21.03.2010 - 25.03.2010
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21 MARCH, SUNDAY
I am paranoid about my alarm not going off and missing trains, planes, buses, etc when travelling and it seems my paranoia is justified….. I’d set my alarm for 4.30am for a 5.15am pick up from the Buenos Aires hotel to the international airport – giving myself plenty of time to shower and pack my bag. I truly do not know how this happened but my iPhone somehow managed to change it’s time to an hour later so it was a surprise to receive a call from reception at 5.18am telling me that my taxi was waiting. “You’ve got the time wrong” I said, “No we don’t” they replied. I decided not to split hairs. Everthing shoved hastily into my pack and without a shower I made record time and was on the road to the airport at 5.30am.
The flight from Buenos Aires to Lima was with LAN and what a treat! Big seats with lots of leg room, a not bad brekky and I was sitting next to the very interesting Professor Mike Paddon of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, enroute to a conference in Cuzco. He’s project managing various initiatives across the globe to help communities implement things like water sanitation solutions. Aren’t we lucky to have people like Mick in the world. Arrived in Lima at around midday local time and jumped in a Green Taxi (at 45 soles it was the cheapest by far) straight to the hostel in Miraflores, the Beverley Hills of Lima. Met my new guide, Alberto, at reception, and was shown to my room. I have a little announcement here – I am excited to let you know that on this trip, for the entire month of the trip, I have my OWN ROOM! I danced a little jig when I got into that room and immediately stripped off and had a shower. It was quite delicious.
The new group had our briefing meeting at 3pm. As mentioned Alberto is our leader and then there’s:
John & Alana – Ipswich
Di &Graeme (Graz) – London (Di’s originally from Brisbane but been living in UK for 10 years)
Ben & Clare – Healesville
Noelle & Maighread – two Irish friends
Here's our first group shot taken in the Amazon - me, John, Alana, Noelle, Maighread (in blue), Alberto (leader), Ben, Clare, Graz and Di with Fino (our Amazon guide) at the front.
We’re all around the same age and everyone seems really great. I’ve got a good feeling about this trip. Although it’s actually two trips – most of the crew are doing just the Peru segment for 15 days. Only Graz, Di and I are going on with Alberto in to Bolivia. I’m sure we’ll be sad to say goodbye to the others.
We were all aware of the devastating mud slides which had occurred around Machu Picchu two months previously killing a German tourist, leaving thousands of Inca Trail trekkers stranded and washing away the train to Machu Picchu. We had been advised by Intrepid that both the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu would be closed and that we would be doing the alternative Lares Trek. So you can imagine how excited we were when Alberto told us that Machu Picchu was officially opening again on 1 April and that he had been working on changing the itinerary for the past two days so that we would have the opportunity to visit it on 2 April. Generally the trip starts in the middle of Peru and moves south before crossing the border in to Bolivia. To go to Machu Picchu meant that we would start in the middle, go south, then return to the middle before retracing our steps south again. A lot more travel time and additional expense but, in our minds, worth it to see Machu Picchu. Unfortunately the change to itin affected John & Alana and Noelle & Mor’s flights - they had to do a lot of mucking around to make changes which cost them a packet but we were all very grateful.
After the briefing meeting we jumped in 3 taxis and headed downtown – checked out Plaza Mayor, the main square with the cathedral. Then walked around to the 16th century monastery of San Francisco where we wandered through the museum (which has the oldest library in Sth America – I was unable to take photos so I can’t show you but it was really dusty and gothic. Massive volumes with their spines falling off and spiral staircases joining the upper level. I’m sure you could find some images on the world wide web if you were interested). There was also an interesting fresco of the Last Supper that has a distinctly Peruvian flavor – the disciples pictured dine on guinea pig and drink from gold Inca cups. The other main attraction are the monastery’s catacombs below the church which have been Lima’s underground general cemetery for hundreds of years. Never seen so many human bones. The bodies were thrown into one of the three large pits and limed so the flesh and smaller bones disintegrated, then the larger bones (femur, skull, etc) were removed and each bone was placed in the same pit as other like bones. I was pretty weird.
After that we wandered back to the Plaza Mayor where we saw the changing of the guard. We were lucky as it doesn’t usually happen on a Sunday – and was only happening on this occasion because the President of Argentina is visiting. She’s following me!
We walked down a pedestrian shopping street off the Plaza Mayor to another square where we caught taxis back to the hotel.
