Monthly Archives: September 2004

Pictures from 2004 South America Tour

Finally, I’ve sorted through over 500 images from my recent trip to South America and compiled some online albums, which (for a while, at least) can be accessed from the links (n.b. links fixed 2004-10-11 — sorry!) below:

These albums will be up for a month or two, after which a much smaller selection will make it into my permanent online photo album.

Off Again!

Well I’ve only been back home for slightly over 24 hours, and I’m off on a plane again later today! It turns out that my friend Andrew is leaving the Washington D.C. metro area at the end of the month to return to Australia, and this is the only convenient weekend for a send-off party, so I’m off to Arlington VA later this afternoon.

In other news, I contacted Canon about my broken PowerShot SD100 digital camera, and they offered to either repair it for between $150 – $300, or to upgrade it with a refurbished PowerShot SD110 for $150. Bit of a no-brainer really, although I could have done without another $150 outlay!

Home Again

I’m back home in my apartment in Brooklyn again, where everything is exactly how I left it (in something of a rush) 6 weeks ago — I’m always relieved to find that my house hasn’t burnt down when I come back from a long trip!

The journey home took all day, but was relatively uneventful after I boarded the plane at Lima; I had about 30 minutes between planes at San Jose airport in Costa Rica, so I bought some organic coffee to bring home.

I eventually landed at JFK around 1am EDT, and whizzed through immigration and customs in record time — I was in the taxi queue less than 30 minutes later, and was home just after 2am.

Now I have to go through all of the mail, bills and junkmail (about 6 inches thick of it!) that accumulated while I was away, and get my “real” life back into some semblance of order!

A Few Hours in Lima

I arrived in Lima a little after 8am, after a mercifully short and uneventful flight on TANS Peru, and had checked in at TACA for the 3:00pm return flight to JFK soon afterwards, so decided to head into Lima centro for a few hours.

I jumped into a taxi, and headed into the town centre for a desayuno americano (American breakfast) at De Cesar cafe, after which I took a tour around the San Francisco Monastery and Catacombs Museum (getting in free with my ICOM card, which was handy as I was running short on Peruvian soles). The monastery tour was pretty good; there were only two of us on the English-speaking tour, myself and a rather taciturn Belgian who had just arrived in Peru the previous day. The highlights were the art collection (various religiously-themed series from the schools of well-known European artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck), and the extensive and labarynthine catacombs, where the bones of tens of thousands of bodies are on display, sorted by type.

After the museum tour, I wandered around Plaza Mayor for a bit, taking photos of all the riot police and water cannon tanks that were congregated there in anticipation of some imminent social unrest.

After aimlessly wandering around a little more, I stopped for lunch at the Cordano Cafe, which had a very old-fashioned and traditional feel. When I entered the restaurant it was practically deserted and very quiet, but minutes later it was inundated by a big (and noisy!) party of high school children. A group of girls at the table nearest to me immediately struck up a conversation, and started asking me questions about where I was from, my time in Peru etc. Their English was very good, and we had a lively discussion on all kinds of topics — I think they had an exercise to interview a visitor about their impressions of Lima. My lunch was not very good, but it was a lot of fun being interviewed!

Then, almost as suddenly as they’d arrived, the school party left and the restaurant became empty and quiet again. Then a guy came in and started chatting to me about Premiership football as part of the pretext for begging for money, but I was running very short on Soles, so I paid my bill and grabbed a taxi back to the airport.

On the Way Home

I’m at Cuzco airport on the way home, after another early start and not very much sleep, since I was out until after midnight with a group of folks from various European countries last night…

Fortunately so far everything seems to be going smoothly; my travel agent Nicos (who has been very reliable throughout) was waiting for me with my tickets in the hotel lobby this morning at 5:30am, and brought me to the airport in plenty of time, where I checked in for an on-time TANS flight to Lima and met up again for a coffee with Dimitri, who is also heading back to Lima.

