Monday, June 4, 2018

The journey home

I knew today would suck, I guess I just didn’t realize how bad until I had to take three flights to get home, with substantial layovers between them.  Add to that the logistical switch of leaving from Heath River (5 hours from Puerto Maldonado) vs. Lake Sandoval (45 minutes) and it sucks even more.

I slept well again, despite it being freezing cold.  I wrapped up in two fleece blankets again, beneath 2 comforters.  Surprisingly I slept well.  Out cold around 9 and slept right through until 4:45 when I heard Pat and Wally’s phone go off next door.  None of us took a shower this morning.  As nice as it would have been to be warm, sitting in the cold open boat after that would not have been advisable.  The staff at Heath River gave us blankets and comforters for the ride.

We opted to eat breakfast on the way so that we could sleep later.  Pat and Wally’s flight out of Puerto Maldonado was at 1:15 so we left at 5:30 and began the 5 hour journey in darkness.  How the captain of the boat could see is beyond me, or maybe he was just doing it by feel.  It went by surprisingly fast though and was really only cold for the last 45 minutes or so when we were going straight into the wind.  We still had to make stops at the ranger station, the Bolivian checkpoint and the Peruvian checkpoint.  We picked up a ranger along the way and he hitched a ride back to PM with us.  We got there around 11 and nearly burst, we had to pee so badly!   No rest areas along the Tambopata River!  But not surprisingly, it’s blue skies and sunny today.  Of course it is.

A quick change of clothes (hallelujah for something warm and dry!) as we were reunited with the luggage we left in PM.  Then we had to pack everything in the backpack back into the suitcase, which I somehow did easily.  I tried to pack everything wet or damp or sweaty into Ziplock bags, which I think helped squeeze everything in.  No rest for the weary though as Wally and Pat had to check in by 11:30, so off to the airport we went.   I checked in then and left them here since the InkaNatura guide was taking me to the Butterfly Sanctuary outside the airport to kill some time.  I thought he’d be taking me to lunch and back to the airport, but he just said farewell and told me to walk back to the airport myself.  Hmmmm.  It was maybe 1/3 of a mile, but my carry-on weighs a ton.  I guess it won’t kill me to take it on one more trek.

The butterfly sanctuary was nice and serene, and warm and sunny, which I didn’t get much of the last few days.  I took some photos and started to dry out.  The sore throat I’ve had since I got to the Amazon is going away; I sort of knew that was from breathing in and sleeping in the extremely humid air.  I enjoyed an Inka Kola on the patio there and then walked to the airport.

I now have 3 hours to kill until my flight out of PM.  The terminal is tiny and I’m alone here but for the vendors at the various food stalls (three).  I had a cheese empanada and a cinnamon juice drink while I wait for my iPhone to recharge.  Ahead of me I have a 6 hour layover in Lima, a 6 hour flight to Ft. Lauderdale, then a 4 hour layover in FLL before a 3 hour flight to Boston.  I like having a schedule cushion in case a flight goes awry, but this is nuts.  It’ll be almost 2 days between showers, which is just gross.

I’m trying to wrap my head around how I feel about the trip.  It’s a tough balance because I absolutely loved the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.  It was such a high for me to be there finally and to take on that hike and nail it.  I enjoyed Cuzco to bits, it was fun and I consider myself blessed by the travel gods to have been able to see the festival.  That was fun.  I had higher hopes for decent wildlife encounters in the Amazon and I feel very let down.  After 4 trips to Africa, I know better than anyone how fickle Mother Nature can be, but I really just wished we’d have been tossed a bone.  It didn’t have to be a jaguar, but a parrot or macaw or tapir would have been nice.  The howler monkeys was an amazing encounter, but so fleeting.  The otters were great too and we were lucky to have that second sighting of them in Heath River.  Never in a million years did I think that the “occasional cold blast in the Amazon” would hit the days I was there, but it did.  (I strongly advise bringing at least one warmer outfit no matter when you go.  I wish I’d had more layers and a better raincoat.). Ultimately I think I’d go back to Peru because there’s so much I didn’t get to see.  But whether I have the stomach and mental fortitude to try the Amazon again is the question.

Wrapped up the trip with a quick shower at the spa at the Wyndham at Lima airport and then a nice dinner of ceviche, causita and a Pisco Sour before heading for my red eye back to the US.  I may be back...

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Parrots or bust

I was out cold pretty much instantly when I got into bed at 9:20.  To say it’s cold here is a vast understatement.  I’d read that every month or so the Amazon gets a cold blast where it hits 50 or lower for a few days.  I never thought that would actually happen to me, but it has.  And all of my warmer clothes are back in Puerto Maldonado in my suitcase.  I saw 70s the last time I looked at the forecast for this weekend, not 50s!  I took a second comforter off the other bed and wrapped my legs and upper body in fleece blankets.  Believe it or not I slept pretty comfortably!

However, I did hear rain on and off all night.  As late as 3:30 I was still hearing it but I crossed my fingers and begged the travel gods to cut me some slack, although I’ve had pretty good luck on this trip so far, I shouldn’t push my luck.

