Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Between having a dissertation to finish in the next month and a half, jobs to apply for and a million other things to do and only one hand to type with, I won’t be able to write as much about my trip to Peru as I would like to. Peru is a colorful, spirited and incredibly diverse country. In two weeks, we visited desert, beach, cloud forest and islands on the highest-altitude lake in the world.   If we had more time, we could visit the jungle, more beaches up north and/ or the Colca canyon, famous for its Condors. Peru is also an incredible bargain when it comes to tours, food and accommodation (especially outside of Cusco… anything related to Machu Picchu will be more expensive). Peruvians are quieter and more reserved than I expected from people of South America, but still warm and friendly. Huffington Post recently published an article where Peru placed 9 on their list of 15 top countries to visit in 2015, claiming the country will reach levels of culinary excellence akin to Thailand or France (I’m not sure what the French would say about that). Peru is still developing so especially in cities like Puno, most restaurants appear a bit dingy, potentially unclean, causal mom-and-pop operations and it took my brother and I a little while to warm up to the chicken and rice- based diet (especially since he got sick early on). But toward the end, we began to appreciate the fresh seafood, zesty dishes with an incredible flavor without being drowned in spice. It’s not the healthiest food but quite satisfying, especially when paired with an energizing, citrusy Pisco Sour or, my brother’s new addiction, the radioactive yellow Inca Cola. At the very least, I thought I’d share the two-week itinerary for the trip my brother and I just completed and non-trivial Peru travel tips and tricks we learned along the way. First, if you are planning your own trip to Peru, wait to book most of your tours until you arrive in the country. If you plan to trek the Inca Trail, securing a permit will need to be done months in advance (unless you go in the rainy season like we did, but I don’t know if I’d recommend that). You’re better off waiting for everything else (for example, tours of Lake Titicaca, bus transfers from Cusco to Puno, desert fun in Huachachina/ Paracas) since there’s a million tourist companies everywhere and prices will be three times cheaper booked in person, instead of online. Furthermore, tour companies have basically synched what they offer so you could pay a little more for a faster boat or a smaller group but basically all the tours follow the exact same schedule and take you to the same places. In almost every country I travel these days, I usually just withdraw money from the ATM (I have a Charles Schwab Checking Account with no foreign transaction fees) but Peruvian ATMs charges 12-14 sols for each withdrawal (~3 sol= $1 USD) so you might be better off bringing cash to exchange. Peru also has incredibly varied weather that can change quickly so when they tell you to dress in layers, they aren’t kidding. We went in mid/late January so it was hot, sunny and dry in Lima, Paracas and Ica, and the strong sun made sun protection important. In Cusco and Puno, it was the rainy season and weather could change from blue skies and hot (because of the high altitude, the sun is also very strong here, even if it feels cooler) to cold and rainy in the blink of an eye. In general, it’s not worth trying to look pretty in these cities- everyone is in hiking boots, wearing practical layers and a backpack with rain gear and sun protection. Day 1: Cusco. Everyone recommends that visitors to Machu Picchu spend a day or two tin Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude (3300 m above sea level) and explore the “center/naval” of the ancient Incan empire. We took altitude pills prior to arrival so we had no major problems with nausea and lightheadedness but we did notice getting winded really easily. Mint tea, coca leaves and rude water are local remedies that can help if you don’t have pills (I read somewhere that smelling lime or your armpits also helps haha. It’s a rather small, incredibly historic city with gorgeous nature and fresh air easily accessible beyond city limits. We arrived around 11 AM, walked around the main plazas (Plaza de Armas) and cathedral in the city center and headed up the hill to the Sacsayhuaman ruins,...

