Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bus to Bolivia

Day 14: September 5, 2007

Stayed up a little past midnight last night trying to get the internet to work before giving up with no success. Woke up at 5AM to catch a bus to La Paz, Bolivia. The bus was late and didn’t end up leaving until 9:30AM. I'm pretty bitter that I could have slept for another four hours.

The operator of the internet café in the bus terminal was also over an hour late, but I still managed to send some email before leaving. Also ate a chocolate crepe/pancake thing at the terminal restaurant. Good but salty.

The bus ride took about 8 hours but we had a decent bus this time and mostly just watched movies. I read a little of Clarence Darrow's biography as well. When we arrived in Bolivia, we had to deal with passports and border security. The guard tried to give me the wrong change for the border toll but I argued with him in Spanish and he gave me my change eventually. Apparently they try to cheat tourists (and everyone else) with regularity.

From the border we drove to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, and actually the highest capital city in the world. Did a walking tour of La Paz, particularly the witches market and then used the internet before dinner. La Paz is much nicer than the sketchy border area. It’s scrunched in a canyon. Pretty at night with lights all up the cliffs. We went to Mongo’s for dinner. It was a burger place but the burgers tasted kind of rancid and overall the restaurant wasn’t very good. Came home and arranged laundry and a mountain bike adventure down the Death Road for tomorrow.

Taquile Island

Day 13: September 3, 2007

Woke up feeling substantially better. Had a couple pancakes and jam with the family. It seems that there are three sisters all living together an only one is married. There are very few men compared with women in Peru. I heard it was like six women for every man. Polygamy isn't uncommon. On the island, most of the men are out fishing or in Puno for much of the time so women seem to run the place. There were some children running around the house too. Not sure who they belonged to exactly.

I packed up after breakfast and took the boat to Taquile Island. Hiked around the island but there wasn’t much to see. Some shepherds with their flocks grazing on the rocky hillsides and a small mrket.

Took the boat back to Puno, about a 3 hour ride. Tried not to get too much sun due to the intensity of the rays at high altitude. Some of the others on the boat were less concerned about it in spite of my warnings and they were quite red and peeling later. Oh well, I tried.

Got back to Puno very hungry but started off with a hot shower at the hotel after the van dropped us off. Then went for lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Alvaro. It was only ok, but a mountain of food. I could only eat half even though I was faamished.

Used the internet and watched TV in bed for the rest of the afternoon. Feeling a bit worn down. Met the group at the reggae bar before dinner. Tried Cusqueňa dark - the dark beer of Peru. It was way too sweet, and all around far worse than the Cusqueňa light. I couldn't manage to drink more than a few sips.

We went to another fancy restaurant for dinner. Wasn’t very good. Tried three kinds of trout but they all tasted like the lake smelled (bad). Hope I don’t get poisoned again. Had lamb meatballs for an entrée and they were ok, but too full to eat more than half. After dinner I popped into another bar with group just to see the scene (or lack thereof as it turned out) but I quickly said goodnight.

Waiting for the internet now. Some student tourists from Spain are taking their sweet time.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Floating Islands

Day 12: September 2, 2007

Puno, Floating Islands, and Amantani Island

Got up at 6:45. Woke up not feeling very well. Perhaps I shouldn't have eaten that salad last night? The menu claimed everything was washed in purified water, but I don't think I trust it anymore.

Took bike taxis to the market to get gifts for local families we would be staying with on Amantani island. Picked up 15 soles worth of rice, sugar, pencils, coffee, etc. We them took a boat to the floating islands. These are artificial islands that the natives construct by weaving together reeds from the lake. They engage in some primitive aquaculture and built their houses, boats, etc out of the same reeds that they use to build their islands. Each tiny island has a president who they other inhabitants pick on a yearly basis. It all seemed a little ridiculous. Most of the islands were only about a quarter of an acre at best.

I started to feel really bad. When we landed I had awful diarrhea and soon was throwing up as well. I'm pretty sure it was food poisoning. Not much to do about it in the middle of Lake Titicaca. We took the boat to other islands and I kept feeling worse. Pity that my Imodium and any other useful medicine I may have had was stolen in the mountains.

Finally arrived at Amantani island where we were to spend the night with local families. A 25 minute hike uphill was more than I could handle by that point. Had to have Alvaro carry my bag the second half of the way up. Only left my bed to go to the toilet. Very primitive toilets. No toilet seats. No flush. Door barely worked in the outhouse. Not a great place to be sick with it coming out both ends. Finally got Alvaro to return to check on me at 6PM. Borrowed some Imodium from Laura, one of the other backpackers. Got gator aid and tea from the local store. Felt a bit better. Came down for dinner at 7 and ate a bit of soup and tea. Got dressed for the traditional party after. All the islanders and tourists dress up in traditional Amantani garb and do traditional dances. They have a live band and the music is pretty good. Very strong drum beat. It was fun but one dance was all I could manage. Going to bed now. Hope I feel better tomorrow.

Bus Break Down

Day 11: September 1, 2007

Cuzco to Puno

Had a bus ride to Puno starting at 7:30AM. It was supposed to be a 7 hour ride. Turned out to be more like 10. The bus kept breaking down. We finally had to order a mini bus to rescue us about 10 miles outside of Puno when the bus became irreparable. Nice hotel in Puno, but my room was a 4th floor walk up. Not the greatest room considering Puno is still at a very high elevation. We had dinner at a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel – standard steak. I’m getting tired of it. Went to a reggae bar after and stayed out having a few beers and flaming sambuca shots.

Hanging out in Cuzco

Day 10: August 31, 2007


Went to the police station at 10AM to get my police report. Had some tamales on the street first near the cathedral. They were good. Did some shopping and catching up at an internet cafe, then went horseback riding around Inca ruins in the hills. Nice and relaxing. Got a switch and used it to speed up my horse. Got it to trot. Lots of fun. Came back to meet my group for dinner at a famous restaurant called Fallen Angel Fire and Ice. It was good but pricey. Not too bad though I guess. 2 bottles of really good wine (shared 4 ways), an appetizer, a steak, and a bottle of water for 150 soles or roughly $50 US. It’s reasonable. Went for drinks after at a 5 star hotel next door with the group but I didn’t order anything.

