Friday, December 15, 2017

¡Hola Panamá!

Metropolitan Cathedral in
Casco Viejo, Panamá
A hammock in our B&B at Bocas
My wife and I recently did a week long trip over the Thanksgiving break, to the isthmus nation of Panama. Fortunately US/Canada Visa works for entry into Panama, which made the decision to travel there easier.  Panama is bordered by Costa Rica to the east, Colombia (in South America) to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The capital and largest city is Panama City, which is home to nearly half of the country's 4 million people.

Society of Jesus
Day 1: We landed into Panama City on Nov 22nd afternoon 2:30
pm, after catching the 9:35 am United flight from Houston. We had stayed overnight in Houston the night before, after travelling there from KC the evening of Nov 21st.
Metropolitan Cathedral
After checking into our hotel in the El cangrejo district of Panamá, and resting a little, we took an Uber to the casco viejo (Old town) of the city. The traffic, unfortunately, is horrible in the evenings in here, and it took us a little longer than expected to make the drive to Old town. We strolled through the old town for about an hour on foot, before having dinner and heading back to the hotel.
Panamá to Bocas flight

Next morning, we took the Air Panama flights to the Island archipelago town of Bocas del toro on the northeastern coast of the country. The domestic flights within Panamá, go out of the Albrook International airport which on the other side of the town, but closer to the main city compared to Tocumen, which is technically outside the city. The flight time is only 1 hour, but the flights are often delayed, because of the quality of the aircrafts and air traffic control systems used by Air Panama.

Bluff beach, Bocas del Toro
Day 2: After landing in Bocas del Toro, we took a taxi our hotel at Bluff beach, which was about 6 kms on a dirt road away from the main town. The seclusion meant relatively lesser people, and since the waves in this region, there're almost no people on the beach, which is perfect for a romantic getaway.

Cayo Zapitilla Island #2
At one of the island
Day 3: The next day, we took a 10 am to 4 am speed boat group tour of the Bocas archipelago, with the primary stop being the Cayo Zapatilla # 2 island, one of the two uninhabited islands located east of Isla Bastimentos in the Archipelago, and is home to the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. The park protects forests, mangroves, monkeys, sloths, caiman, crocodile, and 28 species of amphibians and reptiles, and is an important nesting site for sea turtles.
On our way back we stopped for seeing some sloths and starfish along the way.

A sign along the trek
Day 4: Our last full day at Bocas we decided to do a trek along the beach to the northern part of the island. The trek was one of the most interesting ones. As it scraped through thick rain forest with the sea alongside, though you couldn't see it, at times, the roar was loud enough to be heard meters inside.
The trail felt very private as we could not see a single other person throughout the trail.
We walked about 7 kms to the La Picina (the pool), which was a small lagoon in the sea, and headed back since it had started raining by that time.

View of the skyline from Amador
Causeway, Panamá
Day 5 (Panama City): The next day we relaxed at our sea facing hotel in the morning, and afternoon took the Air Panama flight back to the city.
Late afternoon, we took an Uber to the Ancon hill to get some city views from over the hill, however, it being later in the afternoon we were turned away by the guards as they said it won't safe while coming back. We took this opportunity to head over to the Amador causeway, recently built  by the US, who have a significant naval presence in the area. We strolled the length of the causeway before heading back to the hotel area, to catch some dinner at Istanbul donner kabab.

Day 6 (Panama City): Our last and only full day in Panama City, we decided to start off the day with a visit to the canal, as we'd heard the ships usually go thorough before 10 am or after 4 pm. The visitors center at Miraflores locks is a space where you can live a unique Panama Canal experience. In one place you will find different activities to learn and fully enjoy the Panama Canal. The visitor center offers a theater with a 10 min guide of the history of the canal from its beginnings to the present. The film is available in English and Spanish, with about 50 minute intervals between each language. There are also four levels of exhibition halls that portray the Canal's history, biodiversity, and its functioning y suitespecially attractive manner.
The building also has three levels for observing the Canal's operation, the passage of ships through the locks and how they move. It is the ideal place to experience this engineering marvel.

At the fish market

Following our visit to the locks, we headed over across the city to see the Panama Vieja (not to be confused with the old town casco viejo). Founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedrarías Dávila, Panamá Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.

