Vida Huancaína

Our adventure in the Andes


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Cousin Adventures: Machu Picchu!

The majestic Incan ruins of Machu Picchu were the last and most impressive stop on our gringo trail itinerary!

Machu Picchu!!

Machu Picchu!!

We departed from Cusco via a bus/train combination operated by Peru Rail that takes you through a river valley to the town of Aguas Calientes.  The tiny town is built up between the mountains were the ruins rest and alongside the Urubamba River.  It’s really not much more than a place for tourists to gather before heading up to Machu Picchu, and it is the most expensive town that we have visited in all our time in Peru because every supply has to be brought into the town by the train. IMG_5145

from right: train tracks through the middle of town, rushing Urubamba River, and bridges connecting the two sides of town

from right: train tracks through the middle of town, rushing Urubamba River, and bridges connecting the two sides of town

I had visited Machu Picchu 10 years ago as part of my semester studying abroad in Ecuador; Chris had visited 5 years ago during his first pre-dissertation field work trip to Peru; and it was our cousin’s first trip. It has changed SO much since my first visit.  The amount of development along the route from Cusco, and then the town of Aguas Calientes itself was just astonishing.  The train 10 years ago had hard wooden benches, and I purchased corn on the cob with cheese from a woman selling it from a bucket.  The train now not only has fold down tables laid with table runners and center pieces to accompany the hot meal that is served, but it also has entertainment including a local dance performance and a fashion with the staff modeling alpaca sweaters and ponchos made exclusively for the railway by one of the top alpaca knitwear producers in Peru (yes, you read that right, a fashion show).

clockwise from top right: fancy table spread inside the train, sorority posing with Machu Picchu seal on the train, view from the panoramic windows inside the train, and posing with train again

clockwise from top right: fancy table spread inside the train, sorority posing with Machu Picchu seal on the train, view from the panoramic windows inside the train, and posing with train again

Our train arrived to Aguas Calientes around 1 pm and we wandered around the town (for all of the 15 minutes that it takes to walk through it) and then rested up for our early morning journey to the ruins.  We were up at 5:30 am, purchased our bus tickets, and were on the bus up to the entrance by 6 am.  The bus ride takes approximately 30 minutes on a very winding road that zig zags up the mountain.  You can also hike to the entrance, but we opted to pass on the hour-long (or possibly more) hike to save our energy for exploring the ruins!

Being the height of the rainy season, the ruins were shrouded by misty clouds, ever shifting in shape and allowing you to see only portions of the ruins and surrounding mountains at a time. Armed with our rain jackets, we went off to explore the ruins. Many independent tour guides were waiting outside the entrance upon our arrival and we negotiated with a lovely guide to show the three of us around.  She guided us through the ruins, explaining how the ruins were built by the Incas in the 1450s, but was abandoned to help fight against the Spanish after their arrival in 1533.  The ruins were then re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University with the help of a local family who lived at the bottom of the mountain.  Despite all the years that the ruins passed without occupants, the majority of the stonework buildings remain intact and even the fountains still flow with clear, fresh water.

windows looking through windows

windows looking through windows

misty morning

misty morning

here come the natural lawnmowers!

here come the natural lawnmowers!

llamas and ruins!

llamas and ruins!

fountain still flowing with water

fountain still flowing with water

The Incans used a trapezoidal design in their building construction, making the buildings extremely resistant to earthquakes.  The mountain is covered with large boulders and stones, which were used as the building material.  To carve out the rocks, they chinked out holes into the large stones covering the mountaintop, filled the holes with branches soaked in water, and as the branches dried the rock would break apart.  From there, the rocks were sanded down using sand until they could be used.  The buildings of the common people had more jagged stones, whereas the temples had the most polished stones, almost smooth to the touch.  And, quite amazingly, some were built in concert with the large boulders with stones sitting just perfectly atop the boulder.