I heard Pat and Wally up and about in the cabin next door and it was 3:45.  I wondered what they were doing but knew I had another hour to sleep because we weren’t due to leave for the clay lick until 5:15.  I tried to go back to sleep and was just successful when I heard footsteps and saw a light coming up my steps.  Pat called out “Amy are you coming?”  I looked at my phone again and it was 4:30.  I said “I still have 45 minutes”, she said, “no, it’s 5:30 and I know you don’t want to miss this.”  Now we’d been having some debate about what the time on the clocks would say since we are technically in Bolivia which is Eastern Standard Time whereas Peru is Central Time and an hour behind.  We all agreed to leave our phones on Peru time and would always confirm times to depart as “Peru time”.  In my near-sleep fog, I shouted that I’d be out in 10 minutes, and managed to do just that, not putting in my contacts doing my hair and thankfully just stepping into the clothes I laid out last night.  It pays to prepare ahead!

I got to the common area and Pat said not to hurry since there’s no sign of Pepe and the staff aren’t done preparing our breakfast to go yet.  I asked one of the staff in Spanish what time it is and he said 4:45.  I confirmed Peru or Bolivia time?  He said “Peru time”.  So we all could have had another hour to sleep.  We’re still unsure how Pat’s phone got an hour ahead.  I went back and did my hair and contacts and we were on the boat by 5:15.

With all the rain we’ve gotten here in the last two days, the rocky beach about 50 feet from the base of the stairs up from the river is now gone.  The water runs right up to the stairs and pretty deep too.  All of the shallows we had to navigate around are gone as well.  We pulled up next to the blind in the middle of the river and in front of the clay lick.  It’s essentially a raised platform with a roof from which we can watch the clay lick.  And that’s really all we did for 7 hours: watch the clay lick.

It turns out that not much wildlife likes the rain or the cold or the wind, and we had all three today.  We sat from 5:30 to 12:30 and while we saw some macaws fly overhead, that was the extent of the macaws and parrots at the clay lick.  I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.  I know full well from my trips to Africa that you just can’t control Mother Nature, but I’d be lying if I said this isn’t immensely disappointing.  It is really the draw for this area and we struck out two days out of two.  There’s not a third shot at this.

We did have a good time chatting about the British royals and tv programs worth watching.  So all was not lost.  The chef sent us with fruit salad, pancakes and little sandwiches with the crusts cut off (mine was olive) and loads of coffee and hot chocolate.  I had on a t-shirt, my long sleeved shirt, the hoodie (my uniform of the last 2 days) and wrapped myself in two blankets and draped my still-wet raincoat around me and I was still shivering.  We thought for sure around 11:30 the macaws were coming since we saw about 12 circling around at various points and they seemed to be calling to each other, but they just never landed.  The best I did for bird photos was a yellow faced vulture and a roadside hawk.  Pepe called it a day at 12:30 and we went back for lunch.

Lunch today was good.  I had cream of asparagus soup, tuna salad with a half of avocado and a delicious rice pudding.  I also had a cup of tea to try to warm up.  And the juice today was pineapple, which just might be my favorite so far, although I think I say that about all the juices.

I came back and took a steaming hot shower (thankfully the hot water is very hot here) and climbed into bed with all my blankets and comforters.  We’re due to have a nature walk at 3:30 if it doesn’t rain.

I don’t look forward to the 5 hour boat ride tomorrow morning to get back to Puerto Maldonado.  Especially if it’s this cold, which Pepe says it likely will be.  Ugh.

The jungle walk was pretty neat.  We saw absolutely no wildlife clear enough or close enough to take photos.  The macaws flew over a few times and we heard toucans, but nothing we could see.  That’s the downside.  The upside is no snakes.  

The trees here were pretty impressive though, from cedar and mahogany to one with fluorescent red bark.  There were trees growing around trees, trees over 300 years old.  The vines growing up and around trees ranged from leaves adhering themselves to the bark to vines so thick that they’d become winding trees of their own.  The smells were wonderful, very fresh and clean and sometimes even floral.  There were lots of tree roots above ground, which Pepe is said due to poor soil quality about a meter down.  We saw a few termite mounds built on sides of trees.  Pepe was good about picking pieces of bark or flowers for us to smell or see up close.  He really knows his stuff.  Overall I really enjoyed the walk, I just wish there’d been more birdlife or something in the animal world I could have seen.

Before dinner I got as packed as I could be.  I won’t be showering tomorrow if I have to then go out and sit on the boat for 5 hours. I’ve found some semi-dry clothes to put on.  I hope it’s warmer at Puerto Maldonado so I can feel warm again and dry out a little.

Dinner tonight was a vegetable soup (so good when it’s this cold!), a vegetable stir fry with rice and french fries and mango for dessert, which was absolutely delicious.  The juice tonight was black corn and it was incredible!  I would have thought it would taste more like beet, but it was sweeter.  I had a pisco sour before dinner with some popcorn as the bar snack.  I have to say it might have been the best pisco sour I’ve had so far.  Little Jesus made it and instead of bitters he put cinnamon on top of the egg white, which was pretty nice.

In bed at 8:30.  I’m beat from the long day and gearing up for a long day and a half of travel ahead!  Right now I’m focused on getting to Puerto Maldonado and getting some warm, dry clothes!  It’s a 5 hour boat ride...

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Parrots MIA and still it rains

Well the plan was that we’d be out at 5:15 for the clay lick unless it was raining.  And it rained.  And rained.  I heard it start around 1 a.m. and heard it on and off all night.  There was thunder, lightning and winds to go with it.  When I woke at 4:30 and it was still coming down in buckets, I reset the alarm for 7:30 since Plan B was breakfast here at 8.  I ended up getting a fairly sound 10 hours of sleep, which I think I desperately needed after the ridiculous treks to and from Sandoval Lodge.

