Friday, October 31, 2008

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background.Machu Picchu is the most well-known Inca ruins around and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. It's about 50 miles northwest of Cusco and is on a mountaintop at 2,400 meters. Machu Picchu is actually the name of the mountain on which the ruins sit (picchu mean peak in Quechua).

If you want to visit this site, you'll start at Cusco. There were more tourists in Cusco by far than I had seen anywhere else in my 9 months' of travels. Still, it is a nice city with the usual plazas and Spanish-built churches. It also has some amazing walls built of really big rocks that have edges that fit together perfectly. How the Incas machined these rocks to achieve this kind of fit is astounding.

If you want to hike the Inca trail—a four-day affair—you have to schedule it about three months in advance. There are also other options for hiking to the ruins. If you're into hiking, check it out way ahead of time.

Machu Picchu. The more common alternative is to take the train or a bus to Aguas Calientes, a small town within a stone's throw of the ruins. There is a train that goes all the way to and from Aguas Calientes from Cusco, but it's slow and kind of expensive. A quicker and cheaper alternative is to take the bus, or better yet, a cab, part way, to Ollantaytambo, then the train the rest of the way. Go to the bus station and talk to a cabbie on the street. Within a few minutes, he'll have rounded up four people and you can go straight to Ollantaytambo (the bus will go to Urubamba, then you'll have to catch another one to Ollantaytambo) for 10 Solis. Book the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and back a couple days ahead of time at the train station—or online.

Huayna Picchu—see the hikers climbing the stairs? From Aguas Calientes, you'll want to rise early. You can either hike up a thousand stairs to the site, or you can take the bus. The day before you go up, you should buy the entrance ticket and a round-trip bus ticket to the ruins in Aguas Calientes. The first 400 people in the ruins have the option of climbing Huayna Picchu, the big mountain behind the ruins. Make sure to take the path to the right after you enter the ruins. The one to the left simply goes up some grueling switchbacks and will take you much longer to get to the entrance to Huayna Picchu—there's a hut at which you sign in and get let into the trail leading up the mountain.

The view from the top is fantastic. There are some ruins on top of this hill, too. How these people did this is baffling. The terrain is steep and they worked with big rocks. Makes me wonder how many of them died while building these sites. There are lots of opportunities for one to fall and die while doing this hike. If you're afraid of heights, you probably won't make it to the top. If you're not, you have to do it. Once on top, the view is worth the exertion—if it's not clouded in and raining.

The ruins near the top of Huayna Picchu. Something funny? When we were on our way down—I climbed Huayna Picchu with Rich from Seattle and Julie from Canada—we saw one guy going up wearing a heavy parka and another guy wearing flip-flops. Psycho, both!

After you enter the site, Huayna Picchu is on the far side. On the near side—near the top of the switchbacks by the entrance—is a trail leading to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is where those hiking the Inca Trail will first glimpse the site. If it's clear, you can see the Sun Gate from the site. You can hike there for a great view in about an hour.

The entire ruins of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu. If you've got time, I'd recommend spending a couple nights in Aguas Calientes, and taking the first day to walk around the ruins. A private tour guide will give you a better understanding of the ruins if you've got a couple extra bucks to spend. Take the second day—the morning is really all you need—and climb Huayna Picchu. For me at least, after climbing Huayna Picchu, I was pretty wiped out and would've enjoyed the ruins more if I'd had more energy. If you're pressed for time, however, like me, the whole ball o' wax is doable in one day.

Note: I stayed at a hotel that is cheap and clean. The owner was also really nice. It's called Hospedaje California. When I arrived in town, the train pulled up on the lower track (below the main track and train station), next to a row of stores and hotels, and near a couple banks, a stone's throw from the bridge. This is where it is located. I recommend it.

Rocks and flowers. Tourists and rain. Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu from part way up to the Sun Gate.  Machu Picchu and llama from part way up to the Sun Gate. Machu Picchu.