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

One reason I avoid traveling Europe is because of the price tags. I arrived in Vienna, Austria and stopped at a souvenir shop pretty early on as I tried to do my daughterly duty by picking out a magnet for my father’s collection. Seeing that it cost 5 euros confirmed all of my intentions to avoid Western Europe like the plague. However, luckily for me, I had two knowledgeable locals to give me a blitz tour of the city, and beyond the 7.60 euros I paid for a 24-hour transportation pass, I was pleased to find most of the attractions didn’t cost anything at all! Entrance to most of the city’s churches, markets, gardens, parks and galleries are free. You don’t need to spend money like royalty to feel like it in Austria, just visit these free attractions in Vienna.  From nature to classic architecture to more modern buildings, there’s something for everyone especially if you time your visit to coincide with free concerts and events. 1) Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace (Free open-air concert in June!) You will have to hop on the metro to get here but make sure you visit this sunshine yellow palace, Austria’s most visited site. Colossal, cheery and picturesque, I was surprised to learn these are only the summer residences of the Austrian royal family, including empress Sisi, whose beauty started wars. While you need to pay to tour the inside of the palace, you can easily spend a day exploring its vast gardens which are so big that people go jogging here! If you zig-zag up the hill, you will also find a beautiful view of the city. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna in June, the palace hosts a free concert by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. Although I couldn’t experience it myself, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to listen to a symphony than surrounded by roses, pruned bushes and fishponds. 2) St. Stephan’s Cathedral & Surrounding Downtown St. Stephan’s is the symbol of Austria’s capital city and is located in the heart of the downtown. Its towers soar high over the city and it contains one of the biggest free-swinging church bells in Europe. I found the interior to be a little dark and dreary but I loved the building’s colorful roof tiles, which were laid to depict the royal coat of arms of the city. I also enjoyed the costumed interpreters in knee socks, wigs and velvet jackets who try to invite you to the Opera. Nearby, explore Vienna’s famous shopping streets that emanate out from the cathedral and Hofburg, the imperial palace. You can peek at some old ruins and walk under its impressive entrance… just don’t get run over by the horse-drawn stage coaches that regularly pass through! While you’re here, stop at Demel, one of Vienna’s oldest bakeries, and splurge on a slice of sachertorte. Desserts are a highlight of Austrian cuisine and this chocolate cake with apricot jam is its crown jewel. You’ll feel like royalty especially when you enjoy it in this elegant setting. 3) Opera Vienna is a city with a rich musical heritage that works hard to maintain its reputation. Partly by housing one of the most famous and busiest opera houses in the world, with shows changing almost weekly. The building is massive and something to marvel at from the outside. However, with 3 or 4 euros and a little extra time, you can actually see an opera for yourself! If you show up 90 minutes before the show, you can buy standing room tickets, high in the balcony but the acoustics are good everywhere. 4) Parliament & Rathaus (City Hall) Walk through City Hall park and find yourself in front of the mammoth, neo-Greek style Parliament building. I’ve seen many parliaments and I’m not sure why Austria’s needs over 100 rooms but it sure is impressive. Speaking of grand buildings, just down the road is Rathaus, the most extravagant City Hall you ever will see. It has gothic towers that make it look like a cathedral and outside, you will find rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was a miniature circus (and even one of the nearby statues wore a red nose for the occasion) but I hear it has excellent places to get Gluhwein, mulled spiced wine, in the winter.  Because of these rotating attractions, it’s even fun to visit after dark (I never thought I’d say that about a City Hall)!  According to my host, the hall has also hosted free Playstation 4 video-game-a-thons but if you aren’t in town to catch something like that, you can go on a free City...

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Ok, so “the Hippie City” may not be Hiroshima’s official nickname but what could be more appropriate for a place that proclaims peace from the rooftops, is covered in rainbow blankets of paper cranes and has extreme flower power from omni-present gardens! After teaching a nuclear science course for years, I felt it would be a travesty to come to Japan without seeing the atomic bomb memorials so that’s why I ended up in Hiroshima. While you can easily cover the major city attractions in an afternoon, I found Hiroshima has something to offer everyone- large parks, beautiful waterfront views, excellent shopping and nightlife. And I found Hiroshima attractions to be very walkable. There’s street cars if you need extra speed but everything I wanted to visit was quite close. I think my visit to Hiroshima was rather typical so I don’t have a tremendous amount of insider tips to add. I started by wandering around the sculptures and gardens at the Peace Park, the A-bomb dome to commemorate the epi-center then visited the Atomic Bomb memorial museum (cheapest museum in Japan so far for 50 yen admission!). The museum wasn’t huge but it was poignant and moving and sometimes gross. You could see the tattered clothing of school children fried by the blast, shadows on steps from someone vaporized by the heat, pieces of skin and tongues containing cancerous growths resulting from radiation exposure. The exhibits made me tear up because for a relatively small country, Japan has had more than its share of tragedy: two atomic bombs, a nuclear power plant disaster and countless earthquakes, tsumnis, volcanoes and typhoons. As with all countries, Japan isn’t perfect but it’s uplifting to see a site that witnessed such devastation into a beautiful spot of peaceful reflection, that really makes you appreciate being alive. After the museum, I headed to Okonomi-mura, an international food hall in search of Okonomiyaki, the area’s famous dish. I headed up the stairs and pulled up a barstool at a packed, hole-in-the-wall place where students, couples and businessmen sat around a sizzling metal hot plate. Two chefs worked furiously to feed everyone with towering stacks of cabbage, bean sprouts, soba noodles, pork and egg. I later learned the dish originated sometime after WWII, when people mixed US Army flour rations with water, spread it on a hot plate and sprinkled it with spring onion. Now people like to stuff it with all the things I mentioned above and it makes an incredibly hearty and delicious meal. To work off some of my full stomach, I waddled off to Shukkein Gardens to witness whether gardens in Japan look anything like the Japanese Gardens I’ve visited in the West. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole gardens were arranged around a beautiful reflecting pond, which hosted lazily paddling turtles, greedy larger-than-life coi fish and even a few herons. Adorable arched bridges encouraged me to get closer to the waterfowl and there were plenty of gazebos to kick back and relax. After reviving my inner-Zen amongst the lily pads, I looped around to Hiroshima Castle, Gokuku-jinga Shrine and Central Park. You can pay to get closer to the castle (which is highly unnecessary) but the rest of the park is free to explore and the grounds behind the fort structure are quite extensive. On my way back, I found a small sculpture garden associated with Hiroshima Museum of Art and enjoyed the elephant found and giant, gleaming silver goddess. Miyajima Island Less than an hour away from Hiroshima city center, you can be transported to the magical, mystical island of Miyajima, supposedly one of the top three scenic spots in this country. It’s also a pilgrimage spot for rice lovers, since you can find the world’s largest rice scoop in the O-shamoji stop, if that’s on your bucket list. The postcard-perfect image of Miyajima is the vermillion Oh-torri Gate, perched on the Seto Inland Sea, welcoming visitors to the island. These torri gates usually signify the boundary between sacred land where gods live and non-sacred land, which is why you often find them at entrances to shrines. Although I knew what to expect, the combination of those gleaming gates and the glistening sea against a mountainous background, approach the island did feel like entering somewhere holy. When you land, you’ll encounter deer roaming everywhere, cheerfully munching on grass or bathing in river streams, not even disturbed in the slightest by foreign tourists. I started at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (actually the whole island earned UNESCO recognition), which is one exception to the“Shinto shrines are free” rule but it’s worth...