At breakfast we discussed Plan B, which was essentially wait it out.  It seemed to almost stop around 9, so we said we’d reevaluate at 10 and maybe do a walk on nearby trails.  But the rain picked up again and continued until lunchtime.  At lunch we decided we’d try to go out at 3:00 and do a catamaran ride around another oxbow lake.

Breakfast was another good one with scrambled eggs, pancakes, fruit cocktail and starfruit and banana juice.  Lunch was a potato and egg salad with a light creamy chili sauce, a Peruvian speciality, followed by spaghetti with soy meat, tomato and onion.  Another fruit design for dessert, this one shaped like a bird in flight out of honeydew melon.

The in-between parts here were spent chatting, reading, talking about wildlife, talking to Pepe, a quick catnap and drinking lots of hot tea and hot chocolate.  With the rain and the wind and no sun, it’s gotten cold here.  Who’d have though the Amazon would be this cold? Fortunately I threw one long sleeved shirt in my knapsack and I’m glad I have it, but I have a T-shirt and hoodie sweatshirt on too, and I’m still shivering.  My rain coat is apparently not waterproof, only water resistant, and will never dry out by the time I leave here.  Everything else is in various stages of damp.  I was most concerned about my camera but I think the silicon packets I learned about at Hunt’s photo class were a smart idea because so far so good.

We regrouped at 3:00 and took our boat from our Bolivian side of the Heath River over to the Peru side, jet setters that we are.  When the driver pulled the boat up to this steep muddy cliff, I thought they were joking that this is where we were getting out, but I should know better by now, they don’t joke.  So we climbed to the tip of the boat, across a narrow gangplank they threw down and then the two guys who drove the boat helped yank us up the muddy slope to a set of steps that led into the jungle.  We walked in about 5 minutes and then there was a little thatch-roofed covered dock there with a homemade catamaran (two canoes with a platform across them) waiting for us.  The guys scooped out all the water in the canoes and we climbed on the platform where we could sit on benches (with railings around them).  I know, if you’d told me I’d be doing any of this, I’d never have believed you.  Just getting to that point was a lot and now here I was on a catamaran in Peru on a lake with no one else there?  Crazy.

Pepe brought three fishing poles with him and some raw meat for bait.  He asked if we wanted to fish but only William, the gentleman from Australia, wanted to.  Pat and I took photos.  It took all of 2 minutes and Pepe was holding a piranha in his hand!  It was small and yellow and had a great set of teeth!  The good thing I learned is that piranha will only go after you if they smell blood.  But since I had no intention of going in the water anyway, that wasn’t a concern.  Pepe asked if we wanted it for dinner but I told him to throw it back. Now that I’d met it and put a face with a name it didn’t feel right to eat it.  We didn’t catch any more fish.

The guys started to paddle and we drifted along, seeing a few stinky birds (quoatail?) and hearing some macaws.   Suddenly we saw three heads pop up ahead of us and it was another family of otters!  Pepe said they don’t often see them in this lake and since there aren’t a lot of visitors here, they aren’t habituated to humans, so they were chuffing at us telling us to get lost.  The guys stopped paddling and just drifted as we watched them cross in front of us and beat feet away.  That was pretty cool though, I wasn’t expecting to see them again.  We didn’t see much else of interest, it was just neat to be floating in such silence and surround by so much and so many shades of green!   Every few minutes there’d be something that would break the surface of the lake and pop back down leaving bubbles and the circles on the surface cascading behind it.  We never saw what it was but we wondered if it wasn’t a bigger fish.

It started to get dark so we turned around and head back.  I successfully made it down the muddy slope without nosediving into the river and we came back to the lodge for a hot shower.  It felt great!  Pepe says it’ll be warmer tomorrow, so I just have to suffer through one night of being cold.  The cabins here are essentially screened in porches with privacy screens 3/4 of the way up, so no way to shut out the wind or the cold, but I have three beds in this room so I may take the comforters off the other two and pile them on mine for added layers!

There are two resident cats here, a black calico one and a white one with stripey paws and back.  I swear that one is female the way she is vocalizing.  They are meant to keep the rodent population under control but they know where the food comes from and sit at the kitchen door waiting for handouts.  Hearing and seeing them makes me miss my kids!

The chef here is really trying to accommodate both my vegetarian diet as well as Pat’s lactose intolerance.  In some cases, it means making three meals, one for her, one for me and one for Wally and Pepe.  He doesn’t seem to mind and he’s a very jovial, funny guy.  So far so good, but tonight was crazy good for me.  We started with a noodle soup, which they swear wasn’t made with chicken.  It didn’t taste like it was, but the others had chunks of chicken in theirs while mine did not.  My main course though was divine.  I got a huge plate of guacamole and chips!  It’s like a dream meal!  All to myself!  The avocado here is to die for, so much more flavorful than what we get at home, so this was insanely awesome for me.  I don’t even remember what the others had, I was so consumed with mine!  Oh and the chef has also been making homemade chips for us before dinner; tonight’s was sweet potato, the night before was plantain.  Delicious! Our dessert was done by young Jesus again, this time it was a papaya cut to look like a piranha with sharp pointy teeth and a papaya sauce inside.  It was served with flambĂ© bananas which we put the sauce over.  It was cute and very tasty.

