sun rise and had a very filling breakfast of omelets with tomatoes, mango/orange juice, bread with jam and tea. By far the best and most american breakfast we had up to that day. Once we filled up, we packed our bags and met our bus to bring us to the Inca Jungle Trail. We opted to put all of our unnecessary items in one back pack and have it brought to our next hostel for 5 soles ($1.75) We packed just some snacks, water, bathing suits, bug spray and sun screen in a small back pack and took turns carrying it. I am so glad we did this!!

Along our hike there were small huts selling fruits and snacks every 4-6 kilometers which was great because our hike was mostly uphill and they provided a nice place to sit in the shade and regain some energy. Along with resting at these stops, Denis our tour guide educated us about the culture of the Incas and Peruvians.


Our first stop was at a small coffee and coco farm where they had coffee beans out drying in the sun. Denis taught us about the process of drying, preserving, grinding the beans and how coco leaves are used as a way to give thanks to the land when buried under a rock with 3 small leaves over lapping. Here we met a very feisty cappuccino monkey – Hiro, we were informed not to get too close because he has a reputation for stealing!


After another stretch of hiking we stopped at another hut where we learned about a special fruit used to make cosmetics and dyes. Denis showed us how by painting small designs and pictures on us using the dye from the plants. We also were given traditional clothing of the Inca to try on. At this stop there was also a monkey- one I grew quite fond of named Mona Lisa. She had a large mustache and was so friendly!!


Continuing our hike, we trekked down waterfalls and cliffs with amazing views reaching yet another small hut. Here we had local coffee with raw stevia sugar and some coco leaves as a pick-me-up.


By lunch time we had hiked about 14 kilometers and were ready to rest and have some food! We stopped at a hikers hot spot, filled with fellow hikers doing similar treks. Here we had guacamole, quinoa soup (of course) spaghetti with beef sauce and lemonade. After a short 30 minute rest we were off to finish the rest of our hike and make it to the hot springs.


The final leg of our journey was down on the river bed where we walked along the sand and stones, stopping to put our feet in the cooling water. We crossed a very shaky, long foot bride to reach a cable car that brought us across the river. The cable car was like nothing I’ve ever seen before and definitely would not be used in the states. What it consisted of was a metal “basket” hanging from a cable that was at an angle so gravity would do its work and bring us across- similar to zip lining. One reaching the other side we proceeded through a very dark tunnel and arrived at the hot springs!!


In 2009 the original hot springs were destroyed from the rainy season, washing them away. After that they rebuilt them as a cascade of pools with the top being directly filled via the hot spring and the water trickling down getting progressively cooler. It looked like a resort! We decided to try the hottest one, which was a comfortable heat not too hot. After soaking for about an hour we rejoined the group and packed up to head to our hostel. Unfortunately the hot springs are a breeding ground for mosquitos, here everyone got hundreds of bites. We especially got them on our legs. Luckily I began taking my malaria medication before the trek and zika is not a thing in this region so besides the itchy-ness I should be ok!


A short bus ride up to Santa Teresa we were welcomed at our hostel where once again I was surprised at how nice the place was and we were given our own private room with a bathroom. Unfortunately, we had cold water again and had to take another cold shower. For dinner we went to a small restaurant in the center city where we had soup, again!! With our soup we had local trout, vegetables and rice. For dessert was cheese cake. After returning to the hostel, we shortly went to bed after our exhausting day of hiking 22 km up and down the Inca jungle for over 7 hours!

Day 3 of Trek- Zip Line and Hike to Aguas Calientes

We woke up very early to a pancake breakfast with toast and tea. A very filling meal before our busy morning zip lining! We took a bus up to the zip line park and proceeded to get fitted with equipment and instructions. With our harnesses and helmets on we started on our first line of 5. This one being the smallest; 500m and the largest one being 1000m! Between the lines we hiked up the mountain side and over a very rickety root bridge ended with the last line of 900m- “The Condor” Here we were harnessed in on our stomachs like a condor and flew over the valley! Unfortunately I didn’t make it all the way across and had to be rescued half way… very embarrassing!!


We then began our trek to Aguas Calientes – the city below Machu Picchu. We walked along the train tracks, the train is the only way to get in and out of the rural city. After about an hour of walking we stopped at another hikers hot spot and had lunch which yet again soup, rice, vegetables and chicken. We also tried the Pisco Sour – a local favorite. After lunch we all napped in hammocks provided by the rest stop and then continued on our walk by the train tracks.

