The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca Part II – Taquile Island

After leaving the Uros Islands with an uncomfortable feeling that we had just been conned (The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands), we settled in for the 2-hour boat ride to Taquile Island and hoped our next experience would feel more authentic. Along the way, our guide told us about Lake Titicaca and Taquile. The people are known for their beautiful textiles and, in an interesting twist, the men all knit and the women weave. Similar to the Uros Islands, the Taquile community decided to control the tourism on their island. The community is a cooperative and runs day tours, home stays, restaurants and textile sales. After lecturing us for awhile, our guide piped down and most of us cat-napped on the ride.

Taquile is tiny – about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide – and stunning. We landed on a lovely beach with farming terraces dotting the hillside above it. Some young tourists who had done a homestay were playing with local children on the beach when we were met by our local male guides.  They were wearing beautiful outfits – bright, knitted hats with earflaps (chullos) and gorgeous woven sashes (chumpis). The men never stopped knitting. It was remarkable to see them walk and knit, especially given that we were not on smooth pavement. The hats denote marital status. While men wear knitted hats, with or without earflaps, married men wear red, patterned hats folded to the right, while unmarried men wear hats that are red and patterned at the bottom and white at the top. Folded to the right, it means he is looking for a girlfriend; hanging down the back means he is taken or not yet interested in dating. The island’s elected officials (men) wear black, felt hats during their terms. The community marries within itself, and our guide bluntly remarked that a disabled man who was causing some minor disruptions is the end result when the gene pool doesn’t expand. In addition, couples cohabit before getting married. If the cohabitation doesn’t work out and they didn’t have children, they part ways. I’m not sure how that works out as it would be pretty hard to avoid your ex on this tiny island!

After a brief introduction on the beach, we walked up the path. Matt and I thought we were pacing ourselves and going slowly, but apparently we weren’t as we inadvertently ended up following another group and had to be shooed back to wait for our own. Due to the altitude, some folks had a trouble with the ascent, but we had been in the Andes long enough to be acclimated. The views are stupendous and we were able to see Bolivia in the distance.

Eventually our group congregated in a courtyard and the women filed in to set up their weaving. I was confused to see the black head coverings as we heard the islanders were Catholic with the usual indigenous bent. Our guide told us that the head coverings were to protect the women’s hair from being bleached by the sun. A woman’s hair is a great asset and a bride cuts off her hair to weave into a sash for her husband’s wedding gift. No word on what a man gives his wife, but apparently he has to finish knitting his married-man hat before he can tie the knot. As our guide talked and got one of the men to demonstrate how to clean wool with a local plant, the women bent over their weaving in the hot sun while wearing multiple wool skirts and sweaters. In talking with one of the women afterwards, she admitted that it was terrible for her back to weave in this fashion. She also said that the runners they were weaving take about 3 weeks to complete.

Ancient Tools

Ancient Tools

After the talk and demonstration, there was the usual setting up of textiles for sale with the obvious expectation that we would buy. In talking with other visitors to Taquile, I think our experience was different than usual due to the elections. The main square where there is usually a textile market was closed, so the selection was limited and we felt more obligation than if we had been wandering around a market. We bought a few things and likely would have bought more given the fine quality if we had seen more than just a sampling. In addition, the weavers and knitters were not friendly (and Matt and I usually get points for at least speaking Spanish though on the island they also speak Quechua) and I felt a vibe that ranged from indifferent to resentful. Very different from the overly exuberant women on Uros, but awkward just the same. Matt and I compared notes later and he felt the same hostility.

After shopping, we were herded to the Eco Lodge Taquile for a traditional lunch of quinoa soup, fried trout and tea. The setting was pleasant and the lunch was fresh and tasty. We then hiked around more of the island to another dock for pick up. The day remained beautiful and the walk was leisurely and lovely. Upon our arrival to the dock, we discovered that the crew had returned to Puno to vote! We were stranded for about an hour and half with no beverages in the hot sun and nowhere to go as we were not allowed to wander. Needless to say, this ended our trip on a sour note. Matt and I struck up a conversation with some friendly Australian tourists who were planning their cocktail hour upon returning to their hotel and we had to break the news to them that it was a dry country due to the elections. We gave them “directions’ to our source in the market and hoped they found some libations for the evening.

