Thursday, April 7, 2016

Road to Machu Picchu: Final Leg

We bid farewell to Ollantaytambo aboard Peru Rail at 15:37 and were slated to arrive in Aguas Calientes at 20:23 - with enough daylight to absorb the views. The vistadome car had extra windows which made it easier for the riders to marvel at the Andes. In addition, I couldn't help but observe our fellow passengers. Most races were represented and I'd say it was a slightly older crowd. We shared a table with a Japanese tourist who didn't have much to say.

Travel companions seated aboard the Vistadome
Overall, it was a relaxing ride which was spent gazing at the mountains, streams and trails we passed by. The Andes were indeed beautiful. I couldn't help but think of how to scale some of these mountains - I had grown confident from the Ollantaytambo hike.

Views from the Vistadome
The mesmerizing train ride contrasted with Aguas Calientes.. A village built specifically to service Machu Picchu tourists, although it appeared to have actual inhabitants. I observed hotels, hostels, touristy restaurants, gift shops. No old administrative structures like Cusco. It wasn't my favorite spot but found it necessary to stop here. We wanted to spend most of our next morning's energy scaling Huayna Picchu. 

Top: Watching a parade pass by in Aguas Calientes
Bottom: View of a futbol pitch from hostel balcony.
Our dinner consisted of subpar fare geared for foreigners - only authentic items on the menu were Cusquenas.. Peru's bud light. We also noted a cultural difference - it took forever to get our bill and overall, service was slow. After dinner, we shopped for bottled waters at a corner store and people watched for a bit. Although uneventful compared to the rest of the days, we were still exhausted and slept early.. We had an experience of a lifetime in store for the next day. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Road to Machu Picchu: Down the Mountain

May 3rd 2015 - Woke up with a spring in my step - rested and acclimated to the elevation. Expectations were not high for this day - most of it to be spent on transit, via collectivo and train down 3,000 ft to Aguas Calientes. Other than spectacular views, there were no big plans. After breakfast, we checked out and left most of our baggage at the hostel - we were staying again tomorrow night.

Will's Photos: Top Left: Arms display at Plaza d'Armas per usual, Top Right: Neighborhoods of Cusco
Bottom: Searching for the Collectivo terminal
On the collectivo, we were joined by Peruvians - taking advantage of cheap fares throughout the Sacred Valley. It took 30 minutes for the van to weave through the Cusco traffic and into the countryside where we were treated with picturesque views. The collectivo stopped at a couple of small villages to drop off and pick up passengers before finally reaching Ollantaytambo.

More of Will's Photos - Collectivo ride through the Peruvian countryside
First things first - we needed to establish the location of the train station and confirm our times. We found ourselves with a few hours to spare so we began to explore the town square and its narrow alleys.

Top Left: Through the alleys. Top Right & Bottom: Will's shots from the city
A tour bus lumbered into town and we decided to follow, surely it was headed to an attraction. The bus stopped in front of the terraced fortifications - but had a fee. We were debating whether or not to pay when a local suggested hiking up to the granaries instead. He said it was free, so off we went.

Moderately challenging climb to the granary.

The three of us agreed it would serve as a good warm up for tomorrow's Huayna Picchu climb. Turned out to be so much more for me. It was free hiking - we walked towards the granary, found a path and climbed up. It was peaceful up there - devoid of tourists plus breathtaking views of the valley. The hike itself was somewhat challenging, there were spots where I felt vulnerable. Plus, we were carrying all our packs and /large bottled waters. No place to store them in town. But it was well worth it.

Middle left:: Will's photos climbing up.
Our trio temporarily split to explore different levels of the granary, the only period of solitude on the trip thus far. It felt somewhat spiritual, to have climbed that high and gazing into the village below while being thousands of miles from home. Our trio remained up there for about 30 minutes, exploring the ruins.

Top Left: Misty found a good spot to herself. Top Right: Exploring the granary
Bottom: Nervously watched this Dad blaze up the trail carrying his child.
As the group returned to town, we ran into the other three guys having lunch - they had just arrived. We joined and had.. hamburgers and beers. The restaurant was tourist friendly and another American chatted us up. He had been living in Peru for months - and took keen interest in the indigenous peoples of the area.  

