4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Ruins”

Pyramids, Skulls and the Eye of God in Mexico (by Carmen)

Mexico’s past is so alive throughout the country it’s impossible to ignore it. I definitely came away from my trip with a deep appreciation for the various kingdoms that have controlled this land over the past few thousand years. Especially since the customs of the various ruling groups have morphed and transformed to be the mix of cultural and religious traditions that exist today. We visited a variety of historical sites throughout our trip so I thought I’d collect them in a single post.

The main drag of Teotihuacan

The main drag of Teotihuacan

On top of the Sun Pyramid

On top of the Sun Pyramid

The first was Teotihuacan just outside Mexico City. The giant pyramids of the sun and moons are carefully placed along a broad, straight axis surrounded by smaller pyramids and temples. They really are huge – the Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest in the world (right after Ginza in Egypt).  The structures of Teotihuacan were built many centuries before the Spanish arrived. In fact, by the time the Aztecs were in power they did not even know who had built the pyramids; they were assumed to be the work of the gods.

Map of Tenochitlan, now known as Mexico City

Map of Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City

Aztec disc

Aztec disc found when digging a sewer tunnel in Mexico City

When the Spanish did arrive, the Aztecs ruled over much of Mexico and Tenochtitlan was their capital. Today we know it as Mexico City. To imagine that a urban area built in a lake, similar to Venice, could metamorphisize to the megacity that DF is today is incredible.

Aztec carving of skulls similar to day of the dead

Aztec carving of skulls similar to day of the dead

Aztec skull wall from an excavation in Mexico City

Aztec skull wall from an excavation in Mexico City

Death was a major part of the culture and skull carvings were prevalent. These centuries old carvings are practically identical to the modern Day of the Dead motif celebrated throughout Mexico in the first days of November. Nathan and I couldn’t resist dressing up in this beautifully morbid style to walk around on Halloween last fall.

Monte Alban in Oaxaca

Monte Alban in Oaxaca

My mom and I Finding shade at Monte Alban

My mom and I finding shade at Monte Alban

My dad making his way to the top

My dad making his way to the top

Vegetation taking over the ruins at Monte Alban

Vegetation and agave taking over the ruins at Monte Alban

To the south of Mexico City, just outside Oaxaca, Monte Alban was built almost 2000 years ago on a mountain top overlooking the Oaxaca valley. Like Teotihuacan, the form is dominated by large pyramids arranged in and around a very flat, linear plaza.  It was practically rock climbing to get up the steep stairs with the sun beating down our backs. But the views were worth it.

Mitla courtyard

Mitla courtyard from 1300s

Intricate geometric designs symbolizing religious principles

Intricate geometric designs symbolizing religious principles

While Monte Alban was a political center, nearby Mitla was built around 1300s as an important religious site. Geometric carvings and some original paintings still cover the site, much of it unrestored.  It truly felt like stepping back in time, through short, squat doorways to ancient courtyards.  The geometry has a deeper meaning than just decoration.  Each design symbolizes complex ideas, like the cycle of life or the watchful eye of God.

Ancient corn tclayuda at Itanoni

Ancient corn tclayuda at Itanoni

Mexico’s history is not only evident in crumbling ruins or city architecture, it’s also present in the food. While in Oaxaca, we made time to stop by Itanoni, a cafe that specializes in heirloom corn to make its tortillas, tamales and sopes. As in the United States, GMO corn has come to dominate Mexican fields. I loved seeing the ancient corn strains being treasured in its native land.

This was really just the tip of the iceberg.  So many different great civilization have passed over this land, all of which have influenced the multitude of ethnic cultures coexist in Mexico today.  It’s a diversity that makes me want to come back for more.

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Christmas in Hoi An (by Carmen)

Street vendors in Hoi An

Street vendors in Hoi An

Lanterns in the night

Lanterns in the night

Hoi An is one extremely adorable town. Once an important port, it now contains enough 18th and 19th century architecture that one can easily imagine life a couple hundred years ago. These days, Chinese and Japanese tradesmen have been replaced with tourists, ships have been replaced by motor boats offering tours and tailor shops have proliferated.