Now I just have a whole day of sitting on planes until I get back to New York.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

I just got back from a one-day bus tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, taking in various Inca ruins such as Pisaq, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero. It was fun — the bus was very friendly, and Dimitri (who I’d met on previous tours) was on the same bus too, but I think I’m pretty much Inca’d out now.

I’m also pretty sick of tourist markets too — the first two stops on the bus were at big tourist markets, and there were more tourist markets at every one of the Inca sites we visited. We also made a special stop at “the best” (allegedly) ceramics factory — basically a shop that gave a brief demonstration on how pottery is made. It wasn’t especially informative (who doesn’t know how pottery is made?), although I admit I was mildly impressed when the guy used the ceramic cup he’d made to hammer a nail into the table!

The “artesan” (i.e. tourist) markets are too much after a while, though — they all sell pretty much the same stuff, and the stall holders desparately implore you to buy their wares, calling you “amigo” while holding up their blankets/ponchos/plates/whatever, saying “only 5 soles, amigo.” In addition to stall holders, there are women with cute little kids in papooses and llamas dressed in traditional clothing, charging money for photographs, street kids selling water and candy etc., and out-and-out beggars. It’s a little depressing after a while.

I bought a few portable knick-knacks (partly out of guilty compulsion to redistribute some wealth), but the other problem on top of the relentless hard selling is that NOBODY has any change, so whenever you try to pay for anything small with a large note, there’s the whole rigmarole of the vendor running around other stalls for 10 minutes trying to get change.

Anyway, tonight’s my last night of vacation! I’m meeting up with Dimitri and some other folks from the bus in a little while for drinks and dinner, and then I’ll be heading for an early night, since I have a taxi coming around 5am tomorrow to take me to the airport for the long journey back to New York.

Machu Picchu

I’m back in Cuzco now, having just returned from two days and one night visiting Machu Picchu, the spectacular, extensive and well-preserved ruins of an Inca citadel perched on a saddle between two mountains at about 2,400 metres above sea level, and one of the premiere tourist destinations in the whole of South America. It was pretty spectacular — definitely a highlight of my whole trip.

The 2-day trip started early (of course!) on Sunday 12th September, when Nicos the travel agent came to collect me from the Carlos V hostal at 5:45am to take me to the train station in time for the 6:15am “Backpacker” train. He gave me a ticket in the name of Pedro Picardo, a guy who had cancelled his reservation at the last minute, and told me that I had to pretend to be him… I agreed rather than making a fuss (despite having paid full price for my own ticket), because I found the idea of adopting an alternative identity entertaining.

I boarded the train at the station around 6am, and was greeted by a young couple, Dmitri (Dutch) and Miluska (Peruvian), who I’d met the previous day on the Cuzco city tour.

The train eventually started moving, and proceeded to zig-zag up switchbacks along a steep incline out of Cuzco, stopping and changing direction on each segment. Gradually the ghetto housing on the outskirts of Cuzco gave way to trees, mountains and rivers; from what I saw the journey was very scenic, although I was drifting in and out of sleep for much of the way there. After about 4 hours we finally arrived in Machu Picchu Pueblo, amidst the chaos of hawkers selling tourist crap, bus tickets and hotel rooms.

Upon disembarking the train, I was met by a guy from the Quillas Hostel, who took my bags and directed me immediately to the little buses that ferry people between Machu Picchu Pueblo and Machu Picchu itself. I got on the first one, met up with Dimitri and Miluska again, and soon afterwards we were zig-zagging up the steep hill to the citadel of Machu Picchu.

I spent several fun hours going around the extensive site with Dimitri and Miluska, taking lots of pictures as we went — the place is ridiculously photogenic, with the dizzyingly vertical ruins set amongst dramatic verdant mountains. The weather was pretty good, considering the site is in a cloud forest; warm and sunny, with a little haze on the mountains in the distance.

Peru’s National Institute of Culture have done a very good job with the site, leaving it effectively untouched; there are no safety barriers (and plenty of long drops!), almost no signage, no shops and no litter bins. Some of the more fragile parts have been roped off, and there are obvious ongoing conservation efforts taking place, but otherwise the site is almost completely uncluttered by 20/21st Century additions.