Budget, bucket-list day in Delhi

Budget, bucket-list day in Delhi

The time has come to document one of the best days I’ve had in India.  Day flowed so smoothly, in an almost eery efficiency.  Why hasn’t the car broken down?  Why hasn’t the driver dropped us off in an unknown area where big-eyed, dirty kids tap our hands and whine, “mujhē bhūkha lagī hai” (I’m hungry)?  Why haven’t we been detained by security for some unbeknowst infraction?  I’m not complaining.  It was Kimberly and Cameron (our American faculty friends from OP Jindal) last weekend in Delhi and they wanted us to experience all of it: local activities (yoga and street food) to best-kept-secret (free!) touristy things.   The day began as all good days in India do (well, after we survived the harrowing drive where I witnessed a man making the most of the traffic jam, when he decided to change his tire in the middle of the highway)… with a steamy cup of chai. The day began as all good days in India do- with a shot glass amount of street side chai. The tent-like shop was on a shaded corner and the whole family hung out under the tarp to watch over its wares: teeny packets of cigarettes, lottery tickets and snacks. They boiled the chai over a central mini-fire and then reached into a large jar to serve it with cumin cookies. The family watched us getting highly on tea with bemused faces and when after serving us a second round, the teenage girl who served us shyly asked us for a “snap”. Even though I’ve taken pictures with dozens of locals who want to pose with a blonde, I still can’t imagine what they do with these photos- post them on Facebook and brag about exotic encounters? Print it out and put it on the mantle in between baby pictures and grandma’s wedding day? After our photoshoot, we proceeded back to f-7 hauz khas enclave, the supposed site of our “sweaty” yoga session. We poked around driveways of residential homes and Kim called her friend who recommended the place, “it’s in a sketchy basement? Tikka. (Ok)”. And so we proceeded. Through an unmarked door, down some stairs to a surprisingly expansive studio room. We each grabbed a mat, and filled with chai and cookies, we fell into assorted variations of child-pose. Suddenly our instructor entered, puma pants swishing as he blew my us and assumed a central position. “Up, up! Let’s get warm!” And he proceeded to lead us through a high paced warm up of jogging, high knees, arm swinging and moving stretches. I looked skeptically at Aaron, flashing my eyes at our teacher’s football jersey. “This was yoga, not national soccer team tryouts, right?”. Once we were warm, the class increased in intensity. Rapid fire sun salutations, fat-burning leg lifts and ballerina-like balances and deep back bends. By the time the 90 minutes over, my friends and I collapsed, sweaty piles of spaghetti on the floor. Yoga class in India: check! Did it make us feel like American wusses? Absolutely. After sponge baths in the bathroom, we headed to the crafts museum for brunch and culture. The man behind the museum traveled the country hunting down handicrafts and the (free!) museum had an incredible assortment of sculptures, textiles, engravings and paintings. It included life size village huts, totem poles, and ended in a courtyard with live artisans doing calligraphy, putting on puppet shows, making jewelry and playing local music. But we didn’t indulge in any of this culture until we finished a feast in the cafe, which featured dishes from all over the country. We nibbled on beetcakes (a street food delicacy from Kerala), green papaya salad, goat dumplings, a quinoa creation and actual French-roasted coffee! (In the land of Nescafé and instant, real coffee was definitely a highlight!). After wandering around the museum, we headed to Lodi garden, an expansive public space and another highly recommended, free attraction. The garden had a fish pond, various flora and fauna, an impressive assortment of artsy trash cans and an assortment of ancient mogul tombs, temples and forts. Watching other people picnic in the park as we sweated to explore the ancient monuments, made a beer break a necessity. We headed to khan market “in ex-pat land” for drinks and dessert. This area looked different than other Indian markets because we weren’t instantly assaulted by wandering salespeople (“bamboo plant for you, ma’am. Just one!), stepping over women selling jewelry, brushing up against mangy dogs and drowning in goods spilling onto the streets. Although more contained than we were used to, the market still didn’t look like much from the outside- dusty, claustrophobic...