New tailored clothes and our new friend Ha

New tailored clothes and our new friend Ha

Yes, tailoring. In addition to the historic atmosphere it has become Hoi An’s claim to fame. In fact, it was a major reason for our visit. A friend of a friend had her wedding dress made here for less than $100. In the wedding world, that’s the stuff of legend since dresses can easily go for thousands of dollars. I hoped to get my own wedding dress made but my prospects weren’t promising at first. I wasn’t liking the fabric choices nor the prices, which were well above $100 for a rather simple dress. Finally, we found Kimmy’s who made me a beautiful lace dress for a very reasonable sum. Score! Nathan and I soon discovered that getting custom clothing is addicting. In the end we each got a suit and some dress shirts. I also got a skirt and a trench coat. All in the span of 4 days!

Streetside coffee with friends Julia and Jonathan

Streetside coffee with friends Julia and Jonathan

Carmen, Jonathan and Julia in front of the Japanee bridge

Carmen, Jonathan and Julia in front of the Japanee bridge

Incense at a Chinese temple

Incense at a Chinese temple

Besides getting our wedding attire made, we had been looking forward to Hoi An for another reason. Our friends Julia and Jonathan were taking an extended honeymoon in southeast Asia and invited us to join them for part of it. It was so great to see old friends, especially since we would be spending Christmas and new year together. We started our first day together with some thick Vietnamese coffee at a sidewalk stall, catching up on life. Thoroughly energized, we wandered around the Old Town sights.

Hoi An roof tiles

Hoi An roof tiles

Caged rooster

Caged rooster

Hoi An old town has a charmingly weathered look to it. We popped in and out of old merchant homes turned into museums and shops. Eventually, the old town bleeds into the vibrant market area where all manner of fruit, veg and meat are sold.

Banh bao vac (Hoi An's white rose)

Banh bao vac (Hoi An’s white rose)

Mì quang lunch

Mì quảng lunch

Like us, Julia and Jonathan love to eat well and were just as eager as we were to sample the local specialties on offer. One, elegantly called white rose, is a delicate shrimp dumpling topped with lots of fried garlic. Another was mì quảng, a noodle dish using turmeric, pork broth and herbs topped with peanuts and a savory rice cracker.

Bún chá at market

Bún chá at market

Bún thịt nướng rice cakes with quail eggs

Bún thịt nướng rice cakes with quail eggs

Another street eat was a delicious bún cha, egg cups we had already tasted in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh. I liked them even more streetside as you could see and smell the wood fire used to cook them. In the market we waited for a spot to eat bún thịt nướng, rice noodles with herbs, chili and roasted pork on top. It hit all the right salty, sweet, spicy and sour notes.

Three piggies on a scooter

Three piggies on a scooter

A curious water buffalo

A curious water buffalo

Hoi An canal and jungle

Hoi An canal and jungle

After one of our bigger meals, we rented bikes and rode out to the surrounding countryside. This is where you get to see everyday Vietnamese life. For example, how do you transport your three live pigs on one scooter? As we pedaled further out of town we found ourselves surrounded by canals and rice paddies. In the middle of one set of paddies we noticed a cemetery that we simply had to go check out. As we explored the tombstones we discovered a water buffalo surprised by our presence. Fortunately, he stood perfectly still for his photo opp.

Basket of crabs at market

Basket of crabs at market

Traditional row boat

Traditional row boat

Front of our row boat

Front of our row boat

When cycling became too much we let someone else do the work by boarding a motorboat for a leisurely one hour ride. We passed stilted riverside homes, row boats and the lively fish market.

Santa balloons galore

Santa balloons galore

Then it was Christmas! So far away from home and family, it didn’t feel quite like Christmas was actually happening. Having Julia and Jonathan there helped and together we decided to make a special night of it. That’s how we ended up at Mermaid Restaurant for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. After some white roses, hot pot and a few strong cocktails we were definitely feeling merry and bright.

