Thursday, October 16, 2014

2014 - Peru (Trip Report)

Peru, a place where people travel from all around the world to visit Machu Picchu, one of the 7 Wonders of the World. We spent 16 days there (plus 2 days to get there and back) and it is a great place to visit.

View of Cusco
For our trip, we visited Lima and Cusco, although from my talks with friends, it sounds like there are a number of other places to visit.  Based on my experience and personal preference, I would say that Lima is skippable and just focus on Cusco.

Realize that you will be spending a lot of time haggling whether you are catching a cab or buying souvenirs.  I personally found a lot of joy doing this whereas Allison would just leave the bargaining to me.  I would say, haggle everything starting at 50% off what they say and go from there (you are probably still being ripped off at this point).

Cusco is an amazing city that is full of history and scenery.  It was nice walking in a city where all major franchises that I know don't have a huge presence here.  Only in the main square (Plaza de Armas) did we see Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC.

Cusco's main square
The two specialty dishes to try are alpaca and guinea pig (known at cuy).  They are worth trying, I enjoyed the alpaca and Allison really liked the guinea pig.

Tours
Alpaca Expeditions (4 day Classic Inca Trail), $615 USD (haggled them into providing us with free sleeping bags which are normally $20 USD since there were 3 of us on the trip).  I have no problems recommending this company based on our 4-day Inca Trail hike.  Herlin who was our tour guide was great, has a lot of knowledge behind the history of the Incans.  The crew of porters works well together and it was great to see that they would work as a group.

Pantiacolla (7 day Manu Biosphere), $1,270 (originally $1,370, got them down to $1,270 with some haggling).  Jose was a great tour guide.  He was very knowledgeable and had great eyes and ears for finding animals and insects.  Pantiacolla are very responsive to emails and generally get back to you within the day with any questions that you have.  My only issue after doing the trip is that you spend a lot of time traveling.  I had an idea of how long it would be, but when you are stuck on a boat/bus for a long period of time with no form of entertainment (unless you spot animals), it lessens the excitement (not that there's anything you can do about it).

Accommodations
City: Cusco
Accommodation Name: Hostel Wara Wara
Cost: roughly $60 USD a night
Verdict: wouldn't recommend


159 steps up from the main square, it is quite the trek uphill when you have just arrived and are trying to adjust to the altitude.  The place could use a bit of cleaning up.  It isn't refined in how it could be presented, but for the price, there isn't much to complain about.  The included breakfast was nothing special, came with bread, scrambled eggs and 2 slices of sausage (yes, slices of sausage).  While there, I did notice that when it rained, there was an area in the main lobby that was leaking a bit, but it may be fixed by now.  I do wish that I could say the same about the water situation.  Due to altitude (I think), the water pressure sometimes stops and that means no water.  They need to restart the machine but that might mean, in the middle of your shower, you may suddenly lose water (happened to me).  Based on that, I wouldn't recommend it.

City: Cusco
Accommodation Name: Wifala Thematic Boutique
Cost: roughly $52 USD a night
Verdict: no problem recommending it as long as you don't mind the 20 minute walk to the main square

Situated roughly 20 minutes away by foot from the main square.  While it sounds far, it actually isn't too bad when I think about how much time we must have spent walking up the stairs to Wara Wara.  The rooms are small but more than enough room for us and the showers and service was top notch.  The front reception did change on us a few times, so when we first arrived, the receptionist was great with directions and English, the other one spoke English but not to the same level.  The included breakfast was good and the server for breakfast was always the same and we had no problems communicating.

City: Miraflores (in Lima)
Accommodation Name: Tierra Viva
Cost: roughly $100 USD a night
Verdict: no issues recommending it.

Tierra Viva (roughly $100 USD a night).  Great location within Miraflores and the staff are very helpful and knowledgeable about the area.  The place is clean and spacious with a king size bed.  The breakfast buffet was delicious and with a great spread.  I wouldn't have any problem recommending them.

Attractions

I have only included the attractions that we had to pay to get in.  I did not include the markets or squares that you would likely visit while you are here.

City: Cusco
Name: Cusco Planetarium
Cost: 50 soles

Cusco Planetarium
Worth a visit if you are into astronomy and worth it even if you aren't.  I found the information provided to be pretty fascinating although a fair amount of it was covered during our Inca Trail hike.  The planetarium is home grown and you can tell but it doesn't take away from what it is and when we got to see the stars and Saturn at night, it was worth it.

City: Cusco
Name: Salinas (salt pans)
Cost: 7 soles

Salinas
Well worth a visit if you are coordinate a way to visit.  It was really interesting to see thousands of salt pans and try to understand that this is how this country creates and exports salt.

City: Cusco
Name: Ollantaytambo
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Ollantaytambo
Very cool Incan ruins that you would read up on the history before going to.  The views at the top are quite stunning and you can send quite some time here if you are interested.