After lunch just outside the site entrance, I walked down the hill with Dimitri and Miluska and said goodbye as they left to catch the train back to Cuzco. I went back to my hostal and got my swimming gear, then walked up to the hot springs (or aguas calientes). The hot springs weren’t really very hot, and there were several school parties using them at the time, so it was pretty much bedlam, with kids running around screaming and splashing each other. It wasn’t very restul, although it was quite funny.

A little later I had dinner in the town’s main square (a terrible pizza that was more like cheese on toast, and it wasn’t mozzarella cheese either!), a beer in a bar at the top of Calle Pachacutec, and then went to an Internet cafe to check e-mail and update this blog; unfortunately the connection was really slow, and I was so exhausted I started falling asleep at the keyboard, so I went back to the hostal for an early night at 10pm.

I was planning to get up early the following day in order to get to Machu Picchu when it opened at 6am or 6:30am so that I could see the dawn, but when I awoke at 6:15am it was cloudy, so I had a much-needed lie-in and a leisurely breakfast before arriving at the site around 9am — still well before the train-load of day-trippers that arrived at 10:30am. The weather was very different from the previous day, with the site shrouded in thick white clouds — it looked very ethereal.

I had a quick walk around the site taking more pictures before heading out of the far side for the hike up to Waynapicchu, the nearby mountain that looms over the citadel. The hike up was pretty tough, but very enjoyable — about 30 minutes hard climbing up uneven stone steps. At some points it was more like proper climbing than walking, and there was even a narrow cave/tunnel to pass through at one point near the summit. At the summit were a few folks and, mysteriously, a humming bird, but unfortunately there was no view of the citadel below, which was completely shrouded in cloud.

After catching my breath and cooling off for about 20 minutes on the summit I started down again, but before I got too far down, the clouds cleared and I had a spectacular view of the citadel from way above.

After taking yet more photographs (I have a whole roll of 35mm film plus a load of digital images of Machu Picchu now), I descended back to the main site for a last spin around, before having lunch in the posh restaurant (a US$12 cheeseburger!) attached to the most expensive hotel in Peru (US$400 a night for a single room).

Then I took the bus back down to the Pueblo, had a quick wander around the tourist markets and back streets of the town, retrieved my bags from the hostal and went to catch the train back to Cuzco. The train journey was very scenic and quite sociable, as I was chatting with various folks I’d met over the last few days, although it was a little too long at 4 plus hours.

Now I’m back in Cuzco, and have to go to find some dinner before hitting the sack. I have a very civilized 8:45am start tomorrow for a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which should be interesting.

Tomorrow is also my last full day of vacation before returning to New York — and real life! — early on Wednesday…

Cienciano

Incidentally, I forgot to mention that Cusco’s football team, Cienciano, won the Recopa 2004 (which I believe is the South American equivalent of the European Champion’s League) a day or two before I arrived, by beating Argentina’s Boca Juniors 2-0.

Cuzco

Right now I’m in the historic town of Cuzco, population about 300,000, which used to be the capital of the Inca empire and is now PerĂº’s biggest tourist attraction. It’s a very high city — about 3,200 metres if I remember correctly — so a lot of people get altitude sickness when they first arrive here. I should be OK though, because I came from Arequipa which should have given me plenty of time to adjust to the altitude.

After the late arrival of my ‘plane, I found the local tour agent Nicos, who took me and two other guys to our respective hotels momentarily to drop off bags and laundry, before heading back into town for the 4-hour Cuzco city tour.

The first stop on the tour (which had already begun) was the Convento de Santo Domingo, a colonial building that was built by the Spanish conquerors right on top of the main Inca temple in the town, Qorikancha. Nicos deposited me with an English-speaking guide, Victor, who was already in full swing with an assorted group of about 10 English speakers.

He told us that the Inca building techniques were quite remarkable; unlike the Spanish conquistadors, the Incas used angled walls and laboriously complex stonemasonry (e.g. T-shaped stone blocks with 18 corners) to make their structures highly earthquake resistant. When a big earthquake hit around 1650, all of the Spanish Colonial structures built on top collapsed, whereas the Inca foundations survived unscathed.

