Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca

After leaving the jungle (reluctantly...did you see those monkeys?!?), we had just over five more days to fill with Peruvian adventures before heading home. We decided to head north to the Cordillera Blanca for one last backpacking trek. A winding overnight bus from Lima landed us in Huaraz, a small town at 10,000 feet surrounded by astonishing white peaks. It's known as a trekker and alpine climber's paradise, but the tourist presence was pretty minimal.

We settled on the Santa Cruz Circuit, a ~47 km loop that includes a 15,584 foot pass. Much of the hike was through huge u-shaped valleys with massive glaciated mountains above us.

Now, just as Torres had mice problems, Santa Cruz had cow problems. Throughout the entire hike, there were cows, horses, and donkeys everywhere, riddling the ground with their poop and muddy hoofprints. The cows were very curious/hungry and would come within feet of our tent!

We went 4 for 4 for rainy nights, including one night of sleet. Luckily, we were mega-prepared (minus a leaky rental tent). The first morning, however, was sunny and beautiful. We even went for a swim in the glacial stream!

We hiked across a massive landslide that may have drained a lake that appeared on our map but did not actually exist.

Hiking uphill at altitude is somewhat hilarious. We shuffled along and took lots of breaks. It's incredibly difficult to catch your breath. The top of the pass was pretty cloudy, but nonetheless satisfying.

Check out those sweet rain pants

Although there are some official camping areas, you could camp anywhere. Mike had the great idea to climb up a little waterfall to a secret lake. When we woke up, we were rewarded with this:

See our little tent??
Later that day we arrived in a small town full of farm animals like this little guy:

They don't care about us at all
We hitched a ride over the last pass on top of a truck full of corn. In the rain. Two hours later the truck broke down at the top. So we walked in the dark down the crazy switchbacks to our final campsite. Phew! 

 On our final day we saw some brilliant blue glacial lakes cowering under Peru's tallest mountain: Huascaran.

Back in Huaraz, we had one last meal, one last Pisco Sour, one last longgggggg bus ride, and our South American adventures were drawn to a close...

But as our chipper French waitress told us last night, "one ending is just another beginning."

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Amazon

After saying goodbye to Luke and Maca in Cusco, Nellie and I took an overnight bus to the small city of Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon. We thought of the Amazon as Brazilian, but it actually starts in the lush rainforest of Peru to the east of the Andes. The city of Peurto Maldonado was buzzing with gold miners, but several national parks just outside of the city hold some of the most well-preserved rainforest in the world.

We spent three nights on Lake Sandoval, which is an oxbow lake (i.e. used to be part of a river) with bath-warm water. We were paired with a nice French couple, and had an amazing guide named Freddy who was roughly our age. He had grown up in a small village in the forest, and knew an incredible amount about the plants and animals of the region. And we had a good time playing cards with him in the evenings. Our routine was to canoe around the lake from dawn until mid-morning, then to take a short hike in the forest in the afternoon, and finally to canoe again at dusk.

Was it the classic Amazon rainforest that I had imagined and read about? Mostly yes. It felt less remote than I had imagined, and was sometimes a lighter shade of green. But the wildlife and the forest did not disappoint. We saw raucous troops of monkeys (four species), giant river otters, caimans, and even a tarantula. And I have never seen trees so large. The vines were as big as the trees in our forests. Hopefully the pictures below will do it justice!

PS - after we came out of the jungle we stayed at a lodge with four rehabilitated howler monkeys. They were really cute :)