Cusquenas and lunch with a view
Prior to boarding the train, we explored more of Ollantaytambo and browsed through makeshift shacks, looking for presents for those at home. Eventually, we boarded for Aguas Calientes. Luckily for the other group, they were staying here for the night. I was a bit jealous of them, Ollantaytambo was among the top highlights of the entire South America trip.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Road to Machu Picchu: Cusco

Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire and is situated over 11,000 ft high up in the Andes. It was great to simply walk off the plane and go straight to ground transportation - we packed lean and went all carry-on. After a 20 minute ride, we were dropped off at our hostel and rested for a couple of hours. I couldn't help but compare it to Lima and they contrasted greatly. Cusco looked older, crowded and poor compared to Lima, which had modern skyscrapers in the business district. Here are some immediate observations:
  • Most of the locals looked Indian.. As opposed to Lima, whose residents have European features.
  • I was tall! Standing at 5'7" I stood above most locals.
  • The elevation was initially a challenge. Although not debilitating, I experienced shortness of breath when climbing steps and when speeding up my walk. Misty was the lone unaffected person out of the UT cohort.
    • It was expected and by design our climb was 2 days later.. giving us time to acclimate.
    • There is a local remedy for elevation sickness - a tea made of an indigenous plant - illegal stateside (and everywhere else for that matter). I take pride in immersing myself in a culture and wrestled with myself on whether to try it or risk failing a drug test at my summer internship. Sadly, I did not partake and what a shame because as it turns out - I was not drug tested.
After some rest, and communicating with those at home, we began exploring. Luckily, the hostel was a few blocks from Plaza d'Armas (the main square that most Latin American cities have) and were able to snap some photos. By accident, we ran into the other crew. They weren't hard to spot, as all three Caucasian guys stood well over 6'1". We joined up for lunch - at a touristy joint serving pizza and burgers. Best believe I had the most exotic thing on the menu - ceviche. Actually, they had alpaca burgers, so that's slightly adventurous but for Cuy (Guinea Pig) - there were no takers.  

L:eft UT MBA at Plaza D'Armas, Top Right: The Market  Bottom Right: View for lunch:
Lunch was followed by a few hours of exploration: Mercado Central de and Convento de San Pedro and San Domingo church stood out. The market had numerous food stalls with meats, exotic fruits - the place we should have had lunch.. costs were a fraction of the earlier venue. The Convento de San Pedro was built on top of Incan ruins and the exhibit inside showcased the area's pre-Colombian and Spanish history.

In and around Convento de San Pedro
Someone in our party had never left the US and felt like Cusco was an assault on the senses - in a good way. After miles of walking, the travel began to take its toll. We all flew in on overnight flights. All three guys in the other party were already under the weather and had to deal with the thin air to boot. So we headed back to our hostels. Apparently, the guys slept for most of the late afternoon and evening. 

Definitely not in Rocky Top anymore.\
It was just us three again later as we looked for dinner later that night. We settled on a venue that had more traditional fare - away from the tourist-packed Plaza. I had pork belly and reacquainted myself with an old friend- pisco sour. 

Top: Cusco at night. Bottom left: exploring with classmtes, Bottom right: Pisco sour made the right way.
After dinner, Will and I forced ourselves to stay awake for Mayweather-Pacquiao! For the record, we were drowsy due to travel, not that lackluster prizefight. And for the first time in 48 hours, we slept in a bed. The next day would be mostly spent in transit.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Road to Machu Picchu: Getting There

So let's take a moment and talk logistics. Getting to the ruins is not the most complex process but there are enough moving parts that discouraged our classmates. In addition to our party of three, there was another group of three guys in our class set to explore Machu Picchu on Monday, May 5th. I tried to coordinate with them but their plans were not finalized well after ours. Furthermore, they were not all on the same flight to South America either, so it was difficult.

But back to logistics. It is likely that a flight originating from the US will enter Peru via Lima. Travelers go through immigration, get their Andean card and then hop on a short flight to Cusco. By the way, the flight from Mexico City to Lima encountered frightening turbulence. About an hour after departing the Mexican capital around midnight, I popped a melatonin pill and drifted asleep. I was abruptly awakened by other passengers cursing in fright. It felt that the jet had lost altitude quickly and was jarred by rough skies. Looking out the window, I saw bolts of lightning and figured we were in a storm. Talking to Misty and Will about that turbulence later and apparently, the same thought raced through our minds: "Oh well, I lived a good life..." We were all resigned to our fate. But we obviously lived through it although it did not seem like it at the time. In reality, the pilots probably considered the rough patch as "minor chop."

Lots of time in terminals (L: Lima after overnight flight.) (R: Mex City Wifi!)
Anyways, most expeditions to Machu Picchu start in the Incan capital of Cusco. We would then take a taxi van called a collectivo from the Cusco to Ollantaytambo in the sacred valley, a ride that took about 1.5 hours. In my opinion, this was the sketchiest part of the journey.. For one, you could not book ahead online and I noticed that the van's tires were not in the best condition. The latter fact is frightening when speeding through curvy mountain passes. To find the "terminal," I inquired at the tourist information office and the kind attendant gave me a map. We needed it. The terminal was nondescript and hardly looked official.