Vietnamese omelette

Vietnamese omelette

Our last morning in Hoi An we headed to our favorite street food street, Tran Cao Van. We ate some fantastic fried eggs topped with tomatoes, a bit of pork broth and cilantro alongside a roll of fluffy bread.

Pho restaurant

Pho restaurant

My Son Champa ruins

My Son Champa ruins

My Son in the rain

My Son in the rain

A quick pho for lunch and we then embarked on yet another scooter adventure, this time to the ruins of My Son. These ruins were supposedly once as grand as those at Angkor Wat but were heavily damaged in war bombings. During our ride there it began to rain, then it began to pour. Of course, just as we were leaving the rain softened up a bit and the as we scooted back to Hoi An we air dried. But before we made it to town we were held up by thousands of school children on bikes, making their way home. It was an incredible sight.

Delicate flower

Delicate flower

I’m so happy I was able to spend Christmas in Hoi An with people I cared about. And I have to say, trying on my wedding dress and loving it instantly was the best Christmas present I could hope for on this trip. Until next time, Hoi An. I’ve got a good feeling we will see you again some day.

An Adventure In Siem Reap & Angkor (by Nathan)

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Does it get more beautiful than that? A visit to Angkor Wat requires a journey, a good story to tell and some real adventure. We tried our best and this is what happened:

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Crossing borders into developing countries is always an adventure.   We had expected something along the lines of the Bolivian guns and egos that we experienced in April, but crossing into Cambodia was surprisingly smooth and safe.  Go us!  The challenge was that we decided to take transit from the middle of Thailand to the middle of Cambodia.  And thirty hours later with six modes of transit, the trip was a success.  Starting on Koh Tao Island we hopped in the back of a truck to taxi to the port, then a ferry boat to the mainland, then we took a regional bus to Chumphon and, crap, a three hour delay of our overnight train.  Eventually we climbed onto our tiny upper bunks and we slept until morning when we arrived in Bangkok.  We grabbed a local city bus to the edge of town, then a regional bus to the Cambodian border.  With luck we could walk to the border, acquire visas and cross where we bargained for six of us (we met 3 new friends) to pile into a 90’s Honda accord. Another two and a half hours and we arrived in Siem Reap with spending only $46 each for 650 miles (1040km) of travel.

Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Siem Reap is the adjacent city to one of the most renown collection of temples and relics of an ancient empire.  The historic city of Angkor was huge in the 1100’s with over one million people.  Today all that remains are the temples and palaces that were built from stone.  The most known building, Angkor Wat, is just one of twenty ornately carved and grandly built structures.  On our first day we decided to ease into Angkor so we visited a temple further out called Banteay Srei.  We walked in and out of doorways and around domed temples admiring the detailed carvings.  Many of the figures address Hindu gods and stories as well as Buddhist elements because the king that built much of Angkor liked aspects of both religions.

Scootering family

Scootering family

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Our mode of transit was a tuk tuk because some of the temples are 20 miles from Siem Reap.  We hired a friendly man that carted us around for the day. Families would pass us on their scooters and the standing toddlers would wave to us shouting “hallo!”. For lunch we had to repeatedly tell “Smee,” our drivers name, to not take us to one of the tour bus restaurants.  He undoubtedly wanted a commission, but we insisted on a little village center that had a few stands.  We found a place that piled a heap of rice noodles onto a plate and scooped intense curry over the top of it.  A basket filled with local greens sat on the table for us to add as we wished.  We washed it down with a fresh coconut and we were off to see more temples.

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré was another beautiful temple.  This one sits a little off the beaten tourist track, but we enjoyed exploring the nearly vacant complex imagining thousands of people living around and using this building daily.

