Thursday, 31 January 2013

Paul spots a Boa

Day two of our Amazon adventure started very early...which thanks to the bats was easy to 5:30 we were up and eating breakfast...ready to leave by 6:00.  We piled into a boat with our group (10 in total) and we were off up river to a landing spot with stairs leading straight up.  (these types of stairs are everywhere allowing access up the very muddy bank which gets better or worse depending on rain fall).  We were  no sooner at the top of the bank but we were in the jungle itself.
We walked through the jungle on a cleared path and along the way we saw many interesting plants, trees and more insects...including a huge snail, half the size of my foot. 
 We were amazed to see leaf cutter ants carrying pieces of leaves they had cut from a close-by tree marching past on their way to a nest somewhere on the forest floor.
Honestly though, there was not much difference between this walk and many we have taken in the Gatineau Hills, barring the incredible heat, even early in the morning...that is until Paul called our attention to a snake he had spotted in the bush...the guide was ecstatic...telling us that this was the rarely seen rainbow boa constrictor.  (many of you will know that I did not really want to go to the Amazon for fear that I would come across a there you have it...sometimes what you think will happen just does)...this snake was a good 4-5 feet long and we spent a long time looking at it and the  guide tried to get it into view for a better look...sigh....
We continued our walk to an ox bow lake where we were lucky to see some birds (known locally as "stink birds" as they ferment their food in one of two stomachs..thus giving them a particular odour) and some bats which were living under a log...the only variety that is out during the day. 
We disembarked on the opposite side of the lake and continued our trek to look at two huge a  strangling fig and the other a kapoc...both hundreds of years old...then we turned back and retraced our steps.
In all we were gone for about 5 hours and when we returned the sun was at full strength...I felt like I was melting..and literally my clothing was soaked through...we had a quick lunch and then plunged into the swimming hole...
We were exhausted...the sleepless night, the long hike, the heat...sent us to our beds where we had a nice long nap in preparation for the night activity...hunting for Caymans (alligators who live in fresh water) back to the boats we went.  We spent about an hour with a flash light scanning the coast for these creatures and found several...including small babies.  The stars were out and it was truly beautiful!!!
Thus ended our second day in the jungle...during wet season...with not a single drop of was off to supper and then back to the bungalow where the bats were awaiting. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Puerto Moldonado

After an uneventful night in Cusco, where we took it very easy due to altitude, we boarded the plane headed to Puerto Maldonado and our adventure in the Amazon Basin.  The flight was surprisingly short (35 minutes) and we were into a completely different geographical area.  The mountains were no longer visible and the countryside very lush.  We had been warned that as it was the rainy season we could expect rain every day.
We were met at the airport by the tour company and spirited off to a local office where we were told to repack our bags for a four night stay.  This was to avoid taking large suit cases into the lodge via boat...there being insufficient room.  Luckily for us, we had already pared down to small backpacks since Lima and so we were able to wander a bit in the area, purchasing sun block and other essentials for our Amazon experience.
We boarded a bus which took us down an incredibly bumpy road which had suffered greatly in the rain which had fallen just the day before.  In fact part of the road was washed out altogether, so we were taken via an alternate route to a boat which was waiting.  We learned that we would have a full 2-3 hours on the boat going upstream before reaching our destination.
We were mesmerized by the passing landscape.  The river was about 300 feet wide and the jungle stretched from each bank.  We saw some wildlife on our way upstream, including a capybara (the largest rodent in the world); a red and green Macaw and many other birds. 
 The sun was incredibly strong and hot.  The sweat broke out almost experience we would have for the duration of our stay!

We stopped at a checkpoint to mark our entry to the Tambopata Reserve (named after the river).  This is a protected area of the Amazon forest.
Finally, we arrived at the lodge.  It was very rustic with bungalows which were basic, lit by candle light after sundown (electricity was available in the main lodge only between 5 and 10 PM).  Hot water was provided thanks to solar panels.  It was comfortable and the screened in sides (all around) gave cross ventilation at night.  Each bed was equipped with a mosquito net.
Our first activity was a walk in the jungle to view night creatures.  These were mostly insects, although we did see some small monkeys in the trees.