We all hit the hay early since we are going to try for the macaw clay lick again tomorrow.  Fingers crossed!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Howlers and when it rains it pours

Pepe told us at dinner that it would be an early start so we were up at 5 to get the day going.  It was just starting to get light out and was cool and comfortable, but still ridiculously humid.  We jumped (or as I do, leisurely stepped and prayed for the best) into the canoe and off we went.

I’m not necessarily a bird fan but there are certainly a whole lot of them here to enjoy.  I won’t see anything like them at home or in Africa, so I’m enjoying them and taking photos.  I wish I’d thought to write down the names of them but I can’t multitask while also balancing upright in the boat.  It’s enough to juggle my camera plus the iPhone.

We saw a caiman, South America’s largest crocodile.  It was just sort of hovering under water, watching us with eyes and nose above water.  But the reason we were up and out so early was to find the giant river otters that are resident here.  There are five in this large lake and we struck it lucky by seeing them all this morning.  They’d pop through the surface long enough to take a snuff of air and then submerge again, looking for fish.  Pepe says they find them with their whiskers, not by seeing underwater.  Once they found a fish, they’d resurface and crunch the fish loudly, eating with only its head up.  They make quick work of the fish and then off they go looking for more.  I loved that, they were pretty cute, large canine teeth notwithstanding.

We took the same narrow inlet that led us to the lake yesterday and saw a very small baby caiman resting against a tree.  Pepe gets excited about the caiman, especially smaller ones, so I wonder if that’s a great sighting.

Suddenly a sound overtook the jungle we were floating through.  It was otherworldly and I can only say it sounds like something you’d hear as a really bad guy in a Harry Potter movie executes a curse.  It was just this rushing, roaring sound that felt so guttural and overwhelming.  Turns out that a pack of howler monkeys was confronting another.  They were high up in the trees and tough to photograph, but we could see them jumping from branch to branch from our point in the canoe.  Pepe decided then that it would be a good idea to disembark at the little dock where we started our canoe journey yesterday and walk the bank to try to get a better view.  Ugh.  As much as I didn’t want to, I went.  And it was worth it (vale la pena, again?). We had a really nice view of the alpha male making this threatening sound and what appeared to be three others on a branch behind him.  I noticed though that a baby was attached to the third adult on that branch.  The howlers are a bright orange color, even more brilliant in the early morning sun.

We hopped (or gingerly stepped) our way back into the canoe and headed back toward the lodge for breakfast.

I noticed what I thought was another otter head popping up above the surface but it was really “just” a very large fish.  Go figure.  We also heard a large crack that sounded like a a gunshot, but Pepe claims that was a fish with an enormous paddle-like tale hitting the water.  Ok then.

We made our way up the stairs from the dock to the lodge and saw a bunch of capuchin monkeys chasing each other in the trees right overhead and so close to the lodge!  I tried to follow them and get a photo, to no avail.  It was fun to watch them make an enormous leap between trees and grab on and nail their landing, as if “I’ve got this”.

Breakfast at the lodge was good.  We each had a fried egg, fruit cocktail (honeydew, watermelon, cantaloupe and grapes) and pancakes.  And man, they were the thickest pancakes I’ve ever had, but tasty with some strawberry jam on them.

Pepe was talking to us about the wildlife around here and how it’s becoming obvious now that perhaps the clay licks for the birds are more of a social gathering point than anything.  He says there are two months when the birds don’t visit at all but are seen on the Brazil nut pods, which are soft from the rain and full of water and unripe nuts.

He told us he’s seen sloths swimming in the rivers and lifted them back into the trees.  Just because they can swim doesn’t mean they like to.  The tapirs and wild pigs swim as well.  He prepped us for the macaw lick tomorrow, which sounds like a pretty good experience.

After breakfast I packed up because we were making the journey to Heath River Lodge this morning after Pepe gave a talk on the Brazil nut.  I actually learned quite a bit from that including how to break it open to then get the nuts out of the pod that you then have to break open again.  It was these inner nuts that I was most familiar with having seen before.  It really is a painful industry in that they get paid so very little for 100 kg of nuts, which in turn we buy for 100 times their payment.  And it’s very manual labor too, from the teams or families who collect the pod when it falls out of the tree when it’s ripe, to the women who sit for 10 hours a day doing nothing but breaking the pod open to get to the nuts.  The pod that Pepe broke open for us had about 15 nuts in it, which is about average.  He broke them open for us so we could try fresh Brazil nuts and that was pretty cool.  Doesn’t get any fresher than that!

As Pepe was giving us the Brazil nut lecture, we noticed the sky darkening and the clouds rolling in.  Rumbles of thunder could be heard in the distance.  We were supposed to leave at 11 but Pepe decided we’d leave earlier.  We made it down to the dock and part of the way across the lake in our little paddle canoe when the rain started and there was a lightning strike off to our left.  I thought sure being the tallest objects in the middle of this massive lake was a death wish.  Never have I thought there was a chance I would die on vacation until today.  The rain picked up and turned torrential just as we pulled up to the dock at the start of our trek.  I hid under the roof of the keeper’s hut there thinking surely we’d sit that out until the rain let up.  Pepe thought otherwise.  And so off we went.

The next 2 hours or so were misery.  The track that I came in on yesterday which was miserable then was so much worse today.  Small puddles were small lakes, the mud had multiplied and we were soaked through within minutes.  It was slow going as we all struggled to keep our balance.  I started to wayfind on my own, finding the right steps for me, so I thought, and ended up going down on my knees and dropping my bag into a huge puddle.  A string of curse words spewed forth and I decided yet again that this just wasn’t worth it.  I just wanted it over.  It was, by far, the worst 2 hours of any vacation I’ve ever spent.

