Wine and Pisco in Ica

We spent an afternoon doing the wine thing in Ica. If there’s one thing you need to learn fast, is that Peruvian wine is sweet and not for the American or European palette. At least not mine. I like my reds dry, but that won’t stop me from doing some wine touring.

We visited a big winery that also distilled Pisco (made from grapes but tastes like strong rum to me) and saw their equipment and processes. We had about 5 tastes, including a shot of Pisco that burned my throat. After that, our taxi driver took us to a chocolate factory (Helena’s) where there was no tour, but a big window to watch the workers do their thing. I was excited for a big bar of dark chocolate. No such luck. They did have lots of chocotejas (like truffles).

After the chocolate fix, we visited an artesanal winery where they still stomp on the grapes barefoot and pick the grapes by hand. They also had a Pisco distiller, but instead of copper tubing and crazy containers, they had a big cement basin, tubes and a giant fire to do that sublimation thing for Pisco making. We were hungry for lunch, but we decided to do the tastings and tour while waiting for our food to be prepared. I don’t know exactly how many tastes we had, maybe 10? We tried 3 different kinds of Pisco (and I couldn’t finish my tasting cups) a red wine, a white wine, and a kahlua style liquor that was made of pisco (of course) milk and fig puree. The last one was really tasty, like melted ice cream. They gave us a taste of mango juice, cebada, chicha morada and some jams and chocolates. There was no entrance fee (but the lunch was overpriced) but it was a much better tour (and tasting) than the industrial winery. We learned all about quality of Pisco and how they taste different if a different grape is used (one burned the back of my throat, the other burned the roof of my mouth). All in all it was a fun day and we got to spend it with friends, which made it even better.

Sandboarding (Huacachina and Ica)

We took a night bus from Cusco to Ica, the town that took a big hit from the earthquake last August. The city seems to be up and running and not too much damage happened within the city itself. But most people we talked to told us of the major damage just outside the center. Two taxi drivers we had told us their houses were leveled and are now sleeping in tents. But the locals are grateful for the outpouring of help and a lot of work has been accomplished in a few months.

We didn’t have time to do any volunteer work in Ica, we were here to meet up with Brendan and Laura and play for a few days before we flew back home. Ica itself wasn’t a very exciting city, it reminded me of Trujillo, a place to get stuff or sit in the plaza. We found a cheap vegetarian restaurant and bought groceries but stayed in Huacachina at a hostal. Huacachina isn’t much of a town, but it’s quiet and is basically a pile of hostals and restaurants around a lagoon surrounded by sand dunes. We were there for the sand!

We did a buggy ride and sandboarding through our hostal (La Carola Sur) whom I DO NOT recommend. Go through an independent group or a different hostal. The price was right but they didn’t treat us right, telling us we had to pay an extra fee once we were in the buggy and we had to FIGHT verbally to not pay it. Obviously the whole town is a tourist trap but I refuse to just accept all that added fee sneaky crap. Once we got past that, everything was super cool.

The dune buggy fit 8 people and was a rough ride. There were seatbelts to keep us from flying out, but I was worried they would decapitate us as well…but everyone returned safe and sound. The buggy went fast through over around and down the dunes, stopping here and there for us to get out and (attempt) sandboarding. It was a lot like snowboarding but much slower going and harder to catch an edge (could be b/c our boards were not high quality). Once I picked up some speed and tried to control the board I just fell over. But it was fun and I was tired at the end of the day. Matt resorted to laying on the board on his belly for the bigger, steeper dunes, but the rest of us attempted to go down the dune vertically. It was easier to get up after falling, I have memories of learning snowboarding and having my abs be sore for DAYS afterwards. The crash is much smoother, too (no ice!) but you do get sand in your ears and everywhere else. We’re happy to see old friends and play!

Leaving Wilka T’ika

We have tied up our loose ends and have finished our volunteer stint at the yoga center. It is bittersweet for me because there is so much more that I would like to teach the staff but we have a flight to catch in a few days and are homesick for American culture like we never thought possible.