For lunch we went to the Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market). This is the city fish market, open for business to local restaurants. It's the best place to buy fresh fish in Panama City. There is a restaurant upstairs above the market, where you can eat the cooked, fresh seafood, they sell below.
The Fish Market

This brought to an end an amazing week in Panamá. A country that has much to offer, in terms of nature, adventure and even city life for the urban folks. We hope to return back someday, especially to Bocas del toro, and our beautiful seaside b&b, and it's wonderful hosts.

What businesses did we use?
Hotels: A& Z hotel y suites, Panamá and Oasis bluff beach
Tours: Total Adventure in Bocas and Uber in Panamá
Airlines: Air Panama and United

Monday, September 18, 2017

A trip through Peru's Sacred Valley

Landing into Cuzco from Lima
Cuzco main square from our Hotel room
My wife and I recently did a 10 day trip through Perú's sacred valley in the Cuzco Region, with a 2 day stopover in Bogotá, Colombia, before our return journey back home. Peru recently lifted it's visa requirement for Indian Passport holders with a valid US, Canada, Australia, UK or Schengen Visa, so this combined with the fact that we wanted to see Machu Picchu was the main driving factor behind the trip. We started off with a 7 hour overnight flight from Dallas to Lima and then a 1 hour LATAM airlines flight to Cuzco from there. The immigration in Lima was a breeze and hardly took 5 minutes to get in and stamped. Fortunately, the international and domestic sections of the airports in Lima are connected, and we arrived well before our departure time to Cuzco.
Saksaywaman temple
Our first meal in Perú -Veg Sandwiches
and Orange and Papaya juices at Organika
Day 1 (Cuzco): After arriving at about 9:30 am in Cuzco, and taking a 25 soles (~7.5 USD) taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, we settled into our hotel room in Cuzco. Cuzco is located at an altitude of 3,400 metres (11,200ft) above the sea level, and it is common for many visitors to experience some mild symptoms of altitude sickness in Cusco, or ‘soroche’ as it is known locally. So we had decided to take it easy on the first day, and rest. We spent most of our day exploring the main plaza and the surrounding area of our hotel. The hotel owner suggested a cute little café cum restaurant near by, called Organika. The food was fresh and tasty, as the ingredients are locally grown at their farms and organic.
The Main Cathedral (left) and Basilica
at the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco 
Inside the Koricancha temple
Day 2 (Cuzco): For our second day in Cuzco, we had booked a half day tour of the city and the near by ruins via a local company. After buying the boleto turistico, which is a 10 day pass (130 Soles = ~$48) to see all the important sites in the Inca Valley (barring Machu Picchu) in the morning; and exchanging some USD for Peruvian Soles, we were on our way at about 12:30 pm with the tour.
Koricancha with
 Convent of Santo Domingo above
Our first visit was the Main Cuzco Cathedral. The first stone was placed here to begin construction of the cathedral in 1560. It is a marvel of religious art, home to approximately 300 paintings from the Cusqueña School.
Saksaywaman complex
Our next stop was, the ancient "Koricancha" Temple. Originally named Intikancha or Intiwasi, it was dedicated to Inti (Sun in Quechua language). Mostly destroyed after the 16th century war with the Spanish conquistadors much of its stonework forms the foundation of the Santo Domingo church and convent. The Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Construction took most of a century. This is one of numerous sites where the
Saksaywaman from distance
Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to their sophisticated stone masonry.
Puca Pucara
With an Alpaca at Saksaywaman 
Our next stop was the archaeological complex of Saksaywaman. Located on a steep hill that overlooks the city, the fortified complex has a wide view of the valley to the southeast. Archeological studies of surface collections of pottery at Saksaywaman indicate that the earliest occupation of the hilltop dates to about 900 AD. Because of its location high above Cusco and its immense terrace walls, this area of Saksaywaman is frequently referred to as a fortress. It is said that Inca laid Cuzco the same shape as the puma and Saksaywaman is the head of the Puma.
Our next 3 stops were smaller Inca ruins in the same area: Q'enqo,  a religious center dedicated to the adoration of the Earth and Puca Pucara -  A military control center.
Day 3 (Ollantaytambo via the sacred valley): For this day, we had booked a taxi to take us to a small town about 70 km from Cuzco, names Ollantaytambo, which is the start of the traditional inca trail to machu picchu and also, the station for the train to Aguas Calientes near the base of Machu picchu.
We had deceided to take the route via Chincheros, Moray and Maras salts plains. Our first stop was the Chincheros textile market, where we were explained the weaving process a little bit, while sipping on hot cocoa leaves' tea. Chincheros is the center of weaving in Peru. It is home to the Interpretation Center of Andean Textiles. Local women entertain tourists with weaving demonstrations. The women will show how they produce different colors for the wool they spin and weave (video above).
Chinchero ruins with terraces