Isla del Sol and Bugs

Heading across Lake Titicaca to Isla del Sol. The boat for Isla del Sol left at 9:00 A.M., so we woke up sometime between 7:30 and 8:00, leaving enough time for a shower and breakfast. Emelie hadn't slept well as she was feeling ill. She opted not to go on the trip, so Elin and I set out together.

The boat ride took about two-and-a-half hours and was beautiful but cold, at least for those of us on the top deck, out in the elements. There are some ruins on Isla del Sol and a beautiful hike around the island, leading to the ruins and then much farther south to where the boat would pick us up later in the day for the trip back to Copacabana.

Lake Titicaca is located on the border of Bolivia and Peru and is just over 3,800 meters high. It's the highest commercially navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. It's about 120 miles long by 50 miles wide and is almost 300 meters deep.

Kids playing on the beach. There are many ruins on the island, but we went to a good sized site on the northern end of the island. Near the ruins, we came across a huge rock slab with a local man describing traditional ceremonies and selling trinkets. I asked if it had been used for sacrificing virgins and suggested we sacrifice Elin. Apparently, that wouldn't be possible. She bought a little statue which is supposed to help heal sickness. The man did some chanting and waved his hands over the statue. The idea was that it would help make Emelie better. We believe his ritual sucked the sickness out of Emelie—she was feeling better when we got back—and transferred it to the person standing closest to him during the ritual—me. I got sicker and sicker over the course of the day. The ruins were nice. The usual. A bunch of rocks piled up with a great view over the lake. These people really knew where to build their ruins.

Beautiful Lake Titicaca. I didn't know how Emelie was doing at that moment, but I knew that I had diarrhea. I had gone to the bathroom when we arrived on the island, but diarrhea works fast. I hiked fast—and alone, at this point—in hopes of getting back to civilization before—well, you know. I was able to keep this up for quite some time, but every so often, the pressure in my bowels increased and was stronger than before. Then it would subside. I knew I couldn't keep this up much longer. I hoped the town where we were to meet the boat was just over the next rise. It wasn't.

Beautiful Lake Titicaca. I came to a small group of houses where some locals lived. I asked if there was a bathroom here and said I would pay to use it. I was told there was no bathroom here. Apparently, the people who live on Isla del Sol are magical people. They don't crap. I was at the end of my rope. I walked about 30 meters farther, to a brick wall that seemed to mark the boundary of the small town. Next to the wall was some trash, including what looked like toilet paper. Good enough. Between the wall and the paper, I had myself a bathroom. I made it by the skin on my teeth.

As I got closer to my destination, some civilization appeared. Apparently, the locals think that the tourist will be tired and hungry by this time. In the town through which the dirt trail wound were scattered myriad restaurants. I plowed ahead and looked for Overlooking the lake from the ruins. sings of a real bathroom. A bit farther on, I saw a nice looking hostel. There were two women squatting next to the building washing laundry and hanging the dripping clothes on a wooden fence. I asked if they owned the place and if I could pay them to use the bathroom. One Boliviano was all it took. Now, I just had to make it a couple hours back to the mainland.

The boat pushed back and set out across the great expanse of water that is Lake Titicaca. I felt like I had a grip on the diarrhea, but not long after we left shore, the stomach cramps began. I didn't mean to ignore the nice lady I had met from Oregon, but I felt really lousy. I was on the top deck and felt pretty sure I was going to hurl. I got up without notice and climbed face first down the steep stairs to the back of the boat where the pilot was steering, one foot on the outboard motor closer to him, the other motor lashed with a length of rope.

Looking out over the lake from Isla del Sol. I told him I didn't feel good and began to lean over the side of the boat near where he was sitting listening to his transistor radio. He directed me to the stern. I made it and leaned over the edge. For the time being, I kept my stomach contents in place and began to feel better over the duration of the trip.

When Elin and I arrived back to the room, we learned Emelie had been vomiting all day. She felt better now and the three of us went out for dinner.