Machu Pichu

Day 9: August 30, 2007

Machu Pichu and back to Cuzco

Woke up at 5:30AM to hike Machu Pichu. Took a bus up the mountain to get there. Toured the site but couldn’t see much due to early morning fog. Did see a chinchilla though. It's pretty impressive that the Incas built with such large stones at such a high altitude. Lots of the trademark Inca terraces and temples to the sun, moon, condor, jaguar, etc. There's even a system of irrigation still running up there.

Coco left around 10AM and I went alone to summit Waynapichu – the mountain overlooking Machu Pichu. It was a brutal hike. Had only 1 liter of water with me. Not enough when it got hot and the fog burned off. A very steep, challenging hike. At the top there's a boulder to sit or stand on and get a good view of Machu Pichu. It's so high up and so steep that sitting on the boulder you feel like you can easily fall straight off the mountain in every direction. It's probably not just a feeling. One wrong step and a several thousand foot fall is a distinct possibility. Not worth it.

Came back to Aguas Calientes for lunch. Another restaurant of Coco’s choosing. Not bad but also very expensive. Had a pizza. It was ok. Spent the afternoon in an internet café and wandering. Taking train back to Cuzco in minutes. Actually, taking the train to Ollantaytambo and then taking a taxi to Cuzco. Whatever.

The train wasn’t as great this time. Dirtier car, no overhead windows, and no free snack. What gives? Got back to Cuzco and went to the police department straightaway. Took a couple hours to fill out the police report, went to the Lares trek travel agency with the police, etc. Had a full body massage after. It was nice. Then got dinner in a little dive and did some internetting.

Aguas Calientes

Day 8: August 29, 2007

Leaving the High Andes for Aguas Calientes

Even at lower elevations it’s very cold at night and without hot water bottles in my sleeping bag I was pretty chilly. Still in the same clothes as 3 days ago and I smell pretty bad. I miss my friends. It’s lonely out here in the middle of nowhere. Can’t wait to get to town this morning to file a police report and hopefully get some fresh clothes. Ate a full breakfast and broke camp.

Walked down the river through many farms and then climbed up a hill to Puma Marka, an old Inca ruin. Mosquitoes caught up with us in the ruins. I'm not sure how they got up that high, but with my repellant stolen there wasn't a lot I could do about them.

Walked to Ollantaytambo and tried to file a police report. The policeman said that it wasn’t his jurisdiction and that I had to go to Cuzco. Lovely. Had lunch in a sketchy little restaurant. Coc's pick, not mine. It wasn't very good and there were flies.

Bought a new suit of clothes in the market where the locals shop. Walked through a very unimpressive museum. Waiting now at the train station. Oh, we also copied Coco’s pics to a CD and I tried calling home but no one picked up on any lines. Not sure the phone worked here.

I took the train to Aguas Calientes. Pretty ride. I recommend the train to anyone else wanting to visit Machu Pichu (skip the hike, just take the train all the way from Cuzco). We unloaded our stuff at the hotel near the end of the railroad tracks. No hot water as usual. It’s a very expensive and touristy town by Peruvian standards. 20 soles for a tiny cheap pizza. It’s highway robbery.

We went to the hot springs up the hill to relax after the hike. They were warm, but not bubbly, and they were very green and dirty. Showered at the hotel after and took care of some business at an internet café. Then took Coco to dinner. He picked a restaurant on the plaza. We both had fillet mignon and a bottle of Peruvian red wine. The wine was barely ok, the steak was awful and the whole thing was quite expensive, 135 soles or so. Coco said he really enjoyed it. I think his taste is in his feet. We drank until everyone else in the square had departed. Not hard to do in Peru. Got to bed around 1:30AM. Freezing in hotel. Sheets smell bad too.

Crossing the Highest Pass

Day 7: August 28, 2007

High Andes

Got up at the crack of dawn as usual. Beginning to wonder if this is really even a vacation. Not so cold this morning (but don’t get me wrong, it’s still cold!) so the altitude is once again my biggest problem. No altitude pills or anything, they were all stolen. Coco told me what I had already suspected. In spite of the robbery, it was impractical to turn back. We had to go on and reach Ollantaytambo.

Had a bite or two of a pancake and a couple swallows of hot chocolate for breakfast. I can’t eat at these altitudes. Also this is a very different style of hiking than I’m used to. I don’t like long breaks for no good reason and I prefer to eat granola bars and peanut butter. Three course meals all the time slow me down. Isn’t the whole point of hiking to be on the trail? I feel like I spend all my time at meals just waiting for Coco to finish so we can hit the road again.

Anyway, the first part of today involved a climb through a 4,600 meter high pass. That was the highest point of the Lares trek. Made it ok. Great views from the top. We could see how steep the route we came up was and how steep it was on the other side. We were basically standing on a ridge line. On the other side of the mountain there was a medium sized lake surrounded on three sides by high mountains with glaciers. The glaciers are much smaller now than in the past, and some of them are almost melted away. Just goes to show that people should have woken up to global warming a lot sooner. After a brief break and a look around we went down the mountain and then over another pass, more like 4,300 meters. Then a lot of cruising through pampas grass covered highland hills. Saw lakes and glaciers from time to time. Lots of llamas, sheep, goats, etc. The animals graze all over the hills in flocks. They are both beautiful and calming.

The people who live in the Andes still live for the most part in primitive stone houses with thatch roofs made of grass. They are always filthy, both young and old, but they don’t seem to notice or mind. We would make small gifts to the children as we passed by – bread or pencils or clothes. Most people still wear traditional dress. Lots of bright red skirts and ponchos with fancy hats. Everything dusty. It’s quiet for the most part aside from the occasional bleating domesticated animal or the babble of a brook or small waterfall.