City: Cusco
Name: Chincero
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Chincero
Skippable in our opinion.  It is a nice town, but I noticed that we saw very similar markets and terraces that make this a stopping point.


City: Cusco
Name: Moray
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Moray
Well worth a visit if you are doing this tour.  I thought this place was really fascinating for about 30 minutes that we were there.  Just to walk down to the bottom to get a sense of the scale of the site was great.

City: Cusco
Name: Pisac
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Pisac
This place is enormous and if you can, I would focus most of your time here if you are traveling to the sites within the boleto turistico.  This places has a set of ruins of a small town and endless amounts of terraces on the side of the mountain.  We didn't get enough time here since it was our last destination and I wish that we could have had more time here.

City: Lima
Name: El Circuito Mágico del Agua

Cost: 4 soles

El Circuito Magico del Agua
If you are in Lima, this is probably one of the places that you will end up visiting.  It is easily worth the cost of admission although the show was a bit of a let down for us.  The other water fountains easily make up for it though.  Do try to eat before you go because the shops inside are very disappointing.

Restaurants
City: Cusco
Name: Divina Rosa


Divina Rosa's menu
Divina Rosa, cheap meal but cheap for a reason.  A 4 course meal for 12 soles, the food comes out warm but good value.  If you want something cheap, it isn't a bad choice.

City: Cusco
Name: Inka Grill

Alpaca steak from Inka Grill
Located in the main square of Cusco, I was worried that it would be a cash grab and based on reviews, I thought it would be okay, I was wrong.  There is nothing wrong with the food here nor is the service bad, but it is just really expensive for what you get.  This definitely feels like a tourist trap and we had much better food elsewhere.  Entrees were roughly 60 soles.

City: Cusco
Name: Kushka Cafe

Us at Kushka
Located just 5 minutes away from the main square, we really enjoyed this little shop.  The food that we had was delicious and wasn't very expensive.  We liked it enough that we actually went twice.  Entrees were roughly 30 soles.

City: Cusco
Name: La Cusquenita

Guinea Pig from La Cusquenita
If you ask ANY local, they will be able to direct you to this joint.  If that isn't a sign that this place has great food, I don't know what is.  Go for the a la carte meal and you won't be disappointed.  Make it before noon and you may end up watching a free show as well!  Entrees were roughly 25 soles.

City: Cusco
Name: Uchu

Uchu's steak
Want steak?  Want it on a hot stone?  This is your place.  They serve steak on a hot stone where you can cook the steak to your liking and it was fantastic.  I'd recommend going for a view if you want some steak.  Steaks were roughly 45 soles.

City: Lima
Name: Salon Capon

Salon Capon dim sum
Located in Chinatown, it was suggested by Lonely Planet and while it was decent Chinese food, I don't know if I would suggest making your way here unless you were in the area.  We ordered dim sum here after two weeks of Peruvian food and it was good enough to satisfy our cravings.  Our dim sum order of 4 dishes was 35 soles.

City: Lima
Name: Mangos

Us at Mangos
In Larcomar is Mangos, a restaurant that is built into the side of the cliff.  If you like, you can eat outside where you have a fantastic view of the coast.  The food was nice and the view was great.  The entrees were roughly 45 soles.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Corned Beef House (Oct 14 2014)

This would be our dinner destination after we tried the Mirvish lottery for Book of Mormon tickets (which we lost).

Front of Corned Beef House
Located at the corner of John St and Adelaide is Corned Beef House, a shop known for their corn beef and montreal smoked meat sandwiches.  $7.99 gets you a 7 oz sandwich of various types of meat.  The portion is generous for the price and the sandwich is customizable based on their bread type and sauce.  I opted for the marble rye and regular sauce which I thought was pretty good.  We also got the poutine which was $5.99.  The portion was pretty big for $6, but the gravy is a bit salty for my taste.

Menu

Corn Beef Sandwich with Marble Rye (Huge portion)

Poutine
It's a good and quick place for a sandwich that will hit the spot if you are in the area.

Verdict: I'd go back but it isn't anything special.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2014 - Apollo Convention Centre (Ahmed & Jihan's Wedding)

Quote of the evening 'When two people get married, the man gives up his bachelor's degree and the woman gets her master's degree'.

Apollo Convention Centre is where our friends, Ahmed and Jihan, got married. Our first Indian wedding and I was excited to see what it would be like based on what we heard from some of our friends.

Apollo Convention Centre
The venue is nice, although my first impression was, 'there doesn't seem like there is enough parking here'. There is parking all along the parameter of the building and there is some parking on the second level (the roof) of the building. For a building that can support up to 1,200 people (according to their website), I assumed there would be more parking spaces (unless I missed some).