Finally we made it to the ranger station where Pepe gave us the option to change into dry clothes since we now had to sit on a boat for the next 4 1/2 hours.  It was warm then and it seemed silly to put on dry clothes over a soaking wet body and no towel to dry off with, so we decided to muddle through.  Once the boat got going though, it got chilly.  We made it to the lodge around 5:40 and not a minute too soon.  I dread that we’re going to have to make that same journey again on Monday to get to Puerto Maldonado, but at least I won’t be walking that damn path again.

At first I was put out that the schedule was changed to do Lake Sandoval first, but in looking at the state I came out of that walk today, there’s no way I’d have wanted to do that walk, then go to the airport to fly to Lima to Fort Lauderdale to Boston either sweaty as hell or soaked through by rain.  So maybe the change was fortuitous.

We got another banana leaf boxed lunch like I had yesterday, this time with rice and veg only.  I think we all wolfed it down out of sheer hunger from the journey.

Along the route we had to stop at both the Peruvian and Bolivian border patrol, as Heath River Lodge is on the Bolivian side of the Heath River.  So I’ll be sleeping in Bolivia for 3 nights!  And I got another passport stamp.

Arriving at Heath River Lodge, we were greeted by friendly flashlights from the bank.  It was well dark when we got here.  All I wanted was a hot shower, but first I had to dispatch (or get Pepe to dispatch) a frog in my bathroom.  Oy.  There’s no electricity in this camp like we had at Sandoval.  Light in the bathroom is by candlelight.  There’s one large tap light in the bedroom area, and that’s it, so you do the best you can with what you have. Freshly showered I headed off to dinner.  It was quite good although I think the soup was chicken based so I didn’t eat it.  The main course was a teriyaki soy meat with onions and red peppers over potato.  The peach was dessert again, this time dressed like a turtle with a grape for a head and star fruit for legs.

Everything in my bag and my knapsack is either damp or soaked.  I’m worried about my camera especially but it seems ok so far.  I’ve spread clothes out all over the bed and chairs hoping they’ll dry but with humidity this strong it’s unlikely.  Ugh.

Early to bed tonight since we’re up at 4:45 for the macaw clay lick.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Onwards to the Amazon, an adventure like no other

For whatever reason I couldn’t fall asleep until well after midnight.  You would think with all that free time to lie around and think I’d have remembered to start taking my anti-malarial, but no.  That thought didn’t occur to me until 5:30 this morning.  And I couldn’t just up and take it then since you have to take it on a full stomach.  Ugh.  Tempting the travel gods again.  But no matter, the sawing (what were they sawing anyway?) and the firecrackers started up shortly thereafter, so any fantasy I had about sleeping in went out the window.

I got up and had a hearty breakfast, using the excuse of the antimalarial to rationalize eating just about everything on the buffet.  Eggs, pancakes, yogurt and granola and a slice of toast were all good.  I ran out to the ATM again before 8 a.m. and the faithful had already staked out their spots on the steps to the church to be in place to watch the procession at 11.  It was darn cold that early too, they were brave.

I packed, facing the likely reality that I will have to check this bag home.  It saddens me, but unless I throw something out I will have to expand the bag, making it too big for the overhead bin.  Bah humbug.  I’ll have to play with it a bit.  I won’t give up that easily.

Maria and Wilman picked me up at 9:30.  We had a nice talk about what I did yesterday and about the festival, all in Spanish.  Maria was good like that, always encouraging me to practice.  About 10 minutes out from the airport, Maria asked Wilman to pull over to show me a roadside table set up from which a local woman was preparing a dish especially for the holiday.   On the table were: whole chickens, whole guinea pig, two types of sausage, beef jerky, seaweed, roe, and an oily egg and onion cake.  This all was assembled in a styrofoam box and delivered to those who ordered it for 20 soles (about $6.50).  This dish is only made for this festival and the eater is meant to take a little bit of each ingredient with each bite.  We were not going to buy the food, but the woman did offer a bit of jerky, which I politely declined.  I would not eat it anyway as a vegetarian, but the sanitation of it all, roadside on a makeshift table and all...I just couldn’t get past that.

As we approached the airport, all traffic came to a halt.  Wilman said that there was an earthquake drill going on.  Everyone was meant to get out of their cars and shelter as if a quake was happening.  It lasted maybe 5 minutes or so until emergency vehicles came though and gave an all clear.  Then it was a bunch of horn honking and aggressive driving until everyone got where they were going.  Imagine doing that on a big holiday?  I got to the airport fine, so all is good.  We were lucky to be that close when it happened.

I checked my bag since LATAM won’t let my 13KG bag anywhere near their overheads and said adios to Maria.  I then had a a bit of a struggle finding my gate, since it’s not very high tech there in Cuzco airport.  I talked to a couple of reps who had said that the flight was running late and would be at gate 5.  Eventually that’s where it showed up.  We left a half hour late but only ended up being about 15 minutes late into Puerto Maldonado.  The terrain is definitely different here, lots of lush trees and forest and murky brown winding river.  It’s also about 300% humidity, which is quite a change coming from Cuzco where it was so dry.