Made great time after lunch; downhill I’m fine and booked it faster than the guide seemed to want. Beat the porters by quite some time. Had I been left to my own devices I would have just continued on another two hours to Ollantaytambo, but instead we pitched camp on a farm on a soccer field where horses and donkeys were grazing. Up in the Andes the smell alternates between clean mountain air and large herbivore feces. After Davis, I’m ok with both smells so it wasn’t a problem. Seriously animal dung all over the mountains though. Saw a condor but not for long or very clearly. Really wish I had a change of socks/undies and my first aid stuff to clean/bandage my feet. Oh well.

There were some ruins of Inca houses near our tents so I explored them. Nothing exciting. The locals seemed to spend the afternoon whipping oxen to make them till a field. One of the oxen was recalcitrant and didn't seem to care about being whipped, he just didn't want to move. Further uphill, the people just do the tilling by hand with pickaxes. I still think it’s odd that only my tent was robbed and none of my rented equipment was taken, not even my walking stick which was outside and easiest to steal. Must investigate further. Ate both tea and dinner for a change. At 3500 meters I have a much better appetite than at 4000. Played some card games with Coco and did some riddles and puzzles with match sticks. I also found out Coco's nickname - Mata Gringos (aka, gringo killer). Lovely, just my luck. Good stars in the sky. Very bright and clear. Found some constellations including Scorpio, then went to bed.

Robbery in the Andes

Day 6: August 27, 2007

Middle of nowhere - high Andes

Woke up at 5:30AM to be ready by 6AM for the Lares trek. Turns out I didn’t need to meet my guide until 6:30. Oops. I was so intent on fighting off the altitude sickness that was beginning to take hold when Coco briefed me that I really didn’t remember much of anything. When he picked me up, we drove to a small authentic bakery first to buy bread for the Andean children we would encounter. Then we went to a market in Culca to get other trinkets for them and coca leaves as a gift for a local family. Then we went to Lares and explored that market too. We drove a bit further to the trail head and had lunch. I was already to walk but instead they made me a three course lunch. If I’d finished it I would have been done for. I ate sparingly. Also tried chewing coca leaves. It didn’t do anything for me but it’s less nasty than the tea.

We hiked through lots of pasture land with alpacas, sheep, pigs, horses, etc. Lots of cute children too. They would come walk with us for a bit and we would give them bread or small toys. Saw some local villages too. We walked slowly and it wasn’t too bad until we got above about 13,000 feet. Then I stopped walking in a straight line. I was pretty much meandering/stumbling up the hill. It was less pretty too. I began wishing I was just taking a day hike and gone back down. Our camp was farther than expected because the porters are probably nuts. It was also over 14,000 feet. When we reached it I collapsed on a rock. The last hill was by far the worst. Really feel the altitude. Coco forced me to go to my tent and put on warm clothes. He was right. The sun was going down and it got cold quickly. Currently must be below 0 degrees C. Oh, I forgot to mention - on the van ride to the trail head it snowed a bit. The road was very narrow but I’ve driven worse. I only started to get concerned when the driver crossed himself.

I took a 45 minute nap and was awoken for tea. Dinner will be soon. I’m not hungry. I just want to get in my sleeping bag.

Lovely. I got robbed during dinner. Shoulda stayed with plan A and not left my tent. The last I saw of my clothes, backpack, and camera, I was taking my pills after tea. After dinner my tent had been ransacked. Now what? Even though we camped (for some inexplicable reason) at 14,000 feet, the cold quickly became a bigger problem for me than the lack of oxygen. With no clothes but the ones on my back and no sleeping bag liner (it too was stolen) I was hard pressed to keep warm. I had my water bottles with me during dinner so I filled them with hot water boiled over the fire to warm my sleeping bag. It was a rough night. Cold, robbed, dogs howling, the altitude, and being too out of it to go outside and take a leak. Fairly miserable all around.

Touring the Sacred Valley Inca Ruins

Day 5: August 26, 2007

Cuzco and Sacred Valley

Got up too early accidentally. Ran out of hot water in the middle of my shower. Packed up. Still not feeling great. We’ll see what happens. Dropped off laundry. Coca tea still tastes bad. We took a bus to the sun temple above Cuzco and got a tour of it. Felt the altitude. Then we drove to other towns with ruins or cool markets. I think Culca, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo. Did some shopping in the markets. Oh, we also stopped at a traditional native alpaca weaving place and got to feed/pet the alpacas. Stuff was super expensive there but excellent quality and I felt like I should buy something to support the natives. I got two hats made of alpaca wool. At the middle hiking stops I adjusted to the altitude and felt much better. Took lots of pictures of Inca temples, houses, pre-Inca burial grounds, etc. At Ollantaytambo the rest of the group spent the night with locals. Because I was doing the Lares trek I had to take an hour and a half bus ride back to Cuzco. I was all alone there but I managed to get my stuff packed for the hike, found chicken soup for dinner, and a phone/internet café to reconnect with El Norte. Seems everything is fine and the contract for 392 Central Park West is signed. What a relief. I almost can’t wait to move in.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beginning to Battle the Altitude

Day 4: August 25, 2007

Jungle to Cuzco

Slept poorly due to racket from birds. Had breakfast and took a quick morning hike in the jungle. Saw a red tree squirrel. Very red and fluffy. Took a boat back to Puerto Maldonado. From there, took a van from the river bank to the airport. Didn’t get time to repack bags. Got stopped in security for having a pocket knife in my backpack. They confiscated it. Need to go back to the airport to get it later. The flight into Cuzco was rough. Feeling unsettled. Altitude doesn’t help. Dropped off stuff at my hotel and tried coca tea for the first time. It's made from boiling coca leaves, the same stuff cocaine is made of. It's supposed to help with altitude sickness but there's no scientific basis to back that up. It tastes pretty gross. After a cup of tea, I went on a walking tour. Had lunch in a nice restaurant before the walk. Tried Lomo Saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish. It was good – basically a sliced up steak on a bed of potatoes and rice. Spent the rest of the time shopping. Got an alpaca poncho. Hurried back to the hotel for a briefing on the Lares trail – and really started to feel sick. Maybe it was foreshadowing of the trials to come in the high Andes. My guide’s name is Coco. I hope he doesn’t get me killed, it’ll just be me and him. We went to another nice restaurant for dinner but I felt too sick to eat. Had half a tonic water and left before everyone’s food even arrived. Woke up every two hours that night to drink water to get over the altitude faster.