Allison and me!
There was a programme included at the dining table which gave us an idea of what was to come and it was nicely laid out. The food was nice. The food was served family-style where there would be dishes out on the table and you would take what you want.  In the event that you want more, simply ask the servers for more and they brought more.

Our table (12 of 33)

Programme of the evening

Menu
The part that strikes me as really odd is, did the bride and groom eat? During the evening, there is a stage where I'm used to seeing the head table and they have their meals when everyone else does. But, for this ceremony, there is no head table, there is a bench where the bride and groom sit and that's where they were all night (at least when I was looking).

Head table?

Jihan (left) & Ahmed (right)
It was interesting that this culture actually has an ending ceremony. At the end of the night, the bride and groom are walked out by family and friends as part of the handing-off ceremony where the bride is 'given away' to the groom. I was told this was because in the past, the bride may not see their parents since back then, they may be towns/cities apart. So as we walked them out, we took some pictures, watched as they drove off and that concluded the night.

I had a good time, thanks Ahmed and Jihan for inviting us to your big day!

Sho Ryu Ken Ramen (Oct 10 2014)

A new ramen shop has opened up in Allison's area and we decided to pay them a visit!  By this date, they have been open for 4 days so I assumed that they would have fixed any issues that they would have by now.  I was wrong.

The restaurant is a play on the name of a move in the video game Street Fighter.  As such, they even have painting up that depict Street Fighter characters doing something with ramen (whether cooking or eating).

Street Fighter Ramen Art
The prices are reasonable at $9.80 for the normal Tonkotsu ramen, add $1.00 for a soy based version of the tonkotsu or get one that is spicy.  We ordered the regular tonkotsu ramen and the spicy version of the same thing.  For reasons unknown to me, it took 30 minutes before we got our meal.  The restaurant barely holds 40 people, so I thought the orders would go by pretty quickly but I was wrong.

Spicy Tonkotsu
The dumplings seem like potstickers that I could buy frozen from a grocery store instead of hand-made on site.  The ramen was disappointing.  I'm not sure where they are imported from, but they are nothing special.  The soup base lacked flavor, and the two pieces of chashu that we got were VERY fatty.  My $1.00 meant that I got a spoonful of hot sauce with my tonkotsu.  They don't mix it in, isn't a different soup base, it is just the regular tonkotsu with a spoon of hot sauce!

Dumplings
We arrived at the restaurant at around 7:50pm which I thought was late, but we still had to wait around 10 minutes to be seated.  By the time we got our order (8:30pm), the restaurant was already sold out of ramen for the day.

Verdict: I would not recommend coming here and I don't see it lasting very long.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

2014 - Peru Day 18 (Lima / Toronto)

Today is our final day of the trip and we spend it with an early start heading back to Toronto.  With a 9:25am international flight, this meant that we had to get to the airport 3 hours ahead (better safe than sorry).  It cost us 50 soles to get to the airport through the taxi that is owned by the hotel (I guess they provide their own services before reaching out to other taxi companies).

I traveled to USA?
The driver took us through the scenic route to the airport which is nice.  This allowed us to get a view of the coastline before heading home.  The view of the coast is very nice, although at 5:45am, there really isn't much to see, but somehow there was already a surfer getting ready to hit the waves, crazy!  Oddly, by the time we were close the airport, there was already traffic there and the number of people waiting to check-in was pretty insane (we arrive at around 6:30am).

Our breakfast bags, since we ate our breakfast already
The flight out from Lima wasn't bad.  We were provided breakfast which was an omelette with bread and fruit. Although, all the flights on our trip did not have personal entertainment systems (screens in front of you), instead they all have shared ones where you have no control over what is shown which seems weird to me in this day and age. I never really watched anything on the screens, I always just had it on the screen that shows me where the plane is and how much longer till we arrived.

Mr Chips?
Switching flights in USA is always fun.  We are required to clear customs (easy), get our bags and re-check them in (odd), and go through security (long wait).  It took us roughly an hour to transfer, thank goodness our layover was 3 hours, if it was an hour, we wouldn't have made it.

Skytrain in Miami (it smells)
With our layover in Miami, we got to ride the skytrain that I wanted to when we fly to Peru! After riding it, I would say avoid it, it smells and isn't very fast. We ate at the Wendy's at the airport since we wouldn't arrive to Toronto until 11pm and we hung around the charging station (this is genius by the way). The charging station is a hub/advertising panel that allows travelers to charge their devices (there are roughly 6 AC outlets and 4 USB outlets).

Wendy's!
Flight back to Toronto, nothing special, it felt long, still can't sleep very well on a plane.  Allison was able to lie down since we had an empty seat in our side. From plane to airport exit, took us roughly 30 minutes, not too shabby!

All in all, Peru, specifically Cusco based on our experience, is a wonderful place to visit.  Know that you will be cheated, so haggle as much as you can or think you can get away with.  The culture and scenery is amazing.  If we went back, we'd try to visit some of the areas that we missed out (Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, to name a few).

