Monday, 19 December 2016

Playa Grande, Costa Rica

I had the pleasure to plan a grand family vacation. It was grand in size because there were four families and together there were sixteen of us, ranging from age 8 to middle-aged adults. We all agreed to go to Playa Grande (Grand Beach), on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, for a week.

Playa Grande, Costa Rica
I did a few things right as the designated family vacation planner and would like to share my experience with you:
  1. Chose a destination that can be reached by non-stop flights from Toronto. We flew to Liberia International Airport in Costa Rica. It was simple and straightforward. Liberia airport was easy to navigate as it is not as busy as San Jose International Airport.
  2. Found a villa (Villas Costa Grande) that can house sixteen people from Home Away. We had to stay in two houses, each was fully furnished with five appliances, and offered enough beds for everyone. The gated villa has a swimming pool, and is a 3-minute walk to the beach.
  3. Booked airport pick-up and drop-off before leaving home. I did the arrangements by e-mail. Upon arrival in Liberia, our driver welcomed us with a big sign with my name on it. Then we piled into two shuttle vans and went directly to our rented villa...Worry-free!
  4. Booked grocery shopping and delivery to the villa before leaving home. It was fantastic that this service was available. I e-mailed the list of grocery items to the property manager. She was on site when we arrived with a long bill but the fridge and freezer were full and ready for our meal preparations. Again...worry-free!
  5. Chose Costa Rica which has sights and activities suitable for our various age groups. We were within walking distance to Grand Beach, and Marino Las Baulas National Park. We could also book excursions to visit an estuary, try out zip lining, hiking, hot springs. etc.
How did we do?
  • We had the villa and its swimming pool to ourselves the entire week. Just luck that the other three houses were vacant during our stay. Our rented houses were spacious and the beds were comfortable.
  • The beach was grand for everyone, and the pool was a big hit with the children. A maintenance worker came to clean the pool daily.
  • The natural settings and bio-diversity in Costa Rica were wonderful. We had different birds visiting us every morning. We were all fascinated by the pelicans, fish, birds, iguanas, howler monkeys, alligators, crabs, butterflies, dragonflies, to name a few. Click to enlarge the pictures below.
Bird on our balcony
Birds by the pool

  • We loved the plants and trees around our place, too. The children saw papaya trees, mango trees, lime trees and various flower plants. Tropical fruits such as pineapples, rambutans were sweet and delicious.

Sweet rambutans
  • We all went to visit the estuary by boat. The mangrove jungle, the narrow waterways, and wildlife kept all of us entertained for several hours.

Heron at the estuary
Howler monkey
Alligator in the river - Can you see it?
Idyllic fishing boats
  • The teenagers and some of the adults went on a tour that included hiking, horseback riding, zip lining and visiting a hot spring bath. They really enjoyed their excursion.
  • During our stay we only had to go to a local store for small grocery items as our fridge and freezer were fully stocked upon request. By cooking our own meals, we saved a lot of money and had a lot of fun family meal time. The available appliances made dish washing and laundry a breeze.
  • We collected shells on the beach and watched a few spectacular sunsets.
Shell on Playa Grande

It was a “grand” family vacation for all of us. We shared a special time and still talk about it. As the children described in one word: “Awesome”!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Huaca Pucllana and Lima City Tour

DAY 7 - After a good night’s rest, and breakfast at the hotel Los Girasoles, I walked to Huaca Pucllana which is one of the most important ancient monuments in Lima. Huaca means “sacred place”, Pucllana means “game”. This archaeological site was recently discovered and is still under excavation so more discoveries may take place in the future. The entrance ticket cost 12 soles (US$4). Visitors must follow a guided tour along carefully roped walkways.

The complex consists of a museum, the archaeological site, a small park dedicated to local flora and fauna, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. The two-hour, informative tour included a brief introduction in the museum, a walk through various parts of the archaeological site, and a visit to the small park.
Vessels in Huaca Pucllana museum, Lima, Peru
Huaca Pucllana is believed to be built around 500 AD as an important ceremonial and administrative centre for the Lima Culture. The ceremonial sector contained a pyramid made of adobe bricks, 500 metres long, more than 100 metres wide, and 22 metres high, on seven staggered platforms. There must be millions of bricks that make up the site. Very interesting history and architecture!

