Trains in Peru

Peru rail from Cusco to Puno

There are two main train companies in Peru, Inca Rail and Peru Rail. Both are clean, comfortable and modern. Of course there are varying levels of service and amenities. The relatively short train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (about 1 1/2 hours) goes through some lush, beautiful areas, often along the river.

The longer train from Cusco to Puno (Lake Titicaca) goes through a long valley for 10-12 hours. It is scenic in a different way however to break up the monotony, they have some staff play music, do local dances, and have a fashion show (merchandise for sale, of course!). The food was excellent on this train and you have white table clothes, wine, etc.

While trains are more expensive than buses, they are faster and more comfortable and still relatively affordable. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes was under $200 each way for the two of us and from Cusco to Puno, $450 for the two of us, including meals and entertainment.

The trip to Aguas Calientes is much lusher and (IMHO) more beautiful but we enjoyed the trip to Puno as well.

Bus from Puno to Arrequipa

Peru is a good sized country, almost twice the size of Texas and only slightly smaller than Alaska. While we did fly into Cusco and out of Arrequipa when we started our travels back to the USA, we normally used buses most of the rest of the time (except our train to/from Aguas Calientes and from Cusco to Puno).

The 6 hour bus ride (192 miles) was not nearly as beautiful in my eyes (remember I like green) but it was still striking. The area, especially as you approach Arrequipa is quite arid. Still an interesting trip.

Puno

Puno is 12,556 feet in altitude and we could feel it as we climbed the two flights of stairs to our room…but by the time we left about 5 days later we had much less trouble. It is a well kept town with a pleasant pedestrian walk with lots of designs in the street. The town is situated on Lake Titicaca which is one of South America’s largest lakes and the world’s highest navigable body of water. Bolivia is across the lake from Puno but we didn’t go there.

Design in street.

Reflections of Puno:

  • For about $1 per page, someone who can read/type will write a letter for you. It seemed to be a very good business as there was often someone at one of the tables dictating a letter.
  • Funerals are a big deal, we saw a couple and they include music and a procession.
  • While we didn’t have any problems with thefts, one of our favorite restaurants had straps to tie your chair.
  • Getting money was expensive, the most expensive on our trip. You could only get a small amount at each ATM and the charges were high.
  • Fun Tee shirt we saw for sale with a play on the concept of “kamasutra”.

We did only a couple of things in Puno because Lindie has under the weather. We both went to the Uros Islands and Dan also went to the Sillistani tombs. Sillistani is a pre-incan cemetary.

The Uros Islands was one of our highlights of our entire travels, up there with Machu Picchu! These islands were interesting for two reasons:

  • The were literally created from blocks of sod with reeds in the lake and tied together until the reed roots grew together to make it a solid block. These “islands” float in the water and are anchored at one point by a pole and rope.
  • The locals who live on each of the islands, about 6 families per island, have found a way to retain their culture and make a living by sharing their lives with tourists.

For a reasonable fee, you take a boat out to the islands where you are greeted by some of the local women. Getting off the boat onto the island is a surprise because the “land” is covered in reeds and is mushy in places. The locals are constantly harvesting and renewing the reeds that cover the area.

The women seem to primarily make artwork where they use the chain stitch to tell the story of their family. The men create the island, maintain it, and make/sail boats made of the reeds.

Their homes are small one room buildings made of…reeds, of course. They cook outside on open fires however they had added a solar panel to each home so that they no longer need to use candles or oil lights inside. Fire had been a major issue so they are safer now with the solar electricity. Roofs are made of reeds tied together and when it rains, they often leak…surprised they haven’t changed to a more solid type of roof.

I’m not sure how many islands there are now but I did read that in 2011 there were about 60 islands with a total of about 12oo inhabitants.

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Education Plus Nicaragua Needs Help

I’m way behind on posting because we have not had good internet but this post needs to be done in any case. It isn’t about our recent activities, it is about Education Plus Nicaragua which we visited back in May last year.

I didn’t give this organization enough mention in my May 15, 2017 posting. We visited the school and talked at length with a couple of staff members and met some of the kids. The children love going there each day, if for no other reason that they get a decent meal. But most of them appreciate the supplemental education that they get as well.