We met in reception for dinner and walked to a buzzing restaurant area in Miraflores. A guy from Melbourne, Matt, who’s Intrepid trip wasn’t starting until the following day joined us and I chatted to him. John and Alana were sitting opposite and they were great company too. I had cebiche (raw fish marinaded in lemon juice) and a delicious salad with palm hearts, asparagus, etc. Really good meal.
Back at the hotel I had a couple of Pisco Sours at the roof bar with Matt. He was very charming company – and hasn’t been hit with the ugly stick. He was very open about his luck with the ladies and told me all about his dating experiences. I do not know where he finds the time but I admire that he’s out there giving it a red hot go.
We had a 4am wake up call for our flight to Puerto Maldonado so I called it a night at about 2am and packed my bag so I didn’t have to think about it the next morning.
MONDAY 22 MARCH
Well, it was an early start and I had a snooze on the way to the airport and then again on the flight. I was sitting next to Graz and Di who are a great couple – it was really nice to get to know them a bit better.
At the airport we were picked up by a bus which had the narrowest aisle of any bus I’ve ever been in. It was so narrow that I just had to mention how narrow it was! Ten minutes drive away at the Rainforest Expeditions headquarters we were greeted with a deliciously refreshing passionfruit juice which we drank while we went through our bags and packed a day pack with what we’d need for 3 nights in the jungle. Despite my delirium (six hours sleep over two nights will do that) I managed to remember to pack nearly everything. What did I forget? Bloody undies and socks!!! The lovely Mor leant me a pair of her socks (which were a gorgeous turquoise blue. In the jumgle we had to wear gumboots because it was muddy in places. However the humidity meant that our feet sweated profusely in the gumboots and the dye for the gorgeous turquoise blue socks ran on to my feet. I quickly became known as smurfette!) The undies, however, were another issue. I couldn’t very well tell anyone I’d forgotten to being any, much less borrow a pair from someone! I had to wear the same pair each day and wash them when I had a shower before dinner – this meant I was generally ‘free balling’ (is there a female equivalent to this male term?) at dinner but no one knows that. Except you.
But back to the story – we jumped back on the bus for the hour trip to the river. Then we hopped on a large covered motorized canoe for the hour trip up the Tambopata River to Posada Amazonas Lodge in the Madre de Dios area.
The river eventually runs in to the Amazon River 3,000 kms away down in Brazil, changing its name as it moves through the different countries.
It was a short but humid walk through the jungle to the lodge which is eco-friendly and combines low-impact architecture with traditional native styles. There we were welcomed with a lovely cool towel and mop our sopping faces with and a cold drink. After a brief introduction we were shown to our rooms which are just fantastic. No doors or windows – in fact, there is one whole wall missing which acts as a huge window, with just a low bamboo balustrade separating the room from the jungle. The wooden floor is like a woolshed with slats to let the breeze through, mosquito nets to keep the buggers away and a cold shower with a view out into the jungle. There is a hammock strung up looking out over the jungle so you can rock away watching lizards, frogs and squirrels going to and fro. It’s the end of the rainy season here but that doesn’t mean there’s no rain. I was in the hammock when a heavy shower came down out of nowhere making the jungle animals sing and trill with joy. It’s quite something.
After we arrived we all had a snooze for a couple of hours – the humidity zonked all of us and the early morning didn’t help.
It's rainy season so the jungle floor is pretty muddy - we all had to wear gumboots which were provided by the lodge for our expeditions.
First walk was through the jungle to the canopy tower. On the way we saw monkeys, a bird like a turkey, lizards, a tarantula with pink tips on its legs hidden away in her leaf home and highways of ants carrying leaves back to their nest to feed the fungi and beautiful butterflies.
But the highlight was seeing an anteater. It was high up in a tree quite a distance away so I couldn’t get a good photo of it but this will give you the general idea. It was having a good chow down on some termites.
There were, of course, amazing trees which our knowledgeable guide, Fino, told us all about. The one that intrigued us the most was the ‘walking’ palm – it’s roots are out of the ground, kind of like a tee pee skeleton. It grows further roots out of its trunk above the other roots in the direction of the sun, thereby ‘walking’ up to 30cms a year towards sunlight.
Then there were the brazil nut tree, umbrella trees and lots of vines.
We didn’t see a lot from the top of the swaying tower high above the trees. I guess it was too early in the afternoon but the 360 degree view over the river and surrounding jungle was enough to keep us satisfied and we did see a falcon in a nearby brazil nut tree and macaw’s flying 2kms away across the horizon. Better than nothing.