Lago Sandoval at dawn. Oddly enough, it reminded us of Big Wolf Lake in the Adirondacks (where Nellie's family has a camp).
We saw many Huatzins, which are bizarre, rather ugly birds that are related to the dinasaurs.
We did a lot of paddling around the lake. Note the classic jungle tree towering above the rest of the canopy.
We saw a troop of squirrel monkeys early on our first morning. It was so cool to see monkeys in the wild. They were small (squirrel-sized), but there were probably twenty-five in the troop. They traversed the bushes and trees on the lakeshore furiously searching for food. We saw one stuffing its face with a gushy worm. And they were surprisingly reckless as they lept between branches kamikaze-style.
Later that afternoon we saw a troop of capuchin monkeys. They were substantially larger than the squirrels, and looked strikingly human when they ate. They would use both hands to peel a piece of fruit, take a few bites, and then throw the rest to the ground. The whole troop was really quite loud as they crashed about in the canopy. 
The trees in the forest were HUGE!
Freddy and I climbing vines around the trunk of another enormous tree.
A "Strangler Vine" killing a full-grown palm tree. Freddy said it would take about fifteen years for the vine to kill the palm. Such mean plants! Wild stuff.
The branch to the left is actually a parasite/vine, not a real branch (zoom in to see).  It was the size of a medium-sized maple, and had vines dangling all the way to the ground.
Swinging Tarzan-style.
The lake at sunset. Just like Big Wolf!
We saw Green Parrots and Blue-and-Yellow Macaws. The macaws were bright and beautiful.
A Saddleback Tamarin with its baby clinging to its back (zoom in). The monkey troops were really curious and would come directly above us. It was awesome to see them up close.
A tarantula. Gross.
A Boa Constrictor! (it was a small one)
And a Caiman. So I guess it was a bit different from Big Wolf Lake. After sunset we would paddle around and shine flashlights at the shore, and their eyes would glow red in the light. They were everywhere, and they looked really really evil. And Freddy said that he had seen them gobble up reckless squirrel monkeys that fell into the lake.
Freddy explaining a tree that had been twisted by a vine.
A baby pineapple. I had no idea that this was where they came from!
Monkey Pile at the lodge after we had left the jungle. Baby monkey, teenage monkey, and papa monkey.
A few minutes after this photo was taken the larger monkey and the dog began a prolonged play-fight. It ended with the monkey riding the dog's back, pulling its ears and tormenting it. Monkeys clearly win.
Naptime :)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Machu Picchu...or MaPi, as the locals call it

My mom had a little llama keychain on her pocket knife my whole childhood. She found it in this magical place in Peru called Machu Picchu. For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to go and see it myself.

Unfortunately, Machu Picchu has become the hot South American destination for a lot of people. It remains as utterly stunning and impressive as everyone might imagine, but for me at least, some of the charm is lost in the swarms of tourists and equally stunning price tags. 

The main take-away? The Inca Empire was pretty sweet. I was surprised at how much better MaPi became as I learned the Incan history behind its creation. Their hard work (neuroticism?) and devotion to their gods and mythical creatures seems unparalleled. I want to share all the fun facts we learned about how and why they built stuff, but I guess you can just wiki that. Or ask us later!

We took the train from Cuzco via Ollantaytambo, which is another awesome site, practically in town (people are still living in Inca-built structures). In Aguas Calientes, we soaked in the thermal baths before waking at 4:50 am in order to hike the hour up and "see the sunrise" over MaPi aka "see" Machu Picchu in the mist and rain for two hours. But we did beat the crowds!!

I will admit, however, that I got that I'm-about-to-cry feeling when I finally did see the mist pull away and reveal it all. Well done, Mr. Inca.  

Ollantaytambo. This Inca site is the only to have successfully held back the Spanish (although it was later overtaken).
Luke at 5 am before the hike. We tried to convince him that he didn't need his make-up for the MaPi pics, but he insisted.
Before the crowds got up, we got some alone time with Mr. Llama

The Sun Temple. Perhaps the most impressive architecture at the whole site. That was put together with no mortar 500 years ago, and has survived multiple earthquakes! 

Every single window or shelf space is trapezoidal, to make it stronger.

Out of the mist it comes!!!

