November 10-27, 2002
I woke at 4 am for our early flight to Lima via Salt Lake and Atlanta. We didn't know it yet, but this would be the start of many pre-dawn departures so it was good to get prepared from the start. The flight went smoothly for a change- no missed connections and our bags were even waiting for us when we arrived in Lima- what a treat after our last experience flying to South America! Again, we were thankful to have someone waiting for us at the airport. By this time we were both too exhausted to haggle with a taxi driver and welcomed the friendly stranger who met us with a sign and a waiting van.
The next morning we slept late and then stumbled downstairs to meet our group. I had been a bit wary of what they would be like- two middle aged Germans currently living in Chicago, a Malaysian family with an 11 year old girl, a young Texan man, and a woman from the remote Highlands of Scotland. It sounded like a challenging mix of different interests at best. With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an incredibly cohesive group that had plenty to talk about instantly and was already busting with laughter and smiles by mid afternoon of the first day. This was going to be a great trip! We met our Peruvian guide, Carlos, shortly thereafter, and found him to be absolutely charming and attentive from the start. We took a comfortable Royal Class bus to Pisco. Unlike any bus I have taken in the US, these express transports included cushy leather seats, bus hostesses who bring food and beverages, and American movies. We could certainly get used to this!
The next morning we awoke to meet our first local guide and take our mini-bus out to the port where we would board a boat bound for Islas Ballestas. The two hour ride out to the islands was a chilly, windy affair bouncing across two foot swells on our 20 passenger speed boat. We were anxious to see our first real "sights" and were not disappointed as we marveled at the huge candelabra shaped figure carved into the sand of the Paracas Peninsula. Further on, we arrived at the islands and were greeted by a couple of playful sea lions who somersaulted through the waves nearby. The majority of the sea lions seemed oblivious to our presence, basking on the sandy shores and arguing over who was king of the nearby rock outcroppings. We were fortunate to observe a couple of Humboldt penguins as well, hiding shyly in the shadows of the guano-covered rocks above. Thanks to Islas Ballestas, Peru is one of the world's largest exporters of guano, used as fertilizer. Some unfortunate individuals live in basic shacks on the desolate islands and have the job of scooping the tons of guano into containers for transport out.
After the islands, we returned to shore for a bus to the other side of Paracas Peninsula. Here, we visited the Paracas museum where we saw skulls baring evidence of one of the first cultures to perform head trepinations and deformations. The museum also has one mummy and a sample woven burial cloth. Though the Paracas people were most famous for their weavings, the conditions at the small museum are not suitable to protect these 1500 yr old cloths so most have been shipped to the Archaelogical Museum in Lima for proper care. In the evening, we took another 3 hour Royal Class bus ride to Nazca. We arrived at a secluded hacienda, Hostal de la Borda, draped with flowers, and complete with a swimming pool.
The next morning we awoke for the experience I had most been looking forward to, a flight over the enigmatic Nazca lines. I anxiously waited my turn in the small airport terminal, watching a video that described the creation of the lines and various theories of their origins. I excitedly boarded the front seat of the three passenger Cessna and smiled with glee as we coasted down the runway. The lines were incredible, though not as prominent as I had imagined. Huge figures of a monkey, whale, hummingbird, astronaut, and others were crisscrossed with large rays in the sand or seemingly random trapezoidal figures. After a couple of figures my stomach began to churn as the plane bumped up with the wind currents and then made sudden dips down. The pilot recognized my green tinge and kindly handed me a peppermint and opened the vents a bit more. After the 40 minute flight, I couldn't think of anything better than to be back on solid ground once more.
We headed out to the Chauchilla's Cemetery where the dry conditions have preserved dozens of mummies in situ, some still wrapped in burial clothes and sporting long hair. Our local guide described how families of the dead would often retrieve the mummies for major festivals, carrying them along to the party and then returning them to the site at the end of the day. We returned to the hotel for an afternoon swim, drinks, and a round of Peruvian "Sapo" (Frog). The object of the game is to throw gold coins into the narrow slit of the frog's mouth about 15 feet away. Fortunately, you also receive points for landing in larger holes marked with decreasing point values. Our new Scottish friend, a bubbly marine biologist called Janet, seemed to win every game, much to the delight of 11 year old Lynn Li who only wanted to insure that our guide, Carlos, lost.