Ta Som temple

Ta Som temple

Neak Pean walkway

Neak Pean walkway

Mid-way along our tuk tuk ride we decided that we should organize the places to visit a little better.  We have to admit that we like to be better planned when we travel, but constant movement has made it difficult to know what we want to even do each day.  Most of the Angkor sights are divided among a big circuit and a small circuit.  We talked it over with Smee and then we were chugging along the road to more ancient ruins along the big circuit.  Ta Som had a beautiful tree that took over a wall and Neak Pean was difficult to see because it was fenced off.  The walk to Neak Pean was really special; wood planks along an elaborate man-made moat and a traditional band playing music made visiting the sacred pool feel pleasantly tranquil.

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

It is possible to feel both overcrowded and alone in these temples. Travelers riding bicycles and tuk tuks intermix with the busses of tour groups.  We were amused, and originally frustrated, but eventually delighted when a group of Chinese women took over our photo with their umbrellas.  In the end I liked the photo with the variety of color more than the one without the bus group.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan is one of the most beautiful and elaborate of the temples.  Many of the walls and domes have collapsed, but it is possible to meander and weave around the rubble to find beautiful splashes of red and green on the black stone.  A security guard even showed us a place where we could climb to the top of the wall to admire the buildings.

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from west

Angkor Wat from west

The main attraction is Angkor Wat, and let’s face it, few know more about Cambodia other than Angkor Wat.  We were still building up the suspense, so we climbed up the small mountain to reach Phnom Bakheng and view the setting sun on Angkor Wat.  At the top we then waited an hour to be able to climb to the top of temple.  There were several hundred people already there, but not looking at Angkor Wat, they were freaking out at the rather plain and hazy sunset.  I love sunsets, but this one was meh, and did not deserve the intense shoulder bumping and screams of delight when it hit the horizon.  A little disappointed, we returned to Siem Reap to ready ourselves for another temple day.

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

Carved window pillars

Carved window pillars

Exploring Angkor Wat takes several hours.  The approach is a wide bridge that crosses a moat that is a big as a small lake.  Through the main gate we have our first view of the temple from the ground.  Huge fields flank the walkway with two smaller temples at about midway.  Beyond the temples the elevated walkway sits above two large ponds that are used for the notorious reflection shots of Angkor Wat.  We then entered the main gate and were memorized by the elaborate carvings.  It appears that the temple was etched throughout.  Room after room were carved stories of Brama, or the monkey king, or battles long since forgotten.

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat South

Angkor Wat South

The Wat sits in its own shadow for most of the day, so we walked around the back and the side to get a better look enormous building  There is a mountainous hierarchy of domes that symmetrically towers overhead.  This a truly magnificent 800 year old building.

Angkor Thom South Gate

Angkor Thom South Gate

The faces of Bayon

The faces of Bayon

We had rented some ancient bikes that appeared to have been operational for the last fifty years. But they worked great and we explored big portions of the Angkor small circuit.  Angkor Thom is a huge walled complex that housed the palace buildings of the former king.  At each entrance there is a huge gate with the carved face of King Jayavarman VII, look closely and you can see Carmen on a bike.  One of our favorite temples was Bayon.  This elaborate building contains 216 carved faces.  The beautiful carved contours of each has stood the weathering of time, but like real humans each has aged uniquely.

The elephant terraces

The elephant terraces

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

A huge field in Angkor Thom has elaborately carved elephants into the retaining walls.  This elephant terrace allowed for the king and companions to board their elephants when traveling throughout the region.  The terrace of the Leper King also has an elaborate retaining wall with detailed carvings that meander around the hillside.

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm is most known for being highlighted on Tombraider.  Carmen showed us her guns.  The abundance of trees that have taken over and destroyed Thom Prohm is amazing.  Huge 80ft trees tower above while wrapping themselves around a wall or small dome.  Streams of people and tour groups admire the beauty these ancient buildings being intertwined with a forest of trees.

