Peru Trip 2011: The Inca Trail and the Amazon

28 Oct to 14 Nov 2011


The first day of travel went almost without a hitch for Christa and me. The most difficult decision that I had to make was to refrain from purchasing a bottle of Jameson 18 at Duty free for a mere $55 (normally $80). Fernando helped talk me out of it over the phone from his layover in Houston. All was going well, Fernando and Katia were on track to meet us in Lima a half hour after our flight arrives. Despite an annoying Kate Hudson movie on the plane, everything was going to plan. Then we get through customs and on the arrival screen a big red blinking sign "flight 854 from Houston has been cancelled." Crap. We called Fer and sure enough they had been stuck in Texas for an extra day. Well, sux for them, but we were in Lima :-)


A quick cab ride and we were at our Hotel the Soul Mate Inn where every room has some picture of soul mates and the breakfast room has a picture of a merman just plowing a mermaid. It's a bit late, but we hit the streets para una cerveza o tres y uno pisco sour, el bebida nacional (now the spell check works). My Spanish hasn't actually been improving, but I have been forced to use it a lot more, so it is coming back to me. We also grabbed a little bit to eat. I've got to say, Peru is a big upgrade from Nepal in terms of food quality. They everything you could want here from Seafood to Italian to Mexican to Spanish to American and even Guinea Pig (the national dish). We strolled around a bit and then hit rock hard bed with a bright hotel light right outside the window.


At 8:30 AM on the dot an Owl wakes us up, or at least that's what Fernando would late tell us was waking us up. Christa and I grab a taxi and I start haggling over price: god it feels good to travel. After letting one cab go over 35 cents we get the next one right behind and go to a pottery museum. We read all the signs, but honestly it's a little boring until we get to the exhibit that is the real reason for the cab ride: The erotic art exhibit. Apparently the Natives were fond of making erotic pots with figurines having sex, masturbating, giving head, or just displaying their genitalia. They even have skeletons having sex because they believed that the dead needed to get it on too. OK it wasn't my cultural shining moment, but it was interesting. Next we go downtown to hit up the Museo de la Nacion. But first a stop off for lunch. Now one of the biggest types of Peruvian food is Ceviche and I always try and keep an open mind when travelling, so we order some Ceviche. And much to my surprise, I did not dislike it. It didn't hurt that everywhere you go in Peru you can get Salsa Picante made from a local pepper and I have a propensity to douse my food in it which does mask any kind of fishy flavor, but still I liked it and Christa was quite pleased by this discovery.


We make our way to the national museum, a huge building with only the 4th and 6th floor open for some weird reason. On the 4th floor we find what I'm looking for; The exhibit for truth and reconciliation. This is interesting. In 1980 a group of Maoists called the Shining Path started a bloody uprising against the government. A state of emergency was called and the government increased its authority to detain people without evidence. The violence escalated and for the next 20 years Peru saw one of the bloodiest times in its history. The number of people dead and disappeared was masked by much of the government which was extremely difficult for families that had lost loved ones. In the 2000's the president took an unprecedented step to create the truth and reconciliation commission whose job it was to interview people and take tallies to find out and document exactly what happened. In addition the created an incredibly heart wrenching exhibit describing what happened during those 20 years by using selective stories. The images and captions are touching and horrific, but the effect on the population was very cathartic. We were both moved.


We took a nap, then hit up a mall carved into the cliffs of Lima overlooking the ocean. The view was beautiful, but I found the Starbucks, Northface, and Tony Romas did not match my taste. So we proceeded onto Kennedy Square which is a beautiful, vibrant cat filled park, with an outdoor book flea market, small tourist market, turkey sandwich street vendors and a spot for community speakers to talk about issues important to locals. It was quite charming. We had dinner and went back to our place to wait for Fernando and Katia to arrive. A little after midnight there’s a knock on the door. There's Fernando, Katia and Fernando's uncle Sergio with two bottles of tequila, and two bottles of Champaign. Apparently Sergio is moving to Puerto Rico in two days and needed to offload some of his alcohol. Coupled with my six pack of beer, we had a nice party till 2 am.


The next day Sergio was an amazing driver and guide. We started out in a 16th century cathedral and catacombs where Fernando and I spend most of our time trying to sneak photographs where we weren't allowed. I got a great one of hundreds of skulls and leg bones arranged in concentric circles at the bottom of a 10 foot well. After that we went to the southern city of Pachemeca, or something like that. It was an ancient Inca ruins that you could drive around (apparently while drinking beer and not wearing seatbelts (see pictures on joshal )). The ruins were neat, but the best part was that Sergio knew all about the ruins and acted as our guide, translated through Fernando (Sergio prefers not to speak English, though he knows a little). We also had to wait until the official guides left because, though we could drink on our tour and Sergio could drink while driving through the ruins, it was illegal to tell people stuff about the ruins if you weren't an official paid guide. I guess it really is all about the $oles (Peruvian currency). A steak lunch, and a car nap later we were at a Peruvian outdoor market. They have the usual chachkas and plenty of giant llama fur hats and mats, but we were just window shopping. Sergio being the good guide took us to Larco Mar (the mall by the sea) followed by Kennedy park. Deja vu. I guess what they say is true, that there's just not a lot to see in Lima. As we strolled down a street lined with bars and restaurants, I found a bar that actually had Sunday night football. The Cowboys only had 7 on the board to the Eagles 34 and Romo was in the redzone. He botched a TD pass to Witten that would have netted me 10+ points in fantasy. There were two downs left in the drive and 6 minutes left in the game. I almost forgot that I was in Lima until Christa almost dislocated my arm prying me away. We compromised on us sitting elsewhere, but me getting to check the niners browns score on Katia’s smart phone (that works here, but slowly and expensively). Yeah baby, six and one, six and one! Though my excitement was later dampened after I found out that I was crushed in both my fantasy leagues. :-(


I digress... as I often do. By this point I had tried all of the Peruvian beers (I recommend Pilsen for a light beer and Cusquena Negro for a dark beer), so we were on to Peruvian mixed drinks. For some reason many of them revolve around the European Pisco Alcohol, but they're not bad. We grabbed late night sandwiches and took the scenic walk back to our hotel.