Rawling met me and explained that the schedule had changed due to a large local strike and demonstration against the rising price of gasoline.  For whatever reason, I was now going to Sandoval Lake River Lodge first but we had to wait for a bunch of other vehicles headed to the river to go with us at the same time as a caravan.  The theory being there is power in numbers, I guess?  It was all very unclear and the men driving and guiding us didn’t seem worried.  It was mildly unsettling though to keep having to reroute to dodge the moving crowds of protestors, and not through the greatest of neighborhoods either.  Finally though we approached the river where there were three long cigar boats with a roof and motor waiting.  Rawling told me to sit anywhere in the first one and put a life preserver over my head.  He then handed me a pair of muck boots and a basket lunch.  I was a bit disconcerted that there was a schedule change with no notice to me, but I was going with it.  What choice did I have.

The basket lunch was a fried rice dish wrapped in a banana leaf. It really appeared to have meat in it so I put it down.  Rawling called the office and they said it was soy meat.  I tasted it a bit and it didn’t taste like real meat at all so I ate it.  I was starving at this point.  After about 45 minutes in the motor boat, we hit land and climbed out.  Then the hike started.  It was 3k to our next transition, and I’m going to be politically correct and non-emotional when I say it was absolutely and completely unenjoyable. I was not carrying my backpack but my camera bag is hefty.  It’s 3000% humidity and I’m traipsing through ankle deep mud in boots that don’t fit right.  I got bit by a fire ant and the insect repellant and sunscreen on my face was dripping into my mouth.  Rawling took off at a hare’s pace and kept losing me.   I asked a couple times how close we are and he said something like “100 meters” and then we’d come upon a sign saying 1.7 km left.  As I fought back tears and tried not to lick my lips and eat DEET, I was already writing my Trip Advisor review on this place.  And it was not good.  I wish I could have enjoyed the walk, because it appeared to be the stuff movies are made of, gorgeous lush vegetation, song birds and chirping crickets.  And I was just concentrating on staying upright and not crying.

Miraculously we made it to the next transition, which was a paddle canoe across Lake Sandoval.  The canoe started through a tiny little canal in lush overgrowth, and suddenly opened out into this gorgeous oxbow lake.  I have to say I was impressed.  It was beautiful.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I wasnt thoroughly sweat through the to bone and not utterly exhausted, but I can say it was pretty gorgeous.  But if you’d told me a year ago that I’d be in a canoe floating down the river in the Amazon, I’d have told you you’re nuts.  But here I am.

On arrival, we climbed out of the canoe and walked up a long staircase to the Lodge where the manager Erika greeted me.  The setup at Sandoval Lake River Lodge is very strange.  The lodge is one long row of rooms with a common area and dining room at the top of them.  The rooms’ walls are not closed off at the top though so you can hear what your neighbors are up to fairly easily.  There is electricity for most of the day which is good, and a normal shower (not bucket style like in Kenya).

I took a shower to get clean and cool, and there was no hot water to be had, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing given how hot I was.  It felt good nonetheless.  I put on shorts and a comfy t-shirt and rested for a bit before dinner at 7:30.  No shoes are allowed inside the lodge, so everyone brought flip flops, which is a good idea.

DInner tonight was average at best.  We all had a really good cream of asparagus soup for an appetizer.  For the main course, the non-vegetarians had a pretty standard meat and potato.  I had rice, baked potato slices and red pepper and mushrooms in a cream sauce.  I was underwhelmed.  Dessert was half of a canned peach.  Clearly, I’ve had better.

I met the couple I’d be traveling with the next few days.  They are an older couple from Australia who have been traveling in South America since the end of April.  They finish up here with me and then head to San Diego before going home.

I also met our guide, Pepe.  He’s a sweet gentle guy and very friendly.  I look forward to seeing what he can teach me about the wildlife here.

I laid down to sleep at 9:30 and just hoped for a better night’s rest than I had last night!  On the plus side I remembered my anti-malarial tonight!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

And then the travel gods gave me a parade

Wednesday, May 30

Today was a rest day.  The last few days have been sort of whirlwind and very active.  They also have started early, which is fine, but not for consecutive days in a row.  It’d be nice to wake up organically, so that’s what I did today.  And even then, I was still awake at 7, but stayed in bed watching another episode of 13 Reasons Why, ‘cause I could.  Little did I know that the first time I got out of bed I’d be hobbled by a pair of very unhappy calf muscles, protesting the events of yesterday.  But I found that a handful of Ibuprofen and some gentle flat-ground walking can do the trick.

Breakfast was good: scrambled eggs, pancakes, some yogurt and pineapple juice.  I headed out around 8:30 and stumbled into some shops to bolster the Peruvian economy.  Hit an ATM to replenish and then took in the Inka Museum.  Armando had said it was a nice collection of Incan artifacts that had been dug up over time by archeologists at various sites.  It was interesting but the state of the museum was kind of sad.  They are definitely not up on security or preservation and I wonder if they have any thought of having a lot of the artifacts last much longer in their current environment.  It covered a lot more civilizations than just the Incas; the pre-Incan civilizations were included too.

After that I was determined to find the Starbucks, which I could see on the second floor in one of the buildings of the main square, but damned if I could figure out how to get up there.  But where there’s a will there’s a way and some sneaking around inner courtyards found me the siren’s sign and up I went.  An iced Americano to go was the best I could do for my usual iced coffee fix.  I took it outside and settled on a bench in the sun to people watch.  While on the bench, I was approached by hawkers offering me corn on the cob, Jello, teeth whitening toothpaste and a tripod.  Never say that travel isn’t surprising.

