Travel

Peru – The land of Macchu Pichu, Pisco sour and Llamas

It took months of planning, conference calls, flight searches, and a handful of vaccinations before we could set forth on a trip to South America. Seven people – lets call them SS, AJ, TK, AK, VP, AP and me, were debating between Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia for a 10-12 day trip over the Christmas vacation of 2012. We finally chose Peru, primarily for Macchu Pichu, and Brazil, for its beaches and the Amazon forest.

We uninhibitedly chose December 21st, 2012 as the day of departure from our respective cities. After my airport adventure that afternoon, I met VP and AP at the Miami airport. We were to fly to Lima, and then reach Cusco the following morning. I had taken a few weeks of online Spanish lessons for basics like asking for directions and talking to the cab driver, the hotel receptionist, shopkeepers etc. And now it was time to put them to use with the lady at the taxi counter at Cusco airport. After a couple of minutes of price negotiations in broken Spanish, we hopped into a taxi for a 2 hour scenic drive to Ollantaytambo (Oll–yaan–taay–taambo). The cab driver was quite talkative and we tried our best to follow him. He was very happy to know that we were from India because he loved the Maruti Alto. And there were Altos all around us on the roads! While we were on our way to O, the others coming from the West coast encountered long flight delays and ended up reaching that evening, exhausted from the additional 15-hour ordeal.

We checked into hotel El Albergue, which is quite strangely, placed right beside the platform at the train station there. It’s a lovely little rustic hotel and it was great to be able to relax after the long journey.

Station next to El Albergue

Station next to El Albergue

Outside the station

Outside the station

 

O is a really small but extremely scenic town, with the Urubamba river flowing by through the mountains, and greenery all around. At a distance we were able to spot a few ruins too. We returned to the hotel, and booked a couple of tours for the next day. In the evening, we were looking forward to taste a few local drinks and food! We started off with Pisco Sour, which is a refreshing drink made up of Brandy, lime juice, egg white and Angostura bitters. After a few drinks, we found ourselves sharing stories from college, laughing out loud and most likely disturbing the other guests! This carried on for a couple of hours, and after dinner we retreated back to get some sleep and be ready for a fun day of touring the places around O.

Our guide and driver for the day did not speak English – Spanish lessons to the rescue! Our first stop was the salt ponds of Maras. The views on the way were breath-taking, and reminded me of the Bajaj Avenger advertisement shot in Ladakh! Taking a detour onto a dirt road, we reached the entrance to the salt ponds. They are terraced on a hill and were used by the Incas to gather salt from the deposits after evaporation. We walked right down to the area, balancing along the edges and a couple of people also tasted a bit of the salt!

On the way to Maras

On the way to Maras

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Next stop was a set of ruins at Moray. These concentric circles of terraced walls were used for farming and made for great views from the top.

 

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It was noon and we headed out for lunch to a popular buffet place at Urubamba. The spread was huge, with all kinds of meat and Peruvian delicacies. SS tried out some Guinea Pig meat!

We got back to the hotel, packed our bags, checked out and stored our bags at the Peru Rail counter because they did not let us carry more than 5 kgs per person on the train! Quite a silly policy to enforce on tourists but nevertheless, we were okay with it as long as they agreed to keep our extra luggage. Also, they were kind enough to put us on an earlier train which meant we would be able to travel during day time and enjoy the views, and get to Aguas Calientes (A.C.) reasonably early.

Once at A.C., we walked through a market and shopped for some knick-knacks. At one of these shops, when the lady told me that the price of two things I picked up was going to be 25 Soles, I mistakenly asked both for 5 (cinco) in Spanish, where as  I meant 15 (quince)! Major gaffe! She rattled off a few curse words while everyone around burst into laughter. I apologized and finally got the stuff for 20. Phew!