We had hoped to fly over the Nazca lines the next day, but apparently that involved 14 hours of round trip driving for a 30 min fly over and $250, so that was out. Instead we did paragliding which was great. Lima is butted up near the Pacific Ocean, but it contains sheer cliffs several hundred feet high that plunge down into a small strip of land that separates the cliffs from the water. Wind blows in from the sea and gets hits the cliffs and is directed upwards. This effect allows for dynamic soaring along the cliff line as long as there is wind coming from the sea. But, the place that does tandem paragliding, so "as long as there is wind" is shortened to 15 minutes for $50. But it was totally worth it. Paragliding was just fantastic. We buzzed the cliffs, soared over the malls and headed straight for the Marriott Towers before baking hard right to avoid them. I got a ton of footage on video from my camera. Everyone was thrilled by the flight, though I was miffed that my guy refused to dive, stall or helicopter down.


We grabbed a little bit of authentic food in downtown Lima before going to view more Cathedrals. Actually we went to the biggest square in Lima. On one side was the Peruvian equivalent of the white house. On the other side were the Cathedral of Lima and the Residence and museum of the Archbishop of Lima. On the next side were a shopping complex and an area for live performances in the square. And on the last side was a giant yellow Shopping complex that Fernando's Aunt had put in a bit for and almost purchased before the seller got cold feet. We went into the Archbishop's house / museum and got an amazing tour. We were just about the only ones there in this three story mansion filled to the gills with 16 and 17th century artwork. At the first room there was a red rope closing out the interesting areas. I asked the guide if we could look beyond the rope. She shrugged and let us past to examine the silver container that housed the skull of one of the 5 saints of Peru. After that I guess the guide was comfortable with it and we were allowed to go past every rope there was. We got close enough to the Archbishops 16th century carved wooden chair to sit in it, we got to go out on the balcony overlooking the square and the presidents house to the right, I almost knocked over the picture of the archbishop with the pope. It was very cool. Then one more cathedral and about 20 skulls later and we were off to see if we could get some suits made. Much to my dismay, this is not Asia, and custom made suits cost $400, not $125 like in Thailand. Cest La Vi.


Christa had gotten a mild stomach bug so we called it an early night. Sergio drove us home and I spent the whole ride arguing with Katia about Darwinism. Christa should be fine by tomorrow, and we'll all be off to Cuzco tomorrow for some ruins and the 4 day Inca trail hike. We're all very excited.



CUSCO AND THE SACRED VALLEY

We arrive in Cusco and I quickly find out that Fernando is as keen to find a deal as I am. We pump a tourist tout for information about the Sacred valley tours; exactly where they go, when they leave etc. Then we get the guy to drive us to our hotel for $3 (presumably in the hopes that he would make a sale). We drop our stuff off in our hotel, then hire a taxi to see the nearby ruins and then bargain with him to give us the exact same tour the next day, but in private, but for half the cost. I could kiss Fernando. Not that the amount we were saving was that much, but just that he is a kindred spirit. We check out the Inca ruins and they are very peaceful. We got to see the evolution of Inca walls from throwing stones together and then cramming little rocks in between to cutting stones perfectly to fit on top of the stones below (even if they are very irregularly shaped) to mass producing regular sized rectangular stones. We also learned of the Inca beliefs in the three representations of life. The bird which represents the sky, rain and deities. The puma which represents earthly beings. The serpent which represents the earth and the dead. We also learned that Cusco's original pronunciation was Costco. Apparently Cusco used to be flooded. When the water dried up the Incas started to populate Cusco, but the ground was rough from the water. They named the area Qosqo which means "rough" in Quetchua. The Spanish conquistadors were lazy in their pronunciation so they called it Cusco which was easier for them to say.


We toured four sites including Sacsawaman where we got an English speaking guide who promptly reverted to Spanish when he found out that Fernando spoke Spanish (I think I spoke more Spanish than he spoke English and that's not saying much). He did teach us about the very interesting temple ruins and took a couple of photos of the four of us.


At an earlier ruin we ran into a local school tour bus and they all wanted to take pictures with the gringos. Fernando was cast aside and a handful of high school girls waited in line to take pictures with me (yeah, I know, let the jokes fly), while groups of guys waited to take pictures with Christa and Katia. Fernando told us to hurry up.


After our fill of pictures of ruins, burros eating out of trash cans and road side snacks like corn with a slice of cheese we headed back into town. We had a local dinner of Cuy (smoked guinea pig) served on a cedar board with fangs, claws and all. It was slimy. That's about all I have to say about Cuy. Alpaca on the other hand is both adorable and delicious. The pizza was good, so was the local beer, the local moon shine not so much. Having sated our sense of culinary adventure we decided to check out the town


Christa led us in a lonely planet walking tour of the city and it is charming. Cobble stone streets are everywhere. Many buildings are built on top of Inca structures and they proudly show the stone masonry along the sides. At plaza del Armas, the heart of the city, loomed a cathedral and a convent. The square was brightly lit; bathed in a warm yellow light. It was clean, well-manicured and surrounded by charming second story restaurants with balconies overlooking the plaza. The lights of homes on from the nearby mountain side shone brightly and contrasted starkly against the dark purple sky. This is one of Fernando's top three plazas and now is on my list too. I highly recommend it. We wandered one block to the next charming plaza which was a mini version of Plaza del Armas crowned with a fountain in the center that was illuminated by changing colors. We ambled from church to street comedy routine (which no one but Fernando could understand) to some weird gambling game akin to tossing the ring onto a bottle at the carnival to street vendors with odd cuisines and back again. We separated from Fer & Katia and Christa and I enjoyed a mate de coca (coca leaf tea) in a completely empty second story restaurant overlooking plaza del Armas. We soon found out why it was empty after ordering a banana split that contained pre-melted ice-cream and was topped with jam. But it didn't matter, it was tranquil and it was nice to have some quite time.


