Sunday, July 5, 2009

Day Eighteen - June 27th, 2009 - Homeward

Breakfast, then hike, then boat, then bus - back at the office we pick up our stored stuff, then head to the airport. 

 A couple of hours later we fly to Cusco.  A couple of hours after that, Lima.  In the Lima airport we buy a bottle of the national liquor, Pisco.  We wait around for an eternity, then at midnight we fly to Atlanta.  This flight seems really, really long.  This is the first time any of us has come through the international concourse in Atlanta.  It's really, really stupid.  Due to the design of the airport, there's no way to separate the people whose destination is Atlanta from those who are catching a connecting flight.  Therefore, after claiming our checked baggage, then going through Customs, we have to CHECK OUR BAGS AGAIN, AND GO THROUGH AIRPORT SECURITY AGAIN!!!  This is COMPLETELY ABSURD!  We have our bottle of Pisco in our carry-on, and TSA informs us that this must be checked.  YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING.  We're just trying to GET OUT OF THE DAMNED AIRPORT.  WE LIVE HERE!  No, she says, you have to take it all the way back to the Delta counter and check it.  Unbelievable.  We say never mind, keep it.  She says it's really not that big a deal to go check it.  We say listen lady, we've been traveling for 24 hours, believe us, it's a big deal.  I can't believe NO ONE said ANYTHING, and there were NO SIGNS.  I bet this happens hundreds of times a day.  Besides that, people had been so nice in Peru, bending over backwards to help us out, and people here were being lazy, indifferent jerks.  Welcome to America.  We leave our Pisco behind, and go CLAIM OUR BAGGAGE AGAIN.  Allison's Dad picks us up, and we are HOME.

This was an absolutely stellar trip.  The people were great.  The food was (mostly) excellent.  The country is beautiful and diverse.  I'd go back to Peru.  Of course, there are lots of places to see before we die...

Day Seventeen - June 26th, 2009 - The Amazon

Breakfast at 4:30, then we hike out to the river.  Mom isn't feeling well, so she sits this one out.  We take a boat 1/2 hour upriver, then hike about 1/2 hr to an oxbow lake (a lake created when two sides of a bend in a river meet and it makes a shortcut, then what used to be the bend is sealed off into a lake).  We hop a pontoon boat with one other group.  We cruise around the lake for three or 4 hours.  

We see a family of giant river otters (rare).  We see a number of birds, many of which Mom has in Southwest Florida.  

Eventually the guides bust out cane fishing poles and bait their hooks with beef.  Are they fishing for piranha?  Yes!  

Jhin catches one, and shows off its teeth, then tosses it back.  

We head back to the dock, hike back to the river, boat back to the port, and hike back to the lodge.  We crash until lunch, which is excellent.  

We hike to the clay lick - a place on the river bank that's rich in minerals that the Macaws like to lick.  

There are no Macaws at the clay lick today, but we do see one Red and Green Macaw up in a tree on our way there.  Mom is feeling better and joins us for this hike.

We stop back at camp for a moment, then head to the river again.  On the way we see some Red Howler Monkeys, and they are howling.  They howl when one band of monkeys gets into another's territory.  They sound like some sort of sinister machine.  We board our boat for a ride upriver to a medicinal garden and Shaman's residence.  We get a tour of the gardens, with our guides and the Shaman's assistant describing how the various plants are used.  They give us a leaf to chew, without telling us what it is.  We get a tingling sensation in our mouths, then numbness.  We find out that this plant, Cordoncillo, is a natural source of novacaine, but it's a much more pleasant sensation than getting novacaine at the dentist's office.  Drama happens when a guy in our group faints.  Turns out he always faints when he gets shots, and his brain has associated the mouth-numbing with getting a shot, causing him to faint.  Crazy.  

Later in the tour they show us a plant whose seed pods contain some powdery, orange pigmented seeds.  They use it to paint our faces, like "war paint".  The garden tour ends with what the shamans call the "master plant" Ayahuasca.  Ayahuasca is to the natives here what Peyote is to the Native Americans.  It is used spiritually, and ceremonially.  We stop by the Shaman's lab, where we are given samples of a number of different things.  One is an herbal energy drink, another is a natural Viagra, and another is Cat's Claw, a cure for all sorts of things.