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Our trip to Peru started off with a slight hiccup. Upon arrival to the Santiago Airport, Luke was informed that he was not allowed to leave the country due to a visa renewal expiration stamp thing. Luckily he is a cool-headed dude and quickly decided he’d meet us the following day after sorting things out at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Maca, Mike, and I had an otherwise smooth trip and a fun time navigating Cuzco and the Spanish language without our trusty translator. It was really great to see Luke again 24 hours later, however. We were surprised at the size of the city (I was imagining something along the lines of Kuzcotopia from the Emperor’s New Groove); with about 500,000 inhabitants, it’s positively bustling. In the historical district there’re multiple beautiful plazas and Spanish churches built on top of Inca ruins. The streets are narrow and paved with stones. There is a moderate presence of indigenous culture, but the most conspicuous parts are clearly put on for the tourists. Brightly dressed women drag llamas around, and little children hold lambs and offer photos for un sol. About 60% of Peruvians speak Quechua, the original language of the Incas.

The main Plaza de Armas
Mike hangin' out with the first of many llamas and alpacas to come!
Our Sacsayhuaman Inca ruins adventure sin Lookas
No one has had altitude sickness. We all had minor headaches upon arrival, but the 11,000 feet mainly manifested itself in hilarious huffing and puffing after walking up even short flights of stairs or steep streets (which Cusco is filled with). We’ve all been good about avoiding the water, though we've YOLO-ed the street food a couple of times. So far, so good. The weather is the same every day: sunny and ~65. In the sun it feels hotter; in the shade, colder. It’s incredibly easy to get sun burned. Oh, except a couple times it hailed. That was cool.

A classic steep Cusco street. The woman on the right has the traditional campesino garb on (unlike the more ornate outfits they put on for tourists).  The sacks they wear on their backs are for babies or the goods that they're selling in the markets.
Coca leaves! I've been wanting to try these ever since doing a project on the coca plantations in Bolivia at Middlebury. Apparently they are supposed to help with the altitude. They more just tasted like grass. 
Cuzco is cheap, especially when you venture a block or two away from the main plaza. Three course set menu lunches go for s/9, and a nice room for two is around s/50. Peruvian cuisine is spicy and flavorful. We’ve tried alpaca, many new fruits, Peruvian Pisco Sours (YUM) and a few of the 3800 types of potato grown here (that’s an actual number. Seriously). We stayed in a bustling social hostel for a few nights and then switched to a quaint little hospedaje in the barrio San Blas, which is up on a hill overlooking the city. There’s been a great balance of lazy mornings (much to the dismay of Miguel) and afternoon Inca ruin explorations.
Tambomachay. A very impressive ruin centered around water fountains about 9 km from Cusco. In order to get there, Mike and I went off-road and wandered through sheep fields and a small village. 
Sacsayhuaman. The walls have huge stones that were hauled from as far away as 30 km. The zig-zag is supposed to represent the teeth of a puma. We watched those groups of school children scatter as two mad llamas chased each other around the field, screaming WAAAA WAAAA WAAAA.
I like this picture because it gives you a sense of the landscape surrounding the ruins. You might be able to see old terracing lines on the hill to the left?
We're super excited about our new alpaca sweaters
Mike petting a burrito. So much cuter than Chipotle.
One major highlight was an approximately 5 hour Peruvian Cooking Class. First we went to the market and bought our ingredients. In the more local part of the market, women sitting on the ground surrounded by piles of fruits and vegetables lined the streets for about three blocks. There were live frogs, dead chickens with their heads and feet still attached, naked little guinea pigs lined up on sheet pans, wheelbarrows of tomatoes, etc etc etc. Back at the kitchen we cooked all of our dishes and were subsequently served the positively elegant meal.
The market
Freddi, our instructor!
The peppers were so spicy that we had to wear gloves to cut them!
Stuffed rocoto peppers, boiled yuca, and fried potatoes
Enjoying our feast! The juice is chicha morada, which is a sweet drink made from black corn.
On our last day together, Mike and Luke bro-ed out on ATVs while Maca and I got massages. Pretty awesome all around. We're going to miss them!
Check out that 'stache!
We spent a total of about 5 days/6 nights in Cuzco. Two additional days were spent getting to and visiting the spectacular Machu Picchu (which will be covered in the next post). Woohoo!