The next morning we woke up early and went to the cathedral of Cuzco because we were told that it was free from 6-10. We soon found out it was free then because no tourists were allowed and services were in session. Of course that didn't stop us. We ambled through the high arched, but reasonably modest church with original sagging wooden doors. We snapped a discrete photo of a black Jesus on a cross and a dog in the cathedral that was trying to scratch its back on the cool smooth stone. One odd thing about Cusco, all the stray dogs are cute and fluffy instead of suffering from malnutrition and anger. We even saw one dog carrying a plastic bag full of trash in his mouth to dine on in the privacy of his own nook.


Back to the hotel where our taxi driver pics us up at 8 and off to the sacred valley (A lush valley 30-60 km away from Cusco that contains a wealth of Inca ruins). Our first ad hoc stop was a newly constructed alpaca and llama farm. This was a fantastic stop that made Christa burst out with "baaabyy alllpaccaa" at random occasions for the duration of the day. 420 members of local families had gotten together to make this farm that was a working farm with which they obtained fur to make weavings and rugs etc. as well as serving as a tourist destination. We soon found out that llamas are the spitting, long necked, non-fluffy, ugly step child to the cute and fuzzy alpaca. We have since shunned all llamas. We had our fill of pictures feeding, and petting the furry creatures before moving on.


Hernan, or driver backed his small four door cab up and it emitted a warning noise much like a mac truck backing up, but instead of beep, beep, beep, it played some Mexican song played by what sounded like synthesized out of key flutes. It was so loud that we later heard it while we were on top of a ruin about 100 meters up. We couldn't help chuckling every time we heard that noise.


Off to the ruins of Pisaq which are sprawling terraced crop areas that are carved into the fertile hill side. We learned, by Fernando eaves dropping on a Portuguese tour group that each plateau was owned by a different family and its size represented the wealth of the family. I climbed on top of a ruin and was told to get down leaving Katia, in mid climb, quite disappointed that she didn't get to enjoy the view. We snapped some photos and turned back. As we headed back we saw the Mongol hoards approaching. The busses that we turned down were heading towards us in droves, each carrying a battalion of tourists. We had left an hour before them and had just narrowly escaped being overrun. We dodged our way through traffic on the narrow road where we parked back to our cabs. I have no idea how the busses would make it home, but they must have Austin powersed it with a 100 pt turn because that road was just too narrow. Regardless we escaped, had a lovely lunch and exited moments before the busses arrived. Off to our next ruins where the Incas defeated a conquistador army by rolling boulders down the hill on top of them and then eventually flooding the plains where they were camped. Unfortunately for the Incas the conquistadors brought reinforcements and kicked the Incas out. That didn't hamper our enjoyment of the again tiered farmland and fortress stronghold. Next we went off the beaten path to tour the salt mines. These were terraced areas boringly created by the Incas, carved into the mountains, but sectioned off in about 3x3 meter squares. This mountain contained rich salt deposits and a natural hot springs which the Incas had cleverly directed with intricate aqueducts. The warm water cascaded over the tiered plots and separated the salt and the dirt. The plots would eventually evaporate leaving the salt ripe for harvest. The salt mine was the reason the resident city of Urubamba was one of the only cities not to need financial assistance during Peru's past recession. These cascaded white and brown salt mine where surreal and sublime. It's also one of the only fully functioning Inca legacies which is why I'm surprised it's so poorly visited... though I guess it's because you have to go down a dirt path to get there.


Our final stop was an impressive circular tiered plot of land that was said to be the Inca experimental grounds for crops. The general belief is that the tiers spanned such a great altitude that the Incas experimented with different crops at different levels to see how they would grow best. It didn't look that tall to me, but I love the scientific story. We exited the great concentric circular bowl through stones that jutted out from the walls to form steps and then headed back to Cusco. We spent 20 minutes, arguing with the tour company for the Inca trail to let us pay with our credit card, then had some terrible service at our hotel restaurant where Fernando just about flipped his lid (which I was secretly hoping for because for those that have seen a Fernando rant know that it's something special). Now we're packing for the Inca trail and I've got to pack and be up in 5 hours to start the trek.



THE INCA TRAIL

We woke up early and meandered over to the square in the cold quiet of the morning. There were no issues with the two hour bus ride to Ollatantambu other than four British girls not knowing how to set an alarm and making us ½ hrs late. The road was bumpy and it was hard to sleep. It also felt like quite a waste since we had made the journey to Ollatantambu the day before during our sacred valley tour. As we entered the restaurant for breakfast I saw a very cute fenced in enclave where guinea pigs happily bounced around and lazed about. It was adorable until I remembered that they eat guinea pigs and this was more akin to a pick your own lobster aquarium than a guinea pig playground. Katia and Fernando missed half of breakfast making frequent trips to the restroom and barely being able to eat anything. They went to the local pharmacy where Katia found out that she had 85% of the normal oxygen levels – she was suffering from altitude sickness and Fernando apparently had the beginnings of a 24 hour food bug. They were given Electrolito: Sabor Ultimo (Local generic strawberry flavored Gatorade). The flavor was not ultimo and the bottles were quickly disposed of.


After breakfast we drove an hour to KM 82 where I was swindled into buying rubber stoppers for my poles to meet check point regulations. (Big surprise, they didn’t check the poles.) For the first hour and a half of the trail we ambled across the stream from the train tracks, passing an occasional power tower. We began to separate from the train tracks up the hill where we stopped for our first lunch. The spot was a small inhabitance with a tin shack for us to eat under. The first dish came out and I realized that this was not even close to backpacking: An Avacod0 sliced covered in pico de gallo, topped with finely shredded local cheese. The lunch was three courses including four different dishes for the main course, followed by tea. We would not be losing any weight trekking. Fernando slept through lunch while Katia ate heartily. The pink had returned to her cheeks for the first time since we arrived at Cusco. Unfortunately she quickly reverted to her previous self after taking a couple of steps up the hill with her backpack after lunch.