We head back to our lodge, have another excellent dinner, and crash.  Hard to believe, but tomorrow we are headed hhhhhh.  Hhhhhhhhhh.  Home.  

Day Sixteen - June 25th, 2009 - From Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazon

Mom & I are feeling somewhat better (I have a sinus infection, she probably ate or drank something bad) and we're headed to the Amazon.  Our hotel has called a cab for us, but they are late, and so begins Transportation Adventure #3.  The hotel continues to assure us that the cab will be here any minute, but we have a plane to catch, and eventually we give up and walk down to Plaza San Blas.  We get a cab, and during the 15 minute ride to the airport our driver informs us that normally you should arrive at the Cusco airport 2 hours early.  As it is, we will be less than 1 hour early.  We are crossing our fingers at this point.  There are a ton of police in riot gear outside the airport.  Hmmm.  We enter the terminal, and the line at LAN Airlines is over 100 people long.  Dang.  A roving LAN employee assures us that despite the fact that we are checking baggage, we can use the express kiosks.  Allison steps up and enters her info.  She prints a boarding pass, and finds it to be for her flight to Lima, 3 days from now, not today's flight.  Crap.  We pull the roving employee over and explain the situation.  We are ALL immediately moved to the front of the customer service line.  SUPER SCORE!  We wouldn't have made our flight any other way.  We get our boarding passes and head thru security to find no one at the departure gate.  It has changed.  It's only right across the hall though, and soon we are on the plane, and not only that, we're in the FIRST ROW.

The flight is just over an hour, with excellent views of the snow-capped Andes.  We land at the tiny Puerto Maldonado airport, and take a bus to the office of Rainforest Expeditions, our tour company for this portion of the trip.  They have storage here, and we shuffle our stuff around so we're taking as little as possible for the next couple of days.  We board the bus with other folks headed to the same lodge.  One of them talks about the infamous burned bridge.  They say it was about 2 hrs from Cusco, which pretty much confirms that it was the bridge of our early adventure.  So the locals eventually set fire to what timbers remained.  Wow.

The bus driver stops briefly and points out a monkey in the bushes on the side of the road.  It is the smallest variety of monkey that exists here, and it is indeed tiny.  A few minutes more, and we arrive at the Tambopata River, where a boat is waiting.  

We board for the hour and a half ride to the lodge.  They serve us fried rice, with the portions individually wrapped in banana leaves.  It's great.  On our way to the lodge, our guide points out the capybaras on the shore.  These animals are the largest rodents in the world.  

Eventually we arrive at the "Port", some wooden steps leading up the muddy riverbank.  A 10 minute hike up a muddy trail brings us to the Posada Amazonas Lodge, and it's beautiful.  

It's an open-air complex, with separate buildings connected by wooden raised walkways.  The rooms are great - no doors or windows, just curtains, no hot water, and mosquito nets for the beds.  There are large racks of "Wellington" boots  at the entrance, and we are instructed to pick a pair for the duration of our stay (the trails here are very mucky, it's a rain forest after all...)  

We settle in, and at 2:30 we hike with our guide, Jhin, to the Canopy Tower.  Jhin is clearly very knowledgeable, and explains much about the flora and fauna that we encounter along the way.  We see some of one of the larger varieties of monkeys along the way, and a number of interesting birds.  Our group consists of the 4 of us and an Indian couple.  

The Canopy Tower is a 37 meter tower, constructed mostly of steel scaffolding components, that is taller than all but the very tallest trees.  The view is incredible.  We hang out awhile, and descend.   On the hike back to the lodge, we see Leaf-Cutter Ants at work.  They are amazing to watch.  

So industrious.  Having had a proper night's sleep, and being in a completely new and different environment, we are no longer pining for home.

Our tour company, Rainforest Expeditions, has set their operation up in the most eco-friendly way possible.  Also, they hire as many of the native people as possible, and after 20 years of operation, the locals have the option of completely taking over this lodge.  It's been in operation for 12, so it's up in 8 more years.

We have some beers at the open-air bar, then a fantastic dinner.  Each group has dinner together with its guide, and Jhin informs us that we'll be getting up at 4:30 for an early morning lake tour, so we crash.

