26 June 2014

Peru: Some Closing Thoughts

Now that our trip to Peru is winding down, here are some thoughts about our two weeks here, in the order in which they come to my head.
  • Traveling on a trip like this, in a country without an easy-to-navigate tourism infrastructure, S and I both felt that we needed a travel agent to handle the details of our trip. We found Roberto at Peru Inside Out, and he and his support was exceptional! When we landed in Lima, the driver handed us a cellphone that we used on occasion to check in with him, but usually, things ran smoothly. Drivers met us at the hotels, airports, and train stations. We had knowledgeable guides on our trips (Nancy in Lima, Roberto himself in Arequipa, Omar in Colca/Chivay, Janet in Cusco/Sacred Valley, Augustine in Machu Picchu, Dino in the jungle), and the details of the trips (hotel reservations, train and plane tickets, etc.) were all taken care of. We definitely splurged on this trip, but if you want to go to Peru, check out Peru Inside Out (and I hear they're expanding into Ecuador too!).
  • I'm very glad that most of our tours were private. The one time we spent stuck on a large bus (for Inti Raymi) was awful.
  • Speaking of Inti Raymi, don't buy the ticket to the big show. It's not worth it. Just wander the town and go to the two free events in Cusco proper.
  • Cities we liked: Lima, Arequipa, Cusco.
  • Cities we didn't like: Puno
  • Hotels we loved: Casa Andina in Arequipa, Colca Lodge, Tambo de Inka in Urubamba, Inkaterra in Machu Picchu Pueblo, Hacienda Concepcion near Puerto Maldonado.
  • Hotels we didn't like: Tierra Viva in Puno (but the staff was great)
  • The star-rating of hotels seem to be relative to what the city has to offer. Tierra Viva was a four-star, but it was by far the worst property we stayed at.  Colca Lodge was a four-star, but it was on par with the five-stars in the Sacred Valley. Do your research!
  • In general, all of the staff at the hotels, airlines, etc., were all excellent. Most spoke English, and if not, they indulged my pigeon Spanish.
  • We spent way too many days traveling. There was one time we spent three nights in one place. The rest of the time, we were in the same hotel for one or two nights. That was a mistake.
  • Also, we planned too many things. We actually had very little time where we were able to laze about. The few times we did, it was often because we were on a train for 10 hours, or something like that.
  • Do not discount the altitude issues when traveling in Peru. It's there, and it's real.
  • S found some clothing made by Ex Officio that was specifically treated to ward off bugs. We both bought some, and I treated some of my other clothing with a spray to do the same thing. It worked fantastically. We both came back from the Amazon jungle with nary a bug bite.
If we were going to come to Peru again, I think this might be a smarter itinerary:
  • Three nights in Lima
  • Three or four nights in Cusco
  • Four or five nights in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu
  • Three nights in the jungle

24 June 2014

Peru: Day 15: Inti Raymi

When S and I started organizing this trip, we discovered that 24 June was when Cusco celebrated Inti Raymi, or the festival of the sun. Why it wasn't on the solstice, we didn't know, but we bought tickets to see the ancient Incan celebration.

What a mistake.

The day started off with an 8am meeting at the hotel lobby to walk to the first of three sites for the festival. The first site was just a few blocks from our hotel. It was a packed sidewalk overlooking a sunken garden. We crowded in with thousands of our closest friends, each one clambering for a better view. Finally, at 9, the event started. Some music played, and about 200 Peruvians, clad in different Peruvian costumes, paraded in. Then, there was some prayer, and the 200 Peruvians danced out. The whole thing took about 45 minutes, most of which was watching the costumed dancers file in and out. All while being crushed. Lame.

S left after this first event. The crowds and altitude were too much. I should've joined her.

We then filed to the Plaza de Armas, where again we crammed together to watch a 45-minute ceremony, most of which was the filing in and out. It was almost exactly the same, but at least this time I was able to take some photos:

Then, we followed our tour guide (this was one of the few times this trip where we joined a larger group) to the travel agency, where we waited for 45 minutes before boarding a bus for the trip up the hill to the last location. On the bus trip up, the guide explained that the entire ceremony used to take place in the Plaza de Armas, but that the main event was moved up to the hillside so that the city could make money selling tickets to tourists. This made me uncomfortable, but if me buying an expensive ticket made for a good show and a boon to the local economy, I guess I could live with that.

Famous last words.

The hillside ceremony was only slightly better than the previous sections. For one, I had an actual seat. For two, there was an agenda that was more than just filing in and out. But that was where the improvements ended. There was still a long period of time filing in and out. There were still the same two songs I had been hearing all day (both in an AABB pattern, with influences from American Indian and Chinese music), there were still the same dances, only now they were interspersed with long monologuing in Quechua, the ancient Incan language. I took a bunch of photos:

And then, about 70 minutes in, I packed up my stuff and left.

I couldn't find the tour group leader to say goodbye, but I assume he didn't miss me too much. I walked down the hill into town, found my way back to the hotel, and spent the afternoon wandering around town. S and I met up for dinner, and now we're back in the hotel, relaxing before heading to bed for an early morning. We need to be packed and ready to go by 6am for our ride to the airport. Looking forward to a long flight and sleeing in our own bed tomorrow night!

Bon voyage, Peru! It's been (mostly) great!


Peru: Day 14: Back to Cusco

We got up this morning, ate our breakfast, said goodbye to the birds and Dino, and hopped a boat back to Puerto Maldonado to catch our flight to Cusco.

We got back to Cusco, got an upgrade to our room, unpacked a bit, and set out to wander the town. Cusco is getting ready to celebrate Inti Raymi tomorrow, or the festival of the winter solstice. Today, the Plaza de Armas was packed with revelers and paraders. It was hard to tell with my limited Spanish, but it sounds like each of the towns around Cusco out together their own dance/music demonstration.