There is no doubt that Taquile is beautiful and we felt we saw an authentic way of life (questionable on the Uros Islands), but we also felt unwelcome, which is odd for a community that has decided to become a tourist destination. It is hard to say whether I would recommend either excursion to someone traveling in Peru.

El Condor Pasa – Cruising the Colca Canyon Part III

Soaring

Soaring

The main reason most people travel to the Colca Canyon is to see the Andean condors soar through the valley and we were no exception. While we enjoyed all of our trip: hikes, homestay, bird watching, hot springs, cave art and more, the main event was watching the condors.

Our guide, Salome, planned the viewing perfectly: we left our hotel at 7:30 to travel to Condor Cross and arrived shortly before 8. Only a few tourists were gathered. The bus tours stay in a town farther away or come from Arequipa, so we were able to sleep in, if you consider getting up at 6:30 am to be sleeping in, and still arrive before the masses.

Salome quickly got us situated in a prime spot she had shown us the previous day and immediately directed our attention downward where 5 condors were gathered (we only spotted 4, but Salome leaned waaay over and saw a fifth). We laughed that none of the other tourists had noticed them and then nicely showed them where the condors were resting.

And then we waited. And waited. We were now inundated with other tourists, but held firm to our prized positions. I bushed off some very rusty Italian and chatted with a friendly, Italian-speaking Swiss tourist. A hawk flew by and got us all excited until we realized it was only a hawk. Then one juvenile condor, followed by a second, took off and began soaring through the valley. It was breathtaking to watch them glide and drift through the canyon on the air currents. Eventually, the adult condors got in on the action and other condors also appeared to provide us excellent, live entertainment.

We Have Lift Off!

We Have Lift Off!

What goes up, must come down…

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After about an hour, we started the short hike to the van. I was delighted with having seen 6 condors at that point, but on our return hike we saw another 8 condors. Every time we stopped watching to walk a bit more, another one or two would appear. We felt incredibly fortunate especially because the Belgians we met at the homestay only saw two condors the day they visited. Lilian later teased us and asked whether we would brag about how many condors we saw if we ran into them in Lake Titicaca. We did not see the Belgians again, so we were not tested.

Our day’s fun was not over. On our way out of the canyon we stopped in Maca to enjoy a colca sour  – a pisco sour made with cactus fruit (sancayo) juice. While I normally skip street food due to a sensitive stomach even after living in Peru, I wasn’t passing up a colca sour! Salome knows the owner, so we also got to see the skull of a family ancestor. They don’t know exactly who the person was but found the skull when tilling the family field. They named it Juan (I think) and treat it respectfully (if charging a small gratuity to see it counts as respect). Note his elongated skull of the Collaguas people.

Maca was set up for tourism, something that gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do not begrudge anyone from making a living, particularly from tasty cocktails, and if we can help drive a local economy, I am happy to do it. On the other hand, there is a fine line between sharing one’s culture and turning it into a tourist trap. Our homestay was a genuine experience, Maca was borderline and Lake Titicaca was the worst of its kind.

After our drink, we visited Santa Ana church. We had visited a handful of mountain churches on our trip, but after the grandeur of the Arequipa churches and monasteries, we were a bit churched-out. Maca’s church had been damaged in an earthquake but still retained much of its spectacular, gold-leafed interior. It also had an impressive display of statues, most with gorgeous embroidered clothing. Salome pointed out the indigenous and Spanish influences in all of these mountain churches. She also told us how the main statues used in processions would get new clothes every year and how families would try to outdo one another with the grandness of the clothing.

Finally, there were these crazy statues in the town square.