Fishing for Piranhas

Day 3: August 24, 2007

Somewhere in the Amazon Jungle...

There were few ants still outside in the morning when I was awoken at 5AM by the cries of howler monkeys. I found out I took the wrong trail the previous night. That’s why I never reached the garden. Apparently I was off bumbling somewhere.

Breakfast was ok. I tried some fruits I’d never seen before, but they weren’t exceptional. The howler monkeys continued to roar away (they sound a bit like lions).

After breakfast, we went on a walk (guided tour) through jungle swamp. It was still barely past dawn when we reached the swamp. We paddled a dugout canoe through the muck looking for exotic birds. Spotted some and got pictures of a few. Also some really beautiful butterflies. A very friendly blue one wouldn’t leave us alone and kept landing on people. Got some great pictures I think. Guess I'll never find out for sure (more on that later). Hiked back to camp after. Oh – on the way back through the swamp I spotted a baby black caiman. Couldn’t catch it though before it escaped in the bushes. It's hard chasing reptiles through the dens foliage, especially in a rickity dugout canoe.

The trail back turned out to be the trail I took last night. Not so lost anymore.

When we got back to camp it was only 11:30AM because we left so early. I had some free time before lunch at 1PM so I went looking for the gardens again and once more became lost. This time on a different trail. I was surprised by some deer sized mammals in the brush that made a growling/barking sound before crashing off through the brush. Peccaries maybe? Didn’t get a clear look. Or at another large mammal later. Could have been just about anything. I saw other stuff though and got pictures.

It turned out that the trail ended in a swamp. I found two caimans there, one of which was pretty big, maybe over a meter. Lots of birds and some fish. Went back to camp for lunch.

After lunch I went swimming in a pool covered by mosquito netting (all that nonsense about waiting an hour after eating is totally unfounded scientifically). Frigid water, but having chlorine was nice.

After a swim I went with my guide, Alvaro, to the gardens and actually made it this time. On the way I spotted a capybara (a juvenile I believe) but it ran into a thicket before we could get close enough to get a good picture. It had a light brown head and a darker body.

At the garden I smelled, touched, and tasted lots of plants. Not sure what many of them were. It turns out several were poisonous (I did recognize and avoid them), some others were halucinogenic (these were pointed out to me and I avoided them as well) and the others were either food, medicine, or both. Probably not so smart to play with them without knowing, but oh well. Not dead yet.

Took a shower when I got back. Very cold. Clean though. Oh wait, that was after going fishing for catfish and piranhas. I loaded up on 100% DEET and put on my mosquito net. We took a boat down the river bank to a spot that seemed good for fishing and baited our hooks with small pieces of raw meat. For poles we used sticks. I didn’t catch anything (as usual) but some of the others caught catfish. The piranhas didn't bite unfortunately. The bugs did. I was fairly well protected but several of my fishing buddies got savaged by gnats, mosquitos, and biting flies. It's worth mentioning that the mosquitos in the Amazon are the largest I've ever seen. Way bigger than Alaska. I actually mistook some for dragon flies. It's ridiculous.

We were pretty hot after fishing so we took the boat to the middle of the river and jumped in the water. Very cloudy, lots of sediment. Extremely strong current too. Very difficult to stand up in one place without being swept away. The bottom was fairly sandy and pleasant to the touch. Couldn’t see anything in the water. Probably better off that way. The water was warm enough, far warmer than the pool or showers back at camp. Came back to camp, showered and hung out at the bar. At dinner time they served a buffet as well as the freshly caught fish (of course, I couldn’t eat it because it was catfish).

After dinner I went hiking down the same trail as the previous night again, but this time with a camera. Got the tarantula pics – they were all in the same place. Came back to the bar for drinks (something called a Toucan) and poker (I won). At this point I noticed that I'd apparently been bitten quite a lot swimming in the river. Everything started to itch terribly. The gnats and flies are vicious. I realized that when I took off my clothes to jump in the river, I didn't have DEET on underneath them. Oops. You can actually tell the difference between the various insect bites by their size and whether or not they bleed. The flies leave the largest and nastiest wounds. Fun times.

I found the hive of the red ants on the way to bed. It’s next to one of the support posts of the bungalow next to mine. I'll need to look up the actual species of the ants tomorrow. Took pictures.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Going Adventuring

Day 0-1: August 21-22, 2007.

New York and Miami, USA and Lima, Peru.

My flight was delayed by weather at La Guardia. Barely drizzling. Ridiculous. As a result, I missed my transfer in Miami. There were no more American Airlines flights that night, so I took LAN, Peru's airline. I had to run through the airport in Miami because the LAN flight was already boarding when we landed, but fortunately I had made the new ticket arrangements at La Guardia when I realized I wouldn't make my connection. The other passengers trying to get on the flight who hadn't gotten tickets in advance were in a stickier situation.

At the gate, Spanish was clearly the first language of the Miami staff, as well as 99% of the passengers. I was too tired to muck around in Spanish but since no one seemed able to communicate with me in English (and remember this was still in Miami, not even out of the US yet), I was forced to get by with what Spanish I could muster. Good leg room on the plane at least and the food was fine.

When we landed I picked up my backpack in baggage claim, avoiding the horde of people trying to sell cell phones, rental cars and such to the tourists coming off the plane. I went outside and bargained for a taxi to my hotel. It's much cheaper to go out and bargain than to have the airport staff call a cab, but apparently it can also be dangerous and you have to watch out for kidnappers.