example of how they carved the stones, by putting wet branches into those small holes

example of how they carved the stones, by putting wet branches into those small holes

buildings worked into the existing rock on the mountain, even jutting out above the abyss

buildings worked into the existing rock on the mountain, even jutting out over the edge

buildings built on top of existing rocks and boulders

how on earth did they manage to build on top of that big boulder?!

houses of the commoners

houses of the commoners

three windows

three windows in a temple building

template of the condor (see that rock on the ground?  the piece pointing towards you is the nose of the condor and the wings are the big rocks rising above it)

template of the condor (see that rock on the ground? the piece pointing towards you is the nose of the condor and the wings are the big rocks rising above it)

It’s thought that the sight was chosen for its strategic location, high up for protection, alongside the Urubamba River for water, and the abundance of building materials scattered over the mountaintop. The city had incredibly good urban planning, with different sectors designated for certain activities–crops, animals, textile and pottery production, a marketplace, and more.  To protect against erosion, terraces were built up the sides of the mountain and then the main buildings were placed on the top of the mountain.

our guide said this rock is in the shape of the sight of Machu Picchu and was used to plan the city

our guide said this rock is in the shape of the sight of Machu Picchu and was used to plan the city

fortification terraces extending down the mountainside

fortification terraces extending down the mountainside

agricultural terraces

agricultural terraces

My favorite part of the entire visit was climbing up the watch tower to catch a glimpse of the entire sight, including Wayna Picchu, or the Young Mountain, the rises up at the other end of the ruins.  We watched the clouds shift across the ruins, sometimes completely obscuring the surrounding peaks, and listened to the rushing waters of the Urubamba River rising up from far below.  It was such an incredible moment, sitting together with my family, looking out over the ruins of Machu Picchu and imaging the energy that it must have taken to built such an incredible place so high up in the mountains with such precision to leave it standing more than 500 years later.  A humbling and special experience that I will treasure forever.

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cousins and terraces

cousin in a window!

cousin in a window!

cousins!

cousins!

with the hubby

with the hubby

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so happy!


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Ferrocarril Central Andino: Taking the train from Lima to Huancayo!

The last big adventure of our trip was riding the train to Huancayo!  The Ferrocarril Central Andino (Central Andean Railway) is one of the highest railways in the world with 340 km of tracks linking the coastal city of Lima and the Andean city of Huancayo!

Ferrocarril Central Andino chugging through the Andes

The route passes over 58 bridges, through 69 tunnels, does 6 zigzags (switchbacks), and passes through many station stops, including Galera Station at 4,781 meters/15,686 feet above sea level!!  While significantly longer than going by bus, the 13-hour journey gives you a unique opportunity to take in the varied landscape from the arid coast up to the snow-covered Andean peak of Ticlio. And, for the train buffs, it gave an opportunity to ooh and ahh over the construction of the railway (imagine 60-year-old men behaving like 5 year olds!).

Video of a zigzag – the train buffs went bananas when this happened.

 

Entering one of the many tunnels

Entering one of the many tunnels

Train tracks hugging the mountainside

Train tracks hugging the mountainside

Looking back through one of the tunnels

Looking back through one of the tunnels

More tracks

More tracks

Video of the landscape after passing by the snow-covered Ticlio peak, the highest point on the railway

More video of the landscape passing through a small town on the way into the Mantaro Valley.  This was actually Chris’ favorite section, as we passed through the river valley adjacent to Huancayo’s at dusk.  Do you see the people waving?

 

The train only runs about once a month in the dry season (June-October) and draws a significant amount of tourists from all over the world, who come to Peru for the sole purpose of riding the train.  When not taking tourists, the railway is used to haul raw materials from the many mines in the Andes down to the coast.

We departed bright and early from the Desamparados Station in Lima and were greeted by the train police band (that’s right, the train not only has its own police force, but they also have their own band).  The station sits smack dab in the center of the city, right behind the Government Palace.