My diarrhea continued. A couple days later, on the way to Machu Picchu, I Hiking on the island.vomited. Thank Pete I had taken a taxi (along with some nice folks from Spain). If I had gone in the bus, it would not have been a pretty sight. I vomited again after arriving at Aguas Calientes, the town from which you take a bus up to the actual ruins.

After I got back to Cusco from the ruins, I learned Emelie had gone to the hospital. She had been informed that she had three kinds of salmonella and a parasite.

I felt moderately sick for a few days after I vomited, but now, about a week later, I feel pretty good. I think my body took care of the bugs all by itself.

Hiking on Isla del Sol. A local girl on Isla del Sol. Getting supplies up from the harbor to the home. A local boy at work.

La Paz to Copacabana

The Andes, just outside La Paz headed to Lake Titicaca. Leaving La Paz was a bit loco—translation nightmare. There were some demonstrations in one of the big squares, just outside the government buildings. Roads were blocked off, crowds filled the streets, and the cops were out in force—many carried tear gas canisters and launchers.

I had shared a room for the last few days with Elin and Emelie from Sweden and we were all headed north to Lake Titicaca, so we had lunch together, went back to the hostel to pick up our stuff, and hit the streets to hail a cab. A taxista pulled over and quoted us fifteen Bolivianos, but it ended up being twenty by the time we got to the bus terminal.

Crossing a small branch of the lake—hi Emily and Elin! The trip started out at a crawl until we had gotten away from the extremely congested area around the demonstrations. We had to climb the hills toward the upper part of the city, skirt the mess, then descend back down to the station. Some of the hills in La Paz are quite steep. Unfortunately, on one of the hills, the taxi had to slow down for other traffic. The driver tried playing tricks with the clutch—I thought he was going to burn it up—but whatever he tried didn't get enough power to the wheels to get us up the hill. We wondered if we were going to have to get out and push. Don't laugh. Elin and I had to get out while he and Emelie drove up to a more gentle slope a few hundred meters ahead. At almost 3,700 meters, Elin and I almost passed out by the time we got to the cab. We were huffing and puffing like mad. After getting back in the cab, we told Emelie she was paying the whole fare.

We arrived at the bus station at about 3:00 P.M. We went to one bus company that went to Copacabana, but the lady said there were no buses leaving todayOur bus crossing the lake.—from any company—because of the demonstrations. We walked about fifty meters to another company and bought three tickets for Copacabana. The bus left at 3:00 P.M. It was just after 3:00. The lady called the bus and told them to wait. For some reason, the bus left from a different part of town. We hustled out front with the lady from the bus company and she arranged for a taxi to take us to the bus. We had no idea where we were going, where the bus would leave from, or what kind of bus we'd be riding in.

We arrived at a random corner in a random neighborhood of La Paz. The bus was a micro. It had seats for probably twenty people. The driver threw our bags on the roof and covered them with a blue tarp. We boarded the bus, found some empty seats, and apologized to the other passengers for being late.

We clawed our way out of La Paz, stopping behind other cars and buses that stopped in the middle of the road from time to time, passing others. And of course there was the ubiquitous honking. We Driving along the shores of Lake Titicaca.eventually crested the valley top and slipped into El Alto, one of three cities comprising the La Paz metroplex (La Paz, El Alto, and Viacha).

We passed dozens of welding, body, and auto shops—these kinds of things get grouped together, possibly to make it easier for the consumer to find what they need. You just go to the right part of town for your need. We passed collectivos—basically mini-vans—lined up for blocks. It must've been the part of town where you catch rides, sort of an informal bus station. It was a hectic city. I wished I had visited here while in La Paz.

Within several minutes, we left El Alto, and said goodbye to La Paz. We were headed north, to the southern end of Lake Titicaca, where there was a very popular and touristy town called Copacabana. From there, we would take a boat out to Isla del Sol to visit some ruins and do some hiking.