I'll put together a trip report shortly.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

2014 - Peru Day 17 (Lima)

Today we explore the downtown area of Lima. This morning we found out that our hotel includes a breakfast buffet! Breakfast includes various fruit, yogurt, eggs, sausage and more.

One side of the breakfast buffet
The other side of the breakfast buffet
I borrowed a friend's Lonely Planet book and followed the itinerary for the discovery walk which would begin at Plaza San Martin and end up at Chinatown. Through our hotel we coordinate a cab to take us to Plaza San Martin which cost us 18 soles. While driving, I noticed that the street light system is pretty neat. There are countdown timers for both red and green lights all the time. This means, as someone who's on green, you know how much longer you have left. If you are on red, you know how much longer the wait is.

Green light with 33 seconds left
Red light with 17 seconds left
It was like we traveled to Europe when we arrived at Plaza San Martin. All the buildings that I remember from are gone and it looks like a colonial city. It looks nicely made, but it just seems really odd and out of place.

Plaza San Martin
From Plaza San Martin, there is a pedestrian street (Jiron de la Union) where there are lots of shops that you can wander although we were a bit early (roughly 11am) and not all the shops are open yet. Mainly clothes and shoes are sold here. I imagine it would be full of people later in the day. This street would take us to the next point of interest which is Plaza de Armas.

Pedestrian Street
Iglesia de la Merced (church between Plaza San Martin and Plaza de Armas)
We were fortunate enough to arrive just in time for the 'Changing of the Guard' which takes place at Plaza de Armas every day at noon. I have seen this in Ottawa and it was interesting to see there, but here, it seems like a VERY big deal. The guard is actually on horseback and they have a full band on horseback as well. It seems like a very big production. Takes about 30 minutes, worth a watch if you happen to be there.

Changing of the Guard
Changing of the Guard band
Jumping at Plaza de Armas
Reminds me of Burano, look at the colourful houses!
Today we finally got the chance to try some of the various street vendors that I have seen. Well, it was really just me who wanted to try them and Allison wanted me to try them after our tours in case I got sick. So, I tried as many as I could! I got a slice of pineapple at a fruit stand (1 soles), a churro off a street vendor who just wanders the street with a tray full of them (1 soles), and a cup of pink (strawberry) foam jello (2 soles). I enjoyed the pineapple and Allison enjoyed the churro, the pink foam is skippable.

Fruit stand, 1 soles per fruit slice
Churro vendor, 1 soles per churro
Quail egg vendor (didn't try these)
Pink foam jello
When we finally made it to Chinatown, it was the Chinatown that we expected with Chinese food! When we visited the Chinatown in Ottawa, it felt poorly named since every restaurant served Vietnamese food, should be called Viet-town. Based on the Lonely Planet book, we ate at Salon Capon. We ordered dim sum here, tastes like dim sum, nothing special. 4 dishes cost us 35 soles.

We found ourselves!
Yes, there are only 3 dishes here.
Did he follow me from Italy?
From Chinatown, we headed towards the Magic Water Circuit (El Circuito Magico del Agua) which is the number 1 attraction in Lima. Along the way, we passed by several parks (Parque Italiano and Parque de la Culutra) and an outdoor mall. They are nice to walk by, nothing interesting that makes me suggest visiting any of these places. The walk from Plaza San Martin to Magic Water Circuit was probably about an hour given that we stopped at the parks and mall for pictures and to wander.

Food court of the outdoor mall
Onto the Magic Water Circuit! This is a park this holds 13 water fountains, costs 4 soles admission and holds the Guiness World Record for 'world´s largest fountain complex in a public park'. Is it worth a visit? I would say yes if you are in Lima but I wouldn't make a trip to Lima specifically for this. The fountains are nice and it is a pretty large park. In the evenings, there is a laser show at one of the fountains which is really just a projection with music displayed again the water fountain. Allison was expecting something similar to Las Vegas' Bellagio and was disappointed. I got bored pretty quickly after I realized it was just going to be a projection for 30 minutes.

I think I took a wrong turn somewhere...
Under a water fountain!
Rainbow fountain
I teleported to Wonderland!
My personal favourite fountain. One of main patterns.
After the fountain, we headed back to the hotel and would just wander around and figure out what to have for dinner. When you leave the park, you get swarmed by cab drivers and I realized that I was going to get screwed again. I assumed the cost would be similar to how much the cab cost from the hotel to Plaza San Martin (18 soles). The initial offer was 25 soles, after some haggling I got it down to 20 soles.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we were tired and just wanted to eat anything. We stopped by the local Pizza Hut to have a pizza. With our limited Spanish, we ordered a pizza and drink, although we ordered the wrong size and ended up having to go grab some KFC after.

PHD!
Sorry Jang!
Tomorrow, we travel back to Toronto.