Drive through the sacred valley
This was followed by a stop at the Chincheros Inca ruins. It is thought that Inca Tupac Yupanqui, son of Pachacutec, used Chinchero as a sort of country resort. He ordered the con
struction of many aqueducts and terraces, many of them still in use today. The terraces were built for farming and agricultural purposes. The soil of Chinchero is some of the most rich and fertile in the Sacred Valley. The land is used to produce excellent potatoes.
Moray archaeological site

Our next stop was the Moray archaeological site. The purpose of these circles is uncertain, but their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom. Speculation about the site has led to discussion about Moray as an Inca agricultural experiment station.

Maras - Inca salt mines
This was followed by a last stop at the Salineras de Maras (entrance fee 10 soles/person), the Inca salt mines. Strategically dug into the mountainside, thousands of shallow pools filled with salt water eventually evaporate and leave behind the crystallized salt, a process that has been practiced for more than 500 years. The local community has exclusive mining rights to the salt pans near Maras, and every family own it's own "Poso", which is one of the many salt blocks.
We were then dropped off at our hotel in Ollantaytambo.

Train ride to Machu Picchu
The town of Aguas Calientes
Peru Rail
Day 4 (Train to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo): For our next day from Ollantaytambo, we had booked Peru rails tickets to Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the bottom of the Machu picchu mountain. The station was a short 1 km walk from our hotel. It should be noted that Peru rails only allows 1 carry on, weighing no more than 8 KG. So we dropped our bigger baggage at the hotels, since we were going to return back to the same hotel in 2 days. The ride to Aguas Calientes is a very beautiful one it is definitely recommended to have done the ride at least one way during day time. Also, you need to be at the station at least 1 hour prior to get the actual "tickets". They server a small snack like sandwich, a drink and a dessert.
We were picked up at the station by a person from hotel, Tierra viva, where we were to spend two nights. That evening we met up with our private guide at 7 pm at the hotel, and he explained us the plan for the next day.
Machu Picchu
Huanya Picchu in the background
Day 5 (Machu Picchu): We had already bought round trip bus tickets to Machu Picchu ($24/person, USD cash only). Fortunately for us the it was sunny that day, as we'd heard from some of the previous travelers to the site that if it rains or is foggy you may not see most of the site from a distance. After about a 30 minutes bus ride, we were at the entrance.

A 15th-century Inca citadel situated on a mountain ridge 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level. Built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), it is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. It was declared a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. In 2007, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
Machu picchu from the top of
Huayna picchu
Stairs up Huanya picchu
We entered the site around 8:30 am as after taking a guided tour and many, many photos through the ruins, we did the hike up to Huayna Picchu, which is the tall mountain you see behind the site. Huayna Picchu may be visited throughout the year, but the number of daily visitors allowed on Huayna Picchu is restricted to 400. A steep and, at times, exposed pathway leads to the summit. Some portions are slippery and steel cables (a via ferrata) provide some support during the one-hour climb. The ascent is more challenging, as it's an almost vertical climb up, but once at the top, it is completely worth the view.
The climb down was relatively easier, and after another guided tour through the lower part of the site, we went out the same entrance we came in, after spending about 5 hours at the sites. The bus ride down had a 1 hour queue, but we had not booked the train back the same day, as most of the folks, so we were not in a rush.

Please note: Machu Picchu tickets get sold out months in advance, and the new rules, which took effect on July 1st, allow you to visit the site once in either 7 to 12 or 12 to 5 window. There is only 1 restroom at the site, which is at the entrance, so it's best to use it before entering. A valid passport is necessary for the visit. You can also get a machu picchu stamp there, on the passport, if you want.
A side view of the Ollantaytambo ruins

