Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nicaragua - Paradise (and future home?) Found

Sunset in Granada
It has been nigh on 4 weeks since we made the trip north from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, and travelling with company made it hard to break away for serious internet time. I will do my best to recollect...

If you're ever Costa Rica bound, take note, it´s annoying trying to figure out where all different bus stops to wherever are in San Jose. After a dammed confusing time trying to find the Tica bus station we found ourselves winging our way through the Costa Rican rain to sunny Nicaragua. All was well, Darren had made some damn fine sandwhiches and I was really enjoying the pulpy romance novel I´d picked up at Casa Hilda (a small guesthouse in SJ run by a lovely man who will be forever affectionately recollected as ´Senior´by the four of us. He is an angel). At dusk we hit the border. The crossing was keystone kop efficient without the laughs. I still don´t really know what we actually did. Oh, except the standing around clueless part, I got that. But the best part? Oh yeah, that was when the Tica bus attendant came back on the bus and asked for "Anna Breared" whereupon he solemnly told me that because there was a (tiny) riped corner on one page of my passport, I could not enter Nicaragua (nor Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) "It is la ley". D and I accompanied him to the immigration officewhere after a back and forth with an official and my suprisingly coherent entreaty in Spanish that I was only going to be in Nicaragua for one or two weeks, I was ok'd. As we walked across the rainy tarmac the dodgy Tica bus guy casually extorted $5 from us to pay for the photocopying of my passport. Pffft. Whatever. Drama over.

Darren's artistic attempt at photographing a quaint Granadian doorway hijacked by Anna's photobomb
Fastforward. Granada. A profusion of brightly painted walls where gorgeous compounds and households hideaway behind, every now and again the doorways opening to offer us a glimpse of four handmade wicker rocking chairs arranged around a small table, accomodating a genteel way to while away some time in companionable comfort. We stayed at Hostel Oasis which had a fabulous swimming pool and hammocks strung around the courtyard garden. It gave us cool respite from the much warmer temps and, hooray, sunshine!

Darren ready for a beer

We spent 3 days here - took a lazy boat tour of Las Isletas (tiny islands right off the shore of lake Nicaragua), visited the museum (Megan was most taken with the collection of ancient petroglyphs), climbed the bell tower of a church ("best view in Granada") and every day culminated with a beer underneath the magnificient sky patchworked sometimes with the glory of the sunset, sometimes with the grandeur of a lightening storm.

The sky over Granada

"Best view in Granada"

If you ever visit Granada and want a splash-,out meal, then get ye to Imagine. Perfect fine-dining but not too pretentious atmosphere, impeccable food.

We were all ready to get out of the city so we headed to Laguna do Apoyo, a crater lake filled with, as we were told numerous times, the most pristine water. And it was. It was the most perfect water to swim in - velvety warm and sparkling clear. To this day, my waterbaby D still talks about it with high reverence.

Full moon over Laguna de Apoyo

We were in and out of it numerous tmes per day. We spent 3 days there staying at the Monkey Hut, whose balcony gave us National Geographic worthy views of the full moon arising over the lake and of the tropical thunder and lightening storms that rolled away as quickly as they came. I love the tropics! We made a day trip into nearby Masaya, famed for its artisan market. I´d estimate that there was approximately 100 stalls but they all sold exactly the same stuff. So here´s a tip - forget about the market and recruit a taxi driver to take you to pueblos blancos - nearby villages each specializing in one craft, for eg. pottery, hammocks, wood, etc. The Monkey Hut had hooked us up with  Edgard, champion taxi driver and he gave us a mini tour of Masaya, took us the scenic way home and took us to the supermarket. His limited English and my poor Spanish met at an agreable point of mutual understanding and the day we left Monkey Hut saw us jumping into Edgards taxi again for a breezy 2 hour drive to San Jorge to catch the ferry to Isla de Ometepe.

Ferry crossing

Now, if I could break into the recollecting a bit to let you know that at every stop on our trip, I´ve thought, fancifully, to myself, "Could I see myself living here long-term? Do I love it that much? Does it feel that comfortable?" So far I hadn't found a place that I could answer those questions in the affirmative, until Isla de Ometepe.

