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Lisbon

November 2012

Alfama.  Per  instructions from an email that I got from Hear & Soul Lisbon, our taxi dropped us off in front of the Fado Museum, at Largo Chafariz de Dentro, a small dimly lit cobble stoned plaza, surrounded by little tascas (taverns) with scattered empty outdoor tables and chairs.  It was already dark, a little chilly but pleasant, and we have no idea where we were.  I was told Carla would be meeting us there and would walk us into our apartment since cars are not allowed where we are going.  As we started walking, we realized why.  It was like stepping back in time, as we started walking through winding narrow stone alleyways, lit by wrought iron lanterns hanging on tall narrow buildings. Carla kept apologizing for the stairways as we struggle with our luggages through uneven stone steps (escadinhas) which would lead to a small stone landing area, which leads to more stone steps.  We walked up steep alleys, turned, walked up more stone steps until we reached a narrow door to where she finally held out the keys and showed us our home for the next 4 days.

That was our introduction to Lisbon.  Everything about out first hour in Alfama was magical.  Thrilled about our tiny 2-bedroom apartment, we dropped our bags down, and decided to explore our little neighborhood.  Alfama is the old quarter of Lisbon,  built in the 7th century AD and survived the big 1755 earthquake which brought Lisbon to poverty.  This quarter  would definitely take you back in time.  Being off-season, there weren’t a lot of people and the entire place is relatively quiet. We headed to Rua Remedios where there still seems to be places that are still lit open.  Walking up this alley, we found old and dilapidated buildings, most part covered in tiles, small verandas, with clothes out hung for drying.   Several taverns are still open, with men dressed in coats and women in lacey shawls just hanging about outside the door.  Hand made signs, mostly of chalkboards, hang by the door that says “Fado Todos Os Noites” or “Fado Tonight”.  We walked farther and we started hearing crescendoing voice of fadistas accompanied by a guitar.  We were right at the very place where Fado was born.  There’s fado everywhere. We hear a women’s voice, then a few steps further, a man’s voice, all coming from tiny taverns which holds no more than 10 small tables.  Filled with excitement, we made a small circle and found our way back to our apartment.

For the next four nights, we wandered farther up and down the alleys of Alfama, found where the butcher shop is, the fish monger and the bakeries.  We watched as older men and women lean out of their windows from their home 2 or 3 stories up and start a conversation to someone passing by, locals hanging their laundry to dry at the end of the day and taking out their trash and leaving them out by the door to be picked up nightly.  In the mornings, we’d go to a bakery nearby and have our morning café com leite  and pastries as we sat in one of four kitchen tables inside.  We watched locals stop by the bakery on their way to work, stand by the pastry counter, flip a few pages of the newspaper while sipping their morning bica (espresso) and leave.  The owner  would have a talk show blaring on the radio or a soccer match playing on tv.

On weekends, locals stay longer at the bakeries for some chit chat, which to me sounded more like a very passionate conversation bordering on arguments.  They all know each other and seem to be talking about something rather serious.  I’m pretty sure they are not just talking about the weather, but later I noticed that that’s just how they are.  They love talking to everyone and they can maintain conversations for quite a while.  Another thing we noticed is that every bakery/pastelaria/padaria we’ve seen always has a cabinet full of liquors.  I guess they are bakery in the mornings, and double up as bars after breakfast ? or if the espresso isn’t strong enough maybe adding a shot of brandy will do the trick.

Coffee. Lisboetas are crazy about coffee, or actually, espresso.  If you order a café (ka-fey) you’ll get an espresso. You can tell we were tourists because we were the only ones drinking coffee in a bigger cup, and by bigger I mean just a tad bigger than a thimble.  Every place has an espresso maker, be it a bakery, restaurant, market, grocery (so you can take a sip while doing your grocery shopping), train station, bus station, vending machines.  No one makes coffee in big 10-cup pots like what I have at home, they are all about espresso.  And I have to say, every espresso we’ve had is darn good.  So good I basically ended my 2 year caffeine-free stint just like that.  I was afraid ordering a decaf would give me raised eyebrows, and I also didn’t know how to say decaf in Portuguese.  So there I was, having my daily café com leite, until few days later when my stomach acids decided they’ve had enough and I finally had to swallow my pride and get deiscafinado café com leite.

Fado.  There’s a Portuguese word that cannot be translated in any other language. Saudade.  It’s the longing for someone or something that was once there, feeling the love that remains.  All these emotions expressed through music, is Fado.   Considered as a UNESCO Immaterial Heritage, this music is mostly about Saudade,  of unrealized dreams, broken heart, sentiments conveyed through the voice and not the lyrics.  Women fadistas wear black shawls with their name embroidered into it, and men wear white shirts and black coats, as they exaggerate every emotion that they have into the song.  In contrast to the big fado clubs with well known fadistas, we went to a fado in a small tavern in the Alfama district and loved it. Jilian almost fell asleep though.

Food.  One of the most popular dish in Portugal is Bacalhau (cod fish) cooked in different ways.  They say that the Portuguese has 365 ways to cook Bacalhau, one for each day of the year.  We’ve tried a few.  Jilian’s favorite is the Bacalhau a Bras, shreds of salted bacalhau, some potato and eggs.  Some other dishes that we liked were Bacalhau gratinado, grilled sardines, salmon, cabbage soup, Portuguese sausages, and varying stews.  One evening we were lost and trying to find our way back to Alfama, we were tired and needed to rest and passed by this cool little café tucked in a small cul de sac as we rounded a corner.  We decided to have some petiscos (Portuguese tapas) and had some of the best food we’ve had in Lisbon.  It was so good we traced back our route and went back to that café for lunch the next day. We had some Brazilian dishes, all of which are delicious and I can only remember the name of one – feijao tropeiro.

The lost city of the Incas [Machu Picchu]

July 2-4

Last Wednesday (July 1), we left Cusco and headed to the Sacred Valley. The drive to Ollantaytambo took less than 2 hours, and the views on the way was amazing. The road goes through layers of towering mountains, with some of the peaks glistening with snow.

After about an hour, we started descending to the valley and we finally reached the small, dusty Inca town of Ollantaytambo. This was said to be a typical small Inca town, and we could still see the waterways within the town, which is reminiscent of Inca architecture.