I received this email today and feel compelled to post it and ask anyone who reads this to consider giving $5, $10, $25, or more one time or on an ongoing basis. I can just about count the monthly contributions that I do regularly on one hand and this is one of them.

“Dear friends and family,

Where to even begin.

Last week, political protests erupted all across Nicaragua, leaving more than 30 dead so far.  Protesters are sick of what they view as their corrupt and inept government, and government forces have met peaceful protests with guns and mortars.  New laws were announced increasing income taxes, higher taxes on social security payments, and decreased medical coverage.  At the same time social security is almost insolvent, its funds having allegedly been used by the main political party, the Sandinistas, to purchase luxury housing and private businesses for themselves.  Censorship has kicked up – news channels that are not pro-government have been shut down, and things only seem to be getting worse.  “President” Daniel Ortega has announced he will be rescinding the social security reforms, but the number of protesters is still growing, with some police forces disobeying orders and joining the side of the people. Businesses in the capital are on strike today, demanding the release of political prisoners and an end to censorship and violent repression.

While the social security reforms were the main trigger of the protests, this really has been a long time coming.  Several other issues have caused the protest, including the government’s inept handling of a recent natural disaster in the Indio Maiz region, and because the people are sick of a public education system that says it averages 25 children per classroom but actually averages 50 or more.  Now, a common protest against non-profits such as Education Plus is: “why are you educating that children?  That should be the government’s job.  If you provide the education, then the government has no incentive to do their job.  Therefore, you are actually contributing to the problem.”

Well, in Nicaragua, the endemic corruption is so bad that even if there were more funding for the school system, little would find its way to the children.  More fundamentally, the current government does not want its people educated.  University students are a main faction of the protesters.   The government knows that with education comes greater awareness and a decrease in the sense of powerlessness.  Uneducated people are poorer – so the government can buy their votes cheaply in election years by going around giving out sacks of food and cheap building materials to repair homes.  Additionally, it is the poor and illiterate who are the easiest to manipulate.  We have firsthand accounts of the police going into our community of Pantanal and paying men 200 cord (about 6 USD) to attack peaceful protesters.

This is not the e-mail I wanted to be writing.  But big things are going on right now in Nicaragua, and I want to let you all know that with Education Plus, things will be business as usual as much as possible.  While public schools are closed for now, our doors will be open.  Our employees do not want to stay at home, in fact, they say they feel safer at Casa de los Sueños.  We have arranged transportation so they can get to and from work safely.  If the power is cut across the country as is rumored (in order to prevent communications of what is going on to the outside world), we will keep our doors open.  We will cook with wood and teach in dark but still enthusiastic classrooms.  We will remain a safe place for the children to come and be children throughout the crisis. 

If we start to argue about “government responsibility”, it is the children who will lose.  It falls to us who actually have the economic power to make a difference, to educate the children who will be the future leaders of their country.   As Cardinal Obispo Silvio Baez recently told a gathering of university students at the Metropolitan Cathedral, “The students of Nicaragua are its moral reserve.”

To make a donation to help us continue feeding the children during the crisis, please click on the button below:

Click Here to Help us Feed the Children During the Crisis

Thank you for standing with us during these heartbreaking times.

With hope and gratitude,

Monica, Jim, the staff, volunteers and children of Education Plus

Monica Loveley
Executive Director
Education Plus Nicaragua
www.eduplusnicaragua.org
www.facebook.com/eduplusnicaragua

 

Aguas Calientes Part 2

Most people only come to Aguas Calientes for the day or at best overnight. Breakfast at our hotel started at 4:30 in the morning because some people get up and hike up the mountain to be at the ticket gate when it opens at 7:00! Others get in line to get the bus so that they can be at the gate at 7:00. The buses are fairly new and comfortable for the ride up the mountain with 14 switchbacks.

Since we didn’t have a schedule to keep we stayed in the town several days. The things to do in the town aren’t as exciting as going to Machu Picchu but they were pleasant. In addition to looking at the stone carvings, there are hikes, tourist shops, hot springs, butterfly gardens, museum, and just exploring the town. While we walked up to the hot springs (to see some of the carvings along the way), we didn’t have bathing suits with us (we had traveled with only some of our things and had left them in Guayaquil with some of out things) and didn’t want to rent suits. We did buy a few things at the tourist shops but we mostly just hiked and walked around town.

