Sunday, October 19, 2014

Into the Woods... er, the Jungle!

My 'ride' down to Puerto Maldanado
On Sunday, Ingrid and I headed off to Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport for our separate flights to Puerto Maldonado, Peru. It was a short, hour long flight and I arrived first. After gathering up my luggage I sat just outside the terminal, marveling at the sweltering heat and wondering why I hadn't just burst into flames as yet.
Cardinal a the airport terminal
Ingrid's flight was due an hour later. The time arrived and left, no Ingrid. Hum... no doubt the airline ran on Peruvian time. Another hour came and went, no Ingrid. So, obviously her jet had careened into a jungle haven ruled by dinosaurs and she was being eaten by a T-rex.When her jet finally arrived I was composing a letter to her daughters, expressing my deepest sympathies. Happily reunited, we had next to decide where the heck we were going. As we thought about what we would do this week, were were rapidly surrounded, not by the piranhas of my nightmares, but something nearly the same; hoards of taxi drivers who offered us cheaper rides into town than the taxi drivers next to them. There were also hawkers of jungle adventure tours. Ingrid & I scrutinized the pamphlet of a likely adventure venue, and soon were sight seeing as our a taxi whisked off to the adventure HQ in downtown Puerto Maldonado.

For $200 American dollars we signed up for three days and four nights of room and board in the Peruvian Rain forest jungle. There we can pick and choose from a number of outdoor adventures offered daily. We were pretty pleased with our decision for the week, and our first task was getting to the our adventure spot. So, along with another couple of travelers, an Aussie and his Peruvian sweetheart, the adventure hosts stuffed us into taxis and drove us the three miles to the river's edge. There we were in view of the Puerto Maldonado bridge, over which cars and trucks traveled high overhead. A few hundred feet below we could see river boats, and I could see I was never going to be able to get down the hill with my luggage and without broken ankles. As I secretly pondered the sturdiness or lack thereof of my ankles, one of the adventure guides picked up my two travel bags and marched downhill at a rapid pace. Relieved, I followed him, and Ingrid to the first of our week's adventures - 'crossing a chunk of log crossing over a steep ravine adventure'. 

Ingrid crossing the log bark footbridge
While Ingrid marched ahead, I pondered the bridge's ability to sustain my weight. Finally I decided what the hell, if the bark broke and I plunged down the ravine, I wouldn't have to be bothered getting down the 'dusty 'Slippery Steep Slope Adventure'. 

Ingrid and fellow travelers trotting down the 'Slippery Steep Slope Adventure'
followed by the 'Plank Over the Mud Adventure'
I took my sweet time descending the Slope, stepping sideways like a giant crab until I reached bottom. Then I crossed the plank and finally stepped on board the boat, only to discover the boat was not our transportation. The boat was someone's home. We crossed through their on-board, open air living room (judging by a man, asleep on the deck's hammock). The fellow who had my luggage, was now on a narrow little boat which I could get to easily - in his view - by crossing over two other narrow little boat bows. That was the 'Don't Fall into the Piranha Infested River as You Step from Boat to Boat to Boat Adventure'.

Soon we were seated in the narrow boat, sailing east along the Madre de Dios River.
Boating the Madre de Dios River
The ride was exciting and the river was wild, wide and exotic looking. Soon we arrived at our destination, Yakari Eco Lodge. There we abandoned ship and tackled the 'Rickety, Slanted, Unstable Steep Stairs Up From the Riverbank Adventure'.

Yakari Eco Lodge river landing
The site was wonderful! The first thing that caught my eye was a little Javalina pig, that greeted everyone like a happy puppy. I found out her name is Lucy, and she is the camp pet, and she is 8 months old. 
Little Lucy, the White-collared Peccary by the dining hall porch
There was a large thatched dining room with a cute patio where we had lunch & dinner with our fellow travelers. The meals were semi-formal, with 'local' & regular foods served to us in courses. And Ingrid and I had our own cabin, which was elevated above the jungle floor and had screens instead of windows. Our beds were equipped with mosquito nets.
We had electricity for several hours a day for charging up our devises
Ingrid, in our room, resting up from her last Jungle Adventure
During lunch we were told the adventure of the afternoon was to take a boat ride, then take a 2 kilometer hike to 'Monkey Island' where everyone would be provided with tidbits to feed wild monkeys that take food from one's hands, and have a go at relieving tourists of their cameras, etc.
Believe it or not, I took a pass on the tour. Instead I stayed behind to do some birding around the grounds.

