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.