It took about half an hour to get to the hotel and I was disappointed to discover there was no hot water in the morning. Bummer.

I decided to go out fro a while since it was still very early in the morning but I couldn't sleep. I walked around Lima and saw the plazas. They were pretty and the walking started to give me an appetite. I had breakfast at a cafe but the vegetarian omelet I ordered was ham not mushroom so I had to send it back and get it switched. At least when they brought me the right one it was tasty.

After some more wandering I had lunch at a chinese restaraunt and tried Inca Kola - the second most popular drink in Peru after Coke. It tastes pretty good, like bubble gum. Apparently it can be foudn in the US some places under the name golden cola or something to that effect. During lunch a little boy came and asked for food. I had way too much so I gave him the rest of my lunch. There are a lot of poor people all over Peru, but it seems like there are actually less in the big cities than in the country. It always feels the other way round in New York.

I went back to the hotel and met the tour group at 2PM. It was only me and a family from Virginia. Not exactly what I'd been told to expect since I heard the age range was 18-40. Note to self, don't trust travel agents.

I skipped the city tour since I had already seen most of it and this seemed like my last opportunity to do anything in Lima. Based on a recommendation from a friend in NY, I took a taxi to Miraflores to go paragliding. Unfortunately, there was no wind to paraglide so I waited on the cliffs for a couple hours with a bunch of other people but we didn't get to fly.

I took a taxi back to central Lima and met up with the rest of the group. I watched some tv in my suite and then we went back to Miraflores as a group for dinner at a restaraunt called Cafe Cafe. I had the ceviche (it was good and spicy) and the beef stew (which was actually like roast beef and mashed potatoes) and combined it all with a bottle of Chilean Malbec. It was a tasty wine and actually was very interesting combined with the spicy ceviche. All the spice disappeared from the wine after such spicy food and it seemed much sweeter. Plastic cork bottle though - not terribly great stuff.

After dinner we drove back to central Lima, again piled 5 in a cab meant for 4. Watched movies until 2AM or so and then drifted off.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Enter the Jungle

Day 2: August 23, 2007.

Lima, Cuzco, Puerto Maldonado, and Amazon Jungle, Peru.

Got a wake up call at 6:30AM. Snoozed until 7. Packed in a rush and showered. Hot water this time. Made it downstairs by 7:30 for a bottle of water and the bus to the airport. The reservation appeared in the system for me but there was no ticket number. I waited with Alvaro (the guide) for nearly an hour trying to get the travel agent to straighten everything out. Finally got the problem fixed just before the flight closed. Fortunately I had already checked my bag under someone else's name; if I had waited there's no way it would have been put on board.

Took the plane to Cuzco and after taking on more passengers we immediately left again, this time for Puerto Maldonado. The guy sitting in front of me had apparently never flown before and made awful groans for most of the flight. I thought he was dying or something. It turned out he was fine and only had a minor stomach ache. I don't get some people.

From the airport we took an open truck to the outskirts of town where we left our main bags and continued with only our day packs. The truck dropped us at the river and we took long covered canoes with outboard motors down the river to Monkey Island. We took pictures with spider monkeys (the biggest monkeys in the Amazon), brown capuchins, and a little saddle back tamarind. They were all happy to come out and chill with us when we produced mini-bananas. One of the Spider Monkeys was so happy to meet us that it wrapped itself around the face and head of the mom of the family on our tour and wouldn't let go. It was kind of funny. It stayed there for several minutes and our guide kept telling her not to touch the monkey, but really it was the monkey he should have been scolding!

The lodge we were to stay at was nice enough. We each had a little shared bungalow raised off the ground to minimize the snakes, tarantulas, and insects that would come traipsing in. No hot water, but we got to choose between beds and hammocks.

Once it got dark we went out in a boat looking for caimen. I was glad to be wearing 100% Deet and a mosquito net. I had gotten my Yellow Fever, Typhoid, etc shots the day before leaving New York and they would take ten days to be effective. If I were bitten now, it might go very poorly for me. At least I had my antimalarial pills. Lots of insects out and about. We only found baby caimen though. The eyes glow red in the spotlight of the boat at night and that's how you spot them. When we had looked for about an hour without finding any big ones, we returned to the lodge for dinner.

Dinner was weird jungle fish that I assume wasn't kosher. I had an omelet instead. During the meal I found out that there was a shamn's garden nearby with lots of medicinal plants and whatnot. Supposedly very cool. I decided to go find it. The locals said it was only a 5 minute walk or so. After dinner and a Pisco Sour at the bar (they taste a little like Margaritas and have raw whipped egg in them which separates and floats to the top), I went out alone in the jungle with my mosquito net, a mini maglight, and a pocket knife.

The darkness was tough to deal with. I had to walk very slowly, tiptoeing basically to avoid snakes. Didn't see any, probably for the best. I did find a burrow though with 4 tarantulas in it and hunting around the outside. They were roughly 2-3 inches long, black and furry, with reddish rear ends. They were pretty skittish but when I waited patiently they came out. Very stealthy walking. Never hear them.

The jungle is loud, lots of bug calls and falling leaves. The leaves actually sound very loud in the darkness, they sort of make a crashing sound as they fall. I'm not familiar with most of the odd calls so I can't recognize many animals. One exception is a medium-large grasshopper thing I found making a racket. I can definitely recognize those now by the sound. I found carapaces of large beetle with pincers like a scorpion glued to the bases of trees. 1/3 of an inch long maybe. Kind of shiny. I also found a fifth tarantula in a large hole up the trail. Same species as the other four I believe.

After walking for about an hour into the pitch black jungle, I concluded that I was nowhere near finding any sort of garden. In the interests of getting some sleep (and not getting lost/killed) I decided to head back to camp.