We fell into bed at about 10 PM...exhausted.  We were ready to sleep soundly, when bats swooped in and took up residence in the gables (outside the screens thankfully).  One would think that bats were quiet creatures, as they rely on sonar which cannot be heard by humans...but I can testify that they make a lot of noise...continuously...all night long!!!  I started out thinking they were cute...ended up thinking they were a bit long winded really!!!
Our first day in the Amazon forest, in the rainy season, passed with not a single drop of rain and with a cloudless sky.  It was so clear in fact that at one point (at 0430 in the morning) Paul was up thanks to the bats and he woke me to let me know that the Southern Cross was we were both up bright and early enjoying that sight.

Leaving Aguas Calientes

The 27th of January was a sad day as we faced the fact that we had to leave Aguas Calientes and to acknowledge that the Machu Picchu leg of our adventure was over. 
We got up and got packed and put our bags into storage while we waited for the time to leave for the train.  We wandered around the city for a time and went for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the river.  A live group came along and played Andean music while we ate our lunch.
At the appointed hour we got on the train which took us back to Cusco where we would spend one night before catching the plane to Puerto Maldonado. 
On the train we had the opportunity to see the wonderful mountain views again and we also had a little bit of entertainment as the crew demonstrated a local dance just before a fashion show where they were trying to drum up some additional business....
We arrived without mishap in Cusco and are both feeling a bit sad that we had to leave the next day.  We thoroughly enjoyed our sacred valley experience...having made some nice memories and despite some of the setbacks (like altitude sickness) we know we will remember this leg of the journey as one filled with learning and with adventure.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Walk By the Tracks

Today we awoke exhausted and sore after our Machu Picchu experience.  The stair climbing and general hiking around the site yesterday had lingering effects today...sore knees and muscles.  (My foot is acting up badly so it too was barking at me this morning)...we decided therefore to take it easy today.
We had learned about a waterfall not too far from town and so we slathered up with sun screen and grabbed our walking sticks and off we went...following the train tracks (as instructed) and making our way towards the waterfalls and gardens which were a mere 3 km away.
It was a lovely day and we were following tracks through the valley with the mountains soaring above us.  We were thrilled to see some of the ruins of Machu Picchu from the ground...making us appreciate the effort it must have taken to build the city in the first place.
Our walk took us through two Railroad tunnels (scary indeed) and alongside the river which is fascinating by itself as it is literally a torrent which passes over rapids and through narrow spots where it tumbles past very violently).
We noticed a number of young trekkers speeding past us as we made our way beside the tracks.  We were sure that we were all headed to the same site...but when we finally reached the entrance to the falls, we discovered that these hikers were headed another 4 kms beyond where we stopped so they could catch a bus...thus avoiding the train and the high cost of transportation. 
Having seen no one else, we were sure that we were the only ones to make the effort to visit the falls today, so we were convinced that we were on the "path less travelled".  We paid a small admission fee and were granted entrance to the Gardens of the Mandor Ravine. 
Another trek awaited us as we made our way through the thick vegetation toward the goal...the falls...
When we finally reached the falls (I was getting very tired by this point as we had been hiking for over 3 hours)...they were very pretty.  Paul found the energy to go down to them and to get his feet wet and to splash some water on his head...I was taking pictures and we were considering a quick skinny dip...being as we were in a remote area which we were convinced was off the beaten track...when I turned and was greeted by a tour group who had just arrived!!!  Our remote and isolated experience was neither as isolated nor as unknown as we had thought!!!  Good thing we weren't caught in the all-together!!!
We started our hike back...and by the time we returned...tired, sore but with a feeling of accomplishment...some 6 hours after we had started...we felt that a quick snack and a lie down was in order!!! Our ,"down day" plans had not materialized after all.
After a short nap we were off to supper in the first rain storm since we had arrived here. As we finished our meal the skies cleared and we were treated to a beautiful starry night framed by the peaks of the Andes....magical.
Tomorrow we are off to Cusco for one night before flying out to Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon... 

Friday, 25 January 2013

Machu Picchu

There are no words that can describe this place.  It has left me moved and speechless...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A Day that started with adventure and ended with awe!!