The hubbub in the Plaza de Armas (main square) near my hotel has definitely picked up.  Overnight they’d constructed a few massive shrines to saints in front of the churches on the square and I’d been hearing bands all morning.  Just as I was ready to move off my bench, a band went by with a contingent carrying a statue of a saint on a pallet, the pallet carried on the shoulders of some very able bodied men.  Where they were going or what the purpose was was a mystery to me.  I’d need to figure that out.

When I’d toured Koricancha with Armando on Sunday I noticed an exhibition of Cuzco school artists, so decided to go back and take it in.  I made my way back, walking a bit through different parts of Cuzco.  Somewhere along the way I found some traditionally dressed women with baby llamas, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of them (for a fee of course).  After wandering a bit I found myself at Koricancha and walked through the ruins again since I found it so cool the other day.  It’s thought to be a replica of the sun temple at Machu Picchu (or vice versa) which now I can vouch for having seen the sun temple at MP.  The exhibition was on Art as a Means of Christianization.  The Cuzco school in the 1400-1500s was influenced by the Spanish conquerors, who brought some European painters over to teach them the technique of the time.  You can definitely see that in some of the bodies, particularly the musculature that I’m used to seeing in Caravaggio.  I was very much struck by a statue of Our Lady of Hope or “The Virgin of the “O”” because you don’t often see a statue of a fully pregnant Virgin Mary and this was quite beautiful.

There were three other exhibits I saw, one on contemporary master painter Alberto Quintanilla, who really liked two-faced dogs. Another was a mural by Walter Barrientos Deza, which is meant to be a token of the current style of Peruvian art.  The last was a contemporary artist on Light.  The labels were all in Spanish in this part, so it’s hard to say what that one was meant to be.

By the time I was done here it was 1:30 and I hadn’t the foggiest how I would spend the rest of the day.  Spending even more money wasn’t an option, so shopping was out.  I headed back toward my hotel and ate at Green’s, an organic cafe next to the hotel.  I had a wonderful Pisco mule with ginger beer and a sandwich of zucchini, red peppers and cheese on focaccia that was excellent.  It has been ridiculously easy to eat both vegetarian and healthy here, which is a surprise if I’m to be honest.  (Although I will admit that the Pisco mule likely cancels out the healthy sandwich, but hey, this is vacation!)

As I was wrapping up my lunch, I heard the music kick in again and it seemed like a parade was starting.  I decided to go down to the square and take it in.  Well, it seems as though this morning’s little show as I had my iced coffee was just a precursor to the main event.  What I was seeing was the procession of 15 saints and virgins from the 15 neighborhoods in Cuzco heading for the cathedral.  Some of these statues on the pallets have been carried, on foot, from 7 miles away!  Once they enter the cathedral, the statues will stay there for 7 days.  This Corpus Christi festival happens every year, 9 weeks after Easter.  Tomorrow apparently they will be brought out of the cathedral and paraded around the plaza starting at 11.  I will, hopefully, be well on my way to the airport at 9:50 as scheduled.  As much as I’d like to see that, I have a flight to the Amazon to catch!

So I stood there for nearly 2 hours watching this parade.  It was a little bit nuts but an amazing slice of culture served up right on my doorstep.  Each saint or virgin statue had a team of men carrying the pallet it was on on their shoulders.  There’d be some exaggerated pushing and pulling and straining to stay on course and get the pallet up the slight incline to the cathedral.  In front of each pallet was a framework carried by younger boys, in their pre-teens and early teen years, who’d carry the wooden framework like their older counterparts were carrying the statues.  It was funny to watch them match the men’s exaggerated struggles to keep the framework going and on track.  It took me a minute to figure out what the framework was for, and then it happened.  The procession stopped so that the statues ahead could be safely and slowly carried into the church, and all the the statues behind it were set down on their dedicated frameworks.

The statues were all decorated and shined up for the occasion with flowers and medals and other embellishments.  The pallets appeared to be of heavy, carved wood.  It was fun watching it and taking some photos to try to capture the emotion behind it.  This is apparently Cuzco’s big event.

I broke from the parade to take in the Museum of Machu Picchu which is right down the street from my hotel.  This has a collection of artifacts that Hiram Bingham and Yale University returned to the Peruvians several years back.  There are also some of his own letters, books and photographs, which were really interesting to see.  I also enjoyed the videos of the specialists who are continuing to do research at the site, and what they think advanced technologies may or may not show them in the future.

I took a bit of a rest before dinner to write up the blog and respond to some email.  And then I went back to Inka Grill for dinner.  That’s where I had my first lunch here in Cuzco.  And in a twist of total non-creativity, I had the same meal, only with a Pisco sour and a Chalipo.  Hey, I don’t know when I’ll get Pisco again!

As I get ready to leave Cuzco I’m surprised by how much I liked it, and I think a lot of that had to do with the procession today.  I’ve never been so fully immersed in a culture like that and I think it helped me appreciate the city more.  To think that when I woke up I didn’t know how to fill a “free day” in Cuzco.  The travel gods offered up a fantastic experience.  Can’t wait to look at my photos!  The weather here has been delightful, bright blue skies and sun, not a hint of rain and high 60s in Cuzco, very comfortable.  I’ve really lucked out.  Let’s hope it continues!

Off to the Amazon tomorrow.  Likely without a connection until late Monday, so I’ll catch the blog up then.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Vale la pena

Tuesday, May 29 

I set the alarm for 6 and was actually up at 4:45 but decided to sleep in longer.  There was no real rush to get to Machu Picchu other than less harsh light for photography. So instead I got up at 6, showered, packed and had breakfast.  I think I was on the bus at 7:15 and in Machu Picchu by 7:45.  The light was so much better, it was worth it.