It's really creepy walking through jungle alone, particularly at night. It's impossible to see. The jungle is three dimensional but my light was tiny and I could only see one pinpoint at a time. I had no idea what was going on outside the light. Good thing I walked slow and watched my step. On the path about 50 ft from bungalow were hundreds of large red ants marching in a column. Some were just a bit bigger than regular ant size but others, the warriors, were enormous. I just saw one at first, then noticed the entire column. The first one I saw was so big I mistook it for a spider. The mandibles on the warriors were massive and shined white in the light. Reddish colored bodies. Looked very mean - I walked around. I also hoped they wouldn't visit me in my sleep.

Flight Home

Day 17-18: September 7-8, 2007.

La Paz and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Miami and New York, USA.

I didn't bother getting up early since there seemed to be little point. All I needed to do was pack up my stuff and get to the airport around 2PM. It didn't take long to get all my stuff organized, but shutting the zipper on my backpack was another story. It's soooo much easier to close an overstuffed bag with two people; one to hold it shut and the other to zip. Finally I managed it by pushing the bag up against a wall with my knee and using both hands to zip. A few things still wouldn't fit so I tossed them in a plastic grocery bag. It'll work as a carry on.

Had breakfast at the hotel again. This time another group was there, they seemed to be mostly from New Zealand. Throughout the trip I ran into very few Americans. Seems like we don't travel in the US anywhere near as much as the folks across the pond or down under.

I took a last walk around the town and used an internet cafe before my taxi arrived at 1:30. A bit of a harrowing ride; Bolivian drivers are fairly crazy. MAde it to the airport around 2PM thinking my flight was sometime between 4-4:30. Turns out I read the itinerary wrong and my flight wasn't until 8:20PM. Oops. Camped out in the airport and started reading the autobiography of Clarence Darrow. After shlepping it all over the world at least now I had the time to read it. Pretty beaten up book after all the travelling and a lot of the pages were falling out. No big deal though.

The flight was a little delayed even for 8:20 so I went for a spin through the duty free shop. Picked up some Frangelico and a bottle of the Merlot I'd had for dinner the night before. Good prices, but in retrospect I never paid tax on anything I bought in any of the markets in Peru or Bolivia anyway. I wonder if there is even sales tax.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Bolivian Shopping Spree

Day 16: September 6, 2007

La Paz, Bolivia

Given the events of yesterday and my unintentional cliff diving experiment, I decided to take it easy and sleep in until 7:30AM. Even after that I just stayed in bed watching TV. Finally got up to drop off my laundry at the front desk and pay for an extra night (a 3 star hotel for $20 a night ain't bad!). Had breakfast in the hotel restaraunt since it was now included in my room (for some reason the rooms booked through Tucan didn't come with breakfast). It was fine but I was the only one in the restaraunt so it was kinda weird. I was served fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal, juice, tea, and a pile of baked goods. I caught up with the world a bit at the internet cafe next door and then went out to begin my great shopping spree.

Prices in Bolivia are ridiculously cheap. It's like running around with monopoly money, it just doesn't mean anything. I think the exchange rate was like 7.7 Bolivianos to the US Dollar. To provide some perspecive, a small bottle of water from a street vendor in NYC is $1. A giant 2L bottle of water from an expensive hotel in Bolivia is only $.79. I thought Peru was cheap, but this was unreal. Sometimes it really wasn't even worth the time or effort to bargain. Do I really feel the need to waste 5 minutes to get something for 49 Bolivianos instead of 55? It's less than a dollar difference, who cares?

I found a leather store that would make custom garments with 2 days notice. Unfortunately I only had one day and they refused to ship stuff to NY even if I would pay extra. Not quite sure what their problem was. Ended up just getting a leather jacket off the rack, pretty nice, seems sturdy, and only 700Bs! I always wanted a leather jacket; should be a good souvenir. I also got some sweaters, alpaca ponchos, a large rug, etc. Yay souvenir stuff.

I decided to splurge for dinner. After yesterday's near death experience I deserved a good meal right? (Who am I kidding, I'm just a foodie always in search of the best restaraunts). As far as I could tell, the best restaraunt in the country was Utama, located on the top floor of the 5 star Plaza Hotel. Fidel Castro and Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori both ate there. The internet claimed Utama was the place to go so I did, I got a cab poste haste.

The views from the top of the Plaza were very nice. The city of La Paz is in a canyon with the best real estate at the bottom (where there is more oxygen and milder weather) and the slummier sections up the cliff walls. At night, the lights from the cliffs surround the lower city and it has as similar effect to sitting in a globe filled with glitter. Sparkling lights all around. I like La Paz. It has a lot of the hustle and bustle of NYC, but for a fraction the price. Anyway, back to dinner.

The staff were all decked out in tuxedos but I strolled in wearing dirty cargos and a rain jacket over my polo shirt. I felt a bit out of place but the staff didn't seem to care. I started off with a half bottle of Bolivian Merlot since they were out of Cab. It was surprisingly good! I believe it was the 2004 La Conception Merlot Reserva. It has a strong olive flavor, but in an interesting way, not a bad way. A little salty like the sea. Some fruit too. Really not bad.

The views were incredible and the service impeccable; I couldn't wait for the food to arrive (both curious to see what Bolivia had to offer and pretty hungry at this point). First my cauliflower soup arrived. Quite delicious. The presentation was a bit lacking, the plates and flatwear looked like something bought on discount at Kmart, not the fine china the fancy NY restaraunts use. The soup was in a small cup with a few small croutons on top and looked a lot like something I might get at Carrows or any other diner. Fortunately it tasted a lot better than that. I scarfed it down before even letting it cool down a bit.

Some locals came in while I was eating - I think some businessmen. They all wore suits. I feel even stranger wearing my backpacking clothes now. Quite a disparity between how the tourists and locals dress in places like this.

My steak arrived next. It was reasonably thick unlike most I encountered on the trip. It came in a mustard sauce with some french fries and a few steamed vegetables. Pretty good. Not Del Frisco's by any stretch of the imagination, but one of the better steaks I've had this trip for sure. Quite stuffed but ordered dessert anyway. Decided to try the waiter's favorite, some chocolate cake thingee. It had some sort of cream layers, one of which tasted sort of minty.