Salome tried to ask a local about the action-hero guerrilla on the woman’s back but all the man would say was that the statue wasn’t a correct depiction. When Salome asked what the proper depiction should be or what the folktale was behind the statue, he kept complaining how the statue wasn’t done correctly. Eventually she gave up, but Matt and I felt vindicated. We feel like we have these bizarre conversations often in Spanish and always attribute it to our lack of language skills. But no, sometimes people just spend a lot of effort repeating the same non- answer over and over again!

We left Maca and made our way out of the canyon with one final scenic stop to view the mountains. Then we were on to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca where Salome and Lilian left us to make their long drive back to Arequipa to be home in time for the obligatory elections the next day. What a great trip we had with them!

Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art

Las Ventanas del Colca - the Windows to Colca

Las Ventanas del Colca – the Windows to Colca

We were happy to be back in Peru: we had dinner with friends in Lima, revisited Machu Picchu the easy way and not after a 4-day hike, relaxed in Cusco, and enjoyed the great restaurants and colonial streets of Arequipa. Then we hopped into a van with our driver Lilian and our guide Salomé, left Arequipa and headed for the Colca Canyon, hailed as the second-deepest in the world at 3,400 meters (11,155 feet)  and “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon,” for a 3-day adventure.

What a fantastic time! We lucked out with the weather – the rain came as we drove (not lucky for Lilian) or ate lunch. I generally hate car rides, but Salomé was an entertaining and knowledgable guide and Lilian an excellent driver. The roads on this trip were well maintained by Peruvian standards and I had none of the terror our trip to Kuelap had induced. (Roadtripping and Kuelap – The City in the Clouds posts) We enjoyed the views and a few hikes back at high altitude. It was great to be in the Andes, breathing the fresh mountain air and enjoying the vicuña, alpaca and llama sightings as well as the mountain peaks.

Apart from seeing the condors (subject of an upcoming post), my other goal quickly became to finally learn to identify the difference between alpacas and llamas. Confession: for the 2 years I lived in Peru any time I had a camelid picture, I would run it by my cousin Maureen who raises alpacas to get the proper identification (thanks Maureen!). Salomé gave me more specific identification pointers and, after 3 days, I felt fairly confident. Until we learned that some of the confusing ones were likely cross-bred and thus a combo alpaca-llama. So here it goes: llamas have bigger, curvier ears and pointier faces while alpacas have straight ears and less pointy, smaller faces. I had been told that before, but things like “bigger” and “smaller” are relative, so it helps to have both animals to confidently distinguish. Then I got the definitive factor – look at their butts. Llama have tails that poof out and up and alpaca tails are against the body. At last, an easier method!

Salomé - left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Salomé – left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Our next destination was to see 8,000 year old cave art in Sumbay. Sumbay is at an altitude of 14,429 feet (4,397 meters), so we first stopped for some coca tea to counter the effects of the high altitude.

We headed off the main road down a a rutted, rocky path, the worst of the entire trip. “Are you sure you don’t want us to walk?” I asked Lilian as I had visions of the van bottoming out and being stuck in the middle of nowhere. She assured us it was fine and navigated the so-called road. Salomé explained that during a mining boom the railroad stopped in Sumbay and the town was thriving, but subsequently better roads were built, the railroad ceased and Sumbay became a ghost town save one lone holdout who literally has the key to the caves. As soon as we pulled into the abandoned town, there was José. We initially weren’t sure whether he was irritated that we were there as he stood with his arms crossed over his chest in a somewhat aggressive pose, but it became quickly apparent that he was anxious for the company and happy to show us around. He told Salomé that he was halfway up the mountain with his grazing animals and when he saw the van on the road, he ran down the mountain so he could be waiting for us. A race we didn’t even know we were having! I found José as interesting as the cave art: why would he stay isolated in Sumbay when his family and village had all moved on? Like most people, José didn’t want to leave the life he knew. He had animals to care for, the cave to protect and he found Arequipa, where his wife and children lived, to be too chaotic and busy. So he lives alone, with occasional visits from his family and one or two tourist visits a week.

After some conversation, we set off on a 20 minute hike into the canyon to see the caves. Along the way we saw this cute viscacha skipping over the rocks.