S and I had burgers for lunch, a little taste of home. Then, we toured the local Inca temple,

wandered Plaza San Bras, the bohemian district, and did a little gift shopping.

S got pooped, she turned in early while I visited a bar that specialized in artisanal Pisco. The manager talked me through five different kinds of Pisco, how it is made, and how the different varieties differ. I managed to hold my own with my knowledge of spirits in general, but I definitely learned a great deal about this grape spirit. I may have bought a few bottles and made some friends with some guys from the Bay Area.

Back to the room to take care of some flight nonsense and get some sleep. Tomorrow is another early morning!



23 June 2014

Peru: Day 13: Relaxing in the Amazon

This morning I woke to the sound of a bird that I've been trying to record for a few days. I crept out of bed, grabbed my recorder, and got some good samples. I had woken earlier than I had intended, so with my extra time I walked away from the cabanas to do some more recording. There are some amazing animal sounds around here, but any recording close to the riverbank is marred by the sound of motorboats putting up and down the river. Short of a hike three miles inland, there's not much doing to get rid of that sound. Bernie Krauss would have a lot to say about it.

The rest of D's group left this morning, so S and I had D to ourselves. We started the day off with a trip to a local farm. The farmers were in Puerto Maldonado for the weekend markets, so we wandered through ourselves. Most of the farm is agricultural, but they do grow some chickens for meat. Here's the house where the family lives:

As D took us around the farm, he told us a lot about farming in the Amazon. For example, there are papaya trees AND mamaya trees. The papaya trees have more fruit, but smaller in size. The mamaya has bigger fruit, but fewer of them. Also, after a banana tree fruits twice, it gets hacked off mid-trunk, and a new plant sprouts from the trunk We saw papaya, banana, lemon, lime, oranges, corn, cauliflower, cabbage, squash, cilantro, fake cilantro, basil, star fruit, coconut, and avocado. Here's a lemon -it's much larger than ours in the USA (about the size of a grapefruit):

S and D tromp through the fields

Also, D showed is this fruit whose name we can't remember (nina, or noni, or nani...):

After walking the grounds, we came back to the farmhouse and D hacked up a coconut, which he presented to S:

Then, a short boat ride back to the lodge and a chance to take a siesta before lunch (where I drank the coconut).

In the late afternoon, we met up with D one last time for a paddle around the lagoon here at the lodge. We saw lots of birds and insects, but only one fish (which was in a heron's mouth):

Then, back to the lodge, where we left D with a nice tip (he said he would share it with the others), and another break before we do the night cruise again.

After the cruise was one last dinner, which featured a spectacular dessert: roasted plátanos with clove, cinnamon, and vanilla, in a butter-rum sauce. Whoa. On the way back to the cabana, we stopped for a quick photo of the upstairs of the lodge. All of the buildings here are open to the air (but with screens) - there are very few solid walls.

Tomorrow, we depart our jungle habitat, bound again for Cusco, our final stop of this trip!



Peru: Day 12: Lake Sandoval and more!

Wake up was supposed to be at 5am, but most of the lodges woke up at 4.30 to a woman's voice screaming 'Oh my God!' The screaming was not followed by the sounds of growling or ripping flesh, so I didn't get too worried. I got out of bed, put on my clothes in the dark, and made my way to the dining lodge for breakfast. Sleepy-eyed people trickled in, but none admitted to being the one who screamed. Which makes sense, I guess. If I were the one who screamed, I'd deny it too.

At 6am, we met at the Eco lodge, swapped out our shoes for rubber boots, and hopped in the boat for a short trip downstream to the Lake Sandoval trailhead. Our lodge sits in a buffer zone between 'regular use' areas of the jungle and 'research only' areas of the jungle, and the lake sits just inside the 'research only' area. It was a muddy 3km hike from the river bank to the lake, but we took our time. Dino was our guide, and he showed us lots of wildlife along the way:

Our muddy trail

Once we reached the lake, we hopped in a rowboat to tool along the bank, spying turtles, cayman, birds, butterflies, bats, and river otters!

After the hike, we returned to the lodges, and I took a shower before lunch. After lunch and a siesta, we boarded the boats again to go a little further downstream to a canopy walk that our resort put together with an NGO and some academic institutions. We climbed about 150 feet in the air and walked through the treetops on a series of swinging canopies. Most of the life and energy in the rain forest happens high above the ground, and we got a chance to see it first hand. Despite being up high and in the thick of foliage, we didn't see many animals. D explained later that this was because there are so many noisy groups of tourists (including lots of school groups) coming through, the animals have learned to steer clear.

After the canopy walk, we had a short break, just enough time to get a Pisco Sour at the hotel bar. Then, as soon as the sun set, we gathered again for our finals excursion of the day, a night hike for critters and insects. Dino took S, Jim, Linda, and I on a walk of the grounds, stopping on occasion to see tiger spiders, tarantulas, and other insects.

Tomorrow, J and L are leaving, so we have D all to ourselves. S and I met with him to make a plan for tomorrow, and when that was done, we headed to the lodge for dinner.

At dinner, we dined with Julie and Grace, two women from the Bay Area in CA, who had hiked the Inca Trail and were now having a few days of r&r before returning home. G went to Drake U, and two of her cousins went to Grinnell. We had a good time sharing Peru stories and talking about life back in the states. Dinner tonight was tasty - I had a kale quiche and a baked fish (complemented by two Pisco sours, complements of our waiter from last night, who felt bad about some poor service). Another nice meal!

All of our new friends here are leaving tomorrow, so S and I are headed to sleep to get some rest before our day with D. Hasta mañana!