The Isla is in Lake Nicaragua and is really two volcanoes that jut out of the lake. After a scorching hour long ride on top of a rickety old boat we arrived ashore the island and hopped a taxi for the 45 minute ride to the other side. Cold beers cooling us down we sped out of Moyogalpa along a beautiful paved road that took us around the base of Volcan Concepcion (the bigger of the two), an almost perfectly proportioned peak. Then the roads turned to shit and it was slow going until we reached our destination.The very lovely English couple that we had met previously at Essence Arenal (Costa Rica) had told us about Little Morgans so we had booked there for a couple days. As soon as we got to the bottom of the lushly surrounded drive and were greeted by Tess and Anton, an Australian couple that run the place, we felt at home. Our cabanas were tucked back in the property with a mosquito net draped bed and hammock on the patio - perfection. I was to while away many an hour in that hammock with it's perfect view of forest and sky, birds, hummingbirds, and oh so many different kinds of butterflies flitting around the nearby shrubs. The best moment was at dusk when scores of fireflies appeared. 
Our three nights booked stretched to six as none of us wanted to leave. Each night we sat in the bar/restaurant/your living room at home with Tess and Anton and whoever else happened to be hanging out that night - it was like being with old friends. 
After a day of relaxing we decided to climb nearby Volcan Maderas. We set off in the rain at 7:30am with our local guide Alexi. The first hour was kinda leisurely as we slowly ascended through banana and coffee plantations into the forest. Once into the forest it was a different story and it got steep. Luckily, distracting us from the pain, we came across lots of monkeys - capuchins and howlers. After six hours of straight climbing up and over tree roots and rain gouged tracks we made it to the crater lake at the top. Lunch tasted real good. In good spirits we started down but after four hours of knee crushing descent there were a couple of us that had had it. Veering away from the path we had taken up, Alexi took us down the "shortcut" - a steep 7 minute run down through a coffee plantation. Alexi, bless him, would run ahead to turn around and assist the nana of the group, me, down. Megan was in hysterics but her laughed masked the pain her knees were in. When we finally got back to Little Morgans, 9 hours after we started off, we were all shattered. Megan and I were sore for DAYS afterwards.
The next day Darren and Darren set off on a fishing trip. They had been regaled with tales of guaranteed bounty. Megan and I went into nearby Balgue with Tess to do a relaxing yoga class and when we got back we ate lunch and talked about how much we were looking forward to fresh fish on the BBQ. Alas. it wasn't to be. D & D turned up 5 hours after they set off with empty hands. Well, they both caught a goldfish each that they gave back to the lake, out of compassion or embarrassment? Probably both. 
Couple days later we hopped on the back of the truck (ummmm, riding on the back of a ute, blatting down crazy ass country roads = most fun ever. Remember to keep your smile closed to avoid bugs in mouth) and Anton dropped us off at the entrance to Ojo de Agua - mineral baths that they've built pools around. The water was gorgeous and you can sit there all day, get a bite to eat, a cold beer to drink.
Tess and Anton are living my dream - along with owning part of Little Morgans they have bought some land up the road and are building a simple house there on two acres. And the price they paid for the it, well, without going into specifics let's just say that we could afford it, no worries. I really did not want to leave this paradise but we had to move on. My heart was heavy that day. I know we'll be back.

The intrepid trekking team with team leader, Alexi, in the middle. Considerably more upbeat than when we got back.

The view from our hammock. Spot the dragon.

Next stop: the beach town of San Juan del Sur! Touted as the best beach spot on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and therefore the most developed, almost to "Costa Rican levels". It was the perfect place to spend our last couple days with Megan and Darren. We stayed at a super cheap hostel beside the beach and all the restaurants were at easy reach. What can I say? We swam in the sea, drank beer on the balcony of M&D's room, shopped for last minute Nicaraguan knick knacks. We did take a boat trip to a deserted beach where we spent the day playing with the waves, reading, and racing hermit crabs. The sunsets were epic and were a fitting metaphor for our time in Central America. Nicaragua, we'll be back! Costa Rica, sort your weather out and we'll talk!PS: bummed that I didn't get to see any scarlet macaws.

Sunset and silhouetted sisters in San Juan del Sur

Friday, October 22, 2010

Costa Rican Caribbean - a reunion, joyous sea swimming and monkey cuddles.

Megan and Darren appeared bedraggled but in remakably good spirits for having nearly spent 2 days in transit at the prearanged hostel in San Jose. Megan and I settled into our twin-ness like feet settling into their favourite pair of comfy slippers. The next morning we hopped a bus heading for Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a small town on the southern Caribbean coast universally described as chilled out and beautiful. Megan had booked us into Cabinas Jacaranda where we had two delightful cabinas next door to each other tucked into a corner of the beautiful gardens. It felt like a place that tropical fairies hung out with Heliconia crabs claw flowers and bouganvillea surrounding us. The town itself is a cheerful mish mash of cafes, bars, tourist services and craft stands that line the beach. You'll be pleased to know that Manu Chao's "Clandestino" is still hella popular down here and whilst Bob Marley is often heard it's more often than not tracks that you won´t find on "Legend", thank Jah. There was even one spot where we had dinner that played lady reggae all night. Yay!
Our first day was a mellow day that consisted entirely of walking to Playa Cocles to have a swim and of drinking beer. That's all I remember us doing. The next day we hopped the bus to Cahuita to hike round Parque Nacional Cahuita.
First things first we had a swim because it was damn hot and as we dried off an excited bunch of turistas began pointing into the trees. Envisioning a sloth or toucans I was only a little disappointed to see a couple iguanas lounging in the tree tops. A little while later my dreams were answered when we came across another excited bunch of people enthralled by the three-toed sloth not 20 metres above us. I whistled at it and it craned it's crazy head all the way around at me with the speed of a, well, sloth! As we rounded the point and seemed to have the path to ourselves we came across a little family of howler monkeys, then another, then another, and another until it got to the point that we'd spy a sudden movement in the trees or a sporadic howl and we'd just keep on walking. Feeling high on monkey sightings and oropendola song we ambled down the entrance road towards the highway to catch the bus back.
The next day we awoke to torrential rain. Both Megan and I sighed within moments of each other, in separate rooms "It always rains on our birthday". The rain did subside but the clouds did not and the sun never really came back again. This did not dampen our spirits and we set off to the Jaguar Rescue Centre. Now all I've been waiting for is to see toucans so I was stoked that the first thing we saw upon entering was three toucans cruising about. They're a lot smaller than I thought they'd be but no less awesome. We had a tour of caged snakes about which I was all "Meh, seen it" as the Serpentarium in El Castillo was way superior. At the frog pond a frisky red squirrel ran up (not inside) Darren M's shorts and all over him. He was thrilled. Then it was time for "monkey therapy". We got to go into an enclosure with seven or so howler monkeys who leap all over you with wild abandon. Two of them made for Megan immediately with one settling in on the top of her head. After a few minutes it shut it eyes and napped. Best. Birthday. Ever.
One of the bigger ones settled into Darren's lap and another clung to his nape. Another big one came for a cuddle in my lap too. It was so freaking amazing to have these little creatures feeling comfortable enough to sit affectionately with us. The next enclosure was the three-toed sloths. Darren B was in raptures. Our guide explained that they are the symbol of Costa Rica, always smiling. We couldn't hod the sloths but we did get to pat them and, man, they're so soft! There were two-toed sloths in the next enclosure who, according to D-Bot, are not as cool "They don't have smily face".