The town is situated right on the foot of mountains, the closest of which had a fortress where the Incas won a battle over the conquistadores, making this fortress of historical significance (also where Manco Inca finally fled after he was defeated by the Spaniards in Sachsaywaman). The ruins can clearly be seen from town, high atop on the mountain. It looks huge and intimidating… we looked up and thought, uh oh, are we going to climb all the way up there ? Well, we did .. but we did it in the morning, to avoid the harsh noon time sun and the crowd. Tourist buses mostly arrive by noon, coming from Cusco on a day tour of the Sacred Valley.

We went up the fortress, scrambling up on steep stone steps at times, and gazed in awe to the beauty in front of us … that of the valley below us, and the rocky, craggy mountains all around, and the glaciers on top of peaks not far behind. We couldn´t get over how beautiful the view is, and how it just gets better the higher we go. We finished exploring the entire ruins in about 3 hours.

By then, it was high noon and it was starting to feel like we are being dry roasted in the oven. So we decided it was time to have lunch, then a siesta back in our room . It was so hot and we felt so exhausted we all dozed off to sleep. By the time we woke up, it was late in the afternoon and was safe again to get out. The town is so small there is practically one major street in and out of town. So we sat in one of the cafes by the street, had some coffee and snacks and watched tour buses and people go by. One thing about this town though, if you dine al fresco, everything is served con-alikabok-y-exhaust (dust) 😀 .. everytime a bus revs up it’s engine to go up the stoned streets, it leaves behind a cloud of dust and fume  … we got used to it after a while 🙂 …

At 5:15am the following day, we were already walking to the train station (which is about 5 min away from the hotel … well, everything is 5 minutes walking distance in this town). We were on our way to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). Our train left at 6:10am and we reached AC in about 1.5 hours.

While on the train, I noticed that the terrain was starting to change … the train tracks followed a river with plenty enough water for white water rafting, huge rocks, and plenty of trees and plants around. The mountains are now covered with lush green leaves, and it almost feels like we´re now entering a jungle. It´s so different from the mountains I´ve seen so far. It´s simply beautiful. I loved it!

By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, it already felt like we entered a whole new different world. I was looking up all the time with the lush green mountains towering all around me. We found our friend, Kurt already waiting for us outside the train station as we exited the train. He got to AC a day before so he already knew all the walkways in town.

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Aguas Calientes is a small town, and is basically just a town filled with hostals and a staging place for backpackers and hikers who just finished the 4-day Inca trail, and needed a night to sleep in. I haven´t seen any good reviews of the town, all comments I´ve read basically says the same thing … that there´s nothing to this ugly town. In fairness, it´s not that bad. True, it´s just a row of hostals, restaurants, and market stalls, one of top of the other, lined along a street by the river.

But everything around it is nature´s masterpiece, and it makes up for whatever the town lacks.
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We dropped of our bags in our hotel and picked one of the ubiquitous restaurants to have our breakfast. We can´t start our day without having one :). At about 8:30 (or 9 ? can´t keep track of time ) we headed to the bus stop. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride to go up several switchback roads which leads to Machu Picchu. I was impressed with the buses … I wasn´t expecting some low-emission, Mercedes Benz, looking-new and well -maintained tourist bus which leaves the station every 5 minute or so to go up to the ruins … but I guess this is why we paied $7 each for a one way trip on this bus. (This wasn’t exactly our bus, but they all look like this)

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And finally … the moment we´ve been waiting for. We were there. This time around, we hired a guide to tell us what each section of the ruins were for. Our first stop was what is called the ¨balcony¨.. simply because this is where you stand to get the classic postcard view of Machu Picchu. Jilly couldn´t contain herself. She kept repeating to me, mommy, we are in Machu Picchu ! It is pretty amazing .. but wait, it will get better. I think I found the mountains as equally jaw dropping .. the ruins is surrounded by commanding presence of huge mountains which seems to go on for as far as my eye can see .

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We went through each section of the ruins with our guide, explaining to us what studies had come up with, on what each section was used for, how the Incas predict the summer and winter solstice, and how they study the stars and how it affects their farming, how and where they worship the mountains, and the significance of each temple or platform.

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Our own little tour concluded at around noon, and by then, a lot of tourists had already arrived. Most tourists go to Machu Picchu via a tour package where they would leave Cusco early in the morning, be in MP from around 10-2pm, then head back to Cusco, making 10-2 the most crowded time in the ruins. So as the crowd increased, we went back to the entrance to the site where they have an overpriced cafeteria with tables and chairs. We had some sandwiches and drinks, and paid one month´s worth of salary for them. We sat and killed time, and waited until the sun wasn´t too harsh anymore and most of the crowd had left for the day. We went back to the ruins at around 3pm and walked alongside the edges of the area … the entire site felt so quiet and so serene it was unbelievable. We felt like we had the ruins all to ourselves. With the sun´s softer rays, we took more pictures like we haven´t taken hundreds of them earlier in the day. We walked to sections we didn´t pass by earlier, and kept repeating to ourselves how beautiful the place is, even more than how we saw it in the morning. Without cacophony from the foot traffic of tourists, it almost felt like we were in some sacred temple …. well, actually, we were. As the sun´s rays started to fade, we headed higher up in the ruins so we can be up by the balcony by sunset. We sat by a ledge, in one of the terraces, and gazed in awe … the serenity, the peacefulness, the beauty all around us … my words just cannot describe them.. and unfortunately, nor does my pictures. You have to be there and experience it.

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It was starting to get dark, and so we had to go. To add to our adventure, we decided to walk the trail down to the town, instead of taking the bus. There is a steep trail (mostly stoned steps) which crosses the zigzagging roads where the bus goes. It was like going through a trail in a jungle.

It took us about 1.5 hrs to hike down the mountain to the town. Towards the end of our hike, we still had to walk on a dirt road for about half an hour. There were no more buses going to or coming from Machu Picchu, and there were no street lamps. Our path was mainly lit by the almost-full moon and a lot of fireflies. Jilly hasn´t seen fireflies before (one thing I have in my childhood that she doesn´t) so she was really excited to see them. I caught one in my hand and showed her as it periodically lits up. Exhausted, we finally reached town, and settled for a restaurant right on the plaza for our dinner. We all recounted our day as we sat by the plaza and watched some band play Andean music. Dinner was followed by coffee at another cafe in the plaza, as we all try to complete the alphabet using the countries we´ve been to. We all concluded that for Maridol to complete her alphabet, she now needs to go to Kazakhstan, Qatar and Warizistan (ok it´s not a country, but we can´t find one for W ! ).