That night we took a dreaded 8 hour overnight bus ride to Arequipa. Again the bus was Royal Class so it was better than I anticipated. Winding through the narrow mountain passes however, did not mollify my already shaky stomach and I slept fitfully. The hotel kindly offered us check in immediately and we gratefully curled up for a few hours nap before meeting Carlos for our city tour.
Arequipa was the city we had especially anticipated as Carlos was from the area and assured us that there was no nicer city in Peru. Arequipa did not disappoint, with many more flowers, clear skies, and stunning volcanic vistas on the outskirts. The whole city seemed fresh, alive, and welcoming. We stopped at a viewpoint for fresh squeezed papaya and passionfruit juice as Carlos pointed out active Volcano Misti and nearby Picchu Picchu, the highest peak in the area. Later we wandered downtown for some practical stops at the post office, bank, and famous Peruvian chocolate shop. We had a mix of typical Arequipan dishes for our buffet lunch including alpaca, cuy (roast guinea pig), stuffed peppers, and of course lots of potatoes. According to some guides, Peru boasts nearly 8000 different kinds of potatoes and I think restaurants were conspiring to insure that we tried all of these during our stay as we rarely had a meal that did not include some variety of potatoes.
That afternoon we toured the huge Santa Catalina Monastery, a city in itself with six streets, numerous chapels, and hundreds of kitchens. The entire monastery was originally painted in glistening white but has since been splashed with a variety of colors to attract tourists. The nuns lived in private apartments for most of the monastery's history and they were forbidden from ever leaving its gates. Families could only peer at them through darkened slits in the visitor's gallery. No matter however, being a nun was considered an incredible honor for both the young woman and her typically wealthy family.
After a good night's sleep, we boarded a mini-bus for the 5 hour ride to Colca Canyon. Once known as the world's deepest canyon, it is now determined to be second in scale only to a nearly inaccessible canyon on the other side of the mountain range that runs along the Southern border of Colca Canyon. The ride to the canyon along predominantly dirt road was excruciatingly long and bumpy for my husband Steve whose back still ached from our overnight bus ride. The stops were welcome and interesting. Along the way we stopped to photograph a herd of vicunas grazing alongside the highway and took a rest at a roadside café for Coca tea and some souvenir shopping. We were on our way to over 15,000 ft altitude and the Coca tea was supposed to help with the adjustment. I hoped it would do more than my US-prescribed Diamox, a diuretic that was performing its intended effect only too well. I decided that the benefits of Diamox were outweighed by the need to stop our mini-bus every 15 minutes for an ecological bathroom break and discontinued use after the first day.
Arriving in Colca Canyon, we were struck by both the poverty and the apparent wellness of the local people that we met there. Most lived very simply, farming dry rocky soil and living in mud huts. Those that had shoes, had predominantly simple leather sandals and many children had sunburned, chapped lips. Yet everyone was pleasant and smiling with rosy cheeks and healthy physiques. The women had beautiful woven garments and Carlos told us that it was not unusual for them to spend over $400 on the heavily embroidered blouses and petticoats used for special occasions.
The Colca Canyon Lodge was set near the river at the start of the canyon, complete with 3 natural hot spring pools and cozy private cabins with freshly thatched roofs. We relaxed in the hot springs and had dinner overlooking the river before heading to bed in preparation for our pre-dawn departure in search of the Andean condor.
The next morning we headed straight to the Cruz del Condor, the most common lookout for spotting these magnificent birds. The condors had not yet arrived so we did a short hike around the area, admiring the depths of the canyon. Steve began to feel a bit ill from the altitude and eventually headed back to the bus where Carlos gave him oxygen and instructed him to lie down for a bit. The rest of us returned to the Cruz del Condor, but unfortunately the birds did not decide to make an appearance so we finally headed back to Arequipa.
The next afternoon we arrived in Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Steve was still feeling a bit ill from the altitude so he decided to stay another night in the hotel there while we all traveled out to our homestay on Amantani Island. Enroute we stopped at the famous Uros Islands, constructed entirely of reeds. Now the islands have become more of a tourist destination than anything else, but the families continue to preserve many of their original traditions and live in reed houses with clay ovens for cooking. Tourism brings in the majority of income, but we still saw a few men fishing in the nearby reeds.