A.C. is bigger than O and unique because it has a river flowing right in the center of the city dividing it into two, with bridges every few metres on its main road! We spotted a bakery and were keen to eat a popular variety of bread, which is what the locals buy a lot during the Christmas season. Next, we bought bus tickets for our ride to the Macchu Pichu site. We also hired a guide for the M.P tour the next morning. We checked into our hotel, and went out for dinner. Most of the streets in A.C. are just steps that go up and down a hill. We took the easy way down, and got into a bar. After sufficiently toxicating ourselves and playing darts and Jenga, we looked for some food. Similar to hawkers in India asking tourists to buy stuff, waiters in Peru restaurants stand outside inviting people, and offering free drinks. TK was accosted by one such guy earlier, so we decided to head there for grub.

Next morning, as usual TK and AK were late. We started calling them the late-latif couple! We met our guide Paul and left the hotel around 6:45 in the morning, and were late for the bus considering we were to assemble at MP for the 7 am hike. Upon arriving at the bus stop we realized that our MP entry tickets were just reservations, and that we needed to get real tickets from the city center!! We scampered and got them and finally boarded the 7:30 bus. The bus ride was through a narrow set of curves up the hill, and getting us almost into the clouds. It was drizzling a bit, and quite serene all around. We got to the MP site around 8:15, and rushed towards the entry. We had planned to hike the Huyana Pichu mountain and were in the 7-8 batch for entry. We just made it to the hike entry gate at 7:55.

Up ahead was a tough, exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking hike. Huyana Pichu is a mountain to the north of the MP site. The trail was made up of stone steps laid out steeply and curving around one side of the mountain with a rope railing on the side at times, and few feet of drop on the other side. To add to it is the constant rain making conditions slippery. Plus the altitude of the place is about 15,000 feet which means oxygen is quite depleted. The key was to hike slowly, take frequent breaks, and just enjoy the views as we climbed upwards. AK was feeling sick because of the altitude, and Paul asked her to pop in a Diamox (medicine for altitude sickness) and a banana, and within a few minutes she was all set. As we reached closer to the top, we had to crawl in through a cave. Time for body contortions! When we did get to the top after about 75 minutes of hiking, the views were spectacular – totally worth the hike! It was like we were in the middle of clouds and as they parted MP made its majestic appearance.

At the top of MP

At the top of MP

Clouds!

Clouds!

Macchu Pichu

Macchu Pichu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a couple of hours at the top admiring the beauty of our surroundings, taking pictures, and  trying not to slip and fall!

Around 11, we decided to climb down. This didn’t turn out to be very easy, especially for me, given that the steps were steep and if you missed one there was a pretty big and hard fall to take! I probably took more time to get down than going up 😉

Paul took us around the MP site, stopping at the important places, explaining how people lived here many centuries ago. We saw the Inca houses, their irrigation system, temples, and understood how they built stuff, their trapezoidal windows, stones cut at specific angles, customs and beliefs. I found it fascinating, while few others felt sleepy ;). Paul also spoke about the various Inca kings who ruled, legends about how MP was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham and how some myths exist about the Incas being involved in human sacrifice. It was like a history lesson, but we were right in the middle of where it all happened, and I was constantly thinking about how it would have been to live there in those times!

We took a break for lunch and went back to explore some more. We took the bus back to A.C and had a train to catch in the evening to Cusco. Paul left soon after and was going to meet us at Cusco the next morning. Remember we had stored our bags at the Peru Rail counter at O, so we had to pick those, and with the train stopping at O for just 3 minutes, we were required to be super fast. As we approached O, we got ready to jump out, and rush to the counter. As we ran, from the corner of my eye I could spot a few bags laid out in a straight line against the wall. Screeeech…! We stopped, and found that the awesome people at Peru Rail had kept our bags outside so that we could just pick them up. So thoughtful of them to do that, and that’s why I nominate them as the best customer service company – EVER! 🙂

We reached Poroy station at night fall, bargained with the cab drivers and reached Cusco city center in a few minutes. The street where the hotel was located was bustling with people – it reminded me of Bangalore’s Brigade Road, with shops on either side, and a sea of people, minus the cars! We checked in, and found out about good places to go get dinner nearby. By this time SS had developed a cold, so a couple of us went to try and buy some medicines. We had fun explaining to the chemist girl what we needed, and ended up enacting a person blowing their nose! 😉 On the way back we passed by several groups of people surrounding tables and seem to be playing a game. We peeked in and saw a gambling frenzy going on with kids, youngsters and elderly all having fun. They were basically playing the Peruvian version of roulette, minus the wheel. People placed bets on images of animals, and based on the cards dealt would either lose everything or multiply what they bet. It was fun to watch! Later we went to a nice restaurant called Tupananchis.