I gathered up my little traveling chair, my camera and binocs and headed out. First thing I noticed was high up there were lots of hanging nests. 

Hanging nests
It wasn't long before I spotted several of the large birds that built the hanging nests - Orpendolas. There are many kinds of Orpendolas and I think I figured out which one I was seeing.
One of the nest builders - a Russet-backed Orpendola birds
Some of the birds found me instead of the other way around.
Squawking Orange-backed Troupial
And believe me, I had to look up every one of them in my new Birds of Peru guidebook.
Green and White Hummingbird
Here's the kicker; I did not go birding alone. Nope! Little Lucy, the pet camp White-collared Peccary/Javalina, followed me around like a loyal dog. Whenever I sat, she would lean against my legs, begging for scratches. She would then plop onto her side, legs up, imploring me to rub her fat tummy. OK. I fell in love with the pig. I swear, I am going to stuff her in my suitcase and smuggle her back to Fair Oaks. 

At one point I was sitting, waiting for some cardinals to return to a post, when I saw something walk out of the jungle foliage. I was thrilled to see a Brown Agouti, an oversized rodent, the size of a pekinese dog. 
The Brown Agouti that totted out of the Jungle
The Agouti saw me, no doubt, but I was far enough off it sat on its haunches, quite relaxed. It stayed until a camp dog - a buddy of Lucy's - spotted it and chased it away. I wanted to murder the stupid dog! 
The wren-like, Pale-legged Hornero
When the heat got to me, I decided to head back to my cabin and was excited to hear of Ingrid's Monkey Island Adventure when she returned. 

Not long after sunset, both Ingrid and I went along on the last adventure of the day, an after dark cruise on the river, to look for wild Caiman, a relative of the alligator.
A Caiman in the spotlight
We spotted several Caiman, some in the river near the shore, and others, like the one above, on land. We were all impressed with our guide's ability to shine lights and miraculously spot the eyeshine of the foot to two foot long Caimans. Really enjoyed the night time cruise and I even got in some bird viewing, a roost of egrets piled in a tree. By the time we got back to our cabin I was totally ready to sink into bed, pull down the mosquito netting and get some shut eye.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Muy Cuy!

The Cusco Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas
Not bad for a drive by photo, eh?
On Friday, mid-afternoon, Ingrid joined me in Cusco. We chatted, catching up on our individual adventures and then Ingrid asked if I was ready to enjoy my first meal of  'Cuy', pronounced 'Coo-ee'. I was game, so we headed out and caught a taxi.

Driver's view of narrow streets of old Cusco
Our taxi ride, which cost cinco Soles, took us past the Cathedral Basilika of the Assumption of the Virgin, located in the Plaza de Armas. Ingrid pointed out the Cathedral was built on the ancient foundation of old Incan palace. Interestingly, the foundation is far more stable than the Spanish built Cathedral, as the Incans were superlative builders. I am fascinated by the many narrow cobbled Cusco streets, that are lined with shops and art galleries.

Before long our driver was pointing out the cute little restaurant where we were to have genuine Cuy for dinner.
Ingrid headed for the 'Pachapapa'
Inside the doorway was a small room with displays of jewelry and beyond that was a door to the restaurant, an open air seating area, with two very large open air ovens.

The Patio with a view of the two stone ovens in the distance
Once we were seated we perused the menu before both ordering a Cuy. Then our very friendly waiter told us we would have to wait a full hour for our oven roasted Cuy. Our orders in, he brought us some tiny little ping-pong ball sized bread rolls with interesting sauces of red and green whose ingredients I couldn't identify. I had to take a photo of the tasty little buns.

Next we ordered our drinks, and I thought I would try one of the local specialties Ingrid told me about.  I ordered Chicha Morada, made of boiled blue corn, apple and other fruits, and spices. The stuff was delicious and I was hard pressed to dismiss it as less than nectar of the gods.

While we waited for our dinners to roast in the slow ovens, we chatted, watched our fellow dinners and as it was an outdoor venue I even got in some passive bird watching.