We arrived in Amantani in time for lunch and were guided up the steep hillside by our host families. Our family had not arrived at the port but Olga, a young married woman with two energetic boys, soon volunteered to substitute. We met the family and were guided into the small kitchen to await lunch. The kitchen was a separate adobe building, about 5 feet high and 8 feet long with no windows. Olga prepared our lunch in a clay oven in the corner with 3 blackened pots balanced precariously atop the wood burning oven. Lunch was simple but exceptionally tasty- well seasoned quinoa (Andean cereal) soup, potatoes, rice, and a fried egg. Janet and I were absolutely stuffed but struggled to finish so as not to appear ungrateful.
After lunch, our group met at the cement soccer field and started hiking uphill to the temple of Wanu Pata (?), where we were rewarded with a tremendous view across the lake to the Bolivian mountains. We waited for the sunset but were eventually convinced to turn down by a sudden thunderstorm.
Back in our home for the night, we ate a similar meal of potatoes and rice and rested in our comfortable room upstairs. Though the family slept on simple mats on the adobe floor, our room had wooden floors, framed beds, and windows. I felt guilty spending the night in such luxury relative to Olga's family, yet they didn't seem to mind. Olga soon knocked on our door, arms laden with skirts and embroidered blouses. She dressed Janet and I in 4 multi-colored petticoats each and escorted us to the evening pena. The folk dance was held in a poorly lit rectangular cement building, alive with music from two competing bands. I was invited out to dance by a young Amantani woman and soon picked up the steps and twirls. Others joined in and the bands played faster and faster, in a seemingly never-ending melody. By the time I crawled back to my seat, I had long since forgotten the few steps I learned initially. The altitude of nearly 14,000 ft visibly affected all of us gringos who were quickly panting and red-faced. Yet after only a few moments break, Henry, our local guide, invited me out for another dance. He was less merciful than the woman and spun me round so quickly that I lost all sense of direction and narrowly avoided colliding with the other dancers on the floor. The song seemed even longer than the first, and I was grateful when I could finally rest with a bottle of water. Most of us left the dance after an hour or so, animated by the excited evening, but too tired to dance further. We collapsed happily into our warm beds.
The next day we visited Taquile Island where the men weave all of their wives' garments and hence are rarely seen without a ball of yarn and a half finished weaving. Similarly, the women spin the yarn and are equally busy as they walk up and down the hills, spinning yarn without even looking down. The Taquile women are noticely more shy than the people of Amantani and generally avert their gazes or giggle bashfully. Men on Taquile wear traditional clothes reminiscent of Spain with a waistcoat, baggy pants, and distinctive hats that used to indicate marital status. The married men can still be identified now as they wear a large bag of Coca leaves tied at their sides, apparently designed to help them cope with the added stresses of married life.
I had received a blistering sunburn the day before on our boat ride to Amantani and was sweating under my long sleeved shirt and pants, looking forward to getting back to the cool wind onboard the boat. Others seemed to feel similarly and before long we headed down the 541 steps on the opposite side of Taquile to meet our boat. We were all a bit anxious to see how Steve and Heidi, a German woman in our trip who had stayed in Puno with a case of Montezuma's revenge, were faring so we voted to return early to see if we could talk them into a bit of lunch. On the ride back, as we were nearing Puno, another boat passed us going the opposite direction. Onboard, Steve and Heidi shouted to us, waving and smiling. We could hardly stop laughing. Later we found out that Steve had chartered a boat for them to have a private visit to the Uros Islands since the last group tours had already left for the day. They had a fantastic time with the private guide and even visited one island that is usually restricted from tourists as the guide had a god child there that he wanted to see.
The next morning we had a sad parting from Carlos as we all boarded the bus to Cusco. He had been a fantastic, knowledgeable guide, with a great sense of humor who blended nicely into our diverse group and would be sorely missed. The local guide on our bus was a poor substitute but did provide some information about the temple of Viracocha where we stopped enroute.