Crazy sunrise photographers

Crazy sunrise photographers

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

I did not realize the hoards of people that were possible at a sight until I went to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.  We have seen crazy tourists wielding cameras at the Cristo,   Iguazú, and Taj Mahal, but this was all out war of photography. On the third day I woke in the dark and I left Carmen sleeping to begin my bicycle ride to the temple.  The 12km seemed endless as a pumped the peddles to get there before sunrise.  When I arrived, the scene was horrendous- thousands of people all trying to get the perfect shot.  I believe in “camera karma,” but I had finding trouble peaking over the ten person deep crowd.  Eventually after wading into the slimy muck I waited patiently.  I watched a Chinese man take his 200th photo and I asked if I could squeeze it.  The look I received from him and his wife was as if I was asking to go in on a threesome, cameras left aside, unfortunately they did not budge.  The colors faded from reds to pinks and surprisingly all the tour groups deserted the banks. Apparently tour groups have a schedule because I remained, now with elbow room to admire the oranges and yellows and the sun cresting over the top of the temple.  For a micro-moment I felt alone and peace with this beautiful sight. Angkor Wat is stunningly magnificent.

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Pond lily

Pond lily

Some of the most beautiful and wonderful aspects of Siem Reap were not even the temples.  A sunset on a reflection pool or the lily flowers blooming in the pond at Ankor Wat were as amazing as all the beautiful temples.  I biked back to the hotel after the sunrise, but I decided to stop at a small market for breakfast.  I pointed my way to get a bowl of rice porridge and a glass of iced coffee.  We packed our bags and scheduled a regional bus.  Siem Reap was short and eventful, but something was missing from the experience- good Cambodian food.  Battambang here we come, and we’re hungry.

Visiting Ancient Rome In Selçuk (by Carmen)

Welcome to Turkey!

Nathan in the lounge at Pension Homeros

The sun was setting over rolling hills.  I had a wine glass in one hand.  The calls to prayer began emanating from minarets throughout the town.  It was a perfect moment at our sweet guesthouse in Selçuk.  This was our first stop in Turkey and we had received a warm welcome of wine on the hotel’s terrace.  I was immediately enchanted with the Turkish decor of thick carpets, a mix of patterned fabrics and comfy pillows.

Walking up to the Roman theater at Ephesus

Inside the theater

Selçuk is best known for one magnificent, very special sight – the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Ephesus which peaked in the 2nd century AD.  This archeological site is up there with the likes of Pompeii in terms of intactness.  As we walked in I was immediately blown away by the huge theater built into the hillside.  It could hold an astonishing 25,000 spectators.  This generous capacity hints at the city’s large size, which is estimated at a quarter of a million people.

Library of Celsus

One amazing porch

Beautiful carving on the library exterior

The true star of Ephesus lies just beyond the theater.  Up a marble path, past the old agora (market) is the Library of Celsus.  Based on the intricately carved exterior, I can l  only imagine how grand and elegant this three story structure must have been.

Main Street Ephesus

Yes that would be the communal latrine

From the library the main street leads up hill revealing more and more incredible buildings with each step.  We even found evidence of more mundane spaces, such as the latrine.  Advanced plumbing meant waste was swept away quickly. The Romans understood cleanliness thousands of years ago. It amazes me how far down Europe sank in the dark ages after the fall of Rome, when hygiene was practically nonexistent.

Roman mansions

Intact Roman mosaics

Also on the main street is a collection of lavish homes of the rich.  They were large complexes with every inch of wall space frescoed or covered in marble.  And the mosaics were spectacular, depicting animals or mythical characters such as Medusa or Poseidon.  

Chicken shish and köfte

Turkish salad mix plate

All that scrambling over ruins got us hungry, so our first stop back in town a plate of chicken shish and juicy köfte (meatballs).  After relaxing at the hotel, we headed out for a simple dinner of Turkish salads.  These included stuffed peppers, sautéed eggplant, tangy thin green veggies, tomatoes with green beans and yogurt. With each new Turkish dish I tried, I was hungry for more.

Delicious cacık

Saturday market in Selçuk

Yogurt is a staple of Turkish cuisine and I love the traditional way to serve it.  Cacık is a thinned yogurt mixed with cucumber, garlic, dill and lemon. Used to dip thick, spongy bread it makes for a delicious snack.  We enjoyed some as we made our way through the lively Saturday market.