The next day, we looked up at the mountain where the ruin lies, and we couldn´t believe we hiked all the way down from there. 🙂

Now we´re back in Cusco and today is basically just a day for relaxing, last minute shopping, and just enjoying our last day in the Andes. While Maridol and Jilly stayed in the room to scream and sigh and shriek at the Wimbledon finals, I opted to go to an internet cafe and write yet another long travelogue :).

Tomorrow we fly to Lima, and spend the day in Miraflores, possibly going to the cevicheria where Anthony Bourdain went… for one last Peruvian ceviche before we head back to SF on Tuesday.

Arequipa: The White City

June 22, 2009

It takes about an hour to fly from Lima to Arequipa. We spent more time in the airport, than flying ! As the plane lands, we had a preview of Arequipa´s terrain … the Andes, some snowcapped mountains, and what seems to be like endless desert. Big cactus plants sprout from dry and arrid land. It felt blazing hot as we got out of the plane. We were met by Max, the owner of the B&B where we are staying. This couple was very helpful when I was planning this trip. They booked our domestic LAN tickets for us using their credit card, because if I book using the International website, the price of the ticket is 2x as much as the Peruvian site, which accepts only Peruvian cards. Max is Swiss, but had been living in Peru for more than 25 years now, and Lula is a native Arequipeña. They own a language school wherein the classes are held in a historical Spanish-style casa.

They have a 2 level condo in an upscale building, on a neighborhood just outside of the city center, with a magnificent view of the snowcapped Chachani mountains, El Misti, and Pichu Pichu – most specially from their rooftop terrace. So anyway, after settling in, and going through our ¨welcome orientation¨, Max dropped us off to the city center, after taking a quick tour of their language school.

We were starving, and we could smell something being grilled from the street. It was lunchtime by then, so all the people are out for lunch. We opted for a small local eatery, which had several Arequipeños seated for their lunch break from work. We wanted to get a different meal for each so we could try different dishes, but my Spanish vocabulary contains only a few verbs, and the basic what-who-when-why (which by the way gets me around quite a bit) … so .. after a few minutes of trying to explain to the waiter what we wanted, we settled for one type of set meal of lomo saltado for all 3 of us, but with different soup (which we didnt have an idea what they were). Jilly and I got caldo blanco, while Maridol got chanque for soup. It turned out to be a really delicious, hearty, simple soup which is a basic beef broth mixed with all the local ingredients available to a typical Peruvian village – meat, corn, yuca, potatoes, rice, tomato. Later on, we found out from Max that this type of soup is what the villagers typically have – and apparently, is on the much lower end of Peruvian food =). We all loved the food .. the lomo saltado with rice was a hit to all of us.

With our tummies happy, we started venturing out to Plaza de Armas. The plaza is flanked on one side by the commanding presence of Catedral de Arequipa, which is the only church in Peru which stretches the entire length of th plaza. As you can imagine, the cathedral looks like any Spanish colonial church – but on steroids =). The other 3 sides of the plaza are bordered by more colonial buildings, the bottom of which are occupied by stores and tourist offices, and the upstairs by restaurants where you can dine on the colonnaded balconies while admiring the view of the surroundings, and the snowcapped not far behind.

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It was almost 2pm at that time so we opted to head straight to Monasterio de Sta Catalina, which is about 2 blocks away from the Plaza. Time here seems to move at a snail´s pace .. and I love it ! After having done so much and walked a hundred blocks, we would check the time and the clock had barely moved ! Ok, I´m digressing. Monasterio de Sta Catalina used to be a monastery built for rich nuns. This is the convent where the rich families in Spain would send their daughters. Each nun would have up to 5 slaves each, and would invite musicians and hold parties in the monastery. I know what you´re thinking – and of course this kind of lifestyle didn´t last since nuns are supposed to live the life of chastity, poverty, blah blah blah. Now the monastery still houses a few nuns, secluded in a small part of the monastery, while the rest is open to public.

It took us almost 2 hours – or maybe even more – to go through the maze of hallways, cells, kitchens, cloisters, choir room, etc. It was like being transported back in time. The hallways feature thick arches, and the walls are either white, deep red, or blue. The white walls would have planters hanged on it, with red blooms. With the bright colors and the Spanish structure of the monastery, I wanted to take a picture of every corner, every plant, every arch, and every room. Don´t worry, I didn´t =). By the time we got out of the monastery, it was late in the day. We walked along the streets, checked out some souvenir stores, and looked for a place to just sit and have coffee.

The buildings here in Arequipa are mostly white, contrasted by huge black window railings. A type of volcanic rock called sillar used to build these structures gives it the white color, and the white color gleams at a certain time of the day (hence the name, white city).

We walked through the cobblestoned streets, and found a cozy alleyway, filled with tables and chairs, illuminated by the amber light of the street lamps. We continued walking until one food display caught our eyes. Then we knew, this is where we will have our coffee. The deciding factor? Churros ! So we had coffee and churros, while looking over the menu. We decided to get some salchipapas (salchichas y papas) .. and then more coffee and churros. From the tres leches in Miraflores, to the churros here in Arequipa, I think I will need some insulin drip by the time I get home :P.

We dragged our sugar-induced-comatosed bodies through the cobblestoned-pedestrian-only street and checked out the 5-story souvenir store El Patio de Ekekok (I know, I get a kick out of the names here .. there was a chinese restaurant called Pak Fok too ). We were all exhausted, and moreso with the 7,000ft altitude, we get tired really quickly. We finally decided it´s time to go home.

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When we got home, Max & Lula were still awake, and were ready to give us our welcome drinks ! We all gathered in the kitchen, as Max showed us how to prepare Pisco Sour (a can of coke for Jilly). Over 2 servings of Pisco Sour, and about 2 hours of lively conversation, our topic had gone from Picolito (their dog), to Peruvian Food, to Filipino Food, to Peruvian Government, and a bit of history of some things.

Oh, one other reason why Arequipa is named the White City, apparently is by the overwhelming ratio of ¨whites¨who live here… whites, being the direct descendants of the Spaniards, and the topmost level in Peru´s socio economic class, the ¨mixed¨aka meztisos being in the middle, and the Indians being at the bottom. We´ve had a lot of observations on these as well, but that would mean another long story.