Breakfast at Inkaterra wasn’t as much fun as other hotels so far.  It seemed to be breakfast light, until I was handed a menu (after I’d already gorged on granola and planned to eat the plantain bread and a muffin, oh and is that dulce de leche sauce to put on a baguette?).  So I just had scrambled eggs after all that and moved on.  I packed two energy bars and a liter of water and off I went.

I was thrilled that the sun was just about over my shoulder when head on with the ruins and directly behind me when off to the side.  I managed to use my polarizing filter, even!  I think today’s shots are far better than yesterday’s which were much later in the day.

I was walking along a path on my own and spotted two free-range llamas on the grass.  They both hopped up on the path in front of me and one of them looked at me, as if to say “follow us” so I did.  Fortunately the camera was on and lens extended and I managed to get two shots off, both of them with me following them and them looking at the ruins.  I’d like to think it was them thinking “this used to belong to the Incas, now it belongs to us.”  The pictures look good on the LCD screen, and if I managed to pull that shot off, it might be the best of my short photography career.  Seriously.  Talk about serendipity.

There are quite a few roaming llamas around Machu Picchu, and a handful of little babies that were quite cute.  I was surprised by how unbothered they seemed to be by us.

I made my way through the rest of the left-hand side of the city ruins and took on the right-hand side.  It was interesting to see but really lost something without a guide to tell me what I’m seeing.  The best I could do on my own was snap some swallows I saw nesting in a wall.  Between the hummingbird I spotted yesterday and these, I might become a birder after all.

By the time I made it back to the exit, where I jumped out to use the toilet, it was about 9:15.  I decided to execute my plan to hike up to the Sun Gate.  It was warm though.  And I might have been slightly over-dressed with the insect-proof leggings.  At least I left one layer at home this time and wore a light jacket which I quickly shed and folded away in my camera bag.  So I went for it.

The climb starts off fairly flat from just below the Guard Shack (so by that point I’d already done a good deal of stairs).  The path is made of large cobbles which were somewhat uneven and the path was a steady uphill grade, but nothing painful.  The uneven rocks and the heat were the main challenges.  Only a couple times did I think about turning back because it seemed silly to over-exert myself on vacation but I also didn’t want to regret not doing it when I had plenty of time left in the day and the energy to do it.  I was ridiculously hot on the way up, but there were shady spots where I stopped to rest which helped.  Over and over again, folks coming down from the gate would say “Vale la Pena” (worth the pain) and I had to think that hearing that so much meant that it would be.

After about 45 minutes, the flat-ish path turned back into steps (as everything Incan must, I supposed) and in 15 minutes I was at the top, at the Sun Gate, seemingly at the top of the Incan world.  And how little Machu Picchu seemed from up there, but too, I could also better appreciate the scale of it.  That it took me about 7 hours in total to comb through the site says something.  I don’t want to think of how many steps I ascended.  There are some things best left unknown.  It is a huge expanse of ruins and, as I found out, impressive no matter how you look at it.  Yes, vale la Pena! 

The descent was far easier.  Going down uses an entirely different set of muscles and momentum and gravity help.  There was one part right on leaving the Sun Gate where a set of 6 really steep steps head straight for the sheer cliff face and there’s no railing or fence.  I wouldn’t look directly down for fear my vertigo would kick in but I also knew I had to get down.  So I sat and went down on my butt until I could turn away from the sheer drop and continue down well away from the edge.  The entire descent took 40 minutes, which tells you either that descending was easier or that I was riding a confidence wave after making it up to the top.

I made it back down around 12:30 and took another walk around the Guard Shack, which is really where the postcard shots come from.  I just needed to soak it all in again before I left.  It’s sort of frustrating because as much as I want to talk or write about it, I just don’t think I can find the words to describe how it’s laid out or how extraordinary it is.  I found it so difficult before I left trying to wrap my head around how it works and what it would like to be there, and even still, now that I’ve been and gone, it’s still hard to conceive.

I stopped in the cafe at the exit to gulp down a Gatorade and have a cookie.  I used the bathroom again and headed to the very long bus line, which only took about 20 minutes to move along (again, they’ve got the efficiencies and organization down pat here!)

Once I was back in Aguas Calientes, I went back to my hotel and had lunch at the Cafe Inkaterra there.  I had a celebratory Pisco Sour and a bottle of water to try and rehydrate.  Then I had a great salad with lima beans, peppers, tomato and Peruvian cheese.  My main was a vegetable rigatoni in a cream sauce.  I have to say, the veggies here are stunning.  I love the zucchini, artichokes and peppers I’ve had so far.

I still had an hour to kill before I met my luggage back at the train station (a courtesy of my hotel) so I went back to the hotel grounds and sat in the pool area and watched and photographed hummingbirds for a while.  It was quiet and relaxing, which is just what I wanted after the day I had.

I’m on the train back to Cuzco now.  It left Aguas Calientes at 4:43 and arrives some time after 7 or 8.  I can’t tell which.  I’m tired enough that I might sleep.  At least my stop is the end of the line so I won’t wake up in Brazil.

All in all I’m thrilled with my experience at Machu Picchu.  It was worth the wait, the cost and everything it takes to get here.  I’m glad I had two days to explore it and give me the leisure to do the hike on my own today.