Here are some pictures of Huaca Pucllana. Click to enlarge them.
Map of La Huaca Pucllana
Adobe bricks at Huaca Pucllana
Layers of bricks, Huaca Pucllana
Huaca Pucllana, Lima
Llama in Huaca Pucllana park
Leaving Huaca Pucllana, I walked back to my hotel for lunch. Around 2:30 PM, LimaVision shuttle came to pick me up for the Lima City Tour. The tour took about four hours. There were 10-12 other tourists on my tour. We started with a panoramic view of the Huaca Pucllana, visited the Central Reserve Bank of Peru Museum, walked through the Main Square, seeing the Cathedral, Government Palace, Municipal Palace, the Monastery of San Francisco and its Catacombs, and ended by Lovers’ Park by the Pacific Ocean before getting dropped off at our hotels. Traffic in Lima was bad and the sights are not close together so having a local person to do the driving was a time saver.

Here are some pictures of Lima Centre. Click to enlarge them.
A "famous" hotel in Lima
Teatro Colon, Lima
Gold object in the Central Reserve Bank of Peru Museum
Cathedral in Lima Main Square
Municipal Palace, Lima
Government Palace, Lima
Fountain in Lima Main Square
Monastery of San Francisco, Lima
My flight from Lima to Toronto was scheduled for 1 AM so I had dinner at the hotel then waited for my taxi pick-up. The taxi driver came on time. As we headed towards Lima airport, he signalled for me to put my backpack onto the floor in the car, in case someone smashes the window at an intersection. I haven’t had any incident for my week in Peru and would like to keep it that way so I followed his instruction.

My flight home was alright.  This concluded my trip to Peru with fond memories of the Inca ruins in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and especially Machu Picchu!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Lima - Miraflores district

DAY 6 - On my way back from Machu Picchu, I stayed at Hostal Inti Wasi for one night in Cusco since Hostal El Triunfo was full. The staff were helpful at both hotels. The front desk person from Hostal El Triunfo took my carry-on to Hostal Inti Wasi and the staff at Hostal Inti Wasi delivered it to my room. Both hotels are in excellent location right by the Plaza de Armas. My room rates included breakfast and free Wi-Fi.

Hostal Inti Wasi (Inti means "sun”, Wasi means “house”) has a nice and spacious breakfast area and the food choices were good.

After breakfast, I asked for a taxi to Cusco airport. Then from there, I flew to Lima. The flight was fine and took about two hours. Once arrived at Lima international airport, I booked a taxi at the official taxi desk in the terminal to take me to hotel Los Girasoles in Miraflores district. The ride cost 60 soles (US$20) and took about 45 minutes with some traffic.

My first impression of Lima: a busy city, with a mix of old and new buildings that did not look well planned! My taxi ride passed by the Pacific coast on one side and a cliff on the other. I saw a few paragliders flying above the ocean. Lima is also much warmer than Cusco.

Paraglider by Pacific Ocean, Lima
Once arrived at hotel Los Girasoles, I got a room with two beds and a private bathroom. The hotel has a restaurant on site, and nice, small seating areas in the lobby. I booked an English speaking Lima City Tour by LimaVision for tomorrow afternoon at the hotel front desk. This tour has two departures daily at 9:50 AM and 2:50 PM. The tour cost US$33 including hotel pick-up and drop off.

I walked from the hotel to Larcomar shopping centre which was located by the Pacific Ocean, and spent some time walking along the promenade and some main streets in Miraflores. There are lots of restaurants, shops and hotels in this area. Here are some pictures around the Larcomar shopping centre. Click to enlarge them.

Larcomar shopping centre, Lima
Dinner in hotel Los Girasoles was good. I forgot to take picture of my order. So far all the food I had in Peru have been tasteful and inexpensive.