Totally stuffed and toes tingling a bit from a combination of the altitude and alcohol. It's much more effective up here. The tab only came to 153Bs. Even adding on a 10% tip (generous here) and the two cab fares it's not even $25! Absolutely ridiculous!

The Death Road

Day 15: September 5, 2007
Camino de la Muerte, Bolivia

Last night I was up relatively late watching the news and whatnot and due to the time change (Bolivia is an hour ahead of Peru) it was very difficult to get up at 6AM Bolivian time to get ready for the ride. Feeling a little sick still, lingering food poisoning, sleep deprivation, or altitude sickness? Dunno. Took my last 2 imodium and hoped for the best.

Showered, put on a pair of jeans, T-shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, sneakers, etc. Got a call from the front desk at 7AM sharp that the van driver was waiting for me downstairs. Hurried down. We picked up four other backpackers who were going on the trek and then went to a restaraunt for breakfast. Altogether there was the guide, Angel, the van driver, Oscar, two swiss girls, a frenchman, and australian, and me. Breakfast was just toast and jam really with some tea and juice. I really hoped the water for the juice was filtered. Another incident of Montezuma's revenge would be quite unpleasant while trying to mountain bike.

We drove for maybe 40 minutes out of La Paz (starting at about 11,000 feet elevation where the hotel was) and up the mountain to an altitude of just under 16,000 feet. Quite a pretty drive. Riding out of the city there are sweeping views of the entire canyon which cradles La Paz and we also saw the dam, river, and some grazing alpaca herds on the way out of town. The mountains were awesome but there was also a lot of fog/cloud obstructing the view.

It got much colder as we ascended. When we reached the top where we were to start the ride, there was a lot of snow around and the puddles outside the van had a reasonably thick coating of ice over them. There was also a large, shimmering lake there, which was not frozen and even had a few water fowl hanging out on the surface. They looked a little like seagulls.

We got out of the van near La Cumbre and the driver unloaded our bikes from the roof. They were pretty serious looking bikes (American Trek 4300s); a good thing too, considering what we were about to do with them. We put on our gear (red wind breaker jackets, black pants, biking gloves, and helmets) and tested out the bikes a bit. My helmet didn´t fit very well so I wore my sweatshirt hood up underneath it to provide some padding. This may have saved my life later, or at least a good bit of skin.

The jackets, gloves, etc that we were given were not warm at all, they were just supposed to protect our clothes underneath from splash damage and we were shivering pretty well by the time we´d been waiting 5-10 minutes in the altaplana environment. The guide took pictures of us all (at the time I wondered if this was for identification purposes if one of us failed to make it) and we set off.

The first part of the trek was a fairly standard, paved, mountain road. It was steep, curvy, and had quite a lot of traffic, but in spite of the sheer drops it wasn´t really dangerous. The asphalt lasted for about an hour. The cold was absolutely biting and the wind cut through all three layers I was wearing. My hands were so cold and numb I could barely operate the breaks. Fortunately I didn´t have to shift gears much, or even peddle for the first 45 minutes for that matter. The road was so steeply graded that we were able to coast at about 80km/hr with little effort in spite of the drag from the gigantic offroad tires our bikes were equipped with.

The other cars on the road put out a lot of exhaust, particuarly the ones chugging up the hill, and it felt a bit painful to breathe the air sometimes. The altitude also took its toll on our lungs. Going up the few hills we had to climb was very tough and I got winded much faster than I normally would. There was about four miles of uphill climbing I'd guess. I still kept to the front of our line though, right behind the guide. The swiss girls tended to be a couple minutes behind and the frenchman and aussie were somewhere in between.

The fog was sometimes so bad we could only see about 50 feet ahead but at other times we were treated to gorgeous sweeping views of the mountains and canyons below. The high speeds were a thrill and I had to contain several cheers on the way down; didn´t want the others to think I was crazy. We took a snack break before starting the real Camino de la Muerte or ¨Death Road¨. As an aside, the road got its name for being the #1 most dangerous road in the world with an average of over 200 fatalaties per year. Over two vehicles per month go off the cliffs on average, resulting in fatalities of sometimes dozens of people at a time. Many of the vehicles that go over the edge are small busses.

I was feeling even more nauseous after breathing so many car fumes on the way down. Almost at the point of vomiting. I forced down some water and a banana anyway, figuring I would need the fluids and energy for the next segment. It was still brutally cold, though the air slowly warmed and became more humid as we descended. There was even a bit of rain from time to time. While we made periodic stops for water and I would usually remove my gloves and helmet at these points, I continued to keep my sweatshirt hood up while riding.

The Death Road itself was really something. It was built over 100 years ago by prisoners of war from Paraguay and one gets the impression they had it in for their Bolivian masters. The road was unpaved, a mix of large rocks, potholes, loose gravel, and mud where falling water from above turned everything into a slippery mess. There was also lingering evidence of periodic rock slides. It was pretty steep for the most part and full of hairpin turns bordered by sheer drops of well over 1000 feet. In many places the road was only 2-3 meters wide.

We started out descending carefully. We were already sore from the hard bike seats on the way down the paved road and we tended to hover over our saddles as even our giant rock shocks failed to adequately absorb the vibrations from the rubble-strewn road. Better to take it in the quads than our more private areas. Our arms and hands quickly became fatigued from the strain of constantly clutching the brakes and absorbing the shock coming through the handle bars. In spite of its difficulty for riders, the road is incredibly beautiful, quickly transitioning from icy mountain to stunning rainforest.

After a few miles, the temptation of the large rocks in the road and our hovering riding style became too much for the Australian and I to resist and we began bunny hopping off some of the larger rocks. In retrospect, this was not a bright idea. We were descending at a pretty good clip, probably about 20km/hour on average, which was about as fast as we could go without losing control given the road conditions.