Still pretty darn cute in my books. A really annoying American lady got bitten by the baby one after doing exactly what the guide told us not to do (i.e. put your fingers near its mouth) and we all had a good chuckle later with another couple at a restaurant. Direct quote: "She deserved it. She was an idiot". After a siesta we cracked a bottle of (perfectly servicable) champagne at dusk to toast our 34th. On rather tipsy feet a couple hours later we had a lovely dinner at a beachside restaurant. I ate steak and drank red wine. Megan had soup she described as deep and delicious. D-Bot had the best salmon he's ever had. Darren M had fish. It was real good.
The next day was Darren Bot's. He decreed that we shall hire bikes and ride to Punta Uva for a swim. It was a 45 minute chillin' ride along the road dotted with eco resorts and lush jungle. The sea at Punta Uva was the perfect sea for rollicking fun. We four rode the waves, giggling as we narrowly missed being slammed into the shore, groaning as we did. Off in the distance the deep purple blue (with the occasional roll of thuneder) of the skyline threatened a mighty storm and we left the beach as the first big drops hit the beach. At the beach restaurant we watched as the sky opened up and erupted water. An hour passed and it still hadn't let up. We had to get the bikes back so we had no choice but to get on and go for it. F""k it was fun. We had all donned rain ponchos but they were useless against the onslaught. My face hurt from grinning so much. Pura vida to the max! Later on we ventured out in the rain to the restaurant Darren had had his eye on all week, a Thai fusion place that served sushi. Our meals weren't all that but the sushi, oh the sushi. It was delectable and reminded us both of how much we miss Van-city sushi.
The next day was one of chilling and chores. Whilst Darren and Megan went on a tour of a permaculture farm in Punta Mona we attended to laundry, bus tickets and sitting on the beach. We were leaving the next day back to San Jose. Our original plan was to head to the Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula (south west coast) but the forecast was dreary with rain and cloud. After checking on the forecast for Granada, Nicaragua we decided to head north instead.
So get this, not all beaches on the Caribbean are white sand. I mean, I don't know about you but I was utterly convinced that this was fact. Probably wishful thinking more than anything. We walked on golden, grey, and black sand beaches. Not one white one. Bummer. Oh well, I've walked on the most pristine white sand beaches that squeak when you walk on them and not another soul in sight in South Western Australia and those I did not expect! Life, I tell ya, fulla chocolate box surprises.

pics to come...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A volcano and a cloud forest

Red-eyed tree frog. So beautiful I almost cried.
Costa Rica! Pura vida! San Jose is nothing to write home about so I won't.
The bus ride to La Fortuna was beautiful, winding through the mountains with coffee plantations and tropical fruit orchards abounding. We got to La Fortuna in the early evening and we were picked up by Kelly, the manager of Essence Arenal, the hostel we would be staying at. Essence turned out to be as far out of town as you could get, up in the hills of the little town of El Castillo on the other side of the volcano. Volcan Arenal is an acive volcano that dominates the landscape and has birthed an active tourist trade around it's many side affects - hot pools, great views, and lots of volcanic activity.

Sunset at Essence
But back to Essence. When finally we arrived (the roads are terrible which keeps the less adventurous tourists away thank goodness) we were greeted by dusk and the resident trail dog, an Alsatian called Abu. Our room afforded us a peeking view of the volcano and the back yard had a pool and looked down onto Lake Arenal. As night fell the fireflies came out and we knew we were in a special place. What makes Essence a cut above the rest is the concept of "demo cuisine". Dinner is a participatory affair with guests invited to help in a part of the making of the meal, which is always vegetarian, always with a theme. Our first night it was Morrocan and we helped make stuffed naan. The next night we rolled sushi, the next we made falafel. Exqusite!
On our first full day we woke with the birds (Essence sits on 100 acres, mostly secondary forest) and after a hearty omelette we set off with a couple of other guests, Gabriella and Victor from Nosara, to climb Cerro Chato, the mountain next to Arenal that has a crater lake at the top. We sauntered beside pine plantations which reminded us fiercely of Canada and eucalyptus plantings and began the climb up. It is fair to say that Darren and I have graduated to a whole other class of hiking, that which a lot of people call "difficult". It was steep the whole 2 hours up but, man, it was worth it.