Walking towards the museum, we passed men that were creating stone building blocks by hand. There were a few power tools but most of the work was done by hand, one stone at a time. Hard, hot work.

Workers in background picking stone; Foreground shows blocks that are partially finished.
Some work is done with power tools but it is still hot, back breaking work.
Man in green shirt is putting finishing touches on each block.
Finished stones

There was this funky old bus at a restaurant on the way to the museum as well. Love that it is used to hold plants and the satellite dish!We wandered into the area that is where the locals live. There was a lot of renovations in the past 5 years or so. New government buildings and a wonderful soccer field where we saw a game going on at night.

What a beautiful location to work out or play soccer!

The bridge that crosses over to the other side has chain link on the sides and as in some large cities, people have added a variety of padlocks as a symbol of their love. Cute although I understand it there get to be too many locks, the authorities have to cut them off.In Peru, there are three important symbols: the condor (sky/heaven), puma or cougar (earth), and the serpent (wisdom). You see the three symbols together frequently. There is a nice explanation of them here.Drainage is done in two ways. Walkways on the slopes tend to have a grate down the middle. Along the short street and a few other areas, there are holes in the concrete next to the curb. We saw this in other towns as well.

Cusco

Dan resting on the way up a steep area. Note the ancient adobe wall and stone foundation in the background.

Cusco was founded in 1100, probably making it the oldest city we visited. It is high, 11,152 feet and probably has close to 500,000 people. We were there briefly before we went to Ollantaytambo and then a bit longer after we left the Puno/Arequipa areas. Like many towns in Latin America, it is built on steep land.

Red car parked while unloading. Larger white truck must wait until the car moves.

One thing we saw very quickly is that the old parts of Cusco has very narrow streets. That wasn’t surprising but what was strange is that these old streets are two ways! This makes for very interesting traffic, lots of horn honking and frustration until one person gives up and backs up out of the way.

We went to a very interesting Inca museum and did some sight seeing. Sadly, most museums don’t allow any photography so we have little record of what we saw.

Note the beautiful skirt worn by the woman holding the lamb.

We didn’t see this often but it was not uncommon for an indigenous person to earn money allowing their picture to be taken. This one has a 2 week old lamb and a 2 month old llama.

Despite what the sign says, you are going to take a train or hike the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. They take you as far as possible by car but then you still have to take the train the rest of the way. (Don’t you love the spelling of the word “by”?)

Here you see some people in costumes representing some of the figures in the Aguas Calientes stone carvings. (Sorry it isn’t clearer, this event was going on as we passed in a taxi or bus.)

All of the buses I remember in Latin America have a driver and someone to collect money. In this case, the woman has her daughter riding along. While she was good for her age, 3?, she was bored and climbing all over. Not very safe but I am sure the woman didn’t have an affordable choice for day care.

There are many stalls and people walking around selling crafted items as well as this beautiful mural.

 

 

Ollantaytambo Part 2

When we left Aguas Calientes, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo. We wanted to see a few more of the ruins and the general area before we left the Sacred Valley. We enjoyed walking along the sidewalks with ancient stone walls built 500 years ago.

Our new best friend

We went on a tour to see some ruins up in the mountains. It was about a 15 minute hike from the car to an isolated area that was once a training facility for the Incas. Now there are a few partial buildings and some llamas grazing in the area. We didn’t see the owner of the animals but there was a young German Shepherd there to guard the animals. He was very friendly, I guess he could tell we weren’t going to hurt the llamas. He followed us partly down the mountain when we left.

Private, impromptu market

When we got down the mountain, the guide told us to wait and he’d go get the car. We didn’t realize we were being set up to have our own, private market! We saw these two females walking down the road with big bundles on their backs. As soon as they got to us, they unslung the bundles and put out their wares. We bought one thing from each of them. It was quite fun except we found out one of the females was 7 years old. Why wasn’t she is school???

We rode to another area where the indigenous welcomed people to their village. There had just been a village meeting so there were a lot of people milling around in their local dress. We talked to one man and he joked that the beaded strap on his hat was for his wife to pull him. The guide told us when to pay a small sum (the equivilent of a dollar or less) for the photos and when not to. Not sure what his criteria was.