The god Artemis

For the rest of the day we headed back to antiquity.  First we visited the one remaining column of the Temple of Artemis.  Once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple once had 127 columns. Inside, the giant statue of Artemis a symbol of fertility towered over worshipers.  The temple eventually fell into disrepair and the marble harvested for other uses.  But the footprint of the structure is still visible and impressive.

Virgin Mary’s house

We rented a scooter to visit one more historical site.  Virgin Mary’s believed final residence is outside Selçuk in a pretty mountain valley.  We had expected a spiritual place but it turned out to be a rather simple chapel with one wooden, handless statue of Mary.    The government charged to get into the park and it just felt like people went in, lit a quick candle, and left.  Definitely not our favorite visit in Selçuk.

Crescent moon rises over Turkey

Another sunset on the terrace made up for it.  We were welcomed with another glass of wine and the hotel owners even fixed up Nathan’s shoe that had broken that day.  We relaxed, watched the moon rise and got ready for our bus to Cappadocia.

Old Friends in Cusco (by Carmen)

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Cathedral at night

Nathan and I arrived in Cusco at about 6 in the morning. The streets were empty as we walked the uphill journey from the bus station to our hostel. We dropped off our stuff and headed out to walk again and explore the city. The streets had started to fill up but it wasn’t with locals. Everyone seemed to be from somewhere else.After traveling for so long in places with relatively few foreigners, it was jarring to be in a city practically overrun with tourists. This was both good and bad.

View of the Plaza Mayor from above

The good thing was that they were ready for the tourist hoards with a variety of restaurants, cozy cafes, gift shops, bars, info centers, etc. The bad thing was that they used the opportunity to charge inflated prices for some of the city sights. The cathedral, for example, would have cost $10. The ticket to see local ruins costs $70! These are very high prices compared to the cost of
living in Peru. Someone is making a lot of money but it doesn’t seem to be reinvested in the sights nor in the town outside of the central tourist zone. Seeing how things are in South America, it probably ends up in a few government officials’ pockets, unfortunately.

Stone wall made without mortar or metal tools

But some sights were worth shelling out some money. In the 15th century, Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. It was here that they built their finest temples and palaces using their best stone masons. Of course, the Spanish destroyed everything and rebuilt all the temple sites as churches. But there are still traces of the original grandeur. For example, a beautiful wall is just off the main plaza. It shows how magnificently the giant stones were placed together with no mortar or metal tools.

Another example of this fine stone work was at Qorikancha, the golden temple that celebrated the sun. The work was so precise and detailed. It would have been amazing to see it before the Spanish looted the gold that covered the entire walls.

Jumping for joy in the Sacred Valley

The true highlight of our time in Cusco, however, was seeing our Bay Area friends. Back in January we decided to do an epic 6 day hike to Machu Picchu. To acclimatized to the high altitudes we all spent a few days in Cusco. It was awesome to do this exploration with them. First we met up with Dan and Randy and got caught up over pancakes and paninis at Jack’s Cafe. Together we took a tour of the Sacred Valley, the farming region outside of Cusco that holds a few sacred ruins.

Terraces in Pisac

Nathan in an Incan trapizoidal doorway

The first set of ruins were the terraces and homes of Pisac. Built high into the hillsides these settlements were both closer to the apus, or mountain gods, as well as protected from invasion.

Temple at Ollantaytambo

Next we hit the town of Ollantaytambo which was strategically placed at the intersection of three valleys. It had intact terraces and fountains that still operate today.

Women demonstrating the dying of fabrics

As part of the tour we stopped at a textile factory where women spend a few months dying and weaving textiles, make some money, then head back home. The demonstration of how the alpaca wool is spun using a dradel looking thing, dyed with natural plants and weaved on a loom was a sort of a sales pitch but interesting nonetheless.