Our day started with two interesting adventures.  The first was getting our laundry.  We had been promised it for 8:00 last night but when we arrived to pick it up it wasn't ready...this was a set back as we literally were wearing the only clothes we had left...and not all of these were clean...the attendant spoke no English, so we negotiated a pick up time for 8:00 this morning (we thought that is where we arrived anyway).  So this morning started with several calls to the laundry to ensure they were open and the laundry was ready...but to no avail as no one answered the phone...sigh...Paul and I finally made our way there (another interesting ride in a mototaxi) and to our relief the laundry was waiting for us.  We hurried back to the hotel to pack, and discovered that some of our clothes were still wet.  This is not usually a problem, but the climate is so damp that it can take several days for the lightest thing to dry out...we foresee several days of clothes hanging from door knobs ahead of us!!!
Once we finally got packed, we donned our backpacks and called for a cab to take us to the bus station.
We were lucky as there was a collectivo about to leave for our destination, Ollyantanbambo where we were to catch the train.  This was adventure number two as the driver grabbed our bags threw them on the roof with no tie downs at all and we were hurried into the back of a mini van together with locals who were sitting and perching in various spots in the bus.  Thirty minutes later we were at our destination, feeling a bit like sardines...the whole ride costing us the equivalent of $2.50.
We found a lovely cafe, overlooking the main square and there we stayed until it was time to take the train headed to Machu Picchu.
The train ride was incredible.  We followed a roaring river down a deep valley to arrive in Machu Picchu where we were met by a member of the staff from our booked accommodations "Gringo Bills".  The ride here filled us with awe as we watched the river roar past the train, a continuous and riotous tumble of rapids the entire length of the one and one half hour trip.  The was second only to the beautiful mountains soaring upward on both sides of the train.   We were amazed at the change in scenery as we left fertile valleys, mostly devoted to agriculture and ended up in an area which is sub  tropical, quite warm and with very different trees and other flora and fauna...
An incredible day indeed.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Business Day in Urubamba

We decided to take it easy today. We found ourselves tired and the weather cold and rainy.  We spent time doing computer related activities and then made our way to Urubamba where we finally found a bank machine that cooperated with our MasterCard.  This was no small feat as it involved a ride in a mototaxi (basically a motor cycle with a cab on the back for passengers and a further space in the back for cargo) to a bank in the back of town. 
We also put our laundry in to be cleaned and then went in search of an internet cafe and a tailor to adjust my shorts. (My shorts are too big and I couldn't find anything in my size in Lima).  We found the tailor in a most interesting place...a concrete room with locals cooking and eating their lunch.
To our surprise we found a fantastic place for lunch overlooking a beautiful mountain vista.  It was in a hotel which has a ranch of sorts with lovely horses.  We arrived just as a show was ending with dancers and horses.  At the end of a wonderful lunch, Paul was able to coerce the waiter into giving him some carrots to feed the horses.  Overnight, the rain we had appeared on the high mountains as snow making the view more spectacular and special.
Tomorrow it is off to Agua Calientes and Machu Picchu.

What A Day!

We had a spectacular day today.  We had arranged for a private tour of two places in the sacred valley just before we left Cusco.  By 9:30 we were off to the first site, Ollantaytambo.   This small community is only 30 minutes away and we went directly to the ruins.  I don't know what I was expecting but it was not what we saw.  Once past the front gate we were greeted by huge and very impressive stone terraces soaring upward and attached to the living rock.

The terraces of Ollyntantambo

 I was awestruck at the sight and at how well preserved these were; and at the thought that these were built by people centuries ago without the aid of machinery.  To my dismay, a visit to these ruins include, by necessity, a climb to the top...did we not come here to avoid increased altitude???!!! Nevertheless we hung in there and started the climb up the uneven steps to the top. (admittedly several stops were necessary on the way up).

Here it was even more impressive...massive stones have been used to build walls, some weighing many tons.  These are fitted together without any cement or mud or mortar.  This feat of engineering filled me with awe.  I could only imagine what it was like before the Spaniards arrived and destroyed it...followed by the use of surrounding stones to build local homes (until 1930!!!)
We made our way to the "temple of the sun" a huge wall, made of massive stones, facing east; the location where the priests and nobility worshiped the sun god.  It was also impressive when we learned that the stones were quarried 5 km away and then brought to the site.