After a total of about 10 km we made it to Aguas Calientes! A very touristy town used as a place to sleep for those visiting Machu Picchu. Our hostel was located right in the center of the town over looking the bus and train station. We picked up our bus, train and Machu Picchu tickets and gathered for dinner. Of course we had soup and chicken and rice!! After dinner we met with our Machu Picchu tour guide who explained how the natural world wonder worked. After exploring the bustling city we turned in for the night as we had to get up very early to get in line for the bus up the Machu Picchu.
Day 4 of Trek – Machu Picchu and Return to Cusco

Getting up at 4am was tough!! But it was necessary to catch a bus up to the park in time for our tour at 6:30am. At 4:30am the line was already a hundred people long and growing! There are two options to get up to Machu Picchu- bus or hike. Our guide recommended the bus, since it is only $12 and the hike is straight up for about an hour without any real perks to walking we decided to take the bus. The buses begin filling up and heading up to Machu Picchu at 5:30 am and the gates open at 6am. We got on the 5th bus and proceeded up the winding road to the Machu Picchu gates where the place was already packed! We met our guide and entered through the gates. I bet you’re wondering why we went so early, well it was all worth it when we got to see the sun rise over the mountains and cast the most beautiful light onto Machu Picchu!


After a 2 hour guided tour of the city we explored more, visited the Inca Bridge and hung out with some cool llamas.


At 2pm we were exhausted and ready to get some food. Since we didn’t hike up the mountain to the gates and the bus line was so long to return to Aguas Calientes we decided to hike down and walk to the city.


It took us about an hour to get back to the city, where we promptly found a restaurant and got some pizza! We had plenty of time to kill since our train back didn’t leave until 9:30pm. For the next few hours we explored the city, drank some coffee, snoozed in the park and finally caught our train. The train was about 2 hours to Ollantaytamo where we caught a 2 hour bus to Cusco. Arriving at our hostel at 2am and promptly passing out!!

 

Recommendations

I would fully recommend the trek we took – Inca Jungle Tour by Reserve Cusco   http://www.reserv-cusco-peru.com/

For only $225 we stayed in very nice hostels, all buses and transportation included, entrance fees covered and large meals. It was totally worth it, one of the coolest things I have ever done. Our guide was really knowledgeable of Inca culture and took his time on the hikes so we wouldn’t kill ourselves keeping up. It was an overall great experience!

There is an option to take a bus back rather than the train- this trip will cost $175 although it is cheaper, the trip back will take almost 3 hours longer. And at the end of a 4 day trek, all you really want to do is get back and go to bed.

The additional activities were great- and cheap! We only paid $32 for the zip line which in the states would have been triple that!

Today I will not be posting about our day, as we just recovered from our trek. I am dealing with a slight fever which I believe to be from the food. About 7 out of 10 travelers to Cusco get a fever with stomach ache due to diet. I am beginning to feel much better than I did this morning. Hopefully it will continue to get better because tomorrow we fly to Lima, Peru!

The Road to Rio; Day 4 Trek from Chinchero to Urquillos (Inca Trail)

This morning we woke up early to meet Louis (our hostel leader) for a morning trek from Chinchero to Urquillos along part of the historic Inca Trail. After a small breakfast at the hostel we made our way down to the bus/taxi street where cars were lined up to bring people up to the trail entrance. We joined a small taxi with 3 other hikers for 6 sol each. The driver was CRAZY!! Weaving in and out of traffic, passing the cars in front of us with on coming cars and hitting speed bumps at high speeds! On the bright side, he got us there in just under 20 minutes so we were able to enjoy the small market before starting the trail at 9am. The market was full of the usual souvenirs seen at the other markets around Cusco, Louis had us try a Peruvian “energy drink” made mostly from potatoes. I was not the biggest fan, so I let him have the rest.

At the trail entrance there was one last stop for bathroom breaks before starting the trail so I figured I’d go. I had heard that many of the toilets in Peru were just a hole in the ground, and here was my first experience! To my surprise the restrooms were very clean and easy to use.