Shortly after leaving the more densely populated area around La Paz, I noticed the Andes mountains off to our right. It was the most beautiful section of Andes I had yet seen. I made a mental note to come back here and spend a few days trekking in this area. There were some beautiful photographs to be had here.

At about the halfway point of our bus ride, we came to a branch of Lake Titicaca that we had to cross. We were instructed to get off the bus which proceeded to drive onto a A stormy evening at Lake Titicaca (out the front bus window).barge. We purchased boat tickets for a couple Bolivianos—i.e., they cost a couple Bolivianos, we didn't buy boat tickets for other people—and got onto a small boat. There were only a few of us on this boat, as most of the passengers had filled up another boat in front of us and had already set out across the choppy lake. We waited another ten minutes or so until another vehicle arrived and our boat filled up. The ride across the lake was slightly rough, but we made it without capsizing.

Upon reaching the other side, the girls and I searched out a bathroom. When we found it, it was closed, so we did what anyone in Latin America does when nature calls. We found a fence, a wall, or a tree, and went. It at least gave the illusion of some privacy.

From the other side of the lake, we climbed up into the mountains. The sky grew dark, there was lightning and rain, and the sun disappeared. It was a beautiful evening as we watched the lake go by below.

During the rain, the windows in the bus fogged up. The driver wiped off the window in front of him with a rag, but we weren't convinced he could see, based on how he was driving. I thought there was a good chance he would drive off the road and over a cliff, but Emelie kept thinking positive thoughts. The rain stopped, I opened my window, and the windshield cleared up. The driving didn't really improve, but we pulled into Copacabana none the worse for wear. Thank you for those positive thoughts, Emelie!

A pleasant dinner in Copacabana with Emily and Elin—the trout was excellent.A few men met us at the bus stop—simply at the side of the road at the main plaza. They wanted us to stay at their hotels. Elin went and checked them out while Emelie and I stayed with the bags. They both promised "Showers, 24 hours a day" but one of them had a private bathroom. That's the one we decided on. We took our bags, hiked the few blocks to our new home, dropped our things, and went out for dinner. After dinner, I went back to the room and went to bed, while the girls checked out the town for a bit. There wasn't much going on, so they returned before midnight. We all hit the hay, as tomorrow would be a long day—we were headed out to Isla del Sol for the day.

My Digital Workflow

At least one of my readers has asked how I accomplish my photo editing and blogging. After 9 months on the road, my workflow has changed very little. I'm really happy with my process and my gear and will do it the exact same way next time around.

Here's my gear list:

  • Sony Vaio VGN-TZ195N laptop (tiny, carbon fiber, 48GB SSD, 2GB RAM, DVD burner)
  • Adobe Lightroom 1.3.1
  • Adobe Photoshop CS3
  • Microsoft Live Writer
  • Zenfolio for photo hosting
  • 2 Western Digital 250GB USB drives
  • Digital cameras

The blogging is pretty simple. I write the blog entries using Windows Live Writer. I don't need an Internet connection. I can write the entry offline, then post it whenever I have an Internet connection. I upload the photos for the entry to my Zenfolio site, add the photos to the entry (that part of the blog-writing process does require an Internet connection), then post the blog entry.

For photos, I attach the camera and one of the USB drives to the computer, then open Lightroom and import the photos into Lightroom with the USB drive as the location to which the photos are to be copied. I do 99% of my photo editing in Lightroom. I specify a few basic keywords upon import, then add others when the import is finished. I go through the photos, choose the good ones, make the necessary adjustments (I shoot RAW exclusively), export to JPEG, then upload the photos.

Sometimes, there are a few images that I delete. After the editing process, I plug the second USB drive into the laptop, so that now both USB drives are attached. At this point, I run Robocopy /MIR to create on the second hard drive an exact duplicate of the primary drive. So, both drives are kept in sync, including removing files that I may have deleted off the primary drive. At this point, I format the memory card(s) in the camera(s). On occasion, I create backups of the photos on dual layer DVDs and mail those home.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Adios, iPod #2.