Viscacha

Viscacha

We arrived at the caves and José unlocked the chain link fence so we could get close to the art. Most of the figures were camelids and it is believed that the pictures depict the domestication of the animals. There are some hunting and domestication scenes as well a couple of pumas and some rheas, which are American relatives of the ostrich and emu.  It was a spectacular sight tucked away in the valley. José was a capable guide and pointed out all of the notable figures to us. After hiking back to the town, we said goodbye to José after tipping him and giving him some of our snacks. We would have bought provisions for him had we known the isolated life he leads.

And that “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon” claim to fame? Well, it’s a bit misleading. The canyon’s depth is measured from the tippy top of its highest peak, not anywhere tourists are going to hang out. In some places, the top of the canyon is pretty close to its bottom. It doesn’t have the wide, open expanse of the Grand Canyon, and the vertical drop-offs aren’t as steep. The canyon is habitable and pre-Incan and Incan cultures created terraces for farming the land. While the Colca Canyon is spectacular, the majesty of the Grand Canyon is still tops in my book.

Farmland in the Valley

Farmland in the Colca Valley

Next Stop: A Home Stay in Sibayo

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Watertown Senior High School’s Survival Hike: Training for the Inca Trail

As is clear from my prior posts, Matt and I take full advantage of our life in the mountains and hike most weekends. But the truth is that I like walking far more than I like climbing up and down mountains. That said, when Matt, our friend Carl and Carl’s brother Mark decided they were tackling the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, I decided that I would regret not hiking more than I may end up regretting hiking the trail. We shall see if that proves to be true come early October.

The last time I did an overnight hiking/camping trip was in 1984. Yes, 30 YEARS ago. Watertown (WI) Senior High School had this bizarre right of passage reserved for a select group of decent students: Survival Hike. Led by biology teachers Carlos Alvarez and Dan Herbst (I think another teacher, Tim Gifford was also along for the ride my year), Survival Hike occurred the summer after sophomore year and involved 5 days of trekking up to 20 miles per day in Northern Wisconsin with the “treat” of white water canoeing on the 6th day. The catch, apart from the fact that we carried our own gear, bushwhacked trails, were eaten alive by mosquitos and camped every night: no food. Actually, in the early years food was allowed. First, groups were given $20 to buy provisions for the week. By the time my sister, Mick, went on the hike, provisions totaling a few hundred calories were provided and included a dog biscuit and chocolate. Six years later, we were given nothing – we only ate what we foraged or caught. A few years later, the hike was discontinued.

To this day, I have no idea why our parents allowed Mick or me to participate in Survival Hike. We were not an outdoorsy family and never camped. My mom considered it part of her martyrdom that our vacations were at a cottage with an outhouse. I was not athletic and didn’t own any gear; my mom borrowed a pair of hiking boots that were a size too big for me from a friend’s daughter and I have no idea where my pack came from. Apart from some city walking (we had actually moved to Wauwatosa during my sophomore year but I was given a special exemption to go on the hike, probably because my dad played baseball with Mr. Herbst), I didn’t train at all and never carried a pack.

But I survived. Oh, I whined and probably cried, and threw up when the only thing we found to eat for the entire trip were unripe apples and raspberries (to this day I despise raspberries) on the first day, got about 50 mosquito bites and several blisters, hiked in the rain (I hate wet grass), and lost 15 pounds in 6 days, but I did it. I still don’t exactly understand why I did it, but I have some great memories from the trek: like when two of the guys had to share my friend Katie and my tent because they lost their tent poles and then one of the guys slept walked during a thunderstorm and knocked our tent down. You can imagine the ensuing teenage-girl hysteria. Or when some other kids were getting sent home due to health issues and Mr. Alvarez gave me the option to leave (I really was whining that much) and I made the decision to stay. I like to think that I stopped whining quite so much after that point, but that may be wishful thinking. Or the fact that a guy from Mick’s year, who cried and blamed her when their canoe tipped in the rapids, came along on my year (I think he was doing a bit for NPR) and acted all cool, college-guy when I knew the truth – he just wanted redemption. Plus, it was in the days where your parents signed some waiver and then you got to do totally dangerous, unhealthy things AT YOUR OWN RISK and they didn’t check up on you during the week. And it was long before cell phones so you were in the moment doing what you were doing (hiking! starving!) and not taking pictures and posting every two minutes or calling your parents (or your sister to tell her that cry-baby guy was on your trip although that would have been fun). In fact, I don’t have a single picture from the trip although I am sure someone took a few that I would love/cringe to see.