Day 4

Cayma (where we were staying) and Yanahuara and quiet residential neighborhoods outside of the city center. No travel agency offices, no currency exchange centers, just the normal panaderias, pharmacies, and stores for the residents. We left the house are around noon, and started walking down the streets of Cayma heading to Yanahuara’s lookout point at the main plaza. The plaza, as you guessed it, has a colonial-looking church on it and a long structure with arches on one side. Looking through the arches, you will get a splendid view of the towering El Misti volcano, and the whole of Areuipa. We spent a few minutes just hanging around and taking pictures. After a brief moment inside the church for some prayers, we asked for directions to the Sol de Mayo restaurant.

The restaurant was only a couple of blocks away from the plaza. It is tucked behind a tall dark red wall, and in a quaint colonial inspired (surprise!) structure, with a small courtyard in the middle, and a veranda all around it. We chose to dine al fresco at the courtyard-garden, right in front of a band. As the music rolled, we browsed through the menu and decided on chupe de camarones, cuy chactado, rocoto relleno, cevice mixta and of course, rice. Chupe de camarones is made of fresh water shrimp (which actually looks like supersized crawfish) in a creamy sauce (which reminds me of ginataang shrimp, but not that creamy) mixed with a huge chunk of squash (with the peel on) and a chunk of corn , still on the cob. The dish was wonderful ! I’d be happy with just it’s sauce on rice =). Cuy chactado is fried guinea pig – yes the whole thing, fried, with head and tail – like a tiny lechon. The cuy tastes like chicken.. well, tastier .. more like cornish hen, but with a little bit of an aftertaste.. but a nice one. The crispy skin was to-die-for :D. Rocoto Relleno is sweet bell pepper stuffed with ground meat, cooked in some creamy concoction of spices, and served with thinly-sliced potatoes twice-baked. It was delicious, though a bit too spicy for me so I only had a taste of it. Arequipaños are known for spicy food and Maridol loves it ! The ceviche … ahh … what can I say. Mixed raw fish, octopus, scallops, sea cucumber, shrimp, slow cooked in lime juice, served with baked camote (sweet potato) on the side. For all of these, we paid about $35. Can’t beat that ! Note though that this is because we were on a residential neighborhood and not in the city center. You won’t get the same food for this price near the main plaza.

Our taste buds happy, we took a cab to the museum to see the Ice Maiden. In Arequipa, taxicabs don´t have meters. Everyone knows how much to pay to go anywhere in Arequipa, which is 3 soles ($1). Ain’t that great ? no haggling with cab drivers !

So then we went to Museo Santuario de Sta Maria (I think that’s what it was called). The Ice Maiden, Juanita, was discovered in 1995, more than 500 years after she was buried .. or rather, sacrificed by the Incas. Buried in the snowy summit of the Ampato mountain, the extreme temperature preserved her body, including her insides. She was believed to be sacrificed to the gods during one of the Incan religious ceremonies which is performed every 4-7 years, during the El Niño. Since the discovery of Juanita, there are now 14 children discovered in the mountains of Peru, and 4 in Chile. The museum had all the other offerings buried alongside the bodies of the children, and the guide explained to us each and every one. Jilly just studied the Incas in the past semester so she knew some of the artifacts and what they meant. I know that the whole sacrificial concept sounds so wrong, but taking aside everything that we know now, I found the Incan civilization and everything they left us very fascinating. At the dnf ot he tour, we saw Juanita, crouched in a semi-fetal position (because she fell from her burial site to the crater before she was discovered). the fall also destroyed the covering from her face which left her face exposed to the sun, leaving her face and lips dehydrated. Everything else is intact, as she lay frozen in a small glass box. She was believed to be around 12-14 yrs old.

The sun started to set as we walked around the plaza once more, checked more souvenir shops, stopped for light dinner until it got dark and we headed home. The next day will take us higher into the Andes, at 12,500ft to the city of Puno.

The City of Kings : Lima

June 20, 2009

¡Hola! from the City of Kings!
Our flight arrived Lima at 5.10am. We were beyond exhausted, what with very little sleep the night before, and the 5 hour delay in SFO, you can imagine how relieved we are finally arrive in Lima. After a mixup with the hotel, mostly because the receptionist speaks Spanish only, and me.. well .. I know probably 2 Spanish words .. he told me over the phone that their guy is somewhere there in the airport waiting for us, and I thought he meant for us to just take a cab to the hotel ourselves. I swear I did scan the sea of people meeting passengers holding up signs and didn´t find my name anywhere.. I did it not only once, but thrice .. and didn´t find him. Anyway, what´s important is we reached the hotel safely.

After a much heated argument between the hotel receptionist and the cab driver on how much the cab ride cost, we finally settled in to our room. After 27 hours being inflight, we all crashed as soon as our backs hit the mattress. It felt like I slept for days, until the phone woke me up. It was only 9.30am. The receptionist was kind enough to tell us our breakfast is ready, and if we still want it .. since we asked about it earlier. They brought plates of fruits, eggs, toast, ham and bread plus coffee and juices to our room.

By noon, we were all showered, stomachs full, and ready for Lima. We walked towards Plaza Mayor, along a major Avenida. Buses with conductors shouting the bus´destination passed by and street food vendors were selling snacks whenever the bus stops (familiar?). We walked and inhaled the thick smog that envelopes the thoroughfare but enjoying ourselves nevertheless.

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After about 20 min, we reached a pedestrian-only black-and-white tiled street, lined with colorful Spanish-colonial-inspired stores and restaurants. I loved the entire surroundings. The aroma of chicken being roasted in about every other corner made its way to our noses and right there we decided what our lunch is going to be. As an teaser, we couldn´t resist the churros though (1 sol each! that´s 30 cents!). It was yummmmy! Churros in our hand, we kept walking, stopped by a Nuestra Basilica on our way and made it to Plaza San Martin, where Pizarro´s statue proudly stands, facing what used to be Lima´s grandest hotel, Gran Hotel Bolivar.

After taking a few photos of the colonial buildings around, we followed the crowd of people which we knew leads to Plaza Mayor.

As we approach the plaza, we saw what sort of looked like a procession of saints… which, to our utmost delight, turned out to be more than just a procession. They were celebrating the Corpus Christi of Cusco – a very elaborate festival commemorated by a parade of performers wearing colorful costumes, dancing and chanting to the music of a band following right behind them. There were saints being held up high on a platform (like in a procession) followed by several performers, adults and kids alike. We were so overwhelmed at how lucky we were to happen on this festivity ! I must have done something good lately to the shutter gods, as I was in heaven clicking away on my camera.