 The cloud forest revealed itself and birds began to sing. At one point we stopped to catch our breath and the song of the Three Wattled Bellbird started up. It was out of this world, sometimes like a creaky gate opening, sometimes like the purest two toned flute. At the top, Victor and Darren made the kinda precipitous trek down to the crater lake whilst myself and Gabriella (both leery of steep descents) stayed at the top and ate roadside collected guavas. It was a faster trip down and once at the bottom we took the waterfall route back to the car. The waterfall was gorgeous and Darren could not resist the siren call of the water and so he stripped off and jumped right in. Then we saw a coati! Fauna!

Back at Essence we all jumped in the pool and drank in the view. At dusk, Darren, myself, and Abu took a walk on the circuit around the property. We came across green parrots, Montezuma's oropendola's, and horses. We had heard howler monkeys at the top and Darren started imitating them. No shit, they called right back and we swear they were right on top of us. Couldn´t see 'em though.
The next day was decreed a lazy day and we lounged in the hammocks all morning. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision as it gave us our first view of volcanic activity from Volcan Arenal. We watched as an ash plume mushroomed out of the top, over and over. It was awesome!

 Once we managed to rip our eyes away from our binoculars we strolled down the hill to the Serpentatrium. Brave of Darren as snakes give him the creeps big time.

And I was like, yeah, whatever.

Not leery of a bloody great spider though

The guide was so informative and I was stoked to cuddle a couple of spaghetti snakes and Kelly's rainbow constrictor Anastasia. I balked at holding the tarantula but Darren was a champ.

Back at Essence we decided to hit up the free hot pools with a lovely couple from England, Tim and Jill. So half an hour around the volcano, directly across from a resort where you pay $60 to sit in an artificial environment we were frolicing in the natural hot river. Bliss. Pura vida indeed!
The next day we were up early to take the jeep-boat-jeep across Lake Arenal to get to Santa Elena, the town that services Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. One thing that the guide books don't tell you is that it's crazy windy up there! On our first day we hit up the Monteverde Cheese Factory where predictably Darren was in paradise. A bunch of Quakers who were dodging compulsory conscription decided to move to Costa Rica (they passed on Canada as being too cold. Preach!) and decided that making cheese would be a good way of making a living. I don't know too much about Quakers but I dig their passive resistance ways though one thing nagged at me - the guide enthused in her telling of  the history of the factory that "Quakers are all about equal rights" yet all 8 of the founders of the cheese factory are listed as men but the photos are full of women as well...? Anyway, they make good cheese.
The next morning we got up early (though Darren and I are getting up at 6am these days regularly) to catch the bus up to the Monteverde cloud forest.

 Living up to it's name the clouds were low and misty and rolling across the forest. The flora was diverse and colourful, some trees dripping with vines, epiphytes and flowers, the air smelt fresh and rich with abundance. The trails were really well maintained and we managed to hike most of  the trails spending about 5 hours in total there. We even got to straddle the continental divide at one point. Fauna was heard more than seen, though I did see a monkey's arse, a snake as it lept with fright in the wake of Darren's footsteps and a coati ambling through the parking lot. This was not a big deal especially in light of t he special treat we unexpectedly came across after our hike. There is a free hummingbird gallery outside the reserve where we were expecting some pretty specimens in an aviary. As we walked up the path we could hear the vibrant hum of wings beating and came into a courtyard with feeders hung all over the place. At this point we were engulfed into a cloud of hummingbirds as they flew from feeder to feeder fighting for prime positions. Literally hundreds, of all kinds, all colours. We spent an hour there in awe.

On our last day we decided to do some zip lines through the forest. Now in general I think this is an obnoxious thing to do in such a pristine setting but we were at a loose end and the town wasn't interesting enough to distract us for a day (though I would have been happy with the Butterfly Farm and Orchid Garden!). I had vetoed the hanging bridges canopy tour thinking that as we'd be in a harness I would feel more safe. What a joke. Needless to say, Darren had a great time and I did too for the middle 7 lines once I had gotten used to it. The combination of being high up and spinning around on a fast speeding piece of metal was fear sensory overload!

Don't believe the smile. I am terrified.
 The last and 13th line was ONE KILOMETRE LONG. Darren and I got to do that one together and my eyes stayed tightly squeezed shut admist Darren's whoops of joy. I was shaking once we got off. The Tarzan swing at the end was optional so I exercised my right to decline, especially as we had to cross two hanging bloody bridges to get to it. Darren went for it and watching him I was happy with my decision - it looked like upright bungee jumping. After all that Darren is now indebted to me for the rest of the trip. No more mad adventurey, adrenaline junkie business. Time to chill-ax. Perfect timing really as our next destination is the Caribbean coast with Megan and Darren. Beachy time!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Desert Dessert.