From Ollantaytambo, travelers would then take rail (serviced by either Inca or Peru rail) on a scenic two-hour ride to Aguas Calientes. We chose the vistadome ride and left Ollantaytambo in the late afternoon. The sights were amazing and we were served light snacks and soft drinks. Aguas Calientes exists solely to service travelers to Macchu Pichu and is really touristy. To get to the actual site, travelers could either walk or ride a bus. We elected to ride the bus to save time and calories in the morning.

Inside the collectivo and Inca Rail's vistadome. Photo cred: Will Halsey
There are a number of ways to arrive at Machu Picchu. Turns out, our other classmates spent the night in Ollantaytambo and took an uber early train to Aguas Calientes. My roommate at UT, who was in the MBA program a year ahead of me actually took the Inca trail. Disclaimer, if you are planning to hike, you need to book well in advance.

On the return, we booked vistadome from Aguas Calientes to Poroy, a station outside of Cusco. It was a good call by Misty because by skipping the Ollantaytambo leg, we mitigated the risks of having to find a collectivo headed to Cusco at night. The Poroy stop was probably 30 minutes outside of Cusco but we were able to find an official-looking taxi to bring us back to the hostel. The next posts will further elaborate on the major sights along the way. 

The Road to Machu Picchu

As part of my MBA curriculum, we spent about 7 days in Chile in early May of 2015. But beforehand, two other classmates and I ventured to the Peruvian Andes to see the sacred Inca ruins. The following posts chronicle the logistics, the sights along the journey and Machu Picchu itself.

The Thought Process:
I visited Peru in early 2014 while a friend was working down there, spending about a week combined in Lima and Huacachina. It was my first time in South America but it had a glaring omission: Machu Picchu. Furthermore, there was a five day gap between the end of spring semester and our summer session in Santiago, so why not fit in a side trip? When would I be in South America again?

So in January of 2015, I started to research options in the region, as well as recruited classmates to share the experiences and expenses with. So the considerations were: price, complexity and lifetime value. Brazil and Argentina were considered but are considerably pricier than Peru. Plus, both countries require visas - an additional expense and administrative effort. Lastly, we read reports that Machu Picchu was deteriorating, so it fulfilled the lifetime value component.

I was fully prepared to undergo this journey on my own but casually mentioned ticket prices to my two closest classmates, Misty and Will throughout January and February. Then, during the first snow-day of graduate school, airline prices for our itinerary dropped. I informed my classmates of this development and they came through. All three of us booked that day. For under $1250, we got this multiple city itinerary (ATL > Mex City > Lima > Cusco for three nights then Lima > Santiago > Dallas >ATL).

At this point, we had a 30,000 ft, high level plan but the more granular details would not be finalized until two weeks prior to departure. There were decisions to be made regarding accommodations, travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu, which day to see it and what type of reservation to buy.

Packing presented a unique challenge because we needed to not only pack hiking appropriate gear for Peru, but also business casual for the Chile trip. Here are items I went out of my way to acquire specifically for Machu Picchu:
  • Adidas hybrid trail shoes - essential for perilous Huayna Picchu climb.
  • Zip off hiking pants - quick drying and useful when temperature changes the way it does in the Andes.
  • ISIC card - for students only and was required by our University. It is travel insurance abroad and you are eligible for discounts with it. In fact, it paid for itself because of the savings on admission to Machu Picchu.
  • Sunscreen - Learned my lesson last time I was in Peru.. Also, higher altitudes make you more susceptible to UV rays even if you’re brown like I am.
  • Buff - wore it around my neck in the cold mornings and a headband to soak up sweat in midday..

A lean, mean operation for 2 weeks.

Next post will document the details of getting to Machu Picchu. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Positives of Peoria, IL

In late December of 2014, I happily accepted a summer internship at Caterpillar, the heavy machinery company. Although CAT has had a terrible 2015, by all accounts, it is a great company to work for/have on your resume. But there's a caveat: it is headquartered in Peoria and at some point, employees can expect to be based there.