As we continued to put distance between us and the train tracks the scenery became prettier and the rain heavier. Christa and I were very glad for our excellent $7 high quality ponchos that we had purchased in Nepal three years earlier. The first ruin of the trek came into view. They were much like the others that we had seen in the Sacred valley, but this time we were the only ones to enjoy them. We headed on and the hill steepened. Fernando and Katia struggled through their illnesses. Christa and I hung back with them and a lovely Aussie couple, Ben and Gaby, who were taking the trail at a leisurely pace to take photos. We chatted with Ben and Gaby about their travels and photography while dodging the occasional llama on the trail (it turns out that this altitude is too low for alpaca’s to be effective). The mountain opened up before us as we walk to reveal rugged peaks enshrouded in cloud. Eight miles after KM 82 we arrived at our camp just in time to have the rain subside. The tents were all set up for us and a large dinner tent was arranged as well. There were even warm bowls of water and soap by each tent to wash off with. This was not roughing it by a long shot. We enjoyed popcorn and coco leaf tea while we waited for dinner then were stuffed by another three course meal. Fernando and Katia slept through dinner and prepared themselves to get up earlier than the rest of the group so that they could get a half our head start that it turns out they wouldn’t need


The next day was a legitimate hike – 10+ miles with 1.3 km of elevation gain up to 4200 m. We ambled up the hill at a slow and steady pace, taking pictures along the way. One of the Brits, Gemma, ditched her friends because they were hiking erratically and she didn’t have the heart to tell them how to hike correctly. Halfway up dead woman’s pass (named as such because the top looks like a pair of boobs, not because some woman died on it) we rested at a llama grazing ground where locals had set up a shop selling Gatorade and such to hikers. I bought four beers at an inflated rate, but still half that of the prices that I would later see at the touristy Machu Picchu visitor center. The clouds rolled in and out of the pass at a shocking pace as we ascended the brush filled hills, chewing coco leaf all the way. (Coco leaf was the local remedy for altitude sickness. I liked it a little bit, but it didn’t seem to do much more than make my tough numb. Christa and I agreed that the Nepali garlic soup was a far superior remedy for altitude sickness). As soon as we reached the pass I dropped my pack and scrambled atop the boob for some pictures of the lovely, but somehow forlorn Andean Peaks. They weren’t snow-capped, but had their own brand of charm. Rain and wind began to kick-up, so Christa, me and Gemma began the descent on the other side of the pass. The descent is always a bitter sweet thing – you’re progressing, but you’re also leaving the peak that you had just worked so hard to achieve. We made our way down the lonely rocky road for an hour and a half loosing almost a km of altitude until we reached the lunch tent that the red snake (line of 22 Llama Path porters wearing red Llama Path gear had erected. There were Katia and Fernando looking as fresh as could be. It looks like Fernando’s bug was gone and the Peruvian generic version of Diamox and ancient smelling oils had done the trick for Katia’s altitude sickness. We took our leisurely time at lunch and basked in the unnatural red glow of the lunch tent.


We began our next ascent, stopping at an Inca Astronomy observatory built in the 1400’s by King Patchakute. The overlook was a stark cliff and the fog layer in the valley below provided an eerie mystical feel. We finished our ascent passing two lovely ponds that were vaguely reminiscent of the peat bogs of Scotland. Once everyone was collected at the cloud covered pass, Fernando, Katia, Gemma, Christa and I began the long rock step descent to the first truly spectacular Inca ruins on the trail.


We chatted about diet and exercise for an hour as we descended into increasingly jungly foliage. We turned a corner to the left and before us lay an elaborate ruins carved into a cliff with a shear drop beneath it. In front of the ruins laid a vast valley that was blanketed with clouds but with surrounding peaks that were unabated by any cumulous layers. The ruins was used as a medical school, astronomy center, and one of many terraced agricultural areas that Patchikute used to acclimatize crops to higher elevations via genetic selection. When we had our fill of the ruin we continued our descent to camp. We ambled past one more ruin on the way as the dark set in. Happy hour (what our guide called the popcorn and tea before dinner) included 4 beers and a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon that I had brought from home. The whiskey was shared by all, but surprisingly wasn’t finished. After dinner the four of us walked back to the smaller ruins in the quiet of night. Fernando and I enjoyed cigars and whiskey by the Inca ruins and toasted to the hard life. We got back to came to hear our increasingly inebriated guide, Marcos, joke with the porters in Spanish. Apparently it was Carmello the cook’s birthday. Later Marcos stumbled into one of t British girls tents by accident to which she responded with something absolutely absurdly polite like “Oh my, I believe you have the incorrect tent”


The next day was a cake walk – up at 6, hike until two, and it was mostly downhill. I spent the better part of the hike trying to figure out what camera mechanism fixed the focus and whey my f stop ratio isn’t the same at max and min focal lengths if the fstop is focal length / aperture. Three people with SLR’s were no help and quickly tired of my questions. I figured out that the focus must be controlled by a third powered optics downstream of the primary telescope set, but I never figured out why my F# range is so limited when zoomed in unless software limits it. I did successfully annoy the SLR folks though they still were willing to chat with me about their practical experiences with SLR, image quality, light levels etc. Now I want one.


We arrived at a sun bathed terraced ruins that overlooked the expansive valley below and gave the first view of a mountain that flanked Machu Picchu. We lounged in the warm sun and took pictures. Tought our Aussie friend Ben about the “hanging of the edge of a cliff pose” where you find a stepped ledge near a cliff and hang over the edge and then take a picture to give the illusion that there’s nothing below you and that you’re hanging on to the edge of the cliff for dear life. It’s cheesy, but Ben liked it and we did it here and again the next day at Machu Picchu when the guards weren’t looking.


We ambled down to the camp site in time for a 3 course lunch at 3pm which would be followed by a happy hour of popcorn, bread & Jam at 6:30 and a 3 course dinner at 7. I did not lose any weight this trip.