Once in Cusco, we were introduced to Ayul, the tour leader who would be escorting our group on to Machu Picchu. We went out for one last dinner with our group and then left them in Ayul's capable hands. The following day, I traveled out to the Sacred Valley with our Cusco operator, Pepe. He has been working with a local community near Urubamba, bringing supplies and volunteers to revamp their school, build playground equipment, and add flush toilets. He has started building a camping site in cooperation with the local community, to bring added revenue to the families there. Once they have been trained to manage the site effectively, his goal is to relinquish control of the camping area to the community itself so that they will have a steady source of income.
We returned to Cusco for an afternoon tour of the city with Vidal, another Adventure Life guide. He led us through the Cusco market, pointing out unusual foods and describing the medicinal uses of various herbs we saw in the Witches' Market. Then he took us through the winding streets of his home neighborhood, San Blas. Set atop a hill overlooking the city, San Blas has become a favorite haven for local artisans.
That evening we met some of the remaining Cusco guides for dinner and drinks. All were charming and knowledgeable and I was sorry to be leaving Cusco so soon. However, we were due in the Amazon the next day and Steve was excited to be finally enroute to the jungle.
When we disembarked the plane in Puerto Maldonado, I wondered if I would have the luxury of breathing again. I regretted my long sleeve shirt and pants, feeling cloudy and light headed from the intense humidity. As soon as we arrived at the main office, I bought an ice cream bar from the wise salesman who met our bus and felt a bit better. We rode the mini-bus 45 minutes out of town to the put in point for our motorized canoes. The guides handed out tasty banana chips, reminiscent of thick Pringles, and a palm fruit juice that tasted a bit grainy.
We boarded our motorized 15 passenger canoes and set off on the 40 minute ride to Posadas Amazonas. Enroute, we were served tasty fried rice wrapped in banana leaves. Once at the lodge, we hiked up steep steps to our rooms that were lit by candle light with mosquito netting around the beds and open walls.
An hour later we met Aldo, our rainforest guide, for our first expedition into the jungle. We hiked half an hour and were already soaked through with sweat by the time that we arrived at the 120 ft observation tower. Enroute to the top of the tower, I saw a large insect that reminded me of watermelon candy with a bright pink body and green wings. Aldo said it was a giant grasshopper. As we peeked our heads through the top level, a pair of beautiful Red and Green Macaws flew right by the tower. What an awesome sight to see these massive, colorful birds passing across the treetops as we looked down on the rainforest canopy! We admired the view and used binoculars to spot toucans, parrots, and other birds. Returning to the lodge, we saw a walking stick take flight with bright gold wings and marveled at the many butterflies, including the large Owl Butterfly. Apparently, the Tambopata region has the largest diversity of butterflies anywhere in the world.
The next morning we woke at 4 am. We were getting used to these early mornings and the lack of electricity helped encourage us into bed the night before. We traveled 15 minutes by boat and then hiked into the nearby oxbow lake. There we boarded a wooden blind with benches along the edges and headed out in search of the local family of river otters. We saw the otters fishing at a distance but weren't able to get close enough for a good view. In the meantime however, Aldo pointed out a variety of birds and another guide dipped his fishing pole in the lake with a bit of raw meat for bait. Within minutes he pulled up a piranha. We all admired its sharp teeth and strong bite before releasing it back to the lake.
After a few hours we headed back to the river for our five hour journey upriver to the Tambopata Research Center. Enroute we admired a family of capybaras (the world's largest rodent) with the appearance of a giant guinea pig. Upon arrival, I took another welcome cold shower. I found that these showers were the only moments each day when I felt truly cool and could wash the thick layer of salt off my body that had accumulated from all the perspiration. We voted to wait for an evening walk and relaxed the rest of the afternoon in the hammocks on the porch.
That night we hiked into the rainforest with flashlights in search of nocturnal creatures. We saw a couple of huge spiders and a small, non-poisonous snake. The sounds of the rainforest always seem more striking than the sights, but this was especially true at night. We heard the whistling of the poison dart frogs, the rustling of bats overhead, and the chatter of insects. We returned to the lodge and tucked the mosquito netting around the mattress as we nestled into bed.