(We followed the red path on the right side of the map)

As we began our hike, Louis told us a little about the Incas and their traditions. Explaining the energy of items and how they used an instrument similar to a sun dial to tell what time of year it was and when to plant certain crops. The beginning of the trek was all down hill, along foot paths dating back over 2000 years. The Incas were able to go from Chinchero to Urquillos in 30 minutes, it took us about 2 hours! The views were amazing, almost unreal! Besides us, we saw only 5 other people on the trail, it was amazing to be the only ones out on these gigantic mountains. After hiking down hill by water falls and terraced mountain sides we followed the river for a flat period where we saw cows and donkeys grazing in the fields. The hardest part was the up hill portion, I’ve never been at such a high altitude so when hiking up hill was difficult to catch my breath. Luckily the up hill part was short, reaching the small villages outside of Urquillos. We followed the dirt road into the city where we caught a bus back to Cusco.

(Inca terraces, used to help grow crops, retain soil nutrients and prevent land slides – took about 40-60 years to make)

The bus ride back was just as crazy as the one up, our driver was weaving in and out of traffic. Stopping abruptly and we even got pulled over by the police! (he just stopped us to check for our taxi drivers’ driving license and taxi license) Unfortunately I got sick on the way back, I think due to the altitude, bumpy roads and high intensity of hiking. But I’m all fine now- no need to worry!

(The Sacred Valley)

The bus dropped us off in the center of Cusco where we headed back to the hostel to get a shower and take a nap. Once we re-cooperated, we headed back to the square to have some dinner at a small restaurant; Fuegos. Since I hadn’t been feeling well, we decided on an American restaurant where the food would be familiar to my body. John tried one of the local Cusco Brews – a wheat ale by the Brewery of the Sacred Valley. We each enjoyed our American food – philly cheese steak for John and a grilled chicken sandwich for me. We walked through the square where large groups of people were formed listening to what we think mush be a political speaker.

When we returned to the hostel we had a short briefing with our Inca Jungle Trek leader about the trek and what to expect and bring along. We will be heading out tomorrow for 4 days/43nights. I may not have much internet connection so posts might be scarce until our return. We are excited to go mountain biking, hiking, swim in the hot springs, zip lining and exploring Machu Picchu!!!

The Road to Rio; Day 3 – Flea Market and Conservation Tour

Last night we had a lovely display of fireworks right off the balcony of our hostel in celebration of the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen.

Today was yet another beautiful one here in Cusco, with temps reaching low 70F. I have to say the weather has been much warmer than expected. We started our day with another great FREE breakfast provided by our hostel, once again trying the Coco leave tea (still not sure if it is working or not) yogurt and cereal and home made orange juice.

At 9am we met one of our hostel leaders- Louis and went to the Flea Market near Santiago, Peru. On our way he informed us about everyday life in Peru, pointing out skinned guinea pigs- often cooked for dinner and dried baby goat used for ceremonies. After 15 minutes of weaving in and out of pedestrians, merchants and little kids we made it to the flea market. Only held on Saturdays, this market is a hot spot for locals to find cheaper items than what is sold during the week at the markets in the main square. Louis warned us to be careful of knock-off products and since we don’t look like locals, he helped us barter and purchase items. The biggest item being sold were shoes – old and new, youth and adult, sandals and boots. Louis informed us that shoes are a form of status in Peru, those who can afford nice shoes are seen as higher up socially.

(Peruvian weaving a very traditional textile on a loom. It will take her about 25 days to make a 10m long tapestry)
Since arriving in Peru, we have been in search of a cell phone company selling sim cards with data for unlocked phones. The first search was unsuccessful so we asked Louis if he knew of any good places, he said to keep an eye out for street vendors who may be selling just the sim card. On our way back from the flea market we ran into just that! They were selling sim cards for 5 sol ($1.50) which included unlimited whatsapp, facebook, 60 min of calls and 1 G of data for 7 days. This is exactly what we were looking for! Having data will help us make arrangements with our tour groups and allow us to find directions when not on the wifi at the hostel. Wifi is not very common throughout the city, so for such a cheap price we bought the sim card.

After arriving back in Cusco, we sat down and had a fresh juice drink with Louis and discussed different options for Machu Picchu Treks. We have decided on 3 nights/4 day Inca Jungle Trek leaving Monday morning. On this trek we will be mountain biking part of the Inca Trail, Zip Lining through the jungle and hiking up to Machu Picchu and we opted to take the train back (a little pricier but it saves us about 3 hours of travel time). We paid $225 per person, I’m glad we waited to book a trek like this until arrival because online, similar trips were almost twice as expensive.