So with that questionable history, I am signed up for the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Compared to Survival Hike, it should be a piece of cake: no bushwhacking, porters to carry the heavy gear, good meals made by the camp cook, decent hiking boots, 26.5 miles over the course of 4 days and no white-water canoeing. But the reality is that the altitude is a killer for many people, the hike is very steep both in ascents and descents, and I am 30 years older. This time, though, I am training and Matt and I have stepped up our weekend hikes to add more altitude. I am even carrying my daypack despite the fact that Matt is usually my porter on our hikes. So maybe my whining will be kept to a minimum on this hike although be warned Matt, Carl and Mark – I am not promising anything.

Gorgeous Gocta Falls

The third day of our weekend road trip (see https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping/ and https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/02/kuelap-the-city-in-the-clouds/) was hands down my favorite – we didn’t set foot in the van. Instead we embarked on a fantastic hike from our lodge to the Gocta Falls. We were warned that the hike was challenging and took 2  1/2 hours each way. It was challenging, but with Kevin’s coaching we managed to do it in closer to 4 hours including about a 1/2 hour at the base of the falls. In order to support the local economy, we hired a guide although he unfortunately didn’t tell us much of interest. It was interesting, however, to first walk through farm fields, then woods and finally arrive at the falls. It was absolutely beautiful and I realized how much I miss water. Living in the mountains is great, but the river that runs through Baños is not impressive, so to hear the sound of rushing water and to catch glimpses of it through the trees was magical. We didn’t see wildlife with the exception of hordes of beautiful butterflies. I have never seen so many different types of butterflies in their natural environment. Unfortunately we couldn’t capture their beauty on film, but this tag-a-long hitched a 45 minute ride on my pants leg.

Hitchhiker

Hitchhiker

I had to walk funny to avoid smooshing him and he flitted away at the base of the falls.

I brought our swimsuits because I was determined to take a dip when I arrived at the base of the falls. I chickened out. The frigid water, strong winds and jagged rocks were my somewhat valid excuse. The roar of the falls and their power was incredible.

The hike back to the lodge has a very long uphill stretch and we huffed and puffed our way through it. Once at the lodge I relaxed in the icy cold pool to make up for my wimpiness at the Falls. It was cold – Matt didn’t make it all the way in – but I loved it. We had a wonderful afternoon of cocktails and lunch by the pool and games on the terrace.

Reward

Reward

 

The next day we left the lodge at 7 am to head back to Cajamarca. We stopped for gas at the local gas station – someone’s house! The proprietress hauled out gas in 5 gallon pails and filled up the tank with a funnel.

Our drive home was not uneventful. Shortly after filling up the tank, we were on the “decent” road running alongside the river. We pulled over to the edge of the steep embankment on the river side to let a large truck pass on the mountain side when WHACK! We were hit?! My mind tried to process how that could be true given our precarious position on the embankment, but when I looked out my window, sure enough, there was a car. Thankfully, the car was stuck, all four wheels spinning and off the ground, on a large rock. Had the rock not stopped the car, it would have plummeted into the river. Unbelievable how reckless and stupid the driver was and how lucky. Thankfully, the rest of our drive was without incident. We kept our stops to a minimum, and arrived after the road construction in Celendín was done for the day, so we shaved 2 hours off our time and arrived home in 10 hours.

I am thrilled that we made the trip, particularly that it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kuelap for me because of the horrible road. Now if they build that tram that is being considered it could be another story, but a tram across the valley may be as terrifying as the road.