Finally our waiter proudly marched up to our table and presented us with a genuine, stone oven roasted Cuy. It was presented by the v. kind waiter specifically so I could take a photo prior to the Cuy being carved up for a proper dinner-time presentation.  I present to you, 'Cuy del Peru'!
Freshy baked Cuy, presentation arranged specifically for my camera
I was gob-smacked! There, on a bed of fresh peppers and parsley, was spread one of our two dinner entrees, intact with head and teensie footsies. I was somewhere half way between facinated and horrified. WOW! My father used to regularly eat such fare when he was a boy in Panama! I did my best not to think of my dear friend Joann and her many little furry buddies we used to play with.

I must say, I was tickled that our waiter had picked up on my need to photograph all the food that entered my vicinity. When we - and other diners come to that - had finished admiring the crispy delicacy, our waiter spirited it away, returning a few minutes later with properly prepared Cuy, cut up and de-footed for our dinning pleasure. The 'Cuy horneado con huacatay y aji panca' was served with local spices and panca chili for S/.70 which was 70 soles ($23).

Properly served Cuy with interesting Peruvian potatoes
Now! The flavor of Cuy? Ingrid described it best, "very lean duck meat", and I could only add to that to say it was indeed sweet, rich and down right delicate in flavor - Yummy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Heights of Machu Picchu

Headed for the train station,
past the as yet unopened shops
Today started at the Niños gates at 5 AM when I waited for my transport that arrived at 5:30AM, Peruvian time. It was a tourist filled van that picked me up, and I was excited as I got to ride shotgun for the hour it took to get to the train station.

At the station, everyone raced to the train station with oxygen deprived me, gimping along in the rear. 

The train station
The Machu Picchu Express awaited
We milled around the station for nearly an hour, which gave me time to get my first Matte de Coca tea. I needed that tea, as I've heard tales of how it helps with altitude sickness, which even after 3 days was still keeping my head in a spin and my body's internal energy bars registering minus one.
The train interior was nice & lush
When we arrived at the village below Machu Picchu, my fellow passengers disappeared up the hill like scattering game birds. I was quickly left alone, lost! I headed where I thought they'd disappeared, beyond the walkway bridge over a little river.  
View looking towards the walkway from downhill
(taken during my return later in the day)
I meandered around lost for maybe a half hour. Finally I spotted tourists lined up where several buses were lined up. Boldly (for once!) Panicked, I rounded on some guides. On of them spoke English and checking my papers, he shrugged, pointed to a blue ticket and told me it would gain me passage on any of the buses to Machu Picchu. Relieved, I boarded one such bus, which so help me had the narrowest aisle and seats of any bus I've been on in my life. I felt like I must have gained 500 lbs since the previous day. 
Glared view out the bus window on the way uphill

I've heard the bus ride to Machu Picchu is steep, treacherous and terrifying. Uh... no, not really. The bus route went up hill but it wasn't any steeper than any drive in the California Sierras, or maybe the route is steep but how would I know? I'm not afraid of heights.

When I got off the bus, I realized the 7,972 foot above sea level altitude was still kicking my butt. I took my time climbing steps up to a little square where tourists milled about before crossing the gate onto the grounds of Machu Picchu. I was light headed and seriously needed a seeing-eye llama or better yet, a saddle horse. I sat on a low stone wall and was feeling good and sorry for myself. Then, out of the blue, a gentleman seated next to me and chatting on a cell phone shouted at the top of his lungs, "NORMA MILLER?"

I almost fell off the wall. "I'm Norma Miller", I shouted back at him.

Uh yes - "Norma" which I'm stuck with as it is my first name and it is on my passport.

The man was with Inca Connections which was actively - seated-ly - trying to locate me. He happily told HQ over the phone that he had found the lost tourist, Senora Miller. Then he told me who my guide was and how to find him so I could rejoin the tour. I told him there was no way I could hike uphill and keep up with a pack of snails, much less other tourists. He told me just to make sure I made the last bus back to the train station at 5 PM . 

So I was off to give myself a tour of Machu Picchu. I showed the guards my official Peruvian government permit to tour the ruins, and I was on the grounds! After crawling up the rising walkway you see signs that mark Machu Picchu as... uh... well hell, they were all in Spanish so I don't know what they said exactly but I'm sure it was cool stuff.