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The performers are very kind and would all pose along – and sometimes with us! We walked around trying to get ahead of the different groups so we can take pictures of them. I couldn´t keep up – we fought our way through the thick crowds as the performers danced, chanted, and went forward. It was one of the most amazing form of celebration I had ever witnessed in my life (ok, I haven´t seen Carnaval in Rio =D ). My pictures definitely don´t do justice. I was smiling from ear to ear, I thought why did I waited so long before coming to this country!

400 pictures later, the parade was over and we were hungry. We went back to Norky´s and had our fill of roasted chicken, pisco sour and Inka Cola (for Jilly).

After lunch, we headed to Monasterio de San Francisco and took the tour of the 17th century monastery. It was amazing to see the original cloisters, choir, refectory and most of all, library of the monastery. The musty, old-book-smelling library houses 25,000 books. Going through the monastery reminds me of Umberto Ecco´s ¨The Name of the Rose¨. The book replayed through my mind as we went around the monastery. The last part of the tour was the catacombs. In the olden days, people got buried under churches, in the belief that this will bring their souls closer to God. We ducked through the maze of low-ceilinged hallways made of bricks and cement until we reached the piles and piles of bones. The common grave has the skulls, now arranged by archaeologists in concentric circles. The San Francisco Church, just like the other church we´ve been to, has a very ornate altar with very detailed wood carvings. The church had maroon and white arches, which matches it´s ceilings and domes. It´s very beautiful I´d rather show the pictures than describe it.

It was starting to get dark when we got out of the church so we started heading back to Plaza Mayor to take a cab. The street lamps are now lighted and it gave the colorful colonial structures a different hue. The buildings, with it´s wooden balconies, looked even more spectacular as the street lights lent their amber color throughout the street. Plaza Mayor looked so different at night as well.

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We wanted to stay longer but it was already dark and we knew better not to stay in downtown Lima at dark – plus we wanted an excuse to be able to have a quick peek of Miraflores, a more ritzy seaside neighborhood in Lima.

I told the cab to take us to Larcomar in Miraflores (yay! by this time I could somehow give directions to a cab driver! ha). I knew that Larcomar is a strip mall, but we were yet again pleasantly surprised to find that this shopping strip sits on a cliff, right next to the ocean! We can see the waves coming in the ocean despite the dark night, and the street lamps which curves along the shore. We walked around and chose to sit in a cafe, and ordered some coffee and cakes. We sat and marveled at this lovely place.

I didn’t have pictures that night of Miraflores but we did stop by Miraflores again on our way back to San Francisco and had wonderful seafood dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hotel.

The center of the Inca Empire [Cusco]

June 27 – 29, 2009
Cusco, Peru

The bus ride from Puno to Cusco was not bad at all, and in fact, was very pleasant. We took an inkaexpress bus, which is a very reputable tourist company.

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The bus ride reminded me of my Bicol-Manila trips during college in one of those Sunshine or Sarkies Buses. The bus left Puno at exactly 7:30, as we were told. We are really impressed at the punctuality of the tourists services here, which I guess I had mentioned already before. It should only take about 6 hours to get to Cusco, but we had 5 stops… 4 of which are on some museums, or old colonial towns, and an archaeological site, so we pretty much stop every 2 hours or so, which made the trip feel shorter. We also stopped for a Peruvian lunch at a small town.

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I woke up still feeling sick that morning and I had no idea how I will survive the trip, but at the same time, I needed to go down to a lower altitude badly. I think all of us can´t wait to go to Cusco. But don´t get me wrong, I did like Puno, and there are things that nobody else has except Puno, but my body is just not made for high altitude. This is the second time Pachamama (Mother Nature) had reminded me of that. I just thought maybe She´s changed her mind so I tried once again 😀 . And now, I get her point, ok, I should stay somewhere near sea level.

The bus went higher first, all the way up to 14,500ft where we passed by a pass lined with snowcapped mountains of the Andes. We passed by herds of vicuñas, sheeps, cows, and alpacas. Raising these animals are the only source of living of the inhabitants in this region. Crops won´t grow and survive at this altitude.

We would pass by small houses made of adobe with small windows few and far between. The entire environment looked very hostile to me, I can´t imagine how they live their life here. Once we started descending, we started seeing trees and some vegetation … ahh, signs of life. The mountains started to look alive and fertile, with lots of eucalyptus trees and crops planted on terraces along the face of the mountains. We stopped by a plaza of a small colonial town, which of course, has a church on it. The church was considered the Sistine chapel of the Andes , with the interior adorned with golden carvings, and some leaves plated with 24-carat gold. Huge paintings cover the ceilings and walls.

Finally, we reached Cusco. We were met at the bus station by a representative of our hotel. The car went through the city, and through very narrow stoned streets lined with high white walls complemented with blue-painted windows. All the streets around the main plaza are made of stones, and are very narrow you wouldn´t think a car would even fit in there – but somehow they do. They are very pretty. Oh, have I mentioned, all the streets that I´ve seen are very clean – I haven´t seen any trash or litters on the streets. I couldn´t wait to walk along these streets and check out every small store, restaurants, and cafes around it. We were in the neigborhood of San Blas, a couple of blocks from the main plaza (yes, of course, the Plaza de Armas) and what is known to be the “artists´neighborhood”. The streets are lined with stores selling beautiful paintings and handicrafts. At night, the streets are lit by lamps which makes the streets even more charming. I was obsessed with the streets :).

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After settling in our room, we agreed to meet up with our friend, Kurt, who just arrived from SF and was meeting us for the Cusco-MachuPicchu part of our trip. We walked two blocks to the high steps of the Cathedral in the main plaza where we found Kurt waiting.

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We were so amazed at how easy it was for us to walk around and go up steps. We couldn´t contain ourselves as we compare how we feel in Cusco compared to Puno. It didn´t hurt my nose and throat to breathe the air, and even though I still get exhausted quickly, I didn´t feel like my heart was about to burst out of my chest. We were all amazed we felt like we were at sea level and were bragging about how easy-peasy it is for us to walk and climb steps. I guess we have Puno to thank for, our bodies are acclimatized to high altitude by now. No more soroche pills. Anyhow, we then had dinner, followed by coffee while sitting at a cafe while watching people around. This is what´s going to be our daily evening routine in the following days.