After lunch a nice leisurely hour nap and then we made the 5 minute journey to my favorite ruins of the trip: Winaywayna. Nestled in the concaved cradle of the mountain was a beautiful ruin sitting atop dozens of sweeping terraced layers. Pressed up against a waterfall, Inca’s had diverted the water using underground aqueducts to provide water for bathing and drinking in the city. There were only a handful of tourists there and the surrounding jungle created a feeling of safety and peace. Lammas grazed on the upper terraces while we took pictures of of the windows of the adjacent temple. The sun dipped below the distant mountain tops as we reveled in the serene ancient Inca Village. Finally we were forced to leave the lovely site as it closed at 6pm (getting near to Machu Picchu signaled the increase of rules and regulations).


Back at the camp for happy hour we discovered that Carmello had baked or brought a friggin cake for us – unbelievable. William, the second guide, had about a quart of it. We finished the whiskey this happy hour. Marcos poured a drop on the ground for mamacute (mother earth) – is Inca equivalent of being gansta I guess. That was fine, but when he shot a sipping whiskey I was a bit cross. Dinner was served and it included a decorative turtle carved from a cucumber and an exquisite bird with cucumber skin wings and body, a carrot for a beak and coriander seeds for eyes.


We went to bed early to get up at 3:30 so that the porters could pack up, hike to town and catch the 5:45 am train. We hiked in the dark to the checkpoint where we waited for an hour and a half for the gates to open. It was getting crowded with other groups and clostrophobia began to set in. But as we hiked the ranks thinned and we enjoyed a gentle hour walk with the surrounding mountains covered by blankets of white fog. We crested a gentle path that revealed the sungate; the entrance to the Machu Picchu side of the mountain and were greeted by a wall of white. There was no point in lingering for pictures so we descended and 30 minutes later we stood atop the city of Machu Picchu enshrouded in think clouds. It was a little annoying, but then again it was only 7:30 am and there was plenty of time to wait for the clouds to part.


My heart sank as we descended to the tourist entrance (the sungate was the original Inca entrance) to Machu Picchu passing throngs of tourists as we passed. It wasn’t that I was any less of a tourist then them, but I guess I’m just use to earning some solitude when going on 4 day backpacking trips. On the plus sides the bathrooms were not squatters, but on the minus side beer was $7 per bottle, lines everywhere were thick, rules were actually enforced, and everyone spoke English – Ug.


Marcos gave us an interesting 2 hour tour of all of the temples as the fog lifted. By 9, all of Machu Picchu was illuminated and it was clear why it was a wonder of the world. Sweeping hills hosted terraces, building and temple and the different sections of the city seemed to flow into one another. Each structure was crafted with superb masonry and there wasn’t a bad view to be had - being surrounded by valleys on both sides and having the ever-present spire of a mountain in Wayna Picchu looming in the back drop. The only reason that it wasn’t #1 on my list is that I was spoiled by being the only group at ruins over the past 4 days and here I competed with 3000 others for views and pictures.


A guy from vortex energy drink amused us all by toting around a cheap point and shoot camera and a bottle of his energy drink, taking pictures of it and various Inca ruins in the background, no doubt for promotional purposes.


A family of three somehow avoided the guard’s gaze and rinsed their hair in a functioning Inca bath.


We wandered on to the edges of Machu Picchu and approached the mountain Wayna Picchu. (Wayna Picchu means young mountain while Machu Picchu means young mountain in the Inca language. Very clever.) As we peered upwards at the young mountain towering high above Machu Picchu it was clear that this is one of the most impressive parts of the city. We did not climb it, but atop the mountain hundreds of meters above the city was a lookout post and a terraced region used to for reinforcement. It was impressive that they had lugged thousands of these huge stones up the steep peak. Eventually we pulled our gaze from the mountain and wandered to the quarry where they broke stones I by grinding a series of holes into a big rock along a line, stuffing them with dry wood, soaking the wood in the evening and sitting back and relaxing while the wet wood froze and expanded forcing the rock to crack. The engineering was poorly explained, but I didn’t think that Marcos knew more, so I didn’t push it.


We continued to circle the city and then parted ways with Marcos and William until we would meet up again at lunch. Our group climbed the hill up to the Machu Picchu “Postcard Spot.” Here we spend the better part of an hour taking group photos, individual photos, all guy photos, all girl photos, cliff hanging photos, shoving off the cliff photos until we finally got whistled at by the guard for jumping on the terrace to get an in air photo. We had had are fill, so we didn’t push it any further. At this point we had circled all of the terraces, temples, houses, and viewpoints of Machu Picchu and at noon the bussed in tourists were at full force. We bid the city farewell and bussed it 30 minutes down to the little touristy city of Aquas Calientes.


In our groups final meal we all, for some reason, elected to eat Mexican food. Katia had pumpkin soup and insisted that Fernando share. He didn’t want it, but Katia persisted in offering the soup while I prodded him along. Christa even joined in. Finally Fer dropped an empty dish in the soup, beckoned the waiter and said “No me gusta el sopa! El sabor es muy malo! Take it away!” We all laughed and then laughed again when Katia wanted to trade him her tacos for is quesadilla because it was better.


After we had our fill we sauntered off to Aguas Calientes’s name sake – the natural hot springs. Fer rented a pair of used swim trunks for $1 (the rest of had ours). We rinsed, lounged in the large pools surrounded by imposing Andean peaks, and sipped beer. Feeling much cleaner, despite the brown hue of the water we dried off and meandered about town. We sat down for drinks and I earned two soles betting Ben and Fer that they couldn’t guess the drink t their girlfriends / wives would order, then began the 4hr train to bus journey back to Cusco.


Seven of us met up later that night for pizza and beer; Fer, Katia, me, Ben & Gaby (our Aussie photography friends) and Wendell and Katherine (green sustainable, optimistic, liberal new college grads from the University of Arkansas). We closed the place down and after being up for 21 hours packed for lima and went to bed, though Katia had trouble sleeping because of a meowing cat that had been stuck on the hotel bars roof since the morning. The cat wasn’t loud, but Katia’s concern kept her up.