Next day was Cusco city tour. Paul met us at our hotel, and we first visited the Cusco market.

 

Fruit stalls

Fruit stalls

Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup

Special Bread

Special Bread

All kinds of meat

All kinds of meat

 

Back at Cusco center, the beautiful cathedral was closed, so we could not go inside. However, there was a local cultural procession going on.

Cathedral

Cathedral

Pachukuti, a famous Inca

Pachukuti, a famous Inca

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By this time we were hungry souls but had to walk quite a distance for food, because most restaurants were closed. Paul knew about a local place, so we headed there. On the way, met some llamas too!

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We arrived at a restuarant called La Cusquenita. Here, we had some more Pisco sour and other local drinks. The food looked and tasted delicious, and we all over ate. The after effects were to be felt later!

We then took a cab to see Saqsaywaman (saak–saay–waa–mun, not sexy woman ;)). It is a smaller replica of the Christ the Redeemer status in Rio de Janeiro.

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And we also got some great views of Cusco from there.

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We started heading back to the city center. Paul took us to a chocolate museum, which was interesting. And we said our goodbyes to him. He was very helpful to us on the trip, and made it a lot of fun and informative. A good, English speaking guide is highly recommended!

Next morning we had flights to catch to Sao Paulo. So we had dinner, spent some time at Cusco center which was brilliantly lit for Christmas, and felt a touch sad about leaving Peru – its beautiful locales and extremely friendly people. At the same time excited about visiting a new country – Brazil. That will be the next post.

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Day 07 – Missouri

We left at around 10 in the morning and headed towards Oklahoma City downtown. We could hardly see anything as the entire city seemed to be under construction. We visited the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, which had two walls separated by water. After driving for several 100 miles we reached a point that was at the trisection of three states – Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. It seemed like the 3 state marker was ignored by all three states. It certainly didn’t look like a tourist attraction, and was in a corner on a muddy side street. We were happy to see such a place, however.

We took videos at all 3 state lines, and hope to make a longer video from all the snippets. It was dark by the time we reached St. Louis. It looked like a mix of Boston and Chicago. We went to the most popular attraction, The Arch, which is a huge steel arch one can see from any point in the city. After seeing it up close, we decided to get a few pictures of the Arch with the bridges in the area, so we headed out across the Mississippi river, stopped the car on a side street. Saket climbed over the car, and got some good shots. We felt like having some Indian food, so went to Rasoi. We were in for a fun time there, as the middle aged Indian guy spoke a very funny accent, and we had trouble controlling our laughter. He seemed like a strict but helpful man, and was very proud of the city and its hospitals and airports. When we told him about our trip, he asked us not to drive at night, and gave us more tips just like dads do. The food was excellent and so was the ambiance, so we left happy and full. The mood was a little somber as the next day would be our last hop of the trip, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Day 04 – Arizona

We said our goodbyes to Vegas, and headed towards Arizona. It was a nice drive, with plains on both sides, mountains at a distance, and one could see miles ahead on a bright day. On the previous evening, we inquired about tours operating at the Grand Canyon, and met a cordial Trinidadian who was selling day trips to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. We asked his opinion on what we should do since we were driving ourselves, and he quite surprisingly told us that we must definitely see the South Rim. The reason being that it was the most popular spot, and though the West Rim has the world famous Sky Walk (which has great statistics, like it is made out of 4 inches thick glass and can hold 17 fully loaded 737s!), the views are nowhere as great as at the South Rim. He patiently explained to us how to get there, and also told us about helicopter tours in the Canyon. So, we decided to take his advice and call up the helicopter service in the morning.

The Grand Canyon is a steep-sided gorge carved...