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The next day was a Sunday, and was a big market day in Pisac, a town about 45 min away from Cusco. So that was our agenda for Sunday. But first we headed to some Inca ruins on top of the hills in Pisac. The town lies in the Sacred Valley and has one of the most wonderful views. The Pisac ruins lies on top of the hills, which is amazingly carved by terraces used by the Incas for their crops. The sun here is very harsh, and even me, being a sun-aholic, can´t stand it. We found ourselves having to walk up a trail, zigzagging along the terraces to reach one of the ruins – we picked the lowest one, with what seemed to be the easiest trail. Of course, it still wasn´t easy, but we were determined to at least reach one of them… only to discover when we reached the top, that there is actually a road which leads to the top ! Our cab driver was laughing when we told him later. Of course he knew, and for all I know, he must be explaining it to us before we took off but the only thing I understood was we had to walk.

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After the hike to the ruins, we were all exhausted and starving so we stopped for lunch. This day marked my daily ceviche dose. After lunch we headed to the huge market, which sells everything and anything you could think of. From vegetables, fruits, meat, to handicrafts, jewelries, and all sorts of stuff. I had fun taking pictures – everything is so colorful, how can I resist ? And of course, we were all impressed at Maridol´s skill in haggling and bargaining for prices. I don´t have her patience, so I let her bargain if I wanted to buy anything.


We were back to the city center as the sun was setting. A perfect time to sit by the plaza … and so we did. We chose one of those colonaded balconies that surround the plaza, ordered some drinks, and watch the sun set and the people go by in the plaza.

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Some uniformed men performed some rehearsed routine to bring down the Peruvian and the Cusco flag (which by the way is a rainbow flag, and is found in every corner in Cusco). There was a newly wed on top of the high steps of the Cathedral, having their pictures taken while they dance and hug and kiss, and Peruvian kids circle around them.

After a week of purely Peruvian food, Maridol was craving for something else so we chose Jack´s cafe for our dinner. Jack´s cafe is one of those places you go to if you want to escape from Peru for a few hours. It´s packed with tourists (only), and they serve mexican food, burgers, grilled ham and cheese sandwich… you get what I mean.

Oh one thing I notice about Cusco that wasn´t anywhere else that we´ve been to, is there´s soo many vendors bugging every tourist around. Oh right, there´s also so many tourists.. I mean, compared to Lima, Arequipa and Puno. We can basically hear other languages being spoken by everyone around us, whereas in the previous cities we´ve visited we hear mostly Spanish. This is when I really appreciated Puno. In Puno, women wear traditional clothing as part of their life. Here in Cusco, vendors wear them for tourists, and children wear them to have their picture taken for a fee. I love taking pictures of people, but not here. In Arequipa and Puno, I felt like I was capturing real moments, a stolen glimpse in a life of someone who lives in a world I am fascinated with. Here in Cusco, kids would approach me telling me to take a picture of them and pay them a couple of soles. I was put off by the whole thing. Some of them are wearing the traditional clothes, with a llama tugging along – all for show. Good thing I´ve seen plenty of llamas, vicuñas and alpacas in the wild on the way here.

Anyway.. this is it for now …. we have couple of more days here in Cusco, and the Sacred Valley, before we head to Machu Picchu on Friday.

Altiplano [Puno and Lake Titicaca]

June 25-26, 2009

There´s a reason you all haven´t heard from me in a while. From Arequipa, we took a 6-hr journey by bus to Puno. The bus ride took us through vast, dry, arrid landscape as we go up higher from Arequipa´s altitude of 7,000ft to 12,500ft. At this altitude, you won´t see any trees, or any green plants, aside from cactus. The scenery, though beautiful, seems very hostile.

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We passed by vicuñas, which is in the same family as llamas, but smaller and are native to this area. We stopped by a couple of places to take pictures, but it was extremely cold and the high altitude makes it much harder for us to breath so I even preferred to just stay in the bus.

It was hard to enjoy our time in Puno mainly due to the altitude. Puno has it´s own charm, and I have to admit there´s something in the place which I didn´t find anywhere else. It´s like going back in time, where most women still wear traditional clothes, with layered skirts, shawls, and a brimmed round hat which barely sits on top of their heads.

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I liked Puno because it seemed like a genuine place. It´s not swarming with tourists, and nobody bugs us to buy this and that, or pay for this and that. Locals mainly just leave us alone. I took so many pictures of children and locals, and they didn´t seem to mind. They just go about their daily routine. Children have permanent blush on their cheeks, red and chaffed from the cruel sun and air. Older women have skin as tough and dry as leather. Very few speaks english, but everyone is very warm and friendly.

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On our first day, we had to settle our transportation to Cusco, which is where we´re headed after Puno. While in Arequipa, we learned (Thanks to our B&B host!) that there was a strike going on and the roads from Puno to Cusco had been blocked for several days now. This means we cannot take the bus to Cusco, as planned. So we went to a travel agency recommended by our hotel, to see what are our other options. We were told that all flights out of Puno are booked , unless we want to stay few more days in Puno. Other options given to us where to take the bus back to Arequipa, then fly out of there.. which means flying to Lima first, then to Cusco. The options were not great, and we have to work out all the timing between the bus rides and the flights. Maridol and I were coming up with other options, but it was so hard to explain everything in Spanish. I was basically telling the lady where to click on her computer screen, and to do this and do that, until we lost our patience and asked if I can just take over her seat and check the options myself =). Anyway, we came up with combination of flights and bus rides, which is still not ideal. We said we´ll look for other options and we went to the LAN airline office, which told us to check the next day as LAN might open up another flight.

Puno´s altitude, at 12500ft, was taking a toll on us. Jilly and I had headaches that come and go. Maridol´s headache went away as soon as she took soroche pills, fortunately. Walking for a block would leave us breathless. The air is so thin and dry, it feels like a knife goes through my nose and throat everytime I breathe. My nose was constantly bleeding, though they would dry up instantly. In the hotel room, I would wet a face towel with hot water and breathe through it just to have some humidity in the air that I breathe. My head constantly feels heavy and light-headed at the same time – yes I know, I can´t even describe it. Even changing clothes or brushing teeth would leave us breathless. We have to rest after taking a shower, and try to catch our breath again. Jilly says she can feel her heart beating against her ears =). Anyway, we tried to make the most of our stay. We walked around, in a sloths´pace (ok, that´s an “o” not a “u” ) , and watched people around. We found a bakery which we then frequented – they had the best empanada! Their empanada de lomo is to-die-for.

