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.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Cuzco is muy beautiful - mountains, narrow cobble stone alleyways, llamas and a variety of cosmopolitan restaurants and bars. We really like it here, there's less traffic and a 10 minute walk takes you to the countryside and Inca ruins.

slippery cobblestone and Alpacas
We splashed out a bit on our accommodation here. We have our own bathroom, hot water on demand, a comfy bed and even TV. We've watched two starwars movies as we've acclimatized to the 3500 metre altitude.

We start the Inca trail tomorrow morning. While we are looking forward to it and Machu Pichu at the end, we are under no illusions that this will be any easy trek. The second day will take us steeply to 4200 meters over a pass aptly named 'dead woman's pass'. Anna is really looking forward to the downhill part, especially as it will take us into cloud forest. Orchids! and Butterflies. We will fill you in on the details of the trek when we return to civilization - in about 5 days.

ancient giant rocks that formed Incan castle walls

Right now we have to head into town to go to our pre-trek briefing. Then it's chicken soup for dinner and an early night as we have to get up at 5 am. Nighty night.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Arequipa is a keeper (darren's choice, obviously right??)

Mt. Misti, from the rooftop of Colonial House Inn
Darren has been taken with the mountains, colonial architecture, the many churches, the massive wooden doors embedded in high skilled walls flanking the streets, the rooftop patio and resident cat ("Richard", below right) at our guesthouse.
Rooftop patio at Colonial House

Arequipa is beautiful, all cobblestoney and shadowed by three huge mountains. The abundance of clear blue skies was a welcome change from grey Lima too. The forecast has said it was only 20 or so degrees but it felt much more. We attribute that to to the high altitude (2,400 metres) and a lack of ozone. It is a dry climate which has meant tragedy for my hair. The slapdash home job razor cut perfect for humid climes is a limp, frizzy mess. Trivial this may sound but my hair is my greatest vanity. A ponytail will suffice for the next week and a half, after which it's into the tropics baby and curls will once again reign supreme.

Courtyard in Santa Catalina Monasterio
Back to Arequipa. In our 4 days here we've been taking her easy to get acclimatised to the altitude. We done a lot of napping and strolling around the city centre (basically a 6 block radius). We hit up one historical site, the Santa Catalina monastery. It housed around 300 nuns back in it's hey day 300 years ago and no outsiders had ever seen inside until 1970. We spent a couple hours looking through the various cells and courtyards and halls. Sometimes I think the nun's life is for me because I can appreciate solitude, silence and devotion to embroidery. Of course not the catholic kind. I couldn't abide sleep dep, sitting in uncomfortable positions, and the wearing of barbed wire under garments. I don't care about absolving other people's sins enough for that.

Atop Santa Catalina Monasterio
We have decided we are not going to eat guinea pig. The main reason because they're just too darn cute (I know, I know, so are cows, sheep etc - when I'm back in NZ where baby animals frolic in the fields in full view of the road on the way to and from Mum and Dads place, I will probably take up the vegetarian mantle again. Yes, I am THAT kind of vegetarian).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bike City

Charmingly flattering photo of me on the rented bike we had to take a guided tour of three of Lima´s suburbs - Miraflores, Barranco, and Chorillos. Jose was our informative and rad guide who gave us a geographical, historical and socio-political insight into Lima´s past. It never rains in Lima, get a load of that! Everything that is green is extensively hand watered every day. Vultures are protected because back in the day when open sewers were a problem they took care of the dead bodies (mostly animals friends, don´t worry). Chile attacked these areas back in the late 1800´s which destroyed a lot of the old bulidings as did earthquakes in 1940, 1970, and 1974. Good old capitalist privatisation destroyed their fair share of heritage buildings and the very capable tram system. We cruised around back streets and busy roads waving to Peruanos as we went. 4 hours of good times. 
Church at Parque Central Miraflores. If you look really close at the top of the right hand pillar there is a sleeping cat. This park has 80 odd cats chilling.
Southern Lima coastline, just out of the old fishing town of Chorillos (now a poorer outskirt suburb of Lima). Below, a fountain in Chorillos.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lima beans

Marcos, a troubador. At Posada de los Angels, Barranco, Lima. We hung out here last night and drank sangria. It was cozy and cute and the smell of cigarettes smoked indoors reminded me of the olden days. Lima is really laid back and they do the nightlife right. Things don´t start going until 10pm and goes until 3 or 4am.

Me on Lima cliffs. Flower nerds note the morning glory! This was a sunny break. Usually very low hanging cloud is present making for melancholy skies not unlike Vancouver 8 months of the year, with one notable exception, rain. Not one drop has fallen the whole 4 days we´ve been here. We´ve walked back and forth along these cliffs several times. Today we walked along the beach to El Parque del Amor at the top of the cliffs in Miraflores. I napped on the grass. I´ve been doing a lot of that, sleeping. I´ve been enjoying 8+ hours of uninterupted sleep every night which, while nothing new for Darren, is a blissful experience of the kind I have not experienced in several months. I should buy shares in an ear plug company. Bloody miracles. Dark rooms or my handy sleeping mask help too. Tomorrow we are taking a 15 hour overnight bus up into the mountains to Arequipa (half way to Cusco and the Inca trail). I will let you all know if my attempt to buy Valium over the counter was a success or not and whether I needed it for the trip. So far we are having a wonderful happy sublime time with lots of shared romantic moments of "OhI´msogladwe´redoingthisIloveyou"so maybe all I´ll need is Darren´s arm to clutch at. Works well going through turbulence at 30,000 feet.
Piccarones! Darren caught wind of these deep fried desserty concotions with that fine tuned Dutch sweet tooth of his mere moments into our first foray out into Lima and has been hankering to try them ever since. Prompted for a quote Darren says of them "Tastes like Ollie Bollin (sp?)" which means nothing unless you´re of Dutch descent. My take, a fairly dismissive "meh" but I was stuffed full of antichochos (enormous beef kebabs) and seafood at time of tasting. I´m sure if I was wasted at 3am, I´d be all "NOM NOM F**K YEAH NOM". Postscript, Peruvian beer is good.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Lima has sweet buildings

We are having difficulty uploading photos so this is all you get at this juncture. This building is down the road from where we are staying in the district of Barranco. Barranco used to be an area for the wealthy back in Colonial times, hence the princely architecture. The wealthy fled the area some time ago so now everything is charmingly crumbled and faded. As in many cities, this area has been taken over by artists and students so there´s a plethora of rad bars and restaurants for us to patronise.
We´ve walked along the seaside cliffs. We´ve eaten ceviche accompanied by a big ole jug of beer. We´ve sucessfully communicated in Spanish at times. We´ve misunderstood at times. I bought an alpaca wool sweater (jersey for the kiwis) which I bartered for. I never barter. Total success story. Today we ate lunch in a food court mall and did not have KFC or shitty Chinese. We ate chorizo and tacu tacu. More success! We walked to Miraflores (tourist central) and booked a bike tour for Monday morning. Darren wanted to master Lima´s public transport, I was hesitant. Urged on by D, we waited and hopped the next bus that had "Barranco" scribbled on its side. 3 minutes later we emerged from the bus down the street from our hostel. Supreme success!!
Right now, Darren is whipping up some "dos minutos fideos con brĂ³coli, ajo y zanahoria" (2 minute noodles with veges). Tonight we´re hoping to find some live local music. Stay tuned amigos.