LIMA

An early flight back to Lima and back to the Soul Mate in – just like old times. Today was a shopping day. We had a leisurely, lunch and then entertained the idea of sand-boarding upon our return to Lima after the Amazon before recognizing that it would involve 10 hours of driving. Back to the catacombs where we had seen a painting of Machu Picchu that I really liked. Fernando was kind enough to bargain the painting down for me with the Spanish speaking shop owner feigning artistic knowledge and comparing it to less expensive pieces that he’s seen. This is the exact same tactic that I had taken with art purchases in the past, but I lacked the Spanish vocabulary. It was fun to watch him work. I think he has a little more patience than I do, slowly wearing down the shop owner, it was admirable.


A painting, a rug, some baby Alpaca (which I learned is just the first cutting of an Alpaca’s hair) garb, some handmade wooden bowls later and we were on our way back to the hotel with our loot or “treasures” as Christa calls them. I thought that was weired, but Katia calls toiletries “Condiments” so I guess everyone has their thing.


We had our one very nice meal at a local restaurant called Astrid Y Gaston. (Gaston is actually quite famous and has a restaurant in San Francisco as well as a couple other international locations. Astrid is his wife.) The food was quite elegand. Appetizers include ceviche, three Peruvian-Chinese pork dumpling fusion concoctions and foie gras stuffed tortellini. Everyone seemed to be in heaven with the food except me who felt a bit queasy from the fatty and fishy meats. Though we could all agree on the Peruvian Malbec.


Just like the day before we packed all our stuff in preparation for an early morning flight – This time to Iquitos and the edge of the Amazon rainforest.



THE AMAZON

Iquitos had been the richest city in the 1880s due to the big rubber boom. Thirty years later rubber seeds were smuggled out and rubber harvesting was industrialized and Iquitos plunged back into poverty and relative obscurity. Fifty years later they discovered some oil near the city and got back on their feet. Today tourism and oil are their biggest commodities. Iquitos itself is a laid back city of 400,000 people filled with motorcycle-carriage taxis. It is safe, quiet and boasts being the largest city in the world that is not accessible via road. It also as a floating market resting atop an amazon tributary to the south, but we didn’t have time to see it.


We were picked up by Mario, who had lived sixteen years in Vacaville near Sacramento. We reminisced about the Bay Area. It turns out that he used to work at the Nut Tree restaurant where I at as a kid. Weird. We got to the office, settled the bill, bought some beer and headed to the 20 person boat that would ferry us to the Muyuna jungle resort. The remaining sixteen seats were filled with our guide, food for Muyuna and several local teachers that were hitching a ride (this was Muyuna giving a little back to the community). Within minutes we exited the gray tributary and merged with the vast brown Amazon. Jungle covered either sides of the river banks that extended wider than the Mississippi (and this is low season). It was humbling to be cruising up a river that contained 1/5th of the world’s fresh water and whose forests produce 20% of the world’s oxygen.


We passed dilapidated taxi-boat named “Titanic I” through “Titanic V.” When we would later drop the teachers off on the muddy shores of their tiny villages over 100K up-river of Iquitos we would find out that they chose to name the tiny villages similarly amusing names: Nuevo York, Buenos Aires, Paris, etc.


Rainforest clouds loomed and threatened, but never poured. An hour we slowed and pulled ashore to the last “city” which was home to 7000 people. We took turns using a squatter toilet that was a shack with two boards for your feet and a hole that dropped into the river below while the boat driver checked in with the main office. We chatted with our guide and learned that the main source of income here was agriculture and fish as was the main source of income for almost all the small villages along the amazon.


We sat by the doc and waited for the captain to return. As we waited we saw a ripple in the water and something grey and then speckled pink breached the water. It was a pink river dolphin! The creature that made my cousin Dustin want to be a marine biologist. The again it breached, then another and another. There were 3-5 of them just frolicking by the edge of the river. We clambered for our cameras, but failed to capture more than a fin. The beautiful creatures had tops of grey and bellies of pink which means they are juveniles. When they get older (~25 years old) they will become almost fully pink. The creatures can’t see because in the brown waters of the Amazon evolving to have keen sight would have been pointless. Rather, they navigate using sonar. Incredible!


As soon as we passed the village, the last remaining big boats disappeared completely and riverside shacks thrived. We only passed an occasional fisherman in a canoe with a small motor attached and saw occasional steps by the river banks that might head to a jungle home. Other than that the remainder of the trip was quiet and serene. We took turns sitting at the bow of the boat taking in the scenery and drinking beer.


An hour later the boat made three stops on the muddy shores of the Amazon to let the three teachers off at Buenos Aires, Nuevo York and Paris. I couldn’t see anything but a couple of muddy steps, but I was told about 200 people lived in these villages.


A left turn down a narrow tributary and some fishermen dodging later and we were at the docks of Muyuna lodge. Lodge workers took our backs while we were guided through a thatched roof hallway. We were provided local pink fruit juice and showed to the charming main lodge equipped with sofas, dining tables, hammocks and a Foosball table. There were almost no walls, just sturdy bug netting to let air flow and keep the mosquitoes out. Our rooms were lovely huts which, just like the rest of the lodge, rested on stilts hovering 8 feet above the ground for dry sleeping during the wet season. The room had an en suite bathroom and a balcony with his and hers hammocks. Simply adorable. We sat down and enjoyed a lovely jungle buffet heavy with fruits and vegetables with savory sauces. It was definitively a jungle paradise.


After a brief nap Cesar, our guide, roused us and plopped us in a small motor boat for some animal viewing. We saw yellow bellied birds, the black collard hawk (which is brown with a black collar and is colloquially referred to as the lazy hawk because it's a scavenger), white cranes, king fishers, and the prehistoric Watson bird. We even saw a group of squirrel monkeys. I couldn't get a sharp picture of any of them with my small 3.8 optical zoom camera. After Fernando showed me his crisp shots of monkeys and avians. I seethed in envy of his long fat 300 mm zoom lens.