Dinner in the communal dining room was buffet style and perfectly fine. Early night to watch the fire flies flickering outside my room and to listen to the night noises.
TUESDAY 23 MARCH
Another 4am start – this time we headed to Ox Bow Lake which was a 20 minute trip up the river (beautiful sunrise over the jungle).
Ben & Clare
This was followed by a 10 minute walk through the jungle. We jumped on a basic Huckleberry Finn type raft and headed in to the lake. It wasn’t long before the Giant River Otters swam into site. Unfortunately they’re extremely shy and get very stressed so we stayed as still and quiet as possible and let them come to us. They came within about 60 metres which is pretty good (there’s usually only a 50% chance of seeing them at all and generally they don’t come closer than 100 metres) so we were able to see them eating fish and playing but they were still a fair distance away.
There were a pair of Hoixin in the trees – a common bird in this area but looked pretty exotic to me!
The slow journey around the lake gave us some beautiful views of the jungle
The lake is infested with piranhas who love the calm water. We pulled up on the bank and Fino pulled out some rudimentary fishing poles (sticks with a bit of fishing line tied to them) and baited the hook with fresh meat. He demonstrated how to tap the water to attract the piranhas attention then sit back and wait. We all had a go and you could feel and see the sneaky little beggars eating the bait around the hook. Here are a few punters NOT catching any pirhanas:
You’d never guess but piranhas are fussy little things and don’t eat fat – they will literally eat all the lean meat off your hook and leave the fat. A pirhana was eventually caught (not by anyone in our group - Ben caught a sardine but that SO doesn’t count!) Their pretty small and their teeth are like little razors.
Back at the lodge we had half an hour before heading out to the macaw clay lick lookout. Macaw’s need salt for their diet and, as there isn’t a lot of salt in the jungle, they eat the salt rich clay. This is particularly the case at breeding time which was just coming to an end when we were there. Apparently there can be 30 macaws feeding at the clay lick at one time. On this occasion we were lucky that there were two birds in view. Unfortunately they weren’t eating the clay but, hey, no one likes being photographed while stuffing their face.
After a sway in my hammock and a bite of lunch we were back on the canoe for a 40 minute trip to visit Centro Nape, a jungle botanical garden which was founded by the native people of Madre de Dios because of their subsistent lifestyle and their remoteness. Occidental medicine can be too expensive for them and out of reach for most native people. Nape is a place where indigenous people from all over the region can come and be treated with native medicines from the surrounding forest and prepared by a shaman.
The shaman showed us many of the plants and what they are used for using Fino as a translator. He explained the ceremony that he performs with hallucinogenic qualities. These ceremonies are quite famous and people from the west pay thousands of dollars to go through it and achieve “enlightenment” but there’s always two sides to every story - the drug can be dangerous unless prepared properly and you can always have a really bad trip.
We tried a couple of the shamans potions at the end of the tour – one was meant to be the natural alternative to Viagra and the other for arthritis and energy. They were quite tasty actually and I went in for seconds on the energy one.
We were meant to go on a night walk with Fino but the heavens opened and the rain did not let up. Fino decided he was going to go anyway but told us it was unlikely we’d see much as the animals tend to not like getting wet. Ben and Clare went with him and they had a great walk seeing a tarantula, scorpion and caymen.
Me? I stayed at the lodge with the rest of the group and enjoyed a pisco sour before wriggling under my mosquito net and listening to the rain pitter patter on my thatched roof while I drifted off. Delicious!
WEDNESDAY 24 MARCH
Another early start – had a bit of brekky before the canoe and then bus whisked us back to Puerto Maldonado where we said goodbye to Fino.