 

On the second day, we were up very early for our day tour to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at about 12,500ft. We started our day with our usual breakfast, and my coca tea, which by now has become part of my daily diet. We were picked up at 6:45am. One thing we noticed here, is that they are very good with time. When they tell us we will be picked up at 6:45, they will be in the hotel lobby by 6:45. We then boarded a boat, which had rather comfortable seats, which was a relief for me since I badly needed some sleep. I wasn´t able to sleep well the night before due to a terrible headache. After about 15 minutes, we reached the floating islands of Uros. These islands are made by the Uros people, from totora/reeds, which are like tall bushes with very thin bamboo like stems. The island is entirely made of reeds, as well as their houses. And yes, this is where they live. Historically, their ancestors were trying to flee from other tribes, and thus ended up living in the lake. This generation of Uros people are disappearing though as the young generations opt to go to school in the mainland and eventually work there.

It was about 7am, I had 2 layers of clothes, my SF winter jacket, and a beanie, but I was still shivering. It was freezing cold, the reeds which we were standing on were covered with ice, but the Uros people were walking barefoot ! We were told these people have a different biological make up than the rest of us – they have stronger heart, bigger lungs, and much more red blood cells making their blood really dark, and almost black. I believe that. A body like mine will never survive this environment. I can barely survive a day. We walked around the island, took pictures, and bought some tourist knick knacks. It was very fascinating to see that in this part of the world, people still live this way. I went inside one of the reed houses. It is basically one room, with everything stacked inside. They do have a tv though =). Food are cooked outside, using clay pots. They go to the mainland during church and market day to get some food not availabe in the island.

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After the floating islands, we headed to Taquile Island – a real island this time. It took about 2 hours to get there, and I had my most needed sleep in the boat. In Taquile, we had to walk up the island , which as you can imagine, took out every bit of energy we had. We were exhausted by the time we reached the top. We then walked to the other side of the island, and on the way, observing the lifestyle of the 2,500 inhabitants of the island. They live autonomously, having their own form of government and their own rules. There are no police, no dogs, as apparently, there are no crimes. We saw women herding sheeps, or knitting.

The island is known for their handicrafts. By this time, it was hard for me to enjoy whatever I see or discover, as I was already feeling sick. Everyone else was feeling exhausted. We had lunch on top of the island, which I had to admit, had amazing views of the lake, the nearbly islands, and the Bolivian snowcapped mountains. To go back to our boat, we had to walk about 500 or more steps down … arghh… It wasn´t fun. The stone steps were wide and tall, and every step is accompanied by laboured breath. At the end of the day we all agreed we could have given Taquile Island a miss =).

When we got back to our hotel, we found a note from the bus company saying that the roads had re opened and to call them if we still want to go the next day. Yes, we do want to leave Puno already and go somewhere lower. Few minutes later, a representative from the bus company was in our hotel, giving us our bus tickets. We were all looking forward to a much lower elevation where hopefully, we can all function normally again.

I didn´t even have any energy left in me at the end of the day to try and write emails… so here I am now, sitting in an internet cafe in Cusco, just sharing our 2 days in Puno, so relieved to be at 11,000ft. Compared to Puno, Cusco feels like sea level !

Cusco to follow …

Granada, Nicaragua

March 2010

THE COUNTRY. Nicaragua seems to be one of those destinations which almost guarantees you a questioning eyebrow as a response to the question “where are you going ?”. I probably wouldn’t blame most, because the country is still remembered for it’s wars, conflicts and revolutionaries. I’m hoping I could play the role of a mini ambassador and promote this beautiful country which so rightfully deserves to be on everyone’s list-of-places-to-visit.

Nicaragua is the biggest country in Central America, as well as the least-densely populated. True, it’s ranked as the second poorest in the hemisphere, but has been ranked too as the one of the safest countries in Central and South America. It rated 5th in all of Central and South America by the Global Peace Index, next to Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Panama. It’s capital, Managua, has it’s fair share of bad reputation and is apparently the most chaotic among all the cities in Central America – but if you’ve been to any big Central American city, this doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, it’s a big city, so it comes with it’s big city problems.

THE CITY. Let’s take a rain check on Managua then and let me take you to the one of the oldest cities in the Americas, once built by the Spaniards to show that they can build something beautiful, one they can be proud of …. La Gran Sultan, GRANADA.

Granada, the second largest city in Nicaragua (although Leon might argue with that), lies on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America (next to Lake Titicaca … hey! I was there last year ! 😀 ). Granada sort of reminds me of La Antigua Guatemala, with it’s typical Spanish colonial architecture. The streets are lined with colorful tall adobe walls with towering wooden doors which opens up to beautiful internal courtyards of restaurants, hotels, or just a common household. I know I shouldn’t compare Antigua with Granada, as each of them are beautiful in their own right. Granada is like a beauty queen, long after it’s reign, behind it’s wrinkles and crow’s feet, you can still see the beauty it once was, and the beauty it still is. Don’t get me wrong, Antigua is amazingly pretty, where every wooden door leads you to a perfectly manicured courtyard or a perfectly decorated restaurant. It almost seems too good to be true, a beauty queen at the height of it’s fame, hair and make up done perfectly everyday. Granada, on the other hand, is proud to show it’s age spots, almost unaware of it’s natural beauty and it’s potential, it’s a gem waiting for it’s turn to shine.

The city is definitely not undiscovered. We saw several backpackers milling about, tour buses pulling up on the street once in while, unloading a big group of tourists, and we noticed a lot of young Spanish school students filling up the café’s and bars at night. However, it is still not overrun by tourists, which makes it a really neat place to visit. The city still functions for itself, for the locals mainly, and not for tourists. A lot of locals still live within the centro historico and there are still more households than there are restaurants and hotels. I was hard pressed to find gift/souvenir shops and there weren’t a lot of vendors selling the usual tourist traps. True, there are a lot of vendors walking around selling hand made ceramics, but they are relatively concentrated on Calle La Calzada, the 3 blocks in the city where most tourists seem to hang around. Being a tourist in Granada still gives you that privilege of experiencing a day in the life of a Nicaraguan.

The main plaza, parque central (of course) is flanked by the impressive post-card worthy Cathedral, and restored colonial mansions on all sides, now serving as hotels or restaurants (of course). Unlike Cusco (sorry for the comparison) where the plaza is packed with tourists, here, the plaza is home to locals sitting on the shaded park benches, or just gathering around one of the ubiquitous street food vendors. On each corner of the plaza is a food kiosk, selling drinks (non-alcoholic) and comida tipicas. The kiosks are surrounded by wooden tables and chairs, and are very well lit at night. We found that this is a very peaceful and quiet alternative to the loud and pulsating Calle La Calzada at night.

