Thursday, October 19, 2017

Durga Puja 2017 in Brussels


We had the pleasure to attend the Durga Puja festivities in Brussels this year.

Brussels Grand Place (Grote Markt) looks so dramatic with lights
Beguinage (Begijnhof) nuns house
Brussels Grand Place (Grote Markt) at night Impressive architecture at Brussels Grand Place (Grote Markt)The colorful city of Bruges

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Exploring the Incan civilization in Peru


We visited Peru in July, 2017.

Machu Picchu, Peru


Machu Picchu 

 

The primary (and of course the most famous) attraction in Peru is Machu Picchu.

The only way to reach the citadel, which you see in pictures everywhere, e.g. the one above; is to take a bus from the city of Machu Picchu. The city of Machu Picchu as such is very small, and there is nothing much to do other than the citadel. So the recommended alternative is to stay in the nearby city of Cusco.

Cusco


The best and fastest way to reach Cusco from Lima is to take a local flight. There are plenty of local airlines, most of which operate within Peru or Latin America only. Given the high altitude of Cusco, flights often get delayed or canceled due to weather conditions / heavy winds. So (if possible) always try to have some buffer in your travel itinerary to accommodate these delays. Finally, while booking local flights, pay special attentions to the fare conditions as some of the fare categories are reserved for locals only.


The beautiful city of Cusco

 
Cusco is a lovely city nestled among the mountains. It gives the feel of one of those ancient cities with its cobbled streets and impressive architectural monuments e.g. castles / citadels. It is a very touristic city, so you won't have any problems finding English speaking locals here. It also implies that there are plenty of restaurants / cafes in Cusco - catering to wide variety of cuisines and price range - from the McDonald / KFC to the fine dining options in one of the city's 5 star hotels (JW Marriott El Conveto Cusco or Belmond Palacio Nazarenas). 


Belmond Monasterio Hotel


We stayed at the Monestario hotel in Cusco, which is another Belmond hotel right in front of the Palacio Nazarenas. As the name suggests, it is basically a monastery which has been transformed into a charming chic hotel. The monastery has been impeccably preserved, from the small church, to paintings, to antique furniture. Some of the rooms also have enriched oxygen, so be sure to ask for that if you feel the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. It is a 5 min walk to the Old Town Square - so you avoid all the crowd, but are always within walking distance of the hub. 


Hiram Bingham Train

 

There are a variety of way to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco. It basically takes 8 hours to drive from Cusco to Machu Picchu city, from where you still need to (queue and) take the state run buses to the Citadel which takes around 30 minutes. The faster way is to take a train from Poroy (the train station closest to Cusco - 20 minutes drive) to Machu Picchu city - takes approximately 3 hours.

The other option is to take a train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu; Ollantaytambo is like a 1.30 hours drive from Cusco, and takes a similar amount of time to reach Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is one of the main sites for Incan ruins, so it makes to combine the train ride with a visit to Ollantaytambo. It is a small city with a few hotels as well, so staying there might also be an option.

There are a range of trains available from Cusco to Machu Picchu - from the cheapest local ones to those where you can at least reserve a seat; and some where you also get lunch / dinner served during the journey. With the reserved ones, while you will be able to avoid the crowds at the railway stations; you will still need to queue for the buses to go (and return) from Machu Picchu city to the Citadel. Here, we are easily talking about an hour long queue just for the bus (2 hours - both ways) on the best of days - so be sure to factor that in while planning your journey as the Citadel is only open from 9am to 5pm.  

The only way to avoid the bus waiting times is to take the most luxurious / expensive option  - the Hiram Bingham train. The train is run by Belmond, the same company which runs luxurious trains around the world, e.g. the Orient Express. Like the Orient Express, the train is beautifully decorated with an open bar and live music.


On board the Hiram Bingham train - on the way to Machu Picchu


This is basically a day train, i.e. it only runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu in the morning (reaching Machu Pichu around 12.30 afternoon) and returns around 6pm from Machu Picchu to Cusco. Lunch (brunch) / dinner is served on the train during the respective journeys. The train also has an open observatory deck which comes in very handy to enjoy the scenic train ride to Machu Picchu.


On the way to Machu Picchu

Upon reaching Machu Picchu, they have a dedicated bus to take you to the Citadel - so no long queues. And, you have finally reached Machu Picchu :)

No amount of internet pics will prepare you for the awe-inspiring feeling that you get on seeing this Wonder of the World for the first time! It is simply amazing how the Incans managed to build a city at this height, using only the primitive technologies available in those days. There is of course a lot of fascinating Incan history associated with the place. So it helps that there is a tour guide included in the train price. For the average tourist, unless you are interested in exploring each and every historical significance of this Wonder  - 2-3 hours are sufficient to explore the place.


Incan ruins at Machu Picchu
The sky touching mountain peaks of Machu Picchu, Peru


Sacred Valley

 

The other benefit of staying in Cusco is that it also acts as a base point to explore the nearby  Sacred Valley and Incan ruins. 

Sacred Valley, as the name suggests, is a valley nestled among the Andes mountains. Irrespective of its significance for the Incas, it is worth visiting the Sacred Valley just for its natural beauty :)


Sacred Valley, Peru

Pisac Incan Ruins


Significant Incan ruins nearby include Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo. Below are a few breathtaking shots of the Pisca and Moray Incan ruins. Unfortunately, there was a nationwide Teachers' strike ongoing on the day of our travel, and hence the roads to Ollantaytambo were blocked - so we unfortunately had to skip Ollantaytambo :(


Pisac Incan ruins
The path to enlightenment ...
Hiking in the Pisac Incan ruins site

Maras Salt Mines


The other site worth mentioning here, which can be included in the same day tour from Cusco - are the Maras Salt Mines.

This is an active mine which is still used by the locals to produce Salt. The stream of salty water (full of minerals) obtained from the mountain rocks through which it passes is the source of the salt. Irrespective of its Salt mining capabilities - whether you are interested in the mining details or not :) - the Salt mines are a sight to behold at that height!


Maras Salt Mines

Lake Titicaca

 

Sunrise on lake Titicaca


Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world. The lake is vast - stretching to both Peru and Bolivia.

We stayed at the charming lakeside hotel  - Titilaka hotel. It is the perfect place to relax with amazing views of the sunrise/sunset - as you can see from the pictures :) Location wise, it is like a 30 min drive from the nearest (big) city of Puno.


The charming Titlkaka hotel on the shores of lake Titicaca

 
The hotel may not look very impressive from the outside, but once inside, it has all the amenities of a luxury boutique hotel. It is kind of self-sufficient in that all meals and touristic activities are included in the room price.