Lomo Saltado

That night we met up with two more dear friends, Brenda and Drew! We all went out for some roasted chicken but Nathan was a rebel and ordered lomo saltado, or beef stir fried with potatoes, onions, and tomatoes in a tangy sauce. This is one of my favorite Peruvian dishes. The combination of flavors and cooking styles reflects the Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine.

Group at Sacsayhuaman

Tunnel

The next day we all took a bus 8km outside of Cusco. Together we walked the road back, exploring the various ruins along the way and ending at the famous and spectacular Sacsayhuaman. We hired a guide for this last site and within minutes we found ourselves in a pitch black tunnel dug out of the rocky hillside. As we emerged into the sun once more we found a circular area partially line with stones. The guide explained that a pool of water may have been there once to reflect the stars. I sat on the throne overlooking this pool area, trying to recreate it in my mind. It became very apparent how thoroughly the Spanish destructed these sacred sites and structures.

Me on the throne

The three tiers of Sacsayhuaman

What is left a Sacsayhuaman is whatever the Spanish couldn’t destroy. That includes three large terraces that formed the foundation of three important Incan temples. The temples are long gone but the enormous stones that formed the terraces would have required great effort to move. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but each wall is about 15 feet tall! The field in front of the terraces is the last battleground of the Inca against the Spanish, with the latter barely gaining their victory.

Chicharron

We finished off our ruins tour with a lunch at a chicharron restaurant. A few slabs of fried pork, onions, mint and some pink speckled potatoes hit the spot.

Cuy times

But there was one more dish to try before we all left for our hike to Machu Picchu: cuy (guinea pig). For anyone hesitant about trying this unique delicacy, I think the picture confirms your worst nightmares. Fortunately, none of the members of our group were intimdated. We dug in and found that cuy offered a dark, gamey taste. It was fun to try but not anything I’ll be craving soon.

I enjoyed how history came alive in Cusco. But it was time to pack our bags and start the hike of a lifetime.

Dancing and Hiking in Copacabana and Isla Del Sol Bolivia (by Nathan)

Copacabana Bolivia

A trip through Bolivia would never be complete without seeing Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.  Carmen insisted that we stop here and we discovered a small cultural center tucked into a beautiful lake bay.

Two plates of trout

Sunset on Copacabana harbor

The most delicious thing about a town positioned on a lake is that there is access to fresh fish.  For weeks we had been chanting “trucha!” as a way to bring up spirits and remember the funny feijoada experience in Rio.  Now, in Copacabana, there were restaurants everywhere serving trout twenty different ways. And they are all really good.  We found a lakeside kiosk and ordered up one fish “de la diabla” (spicy red sauce) and another “a la plancha con aji” (grilled with garlic).  The fish was tender and juicy and by far the best trout I have ever had!

Our bus on a barge

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  We arrived to Copacabana from La Paz on a bus.  The bus saves some time from driving around the large peninsula and we all had to ride a short ferry ride across the bay.  Even the bus was loaded onto a barge and carried across.  Then the bus weaved its way in and out of the fingers of the lake and eventually dropped into the cute little town.  We expected a calm, tranquil town, but instead found thousands of people and a raging party.

Parade dancing

Lantern costumes

Lantern costumes

Our arrival in Copacabana coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Bolivia, La Fiesta de la Cruz.  It begins around May 3 and lasts for four non-stop days.  Everybody participates and everyone was part of a color coordinated group.  The women wore brightly ornate dresses with bulbous flowing skirts and of course a bowler hat.  The men performed in marching bands or wore lantern-like costumes.  Each group of 100 to 200 people would parade up and down the streets and eventually arrive at the Iglesia de la Sagrada Cruz.

Couple on there way to dance in the plaza

Dancing on the plaza

The party did not stop there.  These groups would converge onto two main plazas.  The marching bands would stand on concrete bleachers swaying to the music, blowing their horns and slamming their drums.  Everyone was dancing in a sway and twirl back and forth.  The dance actually mimics a fighting style as this festival used to be a way for men of different tribes to compete for land.  Supposedly these fights still happen, but we did not see any.