Kuelap – The City in the Clouds

The closed eyes, earbuds and raft-envisioning (https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping) aren’t working. We are about 2 hours into the ride to Kuelap from Gocta Falls, a ride that we thought would last only two hours, and Kuelap is nowhere in sight. Well, actually it is, but we aren’t looking in the right place as we don’t know yet that we will wind up, down and around the same canyon for an hour and half before we get there.

I seriously consider whether I want to get out of the van and wait for them to come back for me. But then I realize that I will be left on the road that is causing my panic and will likely get run off a cliff by a passing truck. When we arrived at the Gocta Lodge the prior night, I thought the worst roads of the trip were behind us, until we returned to Cajamarca that is, and the first hour and a half of the drive to Kuelap retraced a less-terrifying part of the prior day’s trip. Then we hit the turn off for Kuelap and started down the narrow dirt road that is considered one of the most dangerous in Peru.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, here is video proof.

About 45 minutes into the dirt-road portion of our drive, we stop in the tiny hamlet of Choctamal for some liquid courage. I am not the only traveler fearing the roads, just the most vocal. The proprietresses could not be nicer and the 3 year old is a sweetie. The ladies laugh at me when I confide that I am petrified of the road and reassure me the road is fine. But we are all disappointed when they tell us we have 45 minutes to go.

I am more relaxed after a few shots from a $2 bottle of rum. And then we hit a rock road block. Just a pile of medium sized rocks in a line across the road right before a curve. Fearing thieves, a few of the guys get out of the van to remove the rocks while the rest of us keep watch. We round the curve and confront a large mound of rocks blocking the road. Now more concerned, the men get out and Miguel asks two passing kids what is going on. The kids say it is a prank by some other kids and help remove the rocks. We give them some coins for their efforts as we had passed them on the road and don’t think they did it. We pass a few more small towns and the reward is in sight: Kuelap.

Kuelap is amazing – it is exactly the place I would have loved to play in as a child. Within the terraced site are 420 circular, 1 square and 4 rectangular buildings. Houses, trees, paths, the view, the mystery…for me, a big part Kuelap’s charm is its unanswerable questions. Why was it built? While originally considered a fortress, due to its mountaintop location, walled perimeter (60 feet high in parts) and three, narrow entrances, it is now generally considered to be a residential complex, but no one knows why the walls exist. How did they make it? Getting those huge rocks to the top of a mountain was no easy feat. Who made it and when? It is believed to be constructed in several phases, beginning in the 6th century and ending several hundred years later, by the Chachapoyas, the Cloud People, but no one is really sure from where the Chachapoyas originated. Instead of pondering these questions too much, we just wander about and enjoy the experience.

If you want to learn more about where Kuelap is situated, read this description from the visitor center. Or just skip to the pictures.

Kuelap summary

Kuelap summary

 

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The ride back seems less terrifying, but as I want to be off the dirt road before dark, we don’t stop to visit our friends in Choctamal although they wave to us as we pass. We also encounter two more rock road blocks and as we arrive at the second one, two young guys on a motorcycle ride up behind us. They converse the entire time our party removes the rocks and we are not sure whether they intended to rob us and decide we outnumber them or the fact that we didn’t leave our van unattended and two of us are staring at them while the others move the rocks deters them. Regardless of whether they were the culprits, the experience increases our desire to get back to the Lodge to relax. We enjoy a nice dinner and then sit outside and star gaze. I see 5 shooting stars and, of course, use all my wishes for a safe journey back to Cajamarca!

Next: The Fantastic Hike to Gocta Falls

Roadtripping

My eyes are screwed shut, my earbuds are playing happy tunes and I am trying to pretend that the jolting motion of the van is the cottage raft swaying gently on the waves. Welcome to a Peruvian Road trip.