After we finished the quick tour of Qorikancha, we all piled into a small bus and set off for additional Inca ruins in and around Cuzco: Sacsayhuaman (pronounced very similarly to “sexy woman”!), Qenko, Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay. It was definitely “speed tourism,” but a very good way to see a lot of sights and get a lot of information in a very short space of time — plus it was quite a friendly group, which made it more fun.

We finished up (predictably) in a huge tourist shop where skilled saleswomen tried to flog us wool and baby alpaca clothing; I ended up buying a hat and a scarf for $35 U.S., which hopefully I won’t lose once it becomes winter in NYC.

After the shopping expedition I returned to the Carlos V hotel, collected my laundry and met up with Nicos again, who informed me that I would need to be up and ready to go by 5:45 the following morning for the trip to Machu Picchu… Argh! Another early start!

Anyway, after sorting things out with Nico, I went out for dinner at a restaurant called El Truco, where they put a little Union Jack flag on my table, and where there was all manor of “traditional” PerĂºvian music and dancing. It was good fun I guess, although I found myself being quite skeptical about the authenticity of the various costumes and dances.

Anyway, that was today — tomorrow I’m off to Machu Picchu.

Colca Canyon

My hiking trip to Colca Canyon was very good: A taxi came to collect me from Hostal San Isidro in Arequipa (which was very pleasant, incidentally) at 1:30am on Thursday morning, just a few hours after I’d gone to bed the previous night. Apart from the driver, there were two Peruvian women in the taxi — someone from the travel agency whose name I didn’t catch, and a fellow “trekker,” a girl from Lima called Eli (Elizabeth).

We got to the bus station and were given bus tickets by the agent, a bargain at 1 soles, or about 28 cents, each. The bus left the station around 2am, and after chatting with Eli for a bit (she had lived in the U.S. for some time, so fortunately for me spoke fluent English), I tried to get some sleep. Sleeping got considerably more difficult, however, when the tarmac road ended not far out of Arequipa and we started bumping along a dirt road, so by the time we got to the small town of Cabanaconde, about 170km north of Arequipa, I was pretty tired.

We got off the bus in the main square of Cabanaconde around 7am and were met by a girl who took us to a nearby hostal for breakfast: Fried eggs, bread and jam and mate de coca. She also gave us some dried mate leaves at Eli’s request, because they help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness: Cabanaconde is pretty high, at an altitude of 3,300 metres (according to my guidebook).

After breakfast, our guide Rolando arrived and we set off towards the canyon in bright sunshine at around 8am. Rolando didn’t speak much English, but Eli did a fantastic job of translating the various bits of historical and botanical knowledge Rolando offered.

After about 10 minutes we reached the lip of Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the World (although not THE deepest apparently). The view was definitely spectacular; hundreds of metres below on the opposite side of the canyon were traditional indian villages and Inca terraces, and 1200 metres below was the Rio Colca.

We descended down winding paths to the bottom of the canyon, spotting various species of flora and fauna on the way, and collecting samples of plants with medicinal properties such as moonia (no idea how to spell this), which apparently is also a good remedy for altitude sickness. At the bottom of the canyon we joined a group of other gringo trekkers paddling in the river. I wasn’t initially planning on paddling (the water was very cold), but I slipped on some algae while washing my face and partially fell in!

Once my shoes and socks had dried a little, we crossed a rickety cable bridge to the other side of the canyon and started climbing up to the picturesque village of San Juan de Chuchu, a beautiful verdant garden of a place irrigated, like all of the villages in the canyon, by meltwater from the nearby mountains carried by Inca water channels. Rolando told (and Eli translated) the story of how the town got it’s name: Apparently, centuries ago some visitors arrived and, after eating the local fruit, they started shaking violently — hence the “chuchu,” or “shaking” (the story sounded much like the magical realism in “100 Years of Solitude,” which I’m currently reading).