Desamparados Station in the center of Lima

Desamparados Station in the center of Lima (The building to the left is the Government Palace)

There are two classes on the train–classic and tourist.  The tourist section (where we were) comes with a comfortable, reclining seat, breakfast and lunch, a cafe car (and a ticket for a free pisco sour!), and an open car where you can stand and take in the views.  They also have a variety of activities throughout the ride, including traditional dances that reflect the area you happen to be passing through at that moment (e.g. the marinera when you’re still near the coast).

Marinera performance on the train

Marinera performance on the open car of the train

Though we have traveled this route many times by bus, the views are so much more impressive from the train.  Not to mention the trip is less nausea-inducing than the bus, by like a factor of a thousand.  We planned our entire trip around the limited train departure dates and we were not disappointed.  If you ever have the opportunity to take the Ferrocarril Central Andino, you will not regret it!

Here are just a few of the many, many beautiful vistas from the journey.

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Can you see the alpacas?

Can you see the alpacas?

Cars loaded up at one of the many mines ready to be taken to Lima

Cars loaded up at one of the many mines ready to be taken to Lima

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And, finally, a video of the train entering Huancayo. Note the lack of safety measures even though the train runs right through the middle of a main road in the city of 500,000 people… no fences, no guardrails, people just walk across the tracks and cars pass through at intersections without any special warnings!

 

…And that wraps up the adventures from our latest journey.  Now it’s time to get back to living la vida huancaína (the Huancayan life)!

 


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El Tren Macho to Huancavelica

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We’ve been dying to take El Tren Macho from Huancayo to Huancavelica since we arrived here.  El Tren Macho literally translates as “the male train.”  I’m not sure exactly how the train came by its name, but around here they explain it’s because it leaves when it wants and arrives if it can (sale cuando quiere y llega cuando puede).  Unfortunately for us, our arrival in Peru coincided with the rainy season and there was a huge landslide that knocked the train out of commission for some 4+ months.  Now that the train is finally back up and running, we just had to take advantage of a quick overnight trip to ride the train and get to know Huancavelica before the rainy season is in full swing and threatens to ruin the tracks again!

Mural of the train route painted inside the station

Mural of the train route painted inside the station

More mural inside the station

More mural inside the station

El Tren Macho leaves from the Chilca neighborhood of Huancayo at 6:30 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and returns from Huancavelica on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  The train station in Huancayo is little more than a small building that opens at 5:30 am to sell tickets.  The tickets range from s./ 9 ($3.20) for primera (first) class to s./ 13 ($4.63) for buffet (buffet car).  We sprung for the buffet class tickets, which guarantees you a reserved seat with some padding for the 6-hour long journey.  The buffet class ticket doesn’t include any food or beverage, but you can purchase something to eat.  There is a small kitchen on the train that makes plates starting as soon as the train departs, including chicken and rice, fried trout and lomo saltado (a typical Peruvian beef stir fry dish).  Wafts of frying oil would occasionally move through the car as a man emerged carrying 6 or 8 (!) china plates in his arms.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat any of those heavy dishes so early in the morning, so we stuck to the trail mix and other snacks that we had brought with us.  Along the way, different vendors also hopped onto the train at station stops with traditional Peruvian snacks like chicarrones (fried pork rinds), boiled yucca or potatoes with cheese, breads, chicha morada (a traditional beverage made from purple corn), etc.

Huancayo train station

Huancayo train station

Buffet car

Buffet car

The buffet car is definitely on the older side with peeling turquoise paint and rickety wooden tables.  The windows don’t close all the way and cold, morning air flows into the cars.  Despite its lack of glamor on the inside, the train ride itself is spectacular.  The tracks follow a river gorge for the majority of the trip with breathtakingly tall mountains rising up on either side.  At times there are flats alongside the river that have been cultivated with crops, other times there are terraced farm plots extending nearly all the way up the mountainside (how someone farms all the way up there boggles the mind!).  The ride is very peaceful and the landscape makes you feel really small amongst the tall, tall mountains.  The train stops a few times to pick up or drop off passengers along the way.  Some of the stops are nothing more than a hut alongside the tracks, others are more developed and an additional train car full of passengers is added to the train.