Finally I made it to the first Y point where I could either go uphill, downhill or forgetaboutit. I decided to go uphill figuring if I went down, and couldn't get back up again I'd be Peruvian toast.
As I tackled the ancient stone steps, old ladies
wielding canes, raced past me, shouting "Vamanos Senora!"
I took forever to get up the couple of switchbacks. I was so out of energy. Wasn't anyone else as tired as I was? The answer is 'no'. I suspect people with altitude sickness as bad as I had it, had the good sense the stay the $#%& home.
The view downhill from the switchbacks
Hurrah! It took perhaps an hour, but at last I was at the top of the switchbacks. At sea level the climb would have taken me perhaps ten minutes. I could finally behold the beauty & mystery that is Machu Picchu.
My view
I had hiked as far as I thought was possible for me. I got out my eensie little hiking chair and sat facing the terraced hillsides. I did some people watching as I seemed to have chosen the best spot for 'selfies' in the country of Peru. I watched Americans, Japanese, Germans, Brits, Australians and of course Peruvians, taking photos of their own smiling faces. I didn't have the energy for a selfie!
Tourists were everywhere and I
sincerely wished I had the energy to join them

 I was at the very cusp of a walkway down to the terraces and though I eyed tourists crossing them enviously I didn't go there. Woe was me!

I sat right by a structure the Peruvian Government had 'restored', adding a thatched roof. The government is restoring many structures of the ruins. No one really knows how the structures were thatched or what they may have been thatched with, i.e., straw, wood, what? I would have just left well enough alone myself, but that's just me.

I sat by a structure with a thatched roof
In the late afternoon, I returned to the square by the entrance and while there a little tropical butterfly that conveniently landed at my feet.

A little distraction
I decided I was done in after my afternoon of panting and roasting in sun, so I got on the line to the buses. It was Disneyland on grad night long, but it moved briskly. Soon I was stepping off the bus and into a blinding whiteness as my altitude sickness bleached my eyesight again. *sigh* I stumbled back uphill, and along the way saw one of only two Peruvian Orchids I've seen in Peru thus far. Earlier today I saw 2 such dogs race by, and hound was one of them. I had no trouble recognizing the pup in its stylish pink pajamas.
Inca Orchid - the hairless dog of Peru
It took me more than an hour to trudge to the train station, but still, it would be dark by the time my train chugged out of the station 2 hours later. The train arrived back in the little departure town and again, my fellow tourists disappeared in a blink. As I headed for the exit I wondered what I would do if I missed the van back to Cusco. But when I got to the exit I saw there were dozens of tourist group leaders holding up signs to signal their passengers and I spotted 'Norma Miller' on one of the signs. Hurrah! My Hurrah turned to $#*@& when again, my group & tour guide, disappeared rapidly up the hill, leaving me panting in their dust. The cold mountain air had triggered my asthma. RATS! I slugged it uphill to discover the lady tour guide again. She escorted me to a huge bus which I climbed into. I promptly sat, falling into a lovely deep sleep.

I was jolted awake when the bus halted an hour later, and the bus driver yelled in broken English, "Senora! Los Niños Hotel!" I got off the bus, realizing the hotel's street was so narrow there was no way I could be dropped off at the hotel gate. So, off I drudged downhill, thankful it was and not uphill.

Then I freaked. I spotted a sign, "Los Los Niños Hotel" on the right side of the narrow street. Why did I freak? Because there are dos Hotels Los Niños in Cusco, and if this was mine, it would have been on the left side of the road. I was in serious danger of bursting into tears on that long dark street as I wondered how the hell I was going to make it to the correct hotel at 10PM when I had no clue where the hell I was... taxi?

"Senora!", a call echoed up the street. Hurrah! far downhill, on the left side of the street I saw the same hosteler waving at me from downhill. I was on the right street! I very nearly broke into a run as I tromped downhill, grinning like a jack-o-lantern, and profusely thanking him for keeping an eye open for me. Soon I was unlocking my hotel room door, where I took two big steps, and landed, WHOMP on my face on the floor. I'd forgotten there was a step just inside the dark room. Oh well. At least I was face down on the floor of my own damned room.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On to Cusco

On the last day in Nazca, Peru, Ingrid and I visited the Museo Arqueologico Antonini where many  treasures excavated from the ruins of Cachuachi are kept. The woven rugs, wraps and bags fascinated me the most, as they are often still amazingly colorful considering how ancient they are. Another marvel is how pottery so ancient can still exist as whole, and unbroken.
Look at the colors on these thousand year old woven bags
Strange, coiled, two-faced pushme-pullyou pot
After our museum visit, in the early afternoon Ingrid headed out to return to her work. We plan to meet up again in Cuzco next Sunday. Meanwhile I worked on my handwritten journal until it was time for me to catch the overnight bus to Cuzco.