We stopped for lunch at a tranquil and seemingly-deserted hostal, and had a lunch of a traditional vegetable stew, followed by a salad with fresh avocados plucked straight from the tree, plus lots of beer. The beer was expensive by Peru standards at 8 soles ($2.25 U.S.), but it has to be brought from Cabanaconde by mule, so I didn’t mind too much paying a little extra! There was no electricity in any of the villages, but they managed to keep the beer reasonably cool anyway — at such a high altitude, it’s warm in the sun but quite cool in the shade.

After lunch we continued our hike through the other villages, encountering local people with a variety of domestic/farm animals. The towns are inhabited almost exclusively by old people, and are evidently declining in overall population as the youngsters get out as soon as they can.

After passing through 3 or 4 more villages, we crossed a hanging valley and descended past some Inca agricultural terraces before reaching the bottom of Colca Canyon again. We crossed another rickety suspension bridge and climbed up a little way to the Oasis, a small campground with a swimming pool fed by tepid thermal spring water and various rustic “cabanas,” little bamboo shacks.

By this time it was about 5pm and we’d been walking for the better part of 8 hours, so Eli & I were both pretty tired (if Rolando was, he wasn’t admitting it) and our feet were aching. After chilling out with a beer and chatting with some other gringos for a while, Rolando fed us some fairly basic and uninteresting food, and then it was time for bed (at 8pm!), because he wanted us to get up at 3am (ANOTHER ridiculously early start!) for the hike back out of the canyon. By now it was a chilly pitch black moonless night, with countless stars visible, so I was very glad of my new baby alpaca sweater.

Getting up at 2:30am in the pitch black was pretty miserable, and we didn’t really have enough flashlights between us; Rolando had a small flashlight and I had a small keyring LED torch, but that was it. Along with various other groups, we started the slow trudge up the steep dark slope. It wasn’t a lot of fun, and Eli was suffering from some combination of asthma, nausea, altitude sickness and fatigue and was having a very hard time: It was slow going. A little past half way up, a guy with a couple of mules passed us, so we paid him to take Eli up on one of the mules. We also encountered an indian woman selling drinks and snacks halfway up, which was very welcome: A Fanta and a sweet bread roll gave me a much-needed energy boost.

Not long afterwards, we reached the top of the canyon and it was then a short easy walk back to the hostal for another egg and bread breakfast, before catching the bus (which had to stop to change a punctured tyre on the way) to Mirador Cruz del Condor, a scenic viewing spot at the edge of the canyon where condors can be seen swooping and gliding around against the spectacular backdrop of the canyon. The condors didn’t disappoint us — several of the huge birds soared right over our heads.

About 45 minutes later, the next bus came and took us (plus assorted locals and a baby lamb) on the slow bumpy ride back to Chivay and then Arequipa.

I went back to Hostal San Isidro and, after getting cleaned up, went back into town to meet a couple of guys, Jon from Colorado and Yves from Antwerp, from the Oasis for dinner: We all ate chicken carapaccio (raw chicken marinated in lemon juice — living dangerously!) and various kinds of alpaca steaks, which were pretty delicious. After dinner Yves and I went for a few drinks and a game of pool (Jon had to catch a bus), then I headed back to my hostal for a much-needed proper night’s sleep in a real bed — basta rustico!

Shortly I’ll be heading back to the airport for a flight to Cuzco, my final destination before heading home next Wednesday (once again, my flight today has been delayed by a couple of hours, so I came back into town to use the Internet).

Health concerns are starting to weigh on my mind a little now — my stomach’s recovery after the jungle seems to have been short-lived, so I’m a little dehydrated and am planning to start taking antibiotics today after all. I’ve also got a large painful sore on my backside, presumably where some unknown animal bit me during the night through the mosquito net in the jungle (although to be honest I don’t really know when it happened, because it didn’t swell up at first). It doesn’t seem to have gone down much over the last couple of days; hopefully the antibiotics will help this too, but perhaps I’ll get it checked out in Cuzco to be on the safe side.

Well, time to head back to the airport…