The desert oasis of Huacachina
 We didn't originally plan on travelling down this way but we cut our time short in Iquitos so we were at a loose end. Not wanting to spend 6 days in Lima and having heard good things about Ica and Huacachina we decided to hop a bus down there for some rest and relaxation before heading to Costa Rica. I mean, shit, we were in dire need of some chill time after all the hardcore chilling we'd done thus far. In actual fact it was rather nice to just sit by a pool, slugging back some brewskies, eating some ceviche after the mad paced jungle adventuring we'd done last week. So nice in fact that we forgot about how sun gives you sunburn - me after 5 minutes of un-sunscreened exposure, Darren after 15 minutes. I had managed to apply my SPF 50 to most of my body but if you're in a bikini and you´re ghostly white like me, any missed speck will show up shocking red later on. I had sustained a burn all down my left arm  from earlier the first morning when we climbed the sand dune above our hotel rather too keenly. Darren was not immune either and his usual tactic of safe guarding his tattoos and nothing else whilst sunbathing failed when later that evening a red hot burn surfaced all over his thighs and most of his chest - even his thick fuzz didn't protect him.Whatevs, starter burn right?
Ready to rumble
The second afternoon we partook in a dune buggy and sand boarding tour. One and half hours of ripping up and down the dunes. Amazing. Every now and then our driver, with the stealth of a sadist would pull right up to the precipice of a dune cliff, inch his body out to look down, then turn off the buggy to motion that it was sand boarding time.
As above
The first hill was pretty tame and Darren gave a gallant try of boarding down. It was, how can I put it, stoppy and starty, not very smooth. I've never snowboarded in my life so I threw myself with gusto down the slope on the board on my tummy. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuun! More ripping round, more sand boarding. Each slope got progressively steeper. By the last two slopes all 6 of us were boarding down on our tummies and letting out crazy "ithinki'mgonnaeatshit" yelps. 

At the end of the tour we were driven to watch the sunset. It was glorious. As you can see from the photos below it is a beautiful eerie landscape. I felt like a character out of Dune.

Where is Kyle McLachlan?

 On our last day in Huacachina we took a wine tour. The area has primo grape growing condtions for wine as we all know it and Pisco, Peru´s national booze. The first winery we hit up was a typical industrial winery. We tasted the so-so wines and moved on. The second windery was a traditional Peruvian winery. We were given a tour around all the traditional methods of making Pisco from the grape stomping basin to the ingenious old school distillery. Pisco is always 44% alcohol so yeah, pretty stiff. It reminds me of Korean soju but not as raunchy. The tasting was a jovial affair, I can't think why, and at the end we all bought a bottle of something. The guy that was taxi-ing us around was, by this time, seriously cracking us up. From his honking at pretty girls to blaring Bryan Adams (we all sang along and I´m not even kidding, Darren was all "Who is this?"). The third winery was the most traditional and our taxi driver himself gave us the tour which consisted of walking around the cellar (bizzarely adorned with treasures and artifacts from ancient Peruvian cultures including Nazcan skulls, 1,400 year old linens, and stuffed baby seals. Shit was crazy) and imbibing straight from the pottery gourds. Many shots later I was buying a little bottle of god know's what reddish Peruvian sweet wine ("Peruvians like their wine sweet"). Might crack into it tonight as we've returned to a Lima that has shut down all it's avenues of selling alcohol for 4 days because there is a municipal election. We're off to Costa Rica tommorrow so it's adios to Peru. Here are our final reflections:
1. Peruvians are really fricking nice. There's none of that machismo or aggressiveness you get in, for example, Mexico (don't be mad, love you Mexico!). Peru has a gentleness about it that I just wasn't expecting. A girl I briefly worked with over the summer said the total opposite was true. I had a hunch she was going to be wrong. Travelling is largely what YOU make of it!
2. By far our favourite part was trekking the Inca trail. It was just monumental.
3. Peruvian drivers should be Grand Prix drivers. They'd wipe the floor with everyone else. Organised chaos at it's finest.
4. One day we want to come back to visit the Amazon in the wet season with parrots and caiman abounding! Bonus - sunshine in Lima, that'd be nice.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Motorbike City and Amazon Amazingness.

We flew into Iquitos into low hanging clouds. Still, as we neared the tarmac the forest appeared and went on as far as the eye could see. Thrilled hardly describes how it felt to have a dream I´ve had since childhood (many a class project on the Amazon and the perils of deforestation) suddenly being realised.

La Casa Fitzcarraldo. Dope as pool area.
 Iquitos´ nickname is "motorbike city" and it is more than apt. The roads of this dirty, unaesthetically pleasing city of 1 million are jammed with motorbikes and mototaxis, scarcely anything else. It´s organised chaos and really frickin noisy. Once you get over the jarring-ness of it all it´s kinda fun and wild. There´s a sense of anything goes. We had, on a whim, decided to stay three nights at La Casa Fitzcarraldo seduced by the back story of it being the house where Werner Herzog filmed and organised his film "Fitzcarraldo" and by the photos of the pool. It was quite a ways from downtown which we quickly realised was a really good thing. It´s an oasis. Run by the affable Walter, one of the films producers, it has a bar, restaurant, aforementioned pool, hammocks everywhere, resident cat, dog and ocelots. Bliss. We met some super nice people including Canadians Paul and Mark -  helicopter pilot and helicopter engineer respectively - and a bunch of people involved in the running of the annual Great Amazon River Raft Race. Who wants to do this with us one day? Turns out we really needed these three days to get accustomed to the humidity of the Amazon. Shit was hot! But we had no idea how hot it was going to become...