Image via Wikipedia

We called Papillon, which seemed to be the only helicopter tour service in the area, and they had a 25-30 minute tour at 4 pm which was ideal for us. We reached Tusayan, which is a town just outside the canyon, had a quick lunch and went to a National Geographic tourist information center. The lady there gave us maps of the area, and explained to us how to make the most of our limited time, as the sun would set soon after our helicopter tour. We headed out into the Grand Canyon National Park, and went to Yaki Point. This was our first view of the canyon, and it was breath taking. We were amazed at the shape and formations of the rocks, and the gigantic expanse they covered. At one point many many years ago, the canyon was under water, and pushed up by tectonic activity under the Colorado river, it went on to become 18 miles from the north to south rim, and 1 mile deep inside the water. The river looks quite insignificant now in comparison. There was a nice cloud cover, and a reasonable amount of sun light, so we got some decent pictures. We did not spend too much time, and headed towards the Grand Canyon Airport, where we were supposed to check in with Papillon. They checked our weight, and gave us cards with our seat numbers, after working out the seating arrangement to distribute weight evenly on the copter.

In a separate room, we were asked to watch a mandatory safety video. We yawned our way through it, and then were given life jackets to attach to our waists. Next, it was time to enter the helicopter The pilot mentioned that it was very windy, but we should be able to get in and out without trouble. None of us had flown in an helicopter before, so it was very exciting. As we moved up, we saw sparse forests, with some snow fall, and soon reached the canyon. The huge expanse of rock is quite exhilarating to watch, and we tried to just soak in everything. It was pretty windy, and the ride was bumpy at times, but well worth it for what we got in return. The pilot guided us into the Dragon Corridor, which is the longest and widest part of the canyon. The canyon has varying textures at different points, some with snow, and some very dry, and different colors give it an amazing hue in the sunlight. He played Chariots of Fire as were flying over the canyon, and it was quite apt to match the serene atmosphere outside. Everything seemed to slow down, though we were moving at a few hundred miles an hour. Then, we flew along the Colorado river for sometime, while we clicked pictures and took videos. I was trying to understand the different readings on the control panel, but decided not to worry about it. As we flew, the sun began to set slowly, and that created some amazing views. Towards the end of the ride we went over a water treatment plant, which was supposed to be the most photographed plant on earth! It supplies water to the canyon and surrounding areas. We landed safely and didn’t have too much time to talk about the ride, as we rushed into the car, to head back into the park. This time we went to Yavapai point, which had many vista points to click pictures from. It is difficult to explain in words, the beauty of the setting sun at the canyon. Hopefully, our amateurish pictures will be able to capture some of it.

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Day 06 – Oklahoma

We woke up late, had a nice breakfast. Our waitress was cute but curt, so I didn’t think everyone was pleased. Later, we roamed around the place and checked out their facilities. At the concierge, we inquired about the things one could do around the place. Also, since it was Thanksgiving, there were many people around. The hotel had arranged for a Red Indian tribe to perform song and dance and talk about their culture. We checked out at noon and headed towards Santa Fe. It was similar to Old Town but bigger, and we looked for an authentic Mexican place to get some lunch. La Fonda had a nice buffet, and we enjoyed the meal.

We roamed on the streets, clicked a few pictures, and also found bandannas to wear that made us look like the Che Guevara gang. We started our drive towards Oklahoma City late in the afternoon. Along the way, we had a slight scare as were low on gas, and all the gas stations in the surrounding area seemed to be closed for the holiday. Finally, we found one that was open, and filled up. During the long drive ahead, Saket decided to ask everyone about their most embarrassing moments in life, and all of us had many stories to tell. We all would agree that he himself has the funniest incidents of all, “kaand” as he calls them. After a long list of such moments and laughing out loud at ourselves, we reached the Arizona-Texas border. We got down, though it was dark, and also ignored Rama’s repeated warnings about it not being safe, shot  a quick video under the Welcome sign and moved on. Kartik decided to check if his favorite Marriot Springhill suites were available for us to stay over for the night at Oklahoma City. He was happy to find one, so we grabbed a quick dinner and reached the hotel. I guess by now everyone felt that the checking in and out of hotels everyday was getting a little repetitive, but then it was necessary. We talked about getting out early, see a bit of the city and move towards our next stop, St. Louis in Missouri.