Another fine travel day from Cusco to Lima!

Next post: Huaca Pucllana and Lima City Tour.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Machu Picchu

DAY 5 - I woke up early, had breakfast then walked to Aguas Calientes bus station to buy my tickets to Machu Picchu. The return bus tickets cost US$24. Consettur buses run from 5:30 AM to 3:30 PM, transporting passengers to the site. Buses return from the ruins when full, with the last departure at 5:45 PM. The bus ride would take about 25 minutes on a winding mountain road with several switchbacks. At some of the switchbacks, the incoming bus had to stop and wait for the outgoing bus to pass.

Alternatively, I could walk 8 km (5 miles) up a steep mountainside path to reach Machu Picchu. However, with the altitude, this walk could be physically challenging, plus it would take about 1.5 hours so I decided to take the bus and save my time and energy to explore Machu Picchu.

The bus drop off was right outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. I had bought the ticket for access to the site the day before. It was 128 soles (US$40) and allowed two entries with passport required. There was a restaurant and the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge located outside of the site entrance.

Machu Picchu was the main reason for me to visit Peru. Walking past the turnstile to enter the site, I was full of anticipation to see Machu Picchu for the first time. I didn’t know if I would be disappointed after having seen its pictures so many times in books or on the Internet.

I can tell you that the first sight of Machu Picchu was a WOW! for me. I was in awe and stood for a while just to absorb it all. Machu Picchu is beautiful. The weather was perfect. I was so happy to be able to visit the archaeological site which was larger than I thought. I spent several hours exploring and taking pictures.

Machu means “old”, Picchu means “peak” or “mountain”. It was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. It was abandoned about 100 years later, and was not discovered by the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in the area in 1572. Over the centuries, the site was covered by the overgrown surrounding jungle. In 1911, American explorer Hiram Bingham was in the region looking for the old Inca capital. He was shown to Machu Picchu by a local farmer’s boy. Bignham brought Machu Picchu to international attention. He returned the following few years to undertake clearing and excavation of the site. In 1983, UNESCO declared Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world.

The story of the discovery of Machu Picchu, its strategic location in the Andes high above the Urubamba river, its amazing Inca architecture, and the mysterious purpose of the site are explorer’s dreams. Without further ado, my pictures are below with caption. Click to enlarge them.

My first sight of Machu Picchu: Simply perfect!
My 1st sight of Machu Picchu - Simply perfect!
East agricultural sector where farming was done along the terraces:
East agricultural sector
The semicircular Temple of the Sun:

Temple of the Sun
Machu Picchu Main square:
Main square
Temple of the Three Windows:
Temple of the Three Windows
Group of the Three Doorways:
Group of the Three Doorways
Ceremonial Rock:
Ceremonial Rock
Inti Watana - astronomic clock or calendar used by the Incas:
Inti Watana - Inca clock or calendar
The Guardhouse:
Inca trapezoidal windows - from one window see through to the next window:
Inca trapezoidal windows
Stone stairway at Machu Picchu:
Stone stairway at Machu Picchu
Inca houses:
Inca houses
Llamas on site:
Llamas at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Closeup of the Inca ruins
I didn't buy the ticket to climb Wayna Picchu (Young Mountain) as it would require booking in advance due to the limited number of visitors allowed each day, plus it would be a very steep climb. I could see Wayna Picchu from Machu Picchu and the steps leading up to the top of Wayna Picchu.

On my way out, on the right near the exit, there was a small booth where you can stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp. I certainly did!

I left Machu Picchu feeling very happy. I took the bus back to Aguas Calientes then walked to the train station to board the Vistadome train back to Cusco. The Vistadome train service offered a small meal, a short musical performance, and a fashion show. By the time we arrived in Cusco, it was evening time. I took a shared van (combi) with a few other tourists to Plaza de Armas and walked to hostal Inti Wasi to check in for the night.

It was a perfect day at Machu Picchu!