We got off the boat and began a jungle trek where we saw many of the same animals plus a family of Watsons, thick foliage, intertwined fichus plants, buttressed rain-forest trees, giant snail shells, and tropical butterflies. We were alone, safe for an occasional fisherman canoeing by the nearby tributary. We finished our trek, met up with our small wooden motorboat and returned for a quick shower. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal, P90X ab routine (led by Katia and participated by me and her), followed by another shower (the jungle is really humid and you get very sticky very fast) and then off for a night canoe ride.


We slipped into two canoes and quietly paddled down the river in search of animals and frogs. The evening was alight with sounds from all types of birds, frogs and monkeys. We even saw some small frogs in the river lettuce. The night was warm but not hot and the vivacity of the jungle was enchanting. After we had our fill, we rowed back, rinsed off and passed out. For some reason the heat and humidity just makes you want to sleep all the time. Odd.


The next day I set a personal record for number of showers in the day with 4 showers: on per activity. We got up early to cruise the rivers in a motor boat to see the early morning activity. The place was happening. Birds were chirping, white herons perching, king fishers fish'n, and the fish were making the river bubble over like a kettle ready for tea. Apparently dusk and dawn are the most popular times of day for animals. We headed back up the tributary to the lodge and then "thunk!" The boat hit something hard and the driver killed the engine. "Buffundo! Buffundo!" the driver shouted (or something like that.) Fernando translated that we had hit a pink dolphin. We turned around to see if it was OK. There was a faint triangular wake that rippled across the surface of the water towards and then passed us. Then the dolphin. I missed it, but apparently it was a fully pink dolphin (as opposed to the younger grey-topped pink-bellied juvenile dolphins that we'd been seeing). The wake disappeared and then it came back in our direction, passed us and kept going towards the main body of the Amazon. Apparently it was just a little disoriented, but OK.


After breakfast we were driven upriver by motorboat towing two canoes in its wake. After some bird watching we hopped into the canoes to float back down the river. Unfortunately the river was stagnant like a lake and we had to paddle. The animals retreated into the shade as the sun rose and we found ourselves enjoying the calm water, passing by the nearby village, and even an impromptu canoe race... which we won (apparently we had the lighter canoe). We finally made it back to camp where we enjoyed our four hour break. We showered; Fer and I reviewed pictures, napped for an hour, ate lunch for another half hour, napped for an hour, showered again and then got ready for the next trip. I've never napped so much in my love as I have in this humid jungle.


We met up with two Russian Israelis just arriving as we had one day ago. We hopped into the motorboat for the best excursion to date. We chugged past the local village of 200 people and passed banks littered with lazy hawks "Mwaaaaaaing" away. I have since adopted "Mwaaaaa" as my sign to Christa that I'm feeling lazy and that she should bring me something. Fer followed my lead.


The waterway narrowed and the fish air bubbles thickened. The shores lay thick with beautiful long-necked white herons. This is what we had envisioned in the Amazon. As the boat neared the flock soared upriver, perching on grass, branches, mud and anything that allowed them to fish. This process repeated in waves until we were outside of good fishin' territory and the birds circled back around us. We continued under the flock then stopped when the guide noticed something in the tree branches. It was a strange creature called the Inca king that looked like a raccoon. As we watched, a nearby tree rustled and a squirrel monkey launched off of a branch to the Inca King's tree. Than another jumped, and another. Twenty seven monkeys popped across in total. Simply stunning. Then one small monkey remained. He must have been a baby, too afraid to make the jump because he climbed down the tree, then across lower thicker branches and back up the next tree instead of making the simple jump. I think that one was Christa's favorite. We turned around and cruised through the blanket of white herons and the occasional "Mwaaaaa" and readied for dinner.


I had discovered that Muyuna had fresh mangos at lunch. They were the sweetest that I had ever had. Even sweeter than in Egypt or South-East Asia. So, before dinner, I skinned a couple, mushed them together on a plate with a fork, added fresh lime and them served them in a glass with some water and tequila that had been given to Fernando by his uncle. Rum would have been better, but it was a delightful cocktail. After another delicious dinner we cruised the river looking for baby Kaimen (gators) by shining a car battery powered light across the river and looking for the red reflection of their retinas by the water surface. We spotted quite a few, but failed to see them up close. We did succeed in having two small fish jump into our boat, but that was no consolation. The beautiful full-moon-lit evening, however, was a lovely touch. It also explained how the gators saw our boat and why they would slip away.


We awoke more leisurely than normal and enjoyed breakfast before our excursion. This morning was a four hour hike through the jungle. The walk was flat and filled with giant palm frowns, parasitic, but beautiful fichus vines, buttress roots, and hanging vines. Spears of sunlight pierced the canopy and dotted the decomposing leaf floor. The foliage was lovely but we only saw a few furry rodents like creatures and a handful of birds. It was hot, humid and mosquito filled due to the smattering of stagnant puddles. This did not make Christa or the Prince happy.


Perhaps the highlight of the hike was that we all got to learn how to use a machete after my coaxing of the guide. There's actually not much to learn; just hit the foliage at a 45 degree or steeper angle and don't try and break thick vines and branches. Other than that, don't let go. Our guide had many friends who had accidents with loose grips on machetes.


We arrived back at the lodge with Fer swearing that he wouldn't do the next day's planned 7 hour hike, and we didn't.


Lunch included an amazing heard of palm soufflé among other dishes and we were satiated. This was the first day that we began to get used to the humidity and weren't exhausted. Who'd have thunk jungle acclimatization would be harder than altitude?