When I went on the tour in southern Bolivia, we spent hours and hours in the Land Cruiser. On day one or two, our guide, Juan Carlos, asked if anyone had an iPod. The vehicle was equipped with a wire tapping into the stereo by which we could listen to music from a portable music player. I volunteered mine, having a Latin Favorites list that I really like.

Juan Carlos liked my favorites, too, and asked for my iPod on the last day. We listened on and off over the course of the day. After arriving in Uyuni, everyone got their stuff out of the vehicle to find a hostel to stay in. I forgot my iPod in the vehicle. Presumably, our guide, Juan Carlos, forgot it, too, because he drove off with it.

I e-mailed the tour company the next day and, surprisingly, got a response a few days after that. Juan Carlos had already left on another tour and hadn't mentioned anything about an iPod to his boss. The company was going to check with him after he got back and possibly send me the iPod here in Lima.

I haven't heard anything since. If anyone goes on a tour with Tours el Grano de Oro from Tupiza to Uyuni, please kick Juan Carlos's ass, get my iPod back, and mail it to me. I'll pay the shipping and give you a big kiss.

The Sprint

If you've been following my trip, you may be wondering when it will ever end. Well, the answer is soon. I'm running out of money. I'm going to try to arrive in Tacoma within about 6 weeks. That means I will be traveling northward at an ultra fast pace. I won't plan on spending more than about 2 days in any one place, with the exception of Managua. I hope to make it from here (Lima) to Tacoma entirely on land. It's possible I will have to fly some, but I really want to try and avoid that, if at all possible. So, faithful readers, hang on to your hats.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Northern Bolivia

Parrot, lunch before putting in to the river. There are many outings one can take with La Paz as home base, and the one I elected was the Pampas tour. I wanted a taste of the jungle and knew this might be my only chance on this trip.

I had heard from more than one person that if you took the bus to Rurrenabaque, where the tour begins, you would take the plane back. The 18-hour bus ride is the commute from Hell. I'm usually a pretty slow learner—I've got to experience it to get it—but in this case I learned from others who had gone before. I splurged and booked the round-trip plane ride from the airport in La Paz to the little dirt strip near the town of Rurrenabaque, in northern Bolivia.

I had recently met Chris from Poland, as we were both staying at Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz. It would be good to know someone going into the trip. He had been living in New York for the past three years and was madly in love with the city. He loved the vibe, the night life, the people—the idea.

Yacaré Caiman (I think). We caught a cab to the airport the day before the tour, so we could relax that evening in Rurrenabaque to start the tour fresh the next morning.

As we were about to go through the metal detector at the airport, I remembered I had my pocket knife with me. I quickly removed it from my pocket and tossed it into my camera bag, hoping that it would go unnoticed. No such luck. Security took me aside and went through my bag, removing the knife. I asked if I could just put it in my backpack. No problem. I left the security area, went back to the ticketing area, and was allowed behind the counter, where my bag was still sitting on the motionless conveyor belt. I removed the lock off the top pocket, slipped the knife in, and replaced the lock. This time, I made it through security without a hitch. I couldn't have pulled that off in the States.

Yacaré Caiman (I think). Once in the plane and moving down the runway, the rollout was lengthy. We were at 12,000 feet and the air was thin. Even with flaps extended, the Fairchild 23 needed extra speed to create the pressure differential between the upper and lower wing surfaces necessary to suck the plane into the sky. We flew rather close to the jagged peaks of the Andes—it was spectacular. Within about 40 minutes, we descended to near sea level amongst a green landscape, and touched down onto a rough, dry, dirt landing strip.

Squirrel monkey (I think). Before the ground crew even cracked the door open, we could feel the heat and humidity. It would be an uncomfortable few days, but a good warm-up for my travels through Central America. After the stairs were rolled up to the door, we deplaned into a climate drastically different than that in La Paz. The changes that accompany a stiff change in altitude are stark. We were sweating before even picking up our packs.