Next post: Lima.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Train to Machu Picchu

DAY 4 - There are two main rail companies offering train service to Machu Picchu:
  1. Peru Rail has trains running from Cusco to Aguas Callientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). However, please note that Poroy train station in Cusco is about 20 minutes ride outside of Cusco town centre.
  2. Inca Rail has trains running from Ollantatambay to Machu Picchu.
Based on my research and travel schedule, I decided to buy return train tickets with Peru Rail with an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). I’ve got my train tickets in Cusco as follows:
  1. Expedition train #73, leaving Ollantatambay at 12:58 PM for Machu Picchu (US$56)
  2. Vistadome train #32, leaving Machu Picchu at 15:20 PM for Poroy in Cusco (US$91)
This travel schedule would allow me sufficient time to go from Cusco to Ollantatambay to catch my train without having to get up too early on my departure day, and to arrive in Cusco on my return day so I could get ready to leave Cusco the next morning. Even though the Vistadome train was more expensive, I paid for it so I could be in Cusco, plus I got to experience both types of trains.

I was warned about luggage limits on the trains so I just took my essentials in my backpack, and left my luggage in the storage room at Hostal El Triunfo until I returned. I would have been fine taking my carry-on with me on the trains but the backpack was useful when I spent my day at Machu Picchu.

So I had breakfast at the hostal then went to Plaza de Armas. There are taxis and shared vans that go from here to Ollantatambay. The shared van (also called combi) is inexpensive, about US$3 for a two-hour drive. I got the front seat next to the driver which was great.

Here’s my pictures of my Peru Rail train and Ollantatambay train station (click to enlarge).

Peru Rail train
Ollantatambay train station

My Expedition train arrived and departed on time. Boarding was orderly and I got to my seat without any issue. The train was clean and comfortable. There was an Argentinian young woman sitting next to me. She had been to Machu Picchu once and was returning to visit the site with her mom and aunt. We enjoyed the scenery and the light snack included in the train ticket.

We arrived at Machu Picchu train station on time at around 3 PM. I followed the crowd to exit then asked for direction to walk to the hotel Pachakuteq. The path was uphill and lined with restaurants and shops. It was touristy but this is the closest town to Machu Picchu.

I found hotel Pachakuteq and checked in to my room. The room was small with a private bathroom. I stayed here only for one night so it was fine. The hotel lobby had tables and chairs for breakfast and vending machines for snacks.

Hotel Pachakuteq entrance
Street leading down to town square

I walked to the town square and wandered around town before having dinner at a local restaurant.

Machu Picchu town square

Machu Picchu tourist office

Got to go to bed early tonight for an early rise tomorrow morning!

Next post: Machu Picchu.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Sacred Valley Tour

DAY 3 - I had breakfast at Hostal El Triunfo then spent the rest of the day on the Sacred Valley Tour of the Incas. This tour departs from Cusco on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Reservation one day in advance is fine. I booked it at the front desk in my hotel on my first day in Cusco.

I paid 60 soles (US$20) for the full-day tour which included hotel pick up, drop off, transport, a buffet lunch, and an English speaking guide. I also bought the Cusco Tourist ticket which covered the entrance fees to the Inca ruins on my Cusco City Tour and the Sacred Valley Tour so I was all set for my day trip.

Washington, my tour guide, came with a shuttle van to pick me up from my hotel around 8:30 AM. We went to a bus station to transfer to a bigger bus. There were about 15 travellers on the bus with plenty of room to stretch. Our tour would make the following stops:
  1. A small handicraft market in the village of Ccorao
  2. Pisac Inca archaeological site and local market
  3. Buffet lunch at a restaurant in Urubamba
  4. Ollantaytambo Inca archaeological site
  5. Chinchero village and a weaving co-op
  6. A small alpaca shop on our way back to Cusco
We packed several activities in one day so this blog post will be longer and with more pictures than previous posts. Click to enlarge the pictures.