My time at the yoga center was great. I had a chance to work on my meditation skills, read a bunch and slack off in the yoga department, as usual. I’ve learned a lot teaching cooking and really enjoyed the teaching aspect. I hope to carry that passion with me, perhaps I’ll be teaching classes for PCC or something. It’s really enjoyable to cook, but sharing that knowledge is more satisfying than I thought possible.

I left the staff with a number of recipes (in spanish!) and I hope that they can follow the recipes once I am gone. This center is a slice of heaven in the Sacred Valley, which I don’t think we would have noticed had we done the gringo trail, see a few ruins and move on. Spending some time in this valley made me realize it’s different than the rest of Peru. Sure, life is slower and communication is still difficult (and in general sanitation doesn’t exist–except the yoga center, of course) but they have irrigation canals with fresh water from the mountains, gardens and gorgeous mountain views. It’s really quiet once you are away from the town centers and we felt safe everywhere we walked.

We had the opportunity to visit a small mountain village that is part of WT’s Childrens’ Fund and that was really nice. The children, all dressed in traditional garb, ran to meet the bus, throwing flower petals on our heads, handing us bouquets and leading us by the hand to their schoolyard. They sang songs and danced for us, and we (along with a group of Missoulans) sang a few songs for them. We got to see their schoolrooms that previous groups had donated money to build/fix up and their guinea pig house, where they raise guinea pigs and sell them. The government isn’t really there for the students or teachers. The teachers were sleeping 6 in a room (2 beds) before Wilka T’ika got involved and now there is lodging for the teachers. The government recently cut the funding for a hot lunch (meaning the kids only had one potato for breakfast, 1-4 hour walk to school, nothing, walk home in the dark and finally eat something else). The owner of WT set up a food program with the help of her guests and now the children get something to eat during the day. I think it’s great she’s built an oasis in the valley for yoga groups to come to but it’s even cooler that they are reaching out to the local poor communities and improving the children’s educational and nutritional needs. I am honored that we were able to be even a small part of it all. I hope we have the time to make a return visit one day.

More Ruins: Pisac and Ollantaytambo

We’re getting to meet a lot of other travellers here at the yoga center. Most people are friendly and nice, but the majority of them are in large groups on their own agenda. We met some independent travellers from Missoula, MT (a girl our age just finishing her stint in PeaceCorps in Paraguay, her mom and their friend) and hit it off immediately. We went and visited Pisac together and had a blast. Pisac contains more Incan ruins, hence piles of rocks, but these are spread out over numerous hillsides with great views. There’s impressive ceremonial baths, irrigation systems, agricultural terracing, funerary niches, ceremonial centers with very large carved boulders, a marker for a soltice and people trying to sell you stuff. Luckily the hassling only happens the first set of ruins after the entrance (flutes, woven belts, mostly). We had a local offer to be our guide and when we said no thanks, he went crazy, saying we had plenty of money to kill people in Iraq but not to hire him for a guide…, not the best way to drum up business. We just wanted to explore and one of our friends had a guidebook that explained it all.

It was a big site and took us a couple of hours to see it all. We hiked back into town, which was a little steep but not too bad. We passed a few waterfalls and the trail went through some terracing. I don’t understand why the locals don’t use this perfectly well made terracing…it’s just all grass and flowers. All the Incan terracing in the hills that I’ve seen is just abandoned. Maybe it’s an ancestor thing…no one gives me a straight answer when I ask. After Pisac, we walked through their market, which is basically all the same artesania stuff that most towns have (alpaca sweaters, flutes, knick knacks, etc). The nice thing about not having a home is that I’m not tempted to buy anything to decorate it with! I also had really yummy chocolate chip cheesecake at Ulrike’s in the plaza (the only good cheesecake I have had in S.A.)