Day Fifteen - June 24th, 2009 - Cusco

Today in Cusco it's the day of the only festival that we actually knew would be happening and planned on attending - the Inti Raymi Festival. Inti Raymi was an ancient Inca celebration in honor of the Sun God, Inti.  It was suppressed and eventually prohibited outright by the Spaniards, who called it a pagan ceremony, opposed to the Catholic faith.  Since 1944, a theatrical representation of the ceremony has been taking place at Sacsayhuamàn, a large and beautiful Incan ruin just outside of Cusco. 

Of course we weren't supposed to be arriving in Cusco until later today, just catching the end of the ceremony.  As it is, we get to see the open.  We sleep late, breakfast, then wander down to the Plaza.  These days the ceremony starts in the Plaza de Armas, then marches the 2 kilometers uphill to Sacsayhuamàn, where it continues.  The Plaza is starting to fill up with spectators, and we plant ourselves in a 2nd floor cafe overlooking the scene.  Hundreds of actors and dancers take part in the very detailed and choreographed ceremony.  A "king" is carried in by his underlings.  There are armies of costumed people in formation filling the square.  The king steps onto a platform in the middle of the square and delivers a speech in Quechua.  A woman near us in the cafe is translating to Spanish for her friends.  

The presentation proceeds out of the square towards Sacsayhuamàn.  Mom heads back to the hotel for some rest.  The rest of us head toward Sacsayhuamàn, but we stop at the nearest restaurant we can find, "Restaurante Turistico Sajama".  Lots of restaurants have the word "turistico" in the name, which means "we have food that gringos may enjoy".  Despite the name, the place is kinda tucked away, and by the looks of it, and the waiter/owner's enthusiasm, we doubt that many turistas come here.  It is good, and we pay 19 Soles for all 3 lunches, with bottled water (about 2 bucks a person, definitely NOT turista prices).

Side note:  We are all very tired after yesterday's epic hikes followed by last night's emergency travel session, and Mom and I are not feeling great, plus we've already been in Cusco for a few days before now (been here, done this).  All of this conspires to make us sort of "ready to be home".  In light of this, I made a list of the things that I was sick of at this particular moment:

Exhaust fumes, especially diesel

Dust and dirt

The smell of urine (Human, Dog, Alpaca)  People pee everywhere here, as there are no public restrooms, and many alleys and sidewalks reek of it.

No heat

Waiting (for ANYTHING)

Advertised items not being available

Bad tasting beer (whatever the cause)

Wooden flutes and pan pipes, or for that matter, Andean music in general


Earplugs (which I've worn to go to sleep most nights)

Tingling hands and feet (another wonderful side effect of Diamox)

and last (but not least), Potatoes (they're everywhere, at every meal)  I suspect that there is a positive correlation between the number of days spent in Peru and the number of potatoes left on a gringo's plate in a restaurant (unless the gringo is Irish, of course)

That said, we are leaving tomorrow for the Amazon rain forest, and we realize that we will probably be re-invigorated for the trip.

Myself, Terry, and Allison slowly make our way up the road to Sacsayhuamàn, walking with throngs of people, almost entirely locals.  Bleachers are set up around the main stage, and it's 80 bucks American to get in, but crowds of people are gathered on the hillsides surrounding the event, watching for free.  We wander about for awhile, as much to see Sacsayhuamàn as to see the festival.  Finding a vantage point to see the festival proves difficult indeed, and would've only been possible if we'd staked out a spot a couple of hours ago.  Still it was cool to be a part of the whole thing, especially given the locals to turistas ratio.

We head back and check on Mom at the hotel.  She's not feeling well, and requests chicken soup.  Allison goes out to fetch it, and I nap.  Later myself, Allison, and Terry head to dinner at the restaurant where Allison got the soup.  We are all excited by the extensive Mexican Food section of the menu.  Despite what you might think, Peruvian cuisine is as different from Mexican as Mexican is from Italian.  We like Peruvian, but are ready for something else.  We ALL order Mexican.  The waiter disappears for a few minutes, then returns to inform us that they have everything on the menu except Mexican food.  Wow.  We are getting used to restaurants not having something that we want, but this is the first time our ENTIRE order has been nixed.  We reorder.  It is good.  We head back and check on Mom, who says she's feeling better.  We crash.