Speeding up the Yanayacu River to Muyuna Lodge
 Deep in the Jungle. Day One. We had booked a 5 day, 4 night jungle adventure with Muyuna Lodge which is situated on the Yanuyacu River, a tributary of the Amazon, 140 kms from Iquitos. It was a four hour boat ride to the lodge and being the dry season it took some slick manouevering to get the tin outrigger up the narrow channels. We all piled off at 2 in the afternoon drenched in sweat. An hour later, having had barely any time to drink in our wicked mosquito proof, be-hammocked bungalow, we were already off on our first excursion - an hours hike to a lake. On the way we were pointed out various birds, the highlight was seeing the Hoatzin birds, although from somewhat far away. They´re referred to as "prehistoric birds" I think because of their crazy hairdos and the creepy way the young birds have claws on their wings to help them crawl away from predators. Stoked for having binoculars! Once at the lake it was time for a spot of sunset pirahna fishing, no big deal. There was eight of us all of whom caught a fish or tow, ´cept D and I! All we could muster were an undersize fish each that were quickly tossed back. Turns out we´re not natural fish murderers. Score!
As the lodge doesn´t run on electricity, as soon as night falls the lodge is lit up by kerosene lanterns which lends a rustic air to the place. All meals were buffet style and you could buy beer. Essentials sorted. We had maybe an hour to enjoy dinner before all the guides came around to inform their groups of the night excursions. No rest for the Amzon adventurer! Oscio - our stoic, built like a shit brickhouse guide - took us on the tarantula walk. At this point all I wanted to do was melt into a hammock and take in the jungly sounds so a little grumbly I set out. I mean, tarantulas, yech. We saw about 4 or 5, from a safe distance. Thank god we weren´t made to hold them or any of that chessy get close to nature business. I´m sure it´s the last thing the spiders want. Muyuna is the kind of place that is all about observing the creatures of the Amazon from a respectful, non-intrusive distance. The night walk got a whole lot better when the first of many fireflies appeared. I´m sure they´re actually fairies. Back in our bungalow it was fitting that what should be chilling on the netting above our bed but a bloody great tarantula. Sweet dreams!
F**king big spider
Deep in the Jungle. Day Two. Breakfast is served at 7am which gives you plenty of time in the early morning to take in the morning chorus from the birds. Our activity today was a 6 hour hike deep into the jungle to see what we could see. Now 6 hours in a temperate climate, no worries. In this humidity, hell on earth. By now, we had relaised that our guide was actual really under the weather and not at his best. We did get to see the smallest monkeys in the world, pygmy marmosets. Brain exploded. Too. Much. Cuteness. Heard a bunch of parokeets, saw lots butterflies, marvelled at the genius of leaf cutter ants. Day wasn´t a total loss. Best part or worst, depending how you look at it, was Darren sinking waist deep into the boggy mud. He took it positively and soldiered on, squelching all the way. By the time the 5th hour rolled around we were dying to get back and take showers, get in the hammock and have a nap. Best cold showers ever. Our night time excursion was a boat trip to look for caiman. Saw a tree boa, no caiman. Not to gutted by that gotta day. Back at 830 everyone just falls into bed, the humidity no hindrance to well needed rest. Special note - met our first New Zealanders of our trip and no shit, this guy recognised me and turns out he went to uni with Megan. NZ is THAT small folks.
Right after the incident with the mud and the bog.
Deep in the Jungle. Day Three. Breakfast was going to be out on the boat as we were setting off early in search of river dolphins. Saw our first sloth on the way - amazing! Sat on the boat munching jam sammies and plantain chips watching the occasional breach of a dolphin. Not spectacular byt it´s pretty crazy to see dolphins in a river. We cruised around an island to see if we could find some dolphon friends to swim with. Mission unsuccessful it did not hamper a bunch of us jumping joyfully in the brown water. We´ve swum in the Amazon. Cool. Back at the lodge at 11am we had 4 glorious hours to relax and have lunch before our next activity. We had a new guide as Oscio had to return to Iquitos for medical attention, poor dude. Cliver was his name and he took us on a canoe trip. We were dropped off up the river and we took a couple hours paddling back to the Lodge. This was far and away our favourite activity. No boat engines, barely any exertion. Just us, the river, and the jungle and all it´s creation. We saw sloths, trees dripping with vines and finally, high over us flew two blue and gold macaws. I had pretty much given up on seeing any big parrots as it being the dry season there´s just not enough fruit around to lure them to these parts. I was overjoyed. Adter dinner we got in the canoe again, this time for a spot of stealth caiman hunting. Again, without the engine noise we could take in all the sounds and Cliver would patiently tell us what each bird was and even found us an owl to freak out with our torches shining in his face. Dudes, the sounds of the Amazon are sublime. Movies don´t do it justice. Back to the caiman hunt. So the canoe is nosing into the reeds, Cliver is balancing on the tip making caiman noises, they´re grunting back, I´m freaking out imagining these bloody things (which we had learnt can grow up to 7 metres long!!) jumping into the canoe, Darren´s raring for a photo. It´s gone, I´m relieved, back to enjoying fireflies and the woeful call of the common potoo thank you very much.
Joyful Amazon swimming.
Deep in the Jungle. Day Four. Cliver took us on a civilised 3 hour hike to find monkeys. And find them we did. Squirrel monkeys, dusky titi monkeys, capuchin monkeys. Don´t expect any photos cos they´te out of there as qucik as you spot them. Also saw  a bunch of beautiful birds and we drank from a jungle vine the purest water you ever did drink. After a blissful break out of the heat of the day we hopped into the boat for a boat expedition up the river to spot sloths (three), monkeys (lots) and birds (lots and lots). We chugged to the nearby lake for the sunset and watcheda group of squirrel monkeys gambolling through the trees. The sunset was spectacular and when we turned around to head back to the lodge the eastern sky was alight with lightening. The evening activity was another futile boat trip to find caiman. It´s amzing how fast the days went by being so filled up with activities!
Umm yeah....
...the Amazon is beautiful.
Monkey in the distance.
Deep in the Jungle. Day Five. Our last day. Cliver took us on another 3 hour hike, this time to find different kinds of monkeys. We found em - noisy night monkeys, a mum, dad and baby peering down at us with their doleful eyes. Came across a turtle and spotted more capuchins. Back at the lodge we had to pack up and enjoy our last meal. We had met some really nice people including a couple frm Costa Rica who have given us their info and are expecting us for a visit in a few weeks! A guy from Kamloops was stoked upon hearing we were heading to Costa Rica and gave us a couple pages of tips and got me really excited. "Do you like animals? Then you´ll love it there. You´ll see more there than you have here".
Tomorrow we´re off to the desert oasis of Huacachina for some sand boarding, wine touring, dune buggying good times before we leave Peru for Costa Rica. Love to you all, D & A xo