We also visited Ollantaytambo (20 minutos on a local bus for sl.1) a set of ruins near us. Their agricultural terracing is bigger, steeper and more expansive. They have very large boulders as well, houses, ceremonial baths and one section of 5 foot stone walls set up like a maze. At least it felt like a maze to me, I got lost. I think we may be getting ruined out!

Machu Picchu; land of Incans with too much time and energy

We tore ourselves away from our little paradise and did the Macchu Picchu thing. We decided to take the train from Ollantaytambo ($31 US for 1.5 hours). WHAT a ripoff, even more so because the train is owned by Chileans. But it was quick and we got into Aguas Calientes and bargained for a private room for sl.20 ($7), our cheapest bed yet. Obviously food is overpriced but we were able to bargain at some restaurants and snuck our own food into the Macchu. There’s signs everywhere saying you can’t bring any food in, but no one checks your bag and there’s no food available on the site. I’m not getting all grumpy and hungry because of a silly rule they don’t enforce. The student rule is also a crock. When we bought our tickets, I thought I could get the student price but apparently students have to be under 21! Most people don’t graduate college by 21. So, $40US to get in and we opted NOT to take the bus up to the site (another $12, roundtrip). The hike wasn’t bad at all, just uphill for about an hour and a half. If you DON’T want to pay to enter, you can follow this detailed blog here.

The ruins themselves are impressive. I don’t know how much of it has been restored, probably most of it, and it didn’t have the Indiana Jones feeling that Kuelep had but it was expansive and planned out. People still aren’t sure about it’s purpose or why it was mysteriously vacated, but it was cool to walk around and eavesdrop on some tour guides’ spiels and learn a thing or two. We left around dawn and got there before most of the major tour groups. We beelined it to Wayna Picchu, a peak higher than MP with more ruins and an amazing view down onto MP.

The hike was straight up but the trail was obviously maintained and used. The mountains around these ruins are HUGE and shear and green. It was like a movie backdrop it was so unreal. We only suffered a short rainshower and the rest of the day was sunny. The stone masonry is quite unbelievable. Here I am, so proud when I make a blanket or windchimes out of driftwood and these Incans move rocks bigger than me to make walls, houses, astronomical markers and the scariest bridge I’d ever seen.

At least most bridges have something to hold onto with your hands and if it snaps, you can still hold on and climb up the other side. The Incan Bridge, located behind MP, maybe 20 minutes of walking, is basically a shear rock exposed flat face with a bunch of rocks piled up, maybe 4 feet wide, but rocks piled up at least 100 feet. If your rock slips, there’s nothing to hold onto. It’s closed off now because just that happened to a tourist.

Scary bridges aside, we enjoyed the day, the views, the artificially planted grazing llamas and impressive ruins with monster boulders. It would be a nice place to live if it wasn’t such a pain to hike down to the river for water.

The next day we took the backpacker way out: walked on train tracks for 2 hours to a Hydroelectric Plant and opted to walk another 1.5 hours through a transition zone into the jungle (since the local buses weren’t leaving the plant for another 2 hours). We hitched a ride the rest of the way, which I’m glad we did. The main trail would have taken us only 30 more minutes, but a new bridge was built and we crossed that which led behind town through a valley before going into Santa Teresa (probably more than an hour more that way). I was sad we didn’t get to cross in the arroyo, a metal bucket that you pull yourself across the river, but we had a nice hike, saw lots of chickens, banana and coffee plantations and made it back to our temporary home in the evening. From Sta Teresa, we caught a local bus to Sta Maria, then another bus (they said it was the last bus…i think the last bus with gringos) which was an SUV we shared with 4 non-chatty foreigners. I think there’s more local buses for cheaper, but the trip back cost a total of $13 instead of the $31 on the train.

On another note, I bought a chocolate popsicle in Sta Maria made from fresh cacao from the jungle (Sta Maria is on the edge of the jungle). It was delicous! Matt had a fresh strawberry popsicle. Here they fill bags with the liquid, tie it off and freeze it. Like homemade Otter Pops or Freezies.