Loading the Van

Loading the Van

We are trying to make the most of our time in Peru and decided to take advantage of the 4-day Corpus Christi holiday with a trip to Kuelap and Gocta Falls. Kuelap is an ancient stone complex, the largest in South America, that pre-dates Machu Picchu and is perched 3,000 meters above sea level on ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. Peru is attempting to make Kuelap the next Machu Picchu of tourist destinations and as we live relatively close to it, we decided it was worth the trip. Near Kuelap is Gocta Falls, which by some accounts is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world (apparently there is some controversy over how to measure the heights of waterfalls). So together with fellow Americans Mistina, Teresa, Kevin and Kristen, our Spanish friend Miguel and our Peruvian driver Adderly, we set off early on Thursday morning for the anticipated 10 hour drive through the Andes Mountains.

Those of you who know me know that I DESPISE car rides. I barely tolerate the 5-hour drive to Northern Wisconsin from Milwaukee and have sent Matt off with his friend Pete on road trip adventures. Peruvian roads are notoriously dangerous and before we arrived here, every week Matt would read some story of a bus or van plummeting off a cliff. It quickly became evident why.

The first hour of the trip was pretty good, the views were gorgeous and I was beginning to be lulled into thinking my life wasn’t in danger. Then we hit road construction and were told we had to return to Cajamarca and take the long way, which would add 4 hours onto our trip. Miguel sprung into action, collected our ID cards and somehow managed to convince the road crew to let us through because we were American tourists. Shockingly, we didn’t even have to grease any palms to make that happen. But we did get stuck behind machinery and had a very slow drive to Celendín.

Three hours into our trip, we took a short, necessary break.

Potty Break

Potty Break

After Celendín the roads narrowed and lost all pretense of handling two-way traffic. Thankfully Adderly is young and has his whole life ahead of him so he was a very cautious driver. It also helped that he had excellent reflexes and apparently a strong thumb as he had to toot the horn on every curve to make sure we didn’t get run off the road.

In addition to the traffic there were also animal impediments.

The roads got worse and worse and every time I opened my eyes it appeared we were plummeting off a cliff. We finally took a late lunch break in Leymebamba. It apparently has a wonderful museum, but we still had 3 hours to go until we arrived at Gocta Lodge so we had to pass on the museum.

The roads between Leymebamba and Gocta Falls were actually not terrible and toward the end we were on a decent one along the river. And by decent I mean that it was paved, slightly wider and had signs warning us of falling rocks.

Twelve hours after leaving our house, we arrived at Gocta Lodge in the dark (sunset in Peru is around 6:30) and after settling in we broke open the wine and snacks for a well-deserved happy hour. The next morning, we awoke to these beautiful views.

Little did we know that our relaxation would be short lived as we had the most harrowing drive of all ahead of us!

Next up: Kuelap.

Another Sunday, Another Beautiful Walk in the Country

Matt, Mistina and I set off for Llacanora on Sunday afternoon with the goal of finding the waterfalls near the town.  Matt and I had previously embarked on this trip but were sidetracked by the cave art of Callac Puma.  A worthy diversion, but this time we wanted to reach the waterfalls.  Mistina, a teacher from Nebraska, was game to join us and was tasked with keeping us on track to our final destination.  What a great time!  It was about a 5 mile walk on picturesque country roads from our house to the small town of Llacanora.  Once in Llacanora, we saw a sign for the waterfalls, but the directions subsequently became unclear so we kept asking everyone we saw, which included a guy walking down the street, an old lady minding a store, a lady who was actually there to go to the falls for the first time and didn’t know where to go either (we told her once we found out) and a couple of guys getting drunk sitting outside a shop (on our return trip, one guy was passed out and the other had inexplicably removed his shirt). You follow the the road above Llacanora and eventually turn left down an unmarked dirt path.  It’s about another kilometer to the first falls.  We never figured out what is referenced by the 1000 meters on the sign – perhaps the turn off.

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Once on the path, we knew we were on the right track as we passed “tourist restaurants” and knick-knack stores.  Eventually, it became even more obvious due to the amount of other people enjoying a day in the countryside. The paths were well traveled and generally easy to navigate.  We arrived at Hembra Falls and were impressed.