We made our way through the ruins and down the steep steps to the section of the complex which was devoted to the worship of the water god.  In this area there were several fountains at which visitors to the temple would purify themselves (with  the aid of handles so they could put their heads under the stream of water).  These fountains were fed by an ingenious system of aqueducts and underground channels from the nearby river and glaciers in the mountains.

A carving in a nearby cliff caught my eye and the guide explained that this was an astronomical instrument used to measure the phases of the sun using the shadow it cast.  This was another example of the ingenuity and knowledge of the Inca.  The carvings in the wall had to be placed perfectly to get the desired result, namely that the shadow fill a notch lower in the wall on the days of the summer and winter solstice!!!  How precise their calculations had to be and how accurate the hammer of the carver!!!  Unbelievable.
I could have stayed a week!!!  But lunch was waiting for us at a nearby it was goodbye to these most impressive ruins, which felt mystical in so many ways!

Our guide, Manuel Huaman of Peru Vaction Reps was fantastic.  He had a thorough and in-depth knowledge of the history of this site and of the Inca and pre-Incan history.  He also gave us some great tips about our upcoming visits to other areas.  As well as being a superlative guide, he is also a tour operator.  He can be reached at  He specializes in both group and independant travel throughout Peru.  I was very impressed by this young man who gave us a great tour and made the morning fantastic for us by being extremely flexible and adjusting his program to suit our desires.

The building  on the mountain was a storehouse where the increased altitude and indigenous ventilation allowed for long term food storage.

In the afternoon we had originally been scheduled to go to a market in another community called Pisac. This was a long way from the hotel, about 45 minutes. As I do not have any room in any case for souvenirs (especially for a three month trip) we negotiated separately to visit the ruins located at Pisac. As is often the case with my luck...the rain started to fall as we were on our way there so we knew we were in for a wet visit.
The community was at a much higher altitude than the one where we are staying, so our breathing got a bit laboured as we approached the city. We arrived in Pisac only to discover that the ruins were on top of the mountain. Our plans to stay low seemed to be undone this day indeed!!!
We drove up to the ruins (thankfully) and then donned ponchos to protect us from the ongoing downpour. We really thought that we would see nothing but once we started we were amazed. The clouds hovered below us in the valley and touched the surrounding mountain tops. This gave the site a truly mystical feel. We walked for a far distance marvelling at the beautiful and huge terraces which were below us. The path was was slick and muddy aside a shear drop to the valley below in many places. I had to swallow my fear more than once and pluck up my courage to keep going. Guard rails are not common here!!!

After a good 20 minute walk we arrived at the main attraction..the religious centre of the place. It was magnificent...apparently one of the best preserved ruins in the sacred valley. There were a number of temples surrounding another astronomical observatory. I find this incredible...a nob on the top of a natural rock had been carved and when light comes in a number of small windows, the shadow falls in just the right way to indicate the solstices and Also, a carving of one half of the Andean cross sits on the ground...and during the solstices it casts a shadow which completes the cross and makes it whole...blow my mind!!!


The surrounding countryside was beautiful, as we were up so high we could see a lot...despite the rain and the clouds. We discovered that the cliff alongside the site were used as a burial ground and there were many caves dug into defies imagination that anyone would climb there, let alone weighed down by a recently passed relative and all the belongings he/she would need in the afterlife!!
There were also fountains in this location, better preserved and still flowing with water (a lot of water given the rain!!)

We did not take the full tour as it was difficult trekking, especially at the altitude so we had to turn back and retrace our steps.
What an exceptional experience...and one filled with amazement at the ingenuity and industriousness of the Inca people. At every turn we saw something interesting and unexpected. The site was huge and when we returned and looked up we realized that the path we had taken actually followed a long ridge continuing the length of one of the mountain tops. In retrospect, we both felt that this was one of the best days we have ever had!!!
We spent the night drying our clothes and relaxing...more relaxing to come tomorrow as my foot is complaining a bit at the continued use...