First stop was at a small handicraft market in the village of Ccorao for about 20 minutes. I did some quick browsing but didn’t buy anything. Here’s a sample of what’s on sale:

Souvenirs in Ccorao shop
Nice scenery appeared as we continued on to Pisac:

Urubamba river
Mountain road to Pisac
Second stop was Pisaq (or Pisac). Pisac is well known for its Incan ruins and Sunday market. Entrance to the Pisac archaeological site is included in the Cusco Tourist ticket. Upon entering the Pisac archaeological site, I saw an expansive view of the hillside agricultural terraces, and the Incan ruins atop a hill. We followed the footpath uphill to reach Q’allaqasa sector at 3,514m (11,529 ft) elevation. The view was spectacular. The ruins and the citadel were built some time around 1440 and appeared well maintained. Even though there were a number of tourists at the site, there was still a very peaceful feel about this place.

Terraces at Pisac
Pisac Incan ruins
View of the Valley
Pisac citadel
Pisac Incan ruins
Stone wall in Pisac
Some Sacred Valley day tours stop at the Pisac market and skip the Pisac ruins. I’d highly recommend to request to visit the ruins at Pisac at the time of your booking.

After leaving the Pisac ruins, our tour bus took us to the Pisac market and let everyone out to explore for about 30 minutes. I spotted these two young Peruvian girls and their lambs, and a colourful mototaxi passing by.

Local girls with little lambs
A mototaxi

Third stop: Urubamba for a buffet lunch at a local restaurant. It’s a big place with plenty of indoor and outdoor seats. There were Andean and American food choices and the food I tried was pretty good. Our group spent about an hour here. I chatted with a few fellow tourists about where we’ve been and where we planned to go next after Cusco.

Fourth stop: Ollantaytambo. Our bus stopped in the town centre and let us off. Ollantaytambo town is one of the most common starting points for the multi-day hike known as the Inca Trail. There is also frequent train service from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu.

Washington took our group on a short walk through town to Ollantaytambo archaeological site. It’s at an altitude of 2,792 m (9160 ft) above sea level. Entrance to the site is included in the Cusco Tourist ticket. We climbed up the stone stairway to reach the top of the terrace complex. Washington was way ahead of us with his flag. He told me he does this tour three times a week!

Ollantaytambo site dates from the late 15th century. The Incas did farming on the agricultural terraces and took advantage of the different ecological zones from the variations in altitude.

Ollantaytambo archaeological site
They also built storehouses on the hills surrounding Ollantaytambo to store the production of the agricultural terraces. Their location at high altitudes, with lower temperatures and more wind, acted as natural “refrigeration” to keep their contents from decaying.
Ollantaytambo storehouses
View of Ollantaytambo town
Steep terraces at Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo Inca ruins
Fifth stop: Chinchero. The sun was setting as our bus approached the village of Chinchero. This is a small Andean village at 3,765m (12,352 ft) elevation, about 30 km (19 miles) from Cusco. Our group walked from the bus stop to Chinchero main plaza and an old colonial church, made of adobe bricks and has been built on the foundations of an Inca temple. Entrance to the site is included in the Cusco Tourist ticket.

Chinchero stone walls

Chinchero church
Llamas on terraces in Chinchero
From the main plaza, we walked to a local weaving co-operative. The local women wore traditional dresses. They greeted us and offered tea. Our group sat down on the wooden benches in the room to observe how the women make dyes from natural materials in the area and the finished products after the dyeing process. Chinchero is well known for its colourful woven textiles. The co-op also sells their products on site. I was tempted to buy but couldn’t decide before it was time to leave.

Local Chinchero weavers
Natural materials for dyes
Colourful yarns
From Chinchero, our bus driver headed back to Cusco and stopped at a local alpaca shop. We were offered tea and had some time to shop. From here, we returned to Cusco. I was dropped off at my hotel at around 6:30 PM.

I found this Sacred Valley Tour very good value for the money, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Pisac, Ollantatambay and Chinchero. The tour is a circuit of around 200 km so having a local guide to take care of the driving, and another guide to accompany you to the sites was well worth the cost of the tour.

It was a wonderful day in the Sacred Valley of the Incas!

Next post: Train to Machu Picchu.