My view on the overnight double-decker bus

 The bus was scheduled to leave Nazca at 9PM sharp, so as it was on Peruvian time, the bus pulled out of the station a little after 10 PM. Took me ages to get comfortable but eventually I nodded into slumber land and woke somewhere on the uphill climb to Cuzco the following morning.
There was a stop at a small town, which has me startled as I thought the town might be Cuzco, which it was not. An hour after that we stopped at another tiny town where everyone was expected to buy their breakfast.

The roadside village where we stopped for breakfast
I took my time getting off the bus as I am not a morning person wherever my locale is for the moment. Lots of passengers bought meals at the little shops and sat on the roadside for a fresh breakfast setting.  Most hoovered over this outdoor stove featuring the local fare of Incan corn cobs and beef knucles (or at least I think that's what it is). I must say, it took me ages to realize the gigantic corn kernels were just that - corn.
I would have leapt on this for any other meal than breakfast
My bus transport to Cuzco
The bus made it into Cuzco (and only three hours late!) where I successfully negotiated an undoubtedly still overpriced cab ride to Los Niños Hotel, where I had a reservation. 

The background story to the Niños Hotel is it was started by a Dutch woman for the purpose of funding the Niños Unidos Peruanos Foundation which supports Cusco's neediest children. Currently the Foundation cares for 600 children a day. During my week long stay at the hotel I saw many of the children in their little uniforms with book laden back parks, going to and from their lessons. Great, well behaved kids.  For me, the hotel was a wonderful & relaxing hacienda. 

Los Niños Hotel's pretty

There are two Los Niños Hotels; one with all the rooms named after boys, and the hotel I stayed at had rooms named after girls. The hotel I am in has rooms named after girls. I'm in 'Esmeralda'. 

Because of a mix-up in reservations, I ended up in a 'share the bathroom' room. That is kind of a pain, but at least the shared bathroom is adorable and clean. Can we talk? One of the things that drives me nuts down there is you cannot flush toilet paper. Think about that... whatever is on toilet paper and all of it's icky contents have to go in little trash bins next to the toilets. That grosses me out in a manner that actually surprises me about myself. When did I get so damned dainty? I find myself longing for the ample plumbing and flushable toilet paper of  Los Estados Unidos .
My little room with its windowed door
I loved the deep set windows and their view of the courtyard
Now! Anything else getting to me? Uh.. yes... the altitude! I am sick as a pup, feeling slower than molasses in the arctic and every time I step in to the courtyard, the entire thing bleaches out and all I see is a fog of white for about 20 seconds. The bleaching of eyesight is the weirdest symptom of my body's version of altitude sickness, along with total weakness as I am not getting enough oxygen to fuel myself so I am as weak as a handicapped kitten. Am counting on this improving as the week progresses. I started taking altitude sickness pills the day before I arrived in Cuzco but so far it's not doing a thing.

The only Andean Condors
I saw n this trip - Cuzco garden decor

On Day two of my stay in Cuzco, I queried the hotelier about arranging a visit to Macchu Pichu. I was advised to visit Inca Connections downtown. So I braved an outing to get to the travel agent, hiring a cab and pitching a fit when the driver of the cab let me out downtown and as far as I knew, no where near the travel agency! I was as lost and frightened as that kitten I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But soon I rallied, and in my broken Españole, asked directions to Avenue El Sol. I tended to ask los Policias, and they pointed to all corners of the earth so ignoring them, after an hour or two I finally got myself to the correct avenue.  Eventually I found a little hole-in-the-wall tourista place and I decided one travel agent was as good as another, I took a seat to wait for the next available agent. Only after a few minutes did I look up and see the sign: Inca Connections. Nothing like some good old fashioned dumb luck.

The next day, a lady from Inca Connections showed up at Los Niños. She gave me all my necessary paperwork, my federal permit and bus an train tickets. Amazing how much paper work was needed to arrange my Machu Pichu Visit for tomorrow. 

I have hung around Niños Hotel, hoping my altitude sickness goes away, but so far no luck. I was lounging around the courtyard when I heard music that reminded me of the Sicily scenes in the movie the Godfather II. I first watched through the bars on the front gate, then went into the street to watch the procession pass. Then I followed everyone, ever so slowly up to the top of the hill. Interesting! Listen to a bit of this video and tell me you aren't waiting to hear Vito Corleone's gunshots?.