Crazy firework apparatus

Throughout the day the song of the bands was only broken by the sharp crack and pop of fireworks.  At night the pyros had a feast of lights, sparks, flames and kabooms to entertain the crowd.  Carmen and I sat watching as what seemed one in ten rockets failing to explode in the sky came crashing into the plazas below.  At one point they brought out this crazy PVC pipe apparatus thirty feet tall.  Upon lighting it the pyro’s shoulder catches fire from the twirling sparks.  He pats it out and runs for cover as the sparks and flames fly out in all directions.  The colors and light illuminate the people that continue to dance next to this thing.  I looked over at Carmen and there is a mixed expression of fear and intrigued excitement .  The structure ends with sparks spewing out of a cross with high-pitched whistles then the whole thing catches fire.

View from our hotel room

Lofted bed and hammocks

Outside of the partying, Carmen and I found the nicest hotel we have ever stayed.  It was called Las Olas.  Our dining table overlooked the beautiful Copacabana bay.  Our room included indoor and outdoor hammocks, comfortable beds and a kitchenette all for $42 a night which was a splurge for Bolivia.

Sunset on Copacabana

The festivities were a ten minute walk from our scenic overlook.  At sunset our hammocks seemingly rocked to the rhythms of the trumpets.  Throughout the night the horns entered our dreams and at sunrise hundreds of people were still drinking and dancing.

Arch of abandoned building

Copacabana cathedral

The city itself is very picturesque.  The nearby hills provide wonderful overlooks and the bright cathedral is magnificent.  Carmen and I wandered the streets maneuvering around the parade and tasting everything the street vendors had to offer.

Bowl of trout ceviche

One dish I could not walk away from was a woman serving heaping bowls of ceviche from her plaza tent. People crowded around so the turnover looked good.  The end result was sour, spicy and crunchy with crisp roasted corn kernels.

Isla del Sol

Copacabana was just one reason for this destination.  The other was to experience and see more of Lake Titicaca.  This lake is enormous.  The size of the lake is roughly four times that of San Francisco Bay and 0ne hundred times deeper.  The lake is one of the highest in the world at 13,000 feet.

Terraced hillsides of Isla del Sol

We hopped on a ferry and travelled for two hours to Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun).  The island was sacred to the Inca who believed it was the birthplace of humans.  Our plan was to spend the night and hike the ruins and across the whole island.

Sunrise from Isla del Sol

That evening we met some new friends Chris and Megan from Brisbane.  Sitting in the sand and watching the sun set we swapped travel stories of their camping in Africa and ours of eating through Asia.  We shared some bottles of Bolivian red wine and ate several aromatic plates of trucha.  It was an unexpectedly fun night in a village of less than fifty people.

Pigs napping on the path

The alarm went off when it was still dark.  We wanted to see sunrise on Isla del Sol.  In the faint light of dawn, pigs blocked our path, and then we met a puppy that wanted to hike with us.  These were our first Inca ruins and we were excited.  The ruins included a village of stone buildings and a sacrificial table that were five hundred years old.  And we were disappointed! Bolivia does not protect or care about its cultural treasures.  Our sunrise hike discovered a group of vagrant backpackers that had cooked dinner on the sacrificial table leaving their trash to scatter the site while they slept on the ruins.  A wrong turn in the stone structures and we found where they used the restroom.  How disrespectful can these people be?

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol

Inca ridge path

The buildings themselves were small and not the high quality masonry we would see in Peru.  The best part about Isla del Sol was not the ruins, but the walk itself.  The sacred Inca trail followed the ridgeline of the island and allowed for endless views of Lake Titicaca.  The water was deep blue that met the terraced hillsides that were cultivated five hundred years ago.  We climbed and dipped along the islands spine arriving to the south side for the island.  Another ferry and we bobbed our way to Copacabana.  We immediately grabbed a bus and we were on our way to Peru.  Copacabana and Isla del Sol already a memory of culture, a lake and trout.

Carmen on Inca path

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