A mini van taxied us to the town of Rurrenabaque, about a 5-minute drive along a rough but pretty stone road. Chris and I checked into a hotel recommended to us by the travel agent back in La Paz—Los Tucanes. The room was clean and had a private shower.

Birds and capybara. Before turning in for the night, I wanted to pick up a small day-pack to keep my few things organized on the trip, as there was no need to take my entire backpack into the outback for the few days of the trip. After packing a few clothes and several lenses and my extra D-SLR body into the pack and making sure everything was ready to go, we turned in. Although there was an oscillating pedestal fan in our room, it was a pretty toasty night. Welcome to the jungle.

The next morning, we got up in time to shower and get to the travel agency by around 8:00. I picked up my new day-pack, for which I had paid $7, and threw it over my right shoulder. The strap tore out of its bottom attachment point. Before the trip was over, the other strap had torn out—Chinese craftsmanship. It had served its purpose, and I just left it in our room when we checked out.

Squirrel monkey (I think). We arrived at the travel agency in plenty of time and were informed that the other adventurers had canceled—Chris and I were the only two left. The lady got on her cell phone and called another agency which, lucky for us, had space on their roster. While waiting for the transport to show up, we walked to a nearby restaurant and got some breakfast.

After we arrived back at the travel agency, a red Toyota 4x4 pulled up. The driver took our packs and threw them onto the roof under a blue tarp and tied everything down securely (we hoped!).

The outing began with a three-hour drive along a rough, dusty, potholed, rocky road. It was hot. It was dusty. Shortly after we got out of town, we were behind a motorcycle carrying a man, a woman, and a large bundle. Thankfully our driver was looking forward, as the motorcycle didn't like the rough, rocky, road, and crashed. Our driver swerved suddenly to avoid the downed bike. A second later, we were all looking out the back window at the man and woman slowly picking themselves up and dusting themselves off.

Marina, Spain. Our driver stopped and got out, presumably to help the accident victims. He walked over to a neighbor who had come out onto the road to see what the fuss was all about. We sat in the parked vehicle in the sweltering heat. Finally, someone said what we all thinking. If he's just going to stand there chatting with the neighbor, why doesn't he just get back in and let's get moving? The still Toyota had become like an oven. He must have felt the bad vibes emanating from within his ride. He came back and we took off.

During the drive, we all got to know each other a little bit. Romain, a French hippie, asked where I was from. I assumed he was traveling with Christophe. They looked like they were cut from the same mold.

"I'm traveling with my girlfriend, Elodie. We just met," and he pointed to Christophe.

Chris and I had run into Shane and Lucy at breakfast. We had talked to Lucy while Shane paid the bill. When Shane came back to the table, he said hi. He seemed a bit stuffy to me. He was a Canook who had been living in California for ten years. He was a software developer. Lucy was of Asian heritage, but was a native United Statesian, living in the Bay area.

Camp. For the first hour of the drive, Shane asked travel questions nonstop to Marina, a gal on extended travels from Spain. I thought he would never run out of questions. At least he wasn't talking about himself.

On occasion we would pass another motorcycle or a pedestrian, engulfing them in a thick cloud of dust. How could they see? How could they breathe? We all agreed that the park should use proceeds from the one-hundred-fifty Boliviano entrance fee to pave this miserable excuse of a road. Sure, the people we passed would benefit, but an excruciating three-hour, butt-numbing, snail-paced drive would be turned into a comfortable one-hour jaunt.

Shortly before we arrived at the river, we stopped in a small town for lunch. All the tour groups stop here before the three-hour canoe ride in the blazing sun. Upon exiting the vehicle, I spied a monkey on a fence. I walked over to him to shoot a few close-ups. He was into close-ups. He jumped off the fence onto my head and began to crawl around on me. It's difficult to take self portraits with a Nikon D3 and 24-70 f/2.8 attached—it's a heavy combo—but I managed to change some camera settings required for self-portraiture and snap a few. When we sat down to eat, there was a pig under out table which our waiter shooed away, and a very large bird standing a few meters away—he never moved.