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Day 05 – New Mexico

Rama and I woke up early to finish up some office work. Then we all had a quick breakfast and headed towards a meteor crater site, about 40 miles from Flagstaff. The approach roads and surrounding areas were a great sight, but the meteor crater turned out be a dud in comparison. It was much smaller than we imagined, and felt it was over hyped. Nevertheless, there were a couple of cool meteor and comet games that we had fun playing. We still had a fair distance

Barringer Crater, Arizona where the Canyon Dia...

Image via Wikipedia

to cover in Arizona, so we left after a watching an interesting video on meteors. We were slightly relieved upon leaving the state border, as we had heard rumors about people being asked to show all their immigration documents by the police, just in case we were caught speeding or anything else.

Since the drive was long, we decided to play a few car games. We started with 20 questions, and before we knew it we had a covered a few hundred miles. Upon entering New Mexico, we did our customary state-entering video, and Rashmi was happy to see the welcome sign showing a huge chilli. Entering Albuquerque was like going back to the architecture of Harappa/Mohenjadaro, with houses made of mud and clay. We walked through an area called Old Town, which was a very quiet and a peaceful little area with a small park, a church and shops selling nick knacks and memorabilia. We then drove through the city’s downtown, and the University of New Mexico.

Tired from the day’s activities, we headed towards our hotel in Bernalillo. It was a resort which stretched out for miles, and getting there in the dark was a little eerie as the roads were narrow and had tall grass on either side. We decided to check out the restaurants at the resort, and went to one which looked classy but was empty. To add to it, they didn’t serve any vegetarian food, so we looked for another place. After a heavy dinner which took ages to be served, we planned the next day out, and then crashed.

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Day 02-03 Nevada

Yes, you all know it – What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but we will tell you everything. We left Bakersfield, CA early in the morning and had a 6 hour drive. The desert and the mountains were great to watch and they reminded us of the song Hairat in Anjaana Anjaani. Of course, Priyanka Chopra was nowhere to be seen. As we approached Nevada, we stopped at a welcome center sign board. Here, we shot a video of us crossing over from CA to NV. We plan to do that at every state crossing, hopefully in 10-12 different ways.

We had lunch at a well known place for Mexican food called Cafe Rio, and also did some shopping for basic amenities. Soon, we were able to see the city from a distance, and few of the taller buildings like the MGM, Paris, Monte Carlo etc stood out. We had booked a year-old hotel called the Vdara, and were quite excited about staying there. Just walking through the lobby, looking at the classy bar and lounge, it seemed like we were going to have a good time. We che

A view of Bellagio and Caesars Palace from the...

Image via Wikipedia

cked in, and after getting into our room, it was like kids at a candy store. We had a great view of the city from the 54th floor. Inside, everyone was checking out the bedrooms, shelves, cupboards, refrigerator and so on. It was a shame that we could not get the curtains to open, only to find that there was switch to do it automatically. Of all things, Rama found a notepad very attractive. We are sure he flicked it. I guess we all agreed that having a house like that would be a dream.

We relaxed for sometime, and then chalked out the plan for the night. First, we rented a limousine for an hour that drove us through the Vegas strip. Next, we went to the Crazy Horse Paris show at the MGM. Later, we hit a nightclub called The Bank, at the Bellagio. Though we had passes, the guy at the entrance was putting up his price. He made us wait, so Saket tried a trick. He slid a $10 bill under his ID, so that it was visible to him. As expected, the jerk’s eyes lit up. He began to let us in, and right then Saket hid the bill in his other hand, and the guy was left gaping! We all loved it. Great music was playing, and we had a good time. We got back to the hotel only at 4 am! The city looks even more beautiful from the top at night.

We woke up the next morning quite early as we had to finish up office work. It’s amazing how one can wake up with minimal sleep when there are things to do. After working for a few hours, it was early evening east coast time (office hours), so we decided to venture out and see as many hotels/casinos as possible. We went to the Bellagio to have the popular brunch buffet. It was a huge spread, and everyone gorged on it. We left feeling heavy, and it was a good time to walk around the city to feel better. We saw the Bellagio’s fountain show, twice upon Saket’s insistence. We visited the Mirage, Caesar’s palace, Venetian, Monte Carlo and a few others. It was then time for another show called Zumanity at New York New York which was pretty wild. After that we were too tired to do anything else, and just hit the bed.