First, a couple videos:

And, now, more photos that you probably needed to see.  🙂

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Chilly Chris all bundled up

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One of the stops along the route

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What train ride would be complete without a little knitting?!

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Entering Huancavelica

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Huancavelica’s train station (altitude: 3,680 m/12,073 ft)

Arriving in Huancavelica around lunchtime, we immediately headed to a small restaurant that we’d read about online from other travelers.  The tiny, hole-in-the-wall place is called La Olla de Barro (The Ceramic Pot) and sells itself as having comida turistíca (tourist cuisine), which I think just means they put some traditional decorations on the wall.  The restaurant is only open for lunch and serves a three-course menú (set menu) for s./ 7 ($2.50).  The first course was a minestrone soup, which was basically a large bowl of broth with green herbs mixed in, some noodles, and a piece of meat (note: soup like this is served at nearly every lunch in Peru).  There were three choices for the main course and we both choose the churrasco (usually a thin slice of grilled beef). The churrasco was like none we’d ever had before, thick and fatty.  It was served with the typical rice and potatoes (because a single starch at lunch is never enough), as well as a cheese sauce with muña (a local Peruvian herb that tastes almost like mint).  The sauce was a little bit mind-blowing… minty cheese sauce, who knew?  For dessert they served mazamorra de maicena, which is somewhere between a gelatin and a pudding.  It had a pineapple flavor to it, not too far from the taste of those clear-ish colored gummy bears.  In summary, if you find yourself in Huancavelica for lunch, definitely go here!  (Note to other travelers looking for good food in Huancavelica: Restaurant Joy, which is highly recommended in TripAdvisor, is no longer there.)

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First course: minestrone soup

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Second course: churrasco

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Dessert: mazamorra de maicena

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Huancavelica on foot.  There are many churches and plazas throughout the city, which is relatively small and easy to walk around in an afternoon.  The main plaza boasts a lovely, old church, a fountain in the center, a few evergreen trees, and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.  We sat and enjoyed an ice cream from one of the vendors located around the plaza and watched the locals walking by for awhile.

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Plaza de Armas

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More Plaza de Armas 

Church on the Plaza de Armas

Church on the Plaza de Armas

 

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Quite a few women were knitting, either while seated on benches or the steps of the church or while walking through the town (I’m still amazed at how they can walk and knit at the same time!).  The primary craft sold in the center of town is hand knit items, all in very bright colors.  I, of course, could not resist and purchased some very traditional escarpines (leg warmers), as well as a hat with ear flaps.  The women wear the leg warmers with their skirts to keep warm on chilly mornings and evenings.

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Knitting in a church doorway

Escarpines (leg warmers)!!

Escarpines (leg warmers)!!

Huancavelica is also known for its thermal baths, some of which are located in the city itself and others just outside the city.  We walked up to the thermal baths in the city just to see what they were like (we didn’t go inside).  There were locals washing clothes in the runoff from the bats and enjoying the afternoon.

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We stayed the night at a little hostal, a block off the main plaza called La Portada.  It’s not the fanciest of lodgings, but it had warm water (we’re talking hot water from a tank, not a little electric shower head to heat up the water), cable TV and lots of warm blankets on the bed.  For s./ 60 ($21.40) a night, you can’t really beat it.

We awoke to a very chilly morning on Saturday and layered up the train ride home.  On the walk back to the train station, there were beautiful pink clouds hovering over the mountains and a few drops of snow falling lightly from the sky.  What a send off from such a beautiful location.  If you’re ever in the area and have the time, we highly recommend taking El Tren Macho to Huancavelica for at least an overnight, if not longer!

Keeping warm on the ride home in our hand knit Peruvian hats!

Keeping warm on the ride home in our hand knit Peruvian hats!