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Inka Trail - sometimes the journey exceeds the destination

The day before we set off on our 4 day hike up and down the Andes, Darren and I were worried about our ability to trek such altitudes. I mean, we got puffed ascending the 10 steps up to our guesthouse bathroom. Later that night our fears were somewhat assuaged at our pre-trek briefing by Carlos, our more than genial guide "You will be fine amigos" and by the fact that our 5 other trek mates were equally intimidated. Still, from excitement or nerves, probably a little bit of both, I got no sleep that night. We were picked up at 5am that next morning and driven a couple hours through the country side to the starting point. As we slapped sunscreen and insect repellent on, my exhaustion melted away. A visage of mountains and winding river greeted us. We gripped our walking poles and began!
Our trek team, later named the Blue Pumas, at the beginning of the trek. We all became fast friends, nore like family. Note the 20 kilos on Darren´s back. My hero.

The first day was mostly a gentle trek alongside the river. There was a lot of commerce along this part with locals selling water, Gatorade, chocolate etc at every rest point. They certainly knew their market. It was dusty and windy at parts accompanied by flocks of tiny mosquitoes. We came across our first ruins just before lunch. We sat on the cliff above the ancient remnants of a Quechua administrative centre. The Quechua empire ("Inka" is a misnomer interpreted by the conquering Spanish. "Inka" is the Quechua word for their king. For the purposes of historical accuracy I will refer to the people of this area as Quechua as they should be referred to) was extremely well organised and bureaucratic. The trail to Macchu Picchu (or along the Sacred Valley) was well guarded and administered by Quechua citizens paying their taxes as soldiers, administrators, astronomers, farmers etc. Note, mostly men held these roles. Women could sometimes paid their dues by singing to farmers in the fields (motivators!), weaving and cooking for workers. We started to climb up about halfway through the afternoon. At one of our rest points we saw the first of many hummingbirds. The last hour before getting to camp was steep and slow going but Darren and I powered through and led the charge. Carlos, our guide, kept saying that this first day was "practice for day 2", the most challenging day of the trek. As dusk drew to a close we made our triumphant arrival. High fives and a round of applause from the crew greeted us.

End of day one, only slightly exhausted.
Though we carried our sleeping bags, sleeping mats, water, sunscreen etc (well, Darren carried most of our stuff), we had a  team of 10 porters accompanying us. All Quechua, they were the true heroes carrying up to 25 kilos of gear, food, tents, etc. Carrying these huge loads half would power ahead of us to set up for lunch (as all meals turned out to be, these were elaborate affairs of three courses laid out in a dining tent, cooked in a kitchen tent by a chef in a white chefs uniform, hat and all and served by Luis, the porter coordinator, a gentle ever smiling man) and the other half would literally run ahead to make sure we got a good camp spot, set up our tents and have hot water ready for us when our exhausted asses finally showed up. With enviable calf muscles they soldiered up and down the mountains in jandals (flip flops for the Canadians) and make shift back packs. It was hard not to feel pathetic in comparison and guilt too. But there was no way we would have been able to complete the trek having to carry all the usual stuff you have to for an overnighter. We asked Carlos if he thought that the porters resent these tourists who huff and puff up this trail. He said they didn´t and that they were happy to share their country with us. Stock answer? I don´t know. They were unfailingly nice, encouraging and non plussed the whole way. We learnt "thank you" in Quechua and cheered them as they burned past us on the trail. At the end, our affection for all ten of them was immense.
The entire "Blue Puma" team, including porters, chef and assistant chef.