So what's the bad?
  • Poor neighborhoods greatly outnumber good ones. In fact, I couldn't find a middle class neighborhood within Peoria: they were either affluent in Peoria Heights or really low-income everywhere else. I was told that most CAT professionals lived in nicer villages such as Dunlap, Morton and Chillicothe.
  • Roads. As a road cyclist.. aka own a road bike, I found myself dodging large potholes regularly or be jarred so hard I'd lose my grip on the handlebars.
  • Pekin - I was warned this adjoining burb was "backwards." A pocket of rural Alabama up North.
  • Flooding - for a couple of weeks, rains made the Illinois river swell and rendered the waterfront inaccessible. As a result, the riverboat tour and recreational activities were paused.
  • Dead downtown - Even downtown Knoxville is vibrant on evenings and weekends. Bar the waterfront, Peoria's downtown is mostly CAT offices.
  • General sense of "meh." Peoria to me felt like one of those post-industrial rust belt cities that had seen better days.
The good?
  • No traffic. Despite numerous construction zones, Peoria traffic never came close to Knoxville's Kingston Pike and Charlotte's I-77 even at peak hours.
  • Greenways. Peoria's greenways are connected to the expansive Rock Island Trail and supposedly extends 30-40 miles. The furthest I ever ventured was 12.5 miles from intern housing - it was interrupted by construction. In addition, they are far less crowded than Knoxville's and I didn't have to constantly dodge little children on my bike
  • Weather. this only applies to summertime where I only recollect a handful of days over 90 degrees and with reasonable humidity. So for a summer, I was spared from the southeast's oppressive humidity. Furthermore, the temperatures would significantly cool off at night and was rather pleasant.
  • Central location. CAT established their business in the area because of location. On a smaller scale, Peoria is between St. Louis and Chicago, about 2.5 hours from either. I took advantage of this by flying out of Chicago twice because of relatively lower rates in comparison with the east coast.
  • Blue. Despite only frequenting this quirky local dive 3 times, I was deeply impressed by it. Their Wednesday night trivia is challenging and facilitated by an extremely witty gentleman. They make innovative drinks, serving them in beakers and cartoony glasses. Best of all, no fellow CAT interns! 

I spent a lot of time bashing Peoria with another intern, because it has potential. My hope was an Asheville or Chattanooga but at this time, it won't be the case. Perhaps they'll get a boost by CAT's commitment to keeping HQ there and from federal funding as a designated manufacturing region.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies hit movie theaters last Wednesday, December 17th. It is the third and final film of Jackson's second Middle Earth trilogy. I was excited enough to attend a screening the night before the release date and drag my girlfriend (who isn't a Tolkien fan) along while touring Chattanooga. 

It was a truly bittersweet experience. Eleven years ago in 2003, I felt the same sadness when the credits rolled to the Return of the King. I didn't want it to end, but fellow Tolkien fans and I were comforted by the possibility of a Hobbit film. So in the near decade that followed, I frequently checked on the rumors. At times I lost hope: there were breakdowns in negotiation, filming postponed, directors dropping out, among other things. But eventually, things worked out and in the holiday seasons from December 2012 to December 2014, we went to Middle Earth and back again. Would we ever return? 

The latest trilogy failed to garner the same critical response from the LOTR series but remains commercially successful. But, Tolkien purists have gripes:
  1. Too cartoon-ish. This was a common complaint after the first movie: The Unexpected Journey, aimed at Radagast's character and the dwarven dinner scene at Bag End.
  2. Tauriel? Evangeline Lilly's female warrior-elf character was not present in Tolkien's work yet comprised the other half of a weak love story.
  3. Legolas. Orlando Bloom reprises his role from the LOTR trilogy, the deft warrior-elf, deadly with bow. He wasn't mentioned in the Hobbit either. However, Thranduil (his father) was, so it's conceivable that he was present but not mentioned in the book.  
  4. Reliance on CGI - Jackson falls more in love with CGI with every movie.
As an unapologetic fan of Tolkien's works since age 11, I was simply happy to see Middle Earth back in the cinema. In fact, I saw the first movie twice in theaters, despite the cartoon-ish, childish feel, because I expected it: The Hobbit book was far more light-hearted than the fellowship series and was aimed towards a younger audience. The "good" races of Middle Earth didn't face annihilation. But by the second movie, which premiered in December 2013, Middle Earth had completely captured my imagination again.

I was also a fan of the casting: I get to crush on Evangeline Lilly for the first time since Lost wrapped up in 2010, Orlando Bloom for sentimental reasons and the dynamic duo from BBC's Sherlock - Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Peter Jackson had the artistic freedom to include/exclude significant characters from his first series. So the creation of Tauriel and the presence of Legolas were welcome to me - although the Tolkien purists probably hate it. 

So what's next? Is this truly the last time we visit Middle Earth? Under the guidance of Peter Jackson, apparently yes. However, I still cling on to a sliver of hope, much like Frodo did. JRR Tolkien wrote a comprehensive history of Arda - the planet where this adventure takes place. Middle Earth is but a continent. The series of stories are chronicled in the Silmarillion. His son Christopher released some of his unpublished works such as the Children of Hurin and Unfinished Tales: The History of Middle-Earth. Unfortunately, Tolkien's estate retain rights to his posthumous work and Jackson seems fairly uninterested in filming the Silmarillion

As Aragorn said, "there's always hope." And I will cling onto that in the years that follow. You can say they are precious to me. I always get an air of nostalgia everytime I see them on screen. Furthermore, I've played numerous LOTR themed video games because I can't get enough of it. So here's to hoping and I am grateful to Peter Jackson and company for taking me there and back again, one last time.