We had a great time in Vegas, something that we will always remember. We were completely overwhelmed by it’s beauty and power.

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Day 01 – California

This day began with Saket and I going back to SFO airport to pick up our rental car. We rented a Chevy Suburban which is a pretty big SUV, and we were excited to get our hands on this beast. We picked up Santosh, Abhishek and Rama from the hotel, and headed towards the biggest attraction of SFO – The Golden Gate Bridge! Rama and I were experimenting with our DSLR cameras, and hopefully we would have clicked a few decent pictures.

As we moved towards downtown, we came across the popular sloped streets of SFO. It was quite a roller coaster ride, at 10 mph though. Next, we went to the crookedest street in SFO, which is Lombard street. It’s a very steep, twisted road and cars can barely manage to get down without scraping the sides.

Next, we headed towards Santa Clara to pick up Kartik and Rashmi. Lunch at a local Indian restaurant, Mazzbaan was delicious, and we headed out to get down to business. The drive to Big Sur scenic coastal highway (route US-1) began, and we stopped by a few times to take pictures. We happened to spot a beautiful rainbow, nice bridges and got great views of the ocean and rocks along the way.

Getting past Big Sur in day light was good as it started raining and got dark pretty soon. Next stop and stay over was Bakersfiled, CA. It was a pretty uneventful drive, though we encountered really narrow, curved roads and thick fog for a stretch, that slowed us down a bit. We checked in at the Marriot in Bakersfield. We reviewed the day’s pictures, and Rama tested everyone’s patience as he explained in detail the light conditions and unlimited settings used in the clicking of his photographs. He then proceeded to display his bed-diving (this will be a new entry in the urban dictionary soon) skills on the poor bed in our room. Bed-diving involves a dash and jump (like a high jump) that could also include a twist and a turn while in motion, where one ends up thumping into the bed, coming pretty close to breaking the bed, in addition to dislocating one’s shoulders. After his enthusiastic show came to an end, we got a good night’s sleep, all excited about heading towards SIN CITY!

Day 0 – Massachusetts, California

We took a Virgin America flight from Boston, MA to San Francisco, CA. Santosh, shockingly managed to get his shaving kit including a razor through security. So much for the body scanning at Logan airport. After a little disappointment about the possibility of a delay, we were relieved to take off on time. We quickly grabbed a few snacks and boarded. Saket did his customary flight checks, which include making sure that the wings are attached, the engines are not on fire, and that the luggage compartment has been closed. 6 hours of watching some in-flight entertainment, random conversations and irritating our guys sitting in the front seats, we landed in SFO on time. We took a shuttle from the airport, after seeing off Kartik and Rashmi who would stay at Rashmi’s sister’s place, and checked in at the Hilton. Tired from the flight, we all crashed and woke up to begin DAY 01!!!

Cross Country Road Trip USA

This trip has been on our mind since 2 years. We were jobless (though still in university) as recession decided to hit just as we would graduate, hoping to find something by the end of the year. Our idle minds started considering the idea of a cross country trip, and then leave the country for good, if we didn’t find any work. But, it so happened that we all managed to get our hands on some sort of a job, and these plans were put on the back burner for a while. Until we realized that time was flying and people would move on to different phases of life such as getting married, relocating or just getting older, we had to do something about the little idea we had a few months back.

Thus began several sessions of detailed planning, such as flights, car rentals, routes, things to do (and not to do), which states to cover, what car games to play, how many bags to carry and so on. A month from the trip, we would meet every other day for several hours, plan and re-plan the above. We put up a huge USA map on a wall, and would mark way-points everyday, or just sit and stare at it. At the end of it all, we decided to fly from Boston, MA to San Francisco, CA, pick up our rental car, and start a 9-day drive back to Boston. Each day is now documented, including the places we saw, the food we ate, and the funny/interesting/wild stuff we did/happened to us.