I’d been curious when babies started to walk because they are in the slings so much of the day so I asked one mother about this. Children don’t start to walk until age 2 since they aren’t spending as much time crawling, kicking, and moving when they are in the sling.

On the side of the mountain, seemingly in the middle of nowhere this woman weaves by herself for hours.

We saw one lady weaving on the side of a mountain. She was all alone, working away. In the village we also saw people weaving. I would think that it is very hard on their backs to sit on the ground for long periods of time weaving.

Dyes are made from plant roots, leaves, seeds, and berries. The colors are beautifully bright and they wear their clothes with much pride.

Cow grazing on terrace.

There are ancient terraces almost everywhere you look. It was not uncommon to see cows or llamas grazing on one of the tiers.

Roofs often have a little bull on the top which is thought by the locals to bring good fortune to the house. It was fun to see them.

Here are a few more pictures from the area.

Machu Picchu

It is difficult to explain the feeling when you arrive at Machu Picchu. After 14 switchbacks on the bus, you are discharged into the parking lot. Until you go a little way past the ticket stalls, you can’t see the ruins. But once you get where you can see them, they are everything that you ever imagined or saw in a picture.

When they commercialized the area, they were careful to preserve the actual ruins and surrounding area so that you can have an inspiring view. And it is truly inspiring! While the ruins are not that high, 7,972 feet, about the same as the Blue Spruce RV park where I am typing this post, they are on a peak and there is a lot of openness in the area that is awesome in the fullest sense of the word. I felt on top of the world.

People have asked us what our favorite place in our travels was and this place is it for me, hands down.

Even though thousands of people visit the ruins every day, we were fortunate to come on the end of the low season so it never felt really crowded. Currently, 2500 people are allowed per day to this UNESCO World Heritage site, split between morning and afternoon entry. You can find tickets on several sites online, about $70 per person (Peruvians are less). The bus was $25 per person, round trip.

If you are adventuresome, there are 500 people allowed to hike the 4 day trail to Machu Picchu each day. The hike requires a guide and is a bit expensive because you are well fed and there is staff to carry the tents, tables and chairs, food, and sometimes some of your own gear. The days are sometimes a bit challenging but the lady I spoke to about her experience was delighted (and amazed!) that she had done it.

Pictures can’t really share the sacred, awe-inspiring experience but they will help.

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The architecture is typical Inca with no mortar needed to hold the stones together. You can even put a level on the stones and they are level! The stones were carved on sight and workers have to work continuously to keep things in good shape. And of course, there were llamas roaming freely…ignoring the tourists that invade their home.After we looked around the ruins with our guide (optional but recommended), we hiked up to the Sun Gate. Not a really long or hard hike but longer than I expected. LOL

Sun Gate altitude 8,924 feet.

Beginning of the path to the Sun Gate. That’s me with the red backpack.
Intipunku or Sun Gate image compliments of www.theonlyperuguide.com

Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters)

Aguas Calientes is tucked away in the mountains

Aguas Calientes is the nearest town to Machu Picchu. The only way to reach Aguas Calientes is walking several days or by train (2-4 hours from Ollantaytambo or Cuzco). Once you get to Aguas Calientes, be prepared to walk up and down hills. The distances aren’t that far but they are fairly steep.

Typical stairs in Aguas Calientes.

The people of Aguas Calientes have done an amazing job of making this a pleasant place to stay near the iconic Machu Picchu. The town is almost Disney Land clean. They have cute recycling containers like in the posting for Ollantaytambo. They also have dozens of beautiful stone carvings in the huge boulders and rock hillsides of the town. Here are a few of the carvings. Most of them are at least 6′ high and 4 or 5′ across!

Just as there are no roads to the town, there are no roads in the actual town. There is one very short paved section at one end of the town where the Machu Picchu buses load (and turn around). This means that everything comes in one the train: people, food, water (remember the water isn’t potable!!!), materials, etc. Once they arrive, they are manually unloaded from the train and put on small carts and hauled up the hills. The men who do this (I didn’t see any women hauling carts) must be very strong since they are loaded down. Many of the pedestrian “streets” are sloped or have ramps along the side of them for the carts.

 

Aguas Calientes Signs

If you walk from Aguas Calientes towards Machu Picchu or the museum or the hikes that some people take, you pass a work area on the outskirts of the town where the stone blocks are being carved.  There are a series of very nice signs.