Big breath. The daunting second day arrived. We were going to climbing, for four straight hours, to 4,215 metres over Dead Women´s Pass (so named because from a distant you can make out a perfectly shaped breast with nipple at the crest, *snort*). Darren and I had done suprisingly well with the altitude so far suffering no ill affects at all. Nevertheless we both chewed on several coca leafs to give us the energy to get going. Climbing a steep mountain at 7am is a tall order of a bunch of city folk. Though yesterday there were literally hundreds of hikers on the same trail as us we hardly saw them. This day was a different story as a never ending line of us laboured upwards. You´d think that it would be really annoying but there was a spirit of camraderie as you pass a few peeps who then pass you as you take a panting break. There was a sense of relief knowing that other people were having as much a hard time as you were. We were the first in our group to make it to the top of the pass where invariably you´d be greeted by cheers admidst the clouds and wind.

At the top of ´Dead Woman´s Pass´. A 4 hour trek uphill. F**k yeah, we made it!
If we thought getting up was tough we were totally unprepared for the arduous descent to our lunch spot. Now on the original Quechuan trail (miraculous how they meticulously laid all these stones) it was two hours of knee crushing labour. I fretted for Darren with his monster pack on and I was so worried about not tripping that I scarcely noticed the steep frickin´mountain I was climbing down. Hardcore fears being obliterated bam bam bam! After revelling in our sumptuous lunch the realisation started to slowly dawn on us that we had to ascend another huge mountain, this one only 200 metres smaller than the last. The artist rendering of the trail misleads using a scale that makes the second climb much smaller then the first - we were totally unaware! Carlos was blithe and echoing an earlier inspirational speech I declared to the group that "we must have a postive mental attitude, we can do it!". The journey up was nicely broken up by another set of ruins, this time a look out post. As we sat in a semi circle ("sit close amigos, share the body warmth") Carlos took us on another historical journey. When we made the crest I realised that we were about to descend into cloud forest. The cloud was thick, obscuring anything 10 feet in front of you. As we got half way down, the cloud dissapated and the humidity was back in the air. The sun was setting but we were joyous at the jungle foliage, the flowers and hummingbirds that now made up part of the landscape. Amazing the difference in topography in a matter of hours! The wonderment quickly turned to worry (at least for me!) as we realised that we were quite a whiles away from our camp spot with night fast approaching. Climbing down mountains affords perfect views of your campsites and this one looked far! We started to race and had to bypass another set of ruins (bugger climbing up 99 steps). We made it with mere minutes of dusk left. Dinner that night was a rather giddy affair so stoked we all were with our achievement. Carlos had been teasing us all day about a special surprise and after dessert he cracked out a pitcher of a warm Quechuan liquid concoction made of maize, apple, cinnamon, orange, black tea and lemon. Stoked with just this, cheers greeted the bottle of rum Carlos then whipped out of a bag. With our hot toddys well toddied we took our seats outside. The stars shined above us as Carlos regaled us with ghost stories and hilarious accounts of previous treks.

Sunset, descending into the cloud forest
Day three. This day was to be our shortest trek through the cloud forest. Still we set a fast pace stopping every now and again to take in a hummingbird and, as we got closer to our final campspot, scores of colourful butterflies. Our legs were doing pretty well but after 4 hours of hiking we were all about done. We hiked to another set of ruins, this time terraces for growing potatoes (the Quechua grew thousands of varieties). We had the afternoon for free time which mostly consisted of waiting for a shower with hundreds of other dusty, sweaty hikers. That night we beered it up but still went to bed early as we would be getting up at 4am in order to catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.

Welcome to the jungle
4 am came up fast and we stood at the check point until 5:30 watching the stars slowing disappear into the daylight. A furious pace was set and because of it we were amongst the first to ascend the sun gate and get primo shots with Machu Picchu behind us. It was quite emotional sitting there taking it all in, the culmination of our amazing journey.
Sunrise during the final morning at the sungate
It was a gentle final hike down to the ruins of all ruins. From way up at the sun gate we could see the hordes of tourists that had bused up to visit and it was really jarring to be among them all. Truth be told it was quite obnoxious and we felt a sense of indignation. We had hiked up and over the Andes thus we deserved to be there. We had suffered in body and made a physical sacrifice (the Quechuan reason behind taking quite a winding, undirect route to get there) to be at this spiritual city but you don´t get a sense of that these days. It was great to be told the significance behind the different structures but after the 2 hour tour of the site we were all in a hurry to get out and down the mountain.

Who´s huge?

Darren ran up a million stairs to get this final classic shot. I went and sat in a thatch roof hut out of the hardcore sun. This trip was truly a blessing and miraculous. Transcendental. Many thanks to the amazing Carlos for his inspired guiding and for the company of Erin, Lindsay, Elizabeth, Jo, and Tracy. Team Blue Puma forever!

The classic shot.