After a lazy four hours, off to piranha fishing with three other guests. We boated up to a lake via one of the tributaries and everyone was handed a 3 meter bamboo stick with a three meter bit of fishing line and hook attached to it. A small tray of beef chunks was passed around and we hook up. There's no casing, just lowering the meat into the water. Within two or three seconds of submerging you feel tugs on the line. Three people lost their bait in the first 30 seconds and I lost half of mine. We learned to be quicker and jerk upwards as soon as we felt the nibble. A minute later and a Ukrainian-Israeli woman boast the first piranha. It is small, flat, with a large jaw and a red underbelly. Surprisingly it offers very little resistance on the hook compared to other fish we would catch. Very soon after, Christa, Katia, Fernando and I would catch our first piranhas as well. This was how fishing was meant to be: immediate bites, vanquishing of evil looking fish, constant action, and someone else dehooking and dealing with the fish after it was caught.


When we ran out of meet the captain / butcher used an oar as a cutting board and cubed a Piranha to make new meat. The fish were indiscriminate. I caught two piranhas with the same piece of meat dubbed "lucky meat." Unfortunately the fish swarmed and nibbled lucky meat to nothing upon my attempt of a hat trick. In the end I caught five fish (including two that I speared in the side with my jerky motion instead of hooking them in the mouth), Christa one, Katia five, and Fer four, including a no-look catch. Katia hit Christa in the face with a Piranha by mistake.


We had many fish, so the butcher / captain shoved a stick through a dead one and hurled it in the direction of a perched lazy hawk. Within seconds it had swooped down and nabbed the carcass with deft accuracy. I captured it on film. Fer didn't so we fed one more lazy hawk. I could have done this for every single fish, reveling in the birds’ prowess and grace, but sooome peeeeeople wanted to eat the fish for dinner, which we did.


Piranha tasted gamey, if a fish can taste gamey. The rest of the diner buffet was excellent as always.


The girls retired for the evening, but Fer and I, armed with cigars to fend of mosquitos and to cap of the buzz from a half bottle of $150 tequila left to Fer in a Pepsi bottle, we wandered into the jungle for the night hike. The weather was pleasant, the hike was only an hour, the animals were making all sorts of noise - this was great. We saw toads, frogs, small fuzzy critters, a raccoon, baby tarantulas, a scorpion and at the end of the hike, a full grown tarantula. I stayed up sitting in a hammock after Fer went to bed, slowly sipping on a beer, enjoying the peaceful thatched roofs illuminated by the kerosene lanterns, listening to the symphony of jungle tweets, squawks, howls, chirps and whistles.


The Prince regained some of his camp lazy street cred after hiking the Inca trail by convincing the staff to let us forgo the seven hour day hike and instead sit in a boat, do pink dolphin viewing and swimming in the Amazon even though we were doing that the next day. The weather was great and the dolphins were hoping. Though they're not playful like salt water dolphins so we only saw brief glimpses dorsal fins and pink speckled sides breaches above the muddy water. We even saw a couple of small snub-nosed grey dolphins that also live in the Amazon. After watching dolphins and lounging in the warm waters of the Amazon we got back in our boat and headed to Lily Island.


It was aptly named because after a short walk we reached an inlet with a manmade log bridge and beneath it laid an expanse of the most gigantic lilies that I'd ever seen. They were circular with two inch spiked lips that gave them great buoyancy while making them harder for critters to climb aboard. The largest of the lilies spanned almost 1.5 meters and had a white flower the size of a nerf football. We marveled at these aberrations, snapped some photos, and then returned to Muyuna (which is Quechua for whirlpool) for lunch and a siesta.


In the waning afternoon heat we visited the nearby village of 200 people. Kids were happy and well behaved, but other than a school for 3-5 year-olds and a school for 6-11 year-olds and some homes on stilts with thatched roofs there wasn't much to see. Apparently after 11, if a child's parents can afford it, the child commutes by boat for secondary education until 17. If not, they begin work at 12. Many girls marry at 15 regardless.


The women erected a bazaar filled with homemade handcraft from items they found in the forest. We wanted to support them, but couldn't justify buying some trinket that we had no intention of using. We got back into our boat after gently shooing away the dozen kids that had turned it, the seat cushions and umbrellas into their own private fort, and then headed out in search of sloths.


On the ride out we saw that the tributaries were littered with boats containing entire families. Our guide asked what was going on. Apparently a 65 year old man from up river had come to visit family and fish. Everyone welcomed him by offering him a drink, and then he went fishing. In the morning only his boat was found. The village was combing the water for his body and would continue to do so even as we left Muyuna the next day. The man's father had died in a similar manner at a similar age. It was considered the way to go when one had lived a full life - to be taken by the Amazon. It certainly cast a somber mood on the sloth sightings that we had - watching them perch atop the high tree branches munching on the youngest leaves.


The evening was another failed attempt at finding a Kaimen. However a fish jumped into the boat again, slapping me on the knee. We also saw several bright red electric eels whipping back and forth just under the murky water.


Our last day of the trip cam almost as soon as it had begun. It was the first overcast and drizzly day that we had which reminded us of our tremendous luck with weather. We went back to spot dolphins, but saw nothing more than a few distant dorsal blips. Ironic that we saw dolphins every day except the on with their viewing on the agenda.


The warm water felt good to swim in despite the clouds and the drizzle. We had a few laughs with Fer & I failing to synchronize our dives off the bow of the boat. But, the current was strong so our Amazonian dip was cut short. As we sailed on, our guide told a tale of a tourist who had dove into the river and never resurfaced. His body was found later with a large bite taken out of his ankle. This happened only a year ago, but the story was entertaining rather than somber because the guide told it in Spanish, Fernando translated to English, and then Katia translated to Russian for a Russian tourist. At any given point, all three languages were being spoken simultaneously - what a game of telephone.


As a final treat, Cesar had caught a half dozen Piranhas in the morning as photo bait for the lazy hawk. One after the next he speared the dead fish with a buoyant reed and tossed them in the river by a black collard hawk (locally named Mamanyeha). The hawk would swoop down and grasp the fish in its talons as we snapped photos. Then we moved to the next lazy hawk until we were out of fish. One last good Muyuna mean and we were sadly back on our way to Iquitos, then boring Lima. Vacations never last as long as they should.



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