There are a few more churches in the city that are noteworthy – as you do in a colonial city. We climbed the bell tower of both the Cathedral (where I think the best sunset view is) and the Iglesia La Merced (where books claim to have the best view in the city).

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We spent 5 days walking every street and cross street in Granada. One of the wonderful things about Granada is that, all it takes is to walk one block away from the plaza, and you are off the beaten path, and right there you can experience a normal daily life of a Nicaraguense. Kids having baseball or soccer practice; Locals passing time watching TV in their living room; Hotdog stands in almost every corner; Kids playing on the sidewalk; Grandma’s and grandpa’s taking a nap on their rocking chair; Students walking home from school for lunch; Grandma selling jocote (Spanish plum, aka siniguelas) and sliced green mango on a wooden table outside her house; The barber sleeping on the barber’s chair while waiting for customers.

Time seems to move in slow motion in Granada. The entire city seems to be in a perpetual siesta mode, the air continually infused with Nyquil. Something brings me back to my childhood days. It must be the breeze from the lake, or maybe the distant sound of the radio, or maybe the occasional pickup truck that goes by advertising an upcoming event on loudspeakers ….. DOMINGGOOO SYETE DE MARSO, BARRR Y RESSTAURANTTEEE!!! … or maybe the chico, makopa and star apples sold on the street. Or maybe the weather …

THE WEATHER. It’s hot in the morning, hotter in the middle of the day, and back to just being hot at night. It’s hot and humid, but with pleasant breeze towards the end of the day. Every inch of my body is screaming … I’m home. The sun must be harsher though because I got sunburned! Me. Sunburned. Yup. That’s a phenomenon that happens very rarely… we get blue moon in New Year more often than me getting sunburned. It usually takes about 3 consecutive days of laying out in the sun, with the aid of a tanning oil, for me to get sunburned…. But not just by walking up and down the streets. By Day 2, I learned how to use sunblock. I know, I know, I shouldn’t abuse the fact that I have plenty of eumelanin in my skin .

THE FOOD. Hmn. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can say about the food. I have to admit, Peru still holds the number 1 spot in my heart … I mean, my tummy … for the best gastronomical experience in my travels. I can only eat so much tostones, and I am not a big fan of beans. The national drink, Macua, is good though . It’s made of rhum plus soda water and mandarina (a citrus fruit that’s like a bigger mandarin orange, a sweeter version of the Philippine dalandan). And oh, there are no McDonalds or Kentucky or any American food chains. Isn’t that nice ?

STREET FOOD…. Is an entirely different story though. It must be major decision for the locals to choose which hotdog stand to go to in the plaza. There’s practically one every 5 feet or so. Plus all the stands for enchilada, fried plantains, some mashed yucca topped with meat, beans and shredded cabbage, a basket of assorted candies and cigarettes, green mangoes and of course my favorite – the green, unripe jocotes. I eat jocotes all day until my teeth are brittle and my lips are white from the salt . Locals use some sort of chili sauce aside from salt, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the chili.

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THE PEOPLE. Nicaraguans are very warm and friendly. One of the wonderful things about Granada, is that locals are not tired of tourists yet and I personally hope it stays that way for a while. Locals would be sitting on their doorstep or standing by their door and without hesitation would give us a very warm smile coupled with an “Hola” or “Buenas”. Most, if not all, of these wooden doors are wide open all day, you can practically see the entire interior of the house as you walk by. They don’t seem to mind. Most households seem to have a set of wicker living room furniture set (most likely from the nearby village of Masatepe), and definitely EVERY household has wooden rocking chairs (also handmade from Masatepe). In the middle of the day, we’d see people sitting on their rocking chairs facing a TV, and sometimes asleep. Doors are just wide open, it feels like I can just walk in and sit on an empty rocking chair and nobody would mind. Towards the end of the day, everyone moves their rocking chairs out to the sidewalk, like a daily ritual. The sidewalks become extensions of their living rooms. Everyone moves their chairs out the door and sits outside, feel the afternoon breeze, talk to each other, and just watch the daylight turn into dusk

NIGHTLIFE. Don’t be fooled by the drowsy ambience of this city. Calle La Calzada, the pedestrian-only street on one side of the cathedral which leads to the lake, becomes a mini South Beach as the sun goes down – sans half naked bodies gyrating on tabletops.

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Calle La Calzada in the morning. This street becomes one big party later in the day

The cafes and restaurants would start taking out their outdoor tables and chairs in the late afternoon, and music starts blaring from loudspeakers which are seemingly on a who’s-the-loudest-of-them-all contest. All the tables and chairs are soon packed with people, I don’t even know where they all come from or where they are during the day – probably on some rocking chair watching TV with eyes closed. A lot of them seems to be groups of young students, whose parents are probably thinking their kids are diligently studying Spanish and learning the culture of Latin America (note to self: This is what Jilly will do at night, every night, if she goes to a foreign immersion program). There’s quite a lot of tourists too, and some locals mixed into the crowd. Local kids try different tricks to sell their wares, but they are still not as annoying as most touristy cities (Except for this one boy who thinks he is cute by speaking in tongues in a high pitched voice). After 2 nights, we were Calle-La-Calzada’d-out and for the rest of the week, we opted to just explore and discover other hidden restaurants .

VILLAGES AROUND GRANADA. We hired a cab + driver and spent a day exploring the pueblos blancos (no, they are not white) which are the small villages around Granada. And yes, they are small. These villages are even on double dose of Nyquil, it’s a mystery how people still do their daily tasks. I’d probably be asleep all day. It was very nice though. It’s the simplicity of life at it’s finest. In one of the villages, we just sat in one park bench (while I munched on jocotes) and watched the students spend their lunch break showing off their breakdancing steps, kids playing in the park see-saw and slides, street vendors chatting, or just locals passing time in a bench, just like us. It’s life moving at zero miles per hour. I will never age if I live there.

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One of the villages is the birthplace of Augusto Sandino, the man whose legacy was claimed by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the man behind the red-and-black banner, a hero to many leftists, a Robin Hood figure to many in Latin America. His silhouette with an oversized cowboy hat can be seen everywhere, from t-shirts, to stenciled graffiti on a wall.

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There is one building across the main park which our driver brought to our attention. The walls are filled with bullet holes … and he said something (in Spanish of course) which I didn’t quite understand – but somehow enough for me to grasp the context after hearing the name “Somoza” somewhere in the sentence .

So that was our 5 days in Nicaragua …… a wonderful birthday present indeed. A place and experience I will never forget.