The Ollantaytambo ruins
Day 6 (Ollantaytambo): The next day, after spending the night in Aguas calientes, we did the morning 2 hour train ride back to Ollantaytambo. After arriving at the hotel, afternoon we decided to hike up the Ollantaytambo ruins.
The Unfinished Wall of
Six Monoliths at the Sun Temple
Top view from the Ollantaytambo ruins
 A former Inca administrative center and gateway to the Antisuyo (the Amazon corner of the Inca Empire), sits at the northern end of the Sacred Valley. At the time of the Spanish invasion and conquest of Peru Ollantaytambo served as the last stronghold for Inca Manco Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance at the time. As you climb the Inca stairs to the top of the fortress of the Ollantaytambo ruins you begin to realize just how large this structure is. At the top of the fortress is the military area. From here is where Inca Manco and his soldiers watched for the Spanish invaders. This was a great vantage point, and only when you get up there do you realize how high you are up and how much you can see out to the Sacred Valley.

Next day morning, we took the collectivo (Shared taxi) directly to Cuzco for 10 soles/person.

Terraces of Pisac
Ruins of Pisac
Day 7 (Pisac): After arriving in Cuzco, in the morning and then taking lunch, we decided to head to the Inca town of Pisac. The Ruins are situated at the eastern end of the Sacred Valley, 1 hour from Cusco. Located high above the valley floor and the modern colonial town of Pisac, the ruins are considered to be one of the finest remaining Inca archaeological sites in the country.
Inca valley at Pisac
From Wikipedia: "According to the scholar Kim MacQuarrie, Pachacuti erected a number of royal estates to memorialize victories over other ethnic groups. Among these royal estates are Písac (victory over the Cuyos), Ollantaytambo (victory over the Tambos), and Machu Picchu (conquest of the Vilcabamba Valley). Other historians suggest that Písac was established to protect Cusco from possible attacks of the Antis nations. It is unknown when Inca Písac was built. Since it does not appear to have been inhabited by any pre-Inca civilization, it was most likely built no earlier than 1440."
View from Pachacuteq Monument

PS: Round trip taxi from Cuzco to Pisac was about 90 soles.

Pachacuteq Monument
Day 8 (Cusco to Bogotá): Last day in Cuzco, we decided to visit the remaining sites on the boleto tursitico. The site we visited were:
1) The Pachacuteq Monument (Monumento Pachacuteq) sits on a roundabout on Avenida del Sol, Cusco. The monument is actually a tower museum dedicated to this great Inca Pachacuteq Yupanki. A huge figure stands on top of this six story tower that looks over the Cusco region. The sculpture was created by Cusqueñan sculptor Fausto Espinoza Farfán.
2) Museo Historico Regional: It offers to the visitors a beautiful collection of archaeological objects from cultures pre-Inca and Inca, as well as a select collection of colonial paintings that shows the success of the artists from Cuzco.
3) Museo de sitio del Qoricancha: This was a bit of a disappointment . A bare bones place that is in poor shape with minimum information regarding the Incas.
4) Museum of Contemporary Art

Evening, we took the 3 hour, Avianca flight to Bogotá, Colombia. After landing, doing immigration, and taking a 30 minutes uber to our Airbnb apartment, in the La candelaria area, we slept off for the day.
Plaza de Bolivar
PS: As of 2016, a valid US Visa, with 6 months validity, works to enter Colombia on an India Passport.

Museo del Oro
Day 9 (Bogotá): This we had planned to attended the free Bogotá walking tour that starts at the Museo del Oro in the center of Bogotá. The informative walk about history, gastronomy, architecture took us around the best sights that La Candelaria has to offer.
View from Cerro Monserrate
After the tour we visited the Museo del oro (Gold Museum), since it was a Sunday and most museums are closed on Mondays in Bogotá. Enter fee is usually 4000 COP or ~1.24 USD but is free on Sunday, so expect huge crowds.

Day 10 (Bogotá): The last day, we took it light, as we had an early morning flight back home the next day. We did a morning ride to Cerro Monserate, which gives you a 360 degree view of the city. The ride in a cable car is about 3.5 USD/Person one-way and takes 2 minutes. If you go on a clear day, it makes you realize just how big the expanse of this city is.
We felt two days was sufficient time to feel the ambiance of one of the most antique city centers in Latin America.

This brought to an end an amazing week and half in the Andean region of South America. Machu Picchu and the Inca Valley, of course being the highlight of the whole trip, which we can now cross off our bucket list.

What businesses did we use?
Hotels: Wara Wara, Kamma Guest house, Tierra Viva
Transport: and Peru Rail
Tours: Valencia, Free Bogotá tour