I actually did lose it at one point when the rocks in the road formed something of a rut that my tire got stuck in. I half came off the bike and bruised my leg against the bike a bit but managed to recover before totally crashing. The next time I wasn´t so lucky.

I was behind the Australian at this point and he got a good deal of air off a rock as he bunny hopped down the trail. Going over the same rock I caught the air as well, but as I came down I hit some gravel and my back break was a little too soft. I lost it and my bike began swerving uncontrollably and it was all I could do to keep upright. My last thought before going off the cliff was "Oh man, this is going to hurt a lot!"

Oddly my life didn't flash before my eyes and the fact that in a moment I might be flying thousands of feet down to my death didn´t occur to me. There was no time to really think about it. It was less than 50 feet from the rock I jumped to where I went off the cliff and due to the speed I was traveling at, it took less than 2 seconds before I went over. As my bike hit the edge and went horizontal I just shut my eyes and braced myself for whatever sort of impact was coming my way.

As it turned out, I got extremely lucky. You probably guessed this by now from the fact that you're reading my account of the tale on a blog and not the obituaries. I landed about 15 feet down in a mass of thorny vegetation. I got tangled in the sharp, thorny vines and my bike, which was pinning down my right leg to the cliff face.

My first thought was how much it sucked that I had just gone off the edge and that this was pretty serious. My second realization was the sharp pain coming from my right knee. Then came a third thought: the danger I was still in as I started to slide down the cliff face. I grabbed on to the vegetation and tried to shake out the cobwebs a bit. The Frenchman who was riding pretty close behind me shouted "STOP!" to the others at the top of his lungs and lept off his bike to see what fate had befallen me. The guide and Australian were already too far ahead to hear him I think.

I told the Frenchman I thought I was ok, even though based on the pain I wasn´t really sure yet. My helmet absorbed a lot of the shock, though I´m convinced that without the sweatshirt hood it would have been next to useless. The hood also prevented my face from being scratched up by the sharp brambles. Fortunately the many layers I was wearing absorbed a lot of the blow from my landing. Bruising from the impact was pretty minimal except for my right leg. Unfortunately the thorns did their job on a lot of the rest of me, along with some sort of biting insects whose nest I must have disturbed in my crash. The thorns pierced through my riding pants, practically shredding them, tore at least one hole through my jeans underneath as well, ripped 3 large slashes in my gloves, and went through my jacket and flesh in many places as well. I also got a pretty good road rash from my right hip up my abdomen and my right knee was bruised and cut from being pinned between my bike and the cliff.

Incredibly after looking myself over, there didn´t seem to be any permanent damage and all my limbs still worked. When the world stopped spinning I passed up my bike to the frenchman who was still gawking down at me from the road in disbelief, and I managed to climb back up the cliff.

Our van, which was bringing up the rear, caught up along with a van from another tour group and both drivers seemed rather amazed to see me alive and climbing up the cliff side. The other tour´s van driver actually even took my picture when I got back to the top. My brakes left an impressive skid mark from the rock I hopped to the cliff edge. You could see where my wheels kept leaving the ground because their were breaks in the skid mark and you could see how I was swerving too.

After assuring everybody I was ok, I got back on the bike, which seemed little worse for wear, and continued down the road. A few minutes later I caught up to the rest of the group (the guide and Australian had been taking a break about 5 minutes down the trail and the Swiss girls were with them already after having passed me by). The guide checked my bike and tuned it up a bit and then off we went.

I did learn my lesson and stopped bunny hopping for the remainder of the trip. The Australian continued however. I had a little less control than normal due to my minor injuries so I figured it was best to take it down a notch, go a bit slower, and not do anything fancy to avoid a less fortunate repeat performance.

We made it down to the bottom of the mountain without any more serious problems, just one section where we had to go through a shallow river that was very rocky and a few of us lost control. No real danger of falling off the cliff there though, just getting wet and scraped. When we reached the bottom, 69 kilometers and over 10,000 feet in elevation later, we piled our gear back in or on the van and drove up to Coroico for a buffet lunch, a swim in the pool, showers, and some time just to rest. Apparently we were a very fast group, having made it down in 3-4 hours. 5-6 was more normal according to our guide.

The buffet lunch was wasted on me, I still wasn´t hungry. Mostly just sat in a chair on the patio overlooking the mountains and jungle to rest. The right side of my chest was pretty sore from a combination of the fall and the shock of the road traveling up my arm through the breaks.

I called Megan on the way out of town from a pay phone to say I´d driven off a cliff but was ok. I figured pretty much anyone else I could call (I don't have many phone numbers memorized) would freak out, so she seemed the logical choice. I then promised her not to do anything else stupid, said I´d had enough, and that I would stick to shopping for the remainder of my trip.

Then we proceeded to do something stupid again. Instead of taking the newly built safe road back to La Paz, we drove back up the death road again. This time we did it in the van and we got an even better perspective on how nuts it was to use this gravelly mess as a road for cars. Our right wheels were nearly off the edge of the road several times on the way up and looking out the windows we could examine the precipitous drops much better than we were able to while concentrating on our biking on the way down.

We stopped for pictures in a few spots, including where I went over the edge. When we got back to La Paz the guide gave us CDs with the pictures from our trip that he had taken along the way and T-shirts.

Exhausted, I went to a place called Ja Ja Ja Chicken for dinner. Kinda like a sketchy version of KFC. There are tons of these chicken broaster restaraunts all over La Paz. Apparently they´re the typical cuisine. I meant to call Megan back after dinner but was too tired. No hot water in my shower so I quickly gave up on that too. Simply collapsed into bed and passed out.

I examined my wounds the next morning. Found lots of itchy thorn punctures. Kind of like mosquito bites but with blood. Guess I am allergic to whatever the thorn bush was or it had some sort of toxin or something. Still feeling kind of lucky I landed on the thorns though rather than the alternative. Feels like I have rocks in my lungs too. Not sure if it was the panting at high altitude yesterday or just soreness from the handle bars. Lots of bruises and scrapes on my right side. Good times.