Hembra Falls

Hembra Falls

We kept climbing upward and eventually arrived at the even more spectacular Macho Falls, which are about 30 meters high.  Due to their size, we couldn’t get a photo of the entire falls with our i-phones.

On our way back, we decided to walk on the other side of the river.  We arrived at this aqueduct, which we either needed to cross or go back down and around  to cross the river.  Mistina mustered up her courage and went across.

Brave MistinaI took one step and chickened out.  A man standing below starting shouting up words of encouragement and succeeded in shaming me into crossing.  I started across in a most undignified fashion as my coach yelled specific instructions (in Spanish) to me.  I froze at the wire I had to step over, a maneuver that required me to actually stand up a little.

Pathetic Kerry with Cheerleader

Pathetic Kerry with Cheerleader

Under the direction of my drill sargent, I made it across and then Matt came skipping over.  Okay, maybe he wasn’t skipping, but he certainly had no fear – note that he is walking on the edges of the aqueduct and not with his feet in the middle!

Fearless Matt

Fearless Matt

Matt Crossing

Matt Crossing

We left Llacanora, but not before watching two little kids zoom down a steep hill on a skateboard.  The younger one clearly wanted us as an audience and gave a little wave as they set off and then again upon arriving at the bottom.  Super cute. We headed back on the road to Baños and stopped at one of the restaurants along the way.  These “campestre” or countryside restaurants are very popular and usually open only on the the weekends.  They generally have large grounds with play areas for kids, huge tables set up under multiple pavilions and a nice, family feel.  We chose one that in a valley that had about 50 cars in the parking lot and cheerful music and felt we made the right choice when Matt and Mistina saw several of their students with their families.  We only had one glitch when the waiter tried to seat us in a table off in a alcove.  I think he meant it kindly, but nobody puts these gringos in the corner and we asked to sit with the rest of the clientele, a request that was granted.  Unfortunately, they were out of about half of the items on the menu as we arrived around 3:00, but Misitina had fried trout, Matt had grilled beef and I had a delicious stewed kid (as in baby goat, people!) dish.  We ended our meal with picarones, fried squash/sweet potato doughnuts, and as we had already walked about 7 miles, walked back up to the road and caught a cab home!

Kiddie table

Kiddie table

The Birds and the Beach (Vacation Part VI)

The two main draws for tourism in Paracas are the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve, and neither was a disappointment.  The Ballestas Islands, dubbed the “poor man’s Galapagos,” are a group of rocky islands teeming with birds.  Those with ornithophobia beware: the pelicans, terns, boobies, and cormorants are everywhere, swooping, gliding, diving, soaring, cawing, trilling, tweeting and pooping.  Oh yes, pooping.  We were forewarned to wear hats and while the trip ended with only a small splatter on Matt’s sleeve, others in our boat weren’t as lucky. Guano is a big cash crop for Peru and the islands have a guard to protect the poop.

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In addition to the flying birds are Humboldt penguins and sea lions. As an added bonus, the boats pass the Paracas Candelabra, another gigantic sand figure, believed to date to around 200 BC.

The day after the Ballestras we toured the Paracas National Reserve.  I really had no idea what the reserve was and assumed the tour was to see animals of some kind, but I was wrong (except for a few seabirds).  Instead we saw amazing yellow and red sand beaches.  Poor Paracas – when it was hit by the earthquake in 2007 its landmark, a rock formation called the Cathedral toppled into the ocean.  The guide still points it out, but now it is just a couple of rocks jutting up from the ocean.  In addition to guano, another Peruvian marine export is seaweed for cosmetics, and we saw men in wet suits exiting the ocean with bags of seaweed.  We met Peter and Annie, a couple from London who now live in the Falklands, on the excursion and joined them for a few drinks at the upscale Doubletree after the tour.  (Check out Peter’s blog at http://www.peterspenguinpost.blogspot.com.)  All in all, a pleasant day!

Last stop on the Paracas Tour: Tambo Colorado