After making our usual PB&J lunch, we headed back to the main square to meet our guide for the Cochahusai Animal Conservation tour for 35 sol (about $12). Our group of about 10 met in the center square and proceeded on to a small bus which took us up into the Saksaywaman Hills. 30 minutes of driving up a windy road over looking the city of Cusco we arrived at the Conservation. Here they rescue hurt animals and animals involved in illegal trafficking and nurse them back to life, releasing them when they are able to. Our guide was great, allowing us to go in and pet and feed many of the animals. The highlight of the conservation were the Andean Condors, close to being endangered due to illegal traffickers who kill the birds and harvest them for ceremonies and sell their left over feathers and meat. The head male condor at the conservation is 65 years old and weighs 20 kilos. With at least 15 more being nursed back to health, they try to release one each month or so back into the wild. Some though, like the 65 year old male keep returning back to the conservation where they feel safe. Along with the condors, they had alpacas, birds, Wildcats and many more.

(65 year old photogenic condor perched above us!

(20 year old tortoise weighs about 30 lbs)

(Dominic the llama!!)
Once returning down the winding roads of the hills of Cusco we stopped at a small restaurant on our way back to the hostel. I have been very nervous about trying the local street food – many say it can make you sick if not accustomed to it, so we decided on going to a safe bet with grilled chicken, french fries, and fresh salad. The meal was very good, cooked right in front of us and only cost 7.50 sol ($2.50).

All day and all night there are small celebrations throughout the city for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen which is also celebrated in various parts of Peru. The exact nature of the festivities varies by region, but normally involves a mix of Catholic and pre-Columbian traditions, centered on the procession of the image of the Virgin. Bands, dance groups and colorfully dressed devotees lead a parade through the streets to the main square, reenacting key events in Peruvian history and portraying the battle of good versus evil.

Now we are resting up because early tomorrow we head out of a FREE guided tour of the Lost Inca Trail with our hostel.

 

The Road to Rio; Day 2 – exploring Cusco

Our first night in the hostel was a little cold, with temps reaching 35F but it wasn’t as bad as expected. We woke up bright and early to enjoy the FREE provided breakfast at our hostel. There was a small array of cereal, yogurt, toast with jam, coffee and tea. We decided to try out the coco leaves in a tea – placed 10-12 leaves in hot water and letting it seep for 10 minutes. The tea was quite tasteless but not necessarily bad. John didn’t have any dizzy spells today so it could have helped, or he could be getting used to the altitude..


We then began to head towards the center square of Cusco and walk around the city. On the way we passed a large market; San Pedro where locals were selling EVERYTHING!! The market was very crowed with people and merchandise! There we beautiful hand made clothes, hats, and bags. Farmers selling fresh fruit, meat and small meals. We decided to look around the whole place and return later on this week to make any purchases.


We proceeded to the square, passing more shops and vendors on the sides of the street. Many young Peruvians were trying to sell day tours, it was hard to tell what was a good deal so we decided to take some flyers and ask more when returning to the hostel. Here in the square there is a beautiful fountain situated in the middles surrounded by nicely manicured lawns and barracaded in by large historical buildings. We stopped at a local cafe with outdoor seating to grab a coffee and decide our next plans.


We decided on visiting the Covento de Santo Domingo del Cusco – Qorikancha. Its an old cathedral situated right by the square with museum-esque paintings and information throughout the building – inside and outside. At the entrance there were local Peruvians offering to be a tour guide inside the Cathedral for 45 sol, we decided to be our own tour guides and just pay 15 sol each (about $5). This ended up being fine, many of the exhibits had English translations so we followed along quite easily.


After the Cathedral tour we returned back to our hostel to make our own lunch of PB&J’s 🙂 On our walk back a made a new furry little friend – Pepe. Many locals have baby animals available for pictures for just 1 sol. I couldn’t resist!!


After a quick nap and trying out the hostel showers- which actually had hot water and were very clean. We went back to the center square to walk around some more. We took a different route this time, which brought us along some of the more local shops which were selling anything from kitchen faucets to mattresses. Back in the square we searched around for a place to stop for dinner; settling at a Pizzeria where we sat street side and watched the buzz and bustle go by. We ordered an everything pizza, and had cheese cake for dessert costing a mere $20 with drinks included.


Tonight our hostel is hosting an event where we can try local drinks and meet fellow guests. I look forward to meeting some fellow travelers who may be joining us in a few days for our Machu Picchu Trek!