Day Fourteen - June 23rd, 2009 - Machu Picchu

We wake at 4:40, eat, and march to the Machu Picchu bus stand.  

We round the corner to find several hundred people in the bus line already!  Crap!  There are many buses though, and they are leaving and returning rapidly.  In about 1/2 hour we are on a bus. 

 We will miss the sunrise, but it's really cloudy, so it wouldn't have been all that dramatic anyway.  A 20 minute ride puts us at the gate to Machu Picchu.  We hike in, and despite the bus lines it doesn't seem that crowded.  It's a big place, and it's incredible.  One of our goals here was to hike to Huanah Picchu, a small ruin on a mountaintop overlooking Machu Picchu, and we are reminded by a sign that only 400 people per day are allowed on the hike, so we breeze thru Machu Picchu to get into the Huanah Picchu line.  Terry sits this one out - she has an old ankle injury from a car accident, and it's a long, steep hike - she stays down at Machu Picchu and reads a book.  The hike to Huanah Picchu takes us 

about an hour.  Despite the fact 

that the Incas were shorter than us, they built their steps REALLY TALL.  We have to stop and huff and puff periodically.  Once on top, we find a beautiful little ruin, with terraces, houses (apparently of royalty) and an incredible overhead view of Machu Picchu.  

We toodle around here for a bit, take some photos, and head down.  Then we make a thorough self-guided tour of Machu Picchu.  Next up, we hike out to the Inca Drawbridge, a relatively mellow 1/2 hr hike.  Back in the day you could go across the bridge, but a turista fell to her death in years past, so now it's gated off.  We head back to Machu Picchu, and Mom and Terry split off to catch a bus back to town.  Allison & I start to hike out the Inca Trail, with plans to go as far as the next ruin, Wynah Wynah.  We barely get started though, when we run into some folks that, based on their gear, are clearly off the trail.  Allison asks them how their Inca Trail experience has been, and they say great, except that they did their 3rd AND 4th days of hiking in one day, today, because of the train strike tomorrow.  WHAT?  TRAIN STIKE?  Yep.  Apparently the rail system is striking tomorrow, as a show of support for the people in the Bagua region.  We are supposed to leave and head back to Cusco tomorrow, and the only way out of Aguas Calientes is by train.  The next morning we fly out of Cusco to Puerto Maldonado for the Amazon portion of our trip, so it has become imperative that we reach Cusco tonight.  So begins Transportation Adventure #2.

Allison & I do a 180, and catch Terry & Mom before they've reached the bus stand back to town.  There are a number of alterations that will have to be made in our plan, which was to take the train back to Ollantaytambo, and take a taxi back to Cusco.  The only train with seats available runs at 9:20 PM.  Allison & I wait for about an hour in the train line, not sure if we'll get on, but we do.  The next order of business is to get a car from Ollantaytambo to Cusco.  This has to happen tonight, because of the possibility that the roads will also be blocked tomorrow.  We call  the hostel where we stayed in Ollantaytambo, and she says she'll have a cab waiting at the train station for us.  The final puzzle piece is lodging.  Our hotel for tomorrow night fortunately has rooms tonight as well, so it seems we are set.  We will of course be abandoning rooms that we've paid for in Aguas Calientes tonight, but none of us are really sorry to be leaving this town early.

We get all of our stuff packed and head to dinner at a really nice place.  Eventually a family that we'd been chatting with on the train on the way in sits at a table beside us.  We ask when they're leaving, and they say tomorrow.  We inform them that no, they won't.  Two of them hop up and run to the train station.  They return a while later with tickets for tonight.  Apparently Peru Rail is turning away new fares, but still giving seats to folks that had tickets for tomorrow.

The train ride has sort of a hurricane party feel - like we're all escaping.  One person on the train talks of having to cross a bridge between Puno and Cusco that had been burned.  We wonder if it is our bridge.  When we arrive at Ollantaytambo the crowd literally runs from the train to try to get cabs.  Our driver has a sign with our name, and soon we are on the road.  It is very late, and I alternate between snoozing with my head hanging and jerking awake in time to see us pass with very little room.  Sort of a dreamy hell-ride.  Finally we arrive at our new hotel back in Cusco.  Allison & I have to climb what seems like a billion stone steps to get to our room.  We are tired of stone steps at high altitude.