Caught a 35 minute flight to Cuzco and dumped our bags at Tika Wasi Hostal, about 4 blocks up the hill from Plaza de Armas, the main square. Had a few mins to put our washing in a bag, shower and put on fresh undies!!! Alberto was taking the group on a quick orientation walk down to Plaza de Armas but I’d organized to meet Rach Harvey (for those of you who don’t know, I took Rach’s job at Intrepid and she moved to Lima to set up Intrepid’s Latin America office. She’s just about to return to Australia so I was lucky to catch her). We met on the cathedral steps and we had lunch at a new place, Piskuo, looking out over Plaza de Armas. Alberto’s words rang in my ears, “You’re at 3,300m now, take a couple of days to acclimatize – take it easy, drink a lot of water and don’t drink alcohol” rang in my ears as I ordered a vino blanco. It was a stylish place and we shared alpaca kebabs and a trio of three traditional dishes served tapas style. It was great to see Rach too – we’d got along like a house on fire when she was handing over her job to me and I was sorry that she was heading overseas so I couldn’t’ get to know her better. We’ve kept in touch a little bit over the years and it was just like old times – I particularly loved the banal girlfriend chatter where you’re chatting about a lot but nothing in particular. One vino blanco down and Rach asks me if I’ve tried a pisco sour. Sure have and, look, I should probably be a bit careful seeing as it’s my first day at altitude. “Yes”, Rach replied, “you shouldn’t drink too much. Make that dos pisco sours por favor!” They were strong ones too and by the time we stumbled out of there, two pisco sours under each of our belts, I was weaving my way all over the place. Let it be known that I’m a cheap date at altitude people! Stocked up on hydration drinks, said my farewells to the gorgeous Rach and crawled my way up the hill to the hostal, stopping every few steps to catch my breath.
We caught a 10pm overnight bus to Puno. We all had to give our finger prints before boarding and when we were all seated they came around with a camera videoing each passenger. John thought they were asking if someone had lost their camera so put his hand up to indicate ‘no, it’s not mine’ but it came across as “Look I know I’m a celebrity but I’m not in the mood for photos today”. It was a pretty foul trip but most of us got a little bit of sleep before our 5am arrival.
THURSDAY 25 MARCH
We checked in to our Puno hostal at 5.30am and kipped for an hour and a half before our guide for the day, Alexander, met us at 7.30am. Poor Clare had altitude sickness so decided not to come along. It was absolutely pouring outside and Alana gave me her poncho to use – of course when we got down to the dock there were a ton of locals selling ponchos and anything else you might day for a day sailing on Lake Titicaca.
Straddling Peru’s southern border with Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is a huge inland sea and the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at 3,820m above sea level. Its shores and islands are home to the Quechua, who are among Peru’s oldest peoples and where Spanish is a second language. We travelled by slow motor boat for over two hours (45kms) to Taquile Island. The island is about 6kms long and 1 km wide – we landed on the less inhabited back part of the island where an official of the island met us.
We did a beautiful walk for an hour to the end of the island coming across women carrying enormous loads (yep, the chicks do the hard labour on Taquile) with their children.
Taquile is famous for its knitting which is strictly the male domain and of very high quality and a couple of locals had set up impromptu stalls to sell their wares. Usually they do spinning (women) and knitting (men) demonstrations but unfortunately one of the islanders had died so no one on the entire was working that day. I bought a couple of the traditional alpaca wool hats and gloves.
One of the women was babysitting - I couldn't resist a couple of snaps but I don't think the baby had seen many gringos as it seemed to cry every time I looked at it!
Lake Titicaca group shot
Back on the boat and we headed back towards Puno, stopping at the famous Uros floating islands.
The Uros originally built their islands to isolate themselves from the rival tribes. The people of Uros fish, hunt birds and live off the lake plants, most important of which are the totora reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake. These reeds are used to build the actual islands and, as the reeds closest to the water begin to rot, more layers are added on top. These reeds are used for making everything on the islands, including their houses and the boats which can last up to 12 months.
Mending fishing nets
What a beautiful smile!
Reed boat ride
Di having a go at steering
Lucia and me (note new hat - mine, not Lucias!)
It was quite late by the time we got back to Puno 40 minutes from Uros so we ducked back to the hotel quickly before heading out for dinner. Alberto steered us towards a touristy place that had a traditional dancing and music show – it was actually pretty good with a fantastic pan flautist and amazing costumes. But the hightlight of the evening was the guinea pig. Alberto had assured us that this was the place to eat the Peruvian delicacy and who am I to let the fact that guinea pigs are pretty cute little rodents stand in my way. John and I were the intrepid two who set out on the guinea pig mission – there were two choices on the menu and I chose the “Exquisite Guinea Pig”. I couldn’t see much of a difference between his and mine but both had a little face, with little teeth, little nostrils, little ears and little toe nails.
I’ve seen photos of people eating a full butterflied guinea pig before but this wasn’t like that at all and was quite tastefully presented – quartered with the head to the side.
It doesn’t taste too bad but there wasn’t a lot of meat and it was a pretty fiddly little thing. If I was ever on death row and had a request a last meal, guinea pig would not be it.