India or Brazil: Exploring Brasilia’s landmarks with Indians

India or Brazil: Exploring Brasilia’s landmarks with Indians

Not like I’m complaining… it’s pretty fun to have the best of both worlds.  In Brasilia, every Sunday the city ropes off 16 km of one of the main roads for people to bike, walk, skateboard and run.  Such a good idea to promote getting people outside and exercising.  My hosts invited me to join them for a 6 AM walk (4 AM my time…).  Unfortunately, there was no way my body could wake up that early today.  And it would be great to run around especially because I’m signed up for a half marathon the week I reurn.  However, the arch in my foot has been bothering me and I haven’t been able to run at all in the past couple weeks.  Reva noticed it swelling and me limping yesterday so I’m trying to take it easy so I can at least do as much hiking, walking and exploring as possible!  Reva invited me to do yoga with her during the week and go to the gym with her husband so hopefully I won’t get totally out of shape.  Brazilians are infinitely more active than Indians- I’ve definitely noticed many of them playing sports, running and biking around.I did elect to join them for their 8 AM prayer service at the Temple of Knowledge- we’re going back later for a community lunch so I’ll have to take pictures of the grounds.  Outside, they have mango trees, lemon trees, papaya trees, permissions, curry, turmeric…. They had a little pond with blossoming lotus flowers that someone brought back from India! Beautiful lotus flower Pretty amazing that they survived the trip.  I guess in general, many of the plants commonly found in Brazil were brought from India- mango trees, being one of my favorite examples!  This temple was formed after Guru Tamil came to Brazil in the mid-1970s.  Supposedly, he had an amazing gift with languages and was able to learn Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, etc. within a couple days.  He apparently made quite an impression- there were about 5-7 Portuguese people at the service all of whom have since made efforts to learn Hindi from Reva and visited India. The service involved a simple offering then people taking turns chanting/singing in front of a simple shrine (with images of Ram, Jesus, Swami Talik and his teacher), followed by a silent meditation.  Much less chaotic than most of the Hindi temples I have visited elsewhere which had multiple stations, lots of kids running around, priests making offerings and all kinds of chaos.  Since today is the death anniversary of Talik’s teacher, there was a special breakfast after the service.  I tried my first persimmon (delicious) and had papaya, cheese, crackers, oat cookies, this ground-wheat-fruit-nut-dish that I remember eating in India and a honey bread with a plum filling that was covered in chocolate.  Accompanied by a delicious cup of chai that instantly sent me back to tea time at Miranda House.  So good!  The woman who made the bread owns a biscuit factory, makes her own honey and generally seems amazing.  The people at the temple aren’t vegan (they eat tons of cheese, milk and butter) but they don’t eat eggs or anything associated with taking an animal’s life which made me even more impressed with the quality of food.  I already requested the recipe and I think I’m going to buy some of her honey to bring back to the US.  We’ll be back there later for a community lunch and I hope they have more chai 🙂 Lunch- so delicious- just a sampling shown here but I ended up having seconds of almost everything! Let’s backtrack a bit to yesterday afternoon…. After being fed at midnight on my plane, fed breakfast at 7 AM on the plane, first breakfast with Belle around 9:30 AM, I barely had room in my belly but everything was made with local ingredients and was delicious.  She cooked okra, beans, cucumber, batata boroa,  (Brazilian root vegetable- a cross between a potato and a carrot- I loved it!), tikka masala, roti and rice.  She promised me cooking lessons and I can’t wait to take her up on her offer- she already gave me two links for Indian recipes, one that’s all  vegan/vegetarian.  I’ll definitely be trying out some of those recipes when I return to the US. After the feast, we went exploring.  We started at the smaller TV tower where we took an elevator up to get a view of the city.  On the weekends, there’s a flea market at the bottom with local merchants with an amazing variety of goods- some tourist T-shirts, leather goods, hammocks, musical instruments,  lots of...