Another pre-dawn wake up call and we were off to the macaw clay lick. We slipped into large rubber boots and took the boat upriver then plodded along the trail to the observation area. Soon the macaws began arriving in pairs, passing the clay lick and landing in the trees above. When they deemed their numbers sufficient to discourage predators, a few macaws began circling the lick in search of a safe place to land. Others soon followed and eventually there were hundreds of different colored macaws feasting on the clay. Most had chosen to land at the far end of the clay lick, just visible to the naked eye. We took turns with binoculars and the telescope, identifying different species and admiring their beautiful colors. All 6 species of macaws stopped by the lick in addition to a variety of parrots, parakeets, and a few stragglers from other species. We waited at the lick until the last bird left, shortly after 7 am, and returned to the lodge for breakfast.
Steve had decided not to get up for the clay lick, but instead had a macaw come visit him. As he was lying in bed, a Scarlet Macaw landed on the short wall right in front of him and watched him for a few minutes. He teased me that he had a much better view than I had at the clay lick, but I was soon vindicated when the same macaw met our group for breakfast. He was quite forward, stealing papaya out of our fruit salad when the kitchen staff turned their backs. Aldo explained that he was one of the "Chicos", a handful of macaws who had been hand raised at the lodge in the early 90s as part of an experimental breeding project. The project was a success and similar techniques are now used elsewhere in areas that macaw numbers are dwindling. In Tambopata, additional breeding projects are not yet necessary so the project was discontinued. The hand raised macaws were released to the wild but often return for treats from the lodge staff and occasionally bring their shier wild mates along.
Later that morning, we took our longest and most stunning walk. We started out on a trail that ran along the top of the clay lick, just under the trees where we had seen the first macaws land that morning. The sun was excruciatingly hot as this trail was part of a dying bamboo forest and didn't have the welcome shade of the trails further inland. The heat and perspiration were bearable and we soon forgot our discomfort as we looked up to see a Dusky Titi Monkey with her young on her back about 10 feet above us.
Further down the trail we saw many of the macaws from the clay lick, but this time they were much closer, directly above us in the canopy. Brilliant colored Scarlet Macaws, Blue and Yellow Macaws, and a few Red and Green Macaws graced us with their presence. It was stunning to watch these birds take flight.
We continued on to the swamp where most Blue and Yellow Macaws nest in the dead palms there. It had started to rain so we didn't see many birds here but welcomed the cool drops. On the way back to the lodge, the skies had cleared but we began to hear a rustling like raindrops in the canopy above us. Playing and eating in the forest canopy was a group of squirrel and capuchin monkeys. They gracefully jumped from one tree to the next, showering us with leaves as they alighted on each branch.
Back at the lodge, I had another shower and prepared for our afternoon walk. This time when we heard the telltale leaves rustling, I knew to scan the treetops right away and soon spotted the monkeys feasting overhead. We watched as one sly squirrel monkey deftly broke off a stick in his path. Then the naughty primate threw the stick at us and the other monkeys followed suit. We were being besieged. The sticks weren't large but we quickly took the point that our disturbance was not appreciated and moved on down the trail. We spotted some peccary tracks but could never quite track down the large boar- like mammals. Aldo did entice a poison dart frog out of his bamboo pole home and pointed to the nest of a Goliath bird-eating tarantula that wasn't there when we called. We marveled at the huge kapok tree that was nearly 15 ft wide and headed back to the lodge as darkness fell.
The next morning we traveled back downriver to Posadas Amazonas. The journey was much quicker on the river as we traveled with the current. That afternoon we took a final muddy walk through the rainforest and prepared to say good-bye. I was not going to miss the heat and humidity and already had more than my share of insect bites (over 30 at last count, despite the long pants), but I was thankful for the chance to glimpse this strange, magical world.
Back in Lima, we finished our journey with a stop at the Archaeological Museum. Here we finally had the opportunity to view the magnificent Paracas weavings in addition to thousands of other artifacts from indigenous groups across the Peru. Telltale pornographic pottery of the Moche culture, intricate totem poles created in Chivay, and glistening gold and silver decorations (and even gold children's toys) all attracted our interest and put the finishing touches on our Peruvian trip.
As we boarded the red-eye flight home, I recalled our journey. After over 40 hours on buses, two internal flights, two speed boats, one motorized canoe, and quite a bit of walking, I couldn't help but think that I had only had a tantalizing taste of the countless treasures Peru has to offer.