Carine, France. Another fifteen minutes of driving and we arrived at the river. We were told our boat would arrive in about twenty minutes (they bring the previous group out, and pick up the new group). We stood around in the shade, shooting the breeze.

I discovered Shane was a systems developer. He writes software used for doing performance analysis on other software. So, he's really smart. I figured I should come right out and admit that he's smarter than I, a mere application developer.

"We're not smarter than you. Our intelligence is just different." We soon discovered—as his girlfriend pointed out—that we had the same exact sense of humor, terrible as that may be to some. We would have entire conversations where everything we said was facetious. An outsider would have thought we were crazy, but we knew what we were talking about—every word coming out of our mouths was ironic, a lie of sorts. Few chats are more enjoyable. This might not be such a bad trip.

Girl whose parents worked at our camp. Shane had a little multi-use gizmo with a compass, a thermometer, and a whistle, all built right in. He also claimed it had a clicker, a device for counting.

"On a previous trip, the compass got stuck, so we were always going the same direction. It works now, though."

"How about the thermometer?" I asked.

"It works."

A couple hours into the trip, I wondered aloud how many capybaras we'd seen. It seemed like hundreds.

"We've seen 481. My multi-tool has a clicker. Unfortunately, it's stuck on 481."

"Do you think we've seen that many Caimans?" I knew we'd seen a lot of them.

"Four-hundred-eighty-one," Shane answered.

We were all astounded at the usefulness of Shane's tool.

Shane, foreground, pursued by Israelis (I don't know what he did). About an hour before we got to camp, the boat pulled onto a beach where there were already a couple boats moored. We spent about a half hour there and swam. This was a favorite hangout for pink dolphins. As we enjoyed the warm, but refreshing, water, we spotted several of them. They would just surface for a split second, blow a puff of air out of their air hole, then disappear below the surface.

Our guide was a slightly annoying canoe driver. I realize there might have been some shallow spots in the river—it was the dry season—but he was constantly changing the throttle position, even where there were certainly no low spots. Maybe he had a nervous twitch. Shane figured he was conducting some kind of systems test on the canoe.

Shane with catfish—he didn't know we were fishing for piranhas. There were several camps located along the river, all within a half hour, or so, of each other. Ours looked about as decent as any of them. The various tour groups stayed at these camps during their time here.

We had three square meals a day—and juice. The food wasn't bad, but the juice—the juice was awful. It came in all flavors, and it was all terrible. And it was all luke warm. One of the flavors was banana. We figured it was just monkey pee. Three days in the jungle without a cold drink is tough to take. In fact, in general, cold drinks are hard to come by in Bolivia. And when a street vendor tells you their Coke is cold, they simply mean it hasn't been placed in a microwave oven.

There was actually a "bar" about a 10-minute boat ride away, that had a variety of drinks for sale, and the drinks were cold enough to taste good, but certainly not icy-cold. We went there once—for a totally lame sunset—but if we'd had our druthers, we'd have gone multiple times per day.

Piranha—sharp teeth! There were basically four items on the agenda for this trip: swim with the piranhas, fish for pink dolphins, find an anaconda, and go Caiman watching at night, by flashlight.

The day we arrived at camp, things were a bit hectic. Our guide told us four other tourists had been lost during their anaconda hunting trip. All the guides were going to go out and join in the search. Within a few minutes, however, a guide pulled up in a boat with the four, hungry, very thirsty, formerly-lost souls.

The first night was a bit annoying. Everyone turned in at about 10:00. Everyone except for a group of people hanging out in the hammocks out in the common area. They were loud for quite some time into the night. The next morning when a few of us went to relax in the hammocks, we found a fair amount of trash on the floor under the hammocks. Although there are exceptions, this is the kind of behavior I have come to expect from young, traveling Israelis. Maybe it's just their way of rebelling after having to serve two years in their military.

Christophe, France, some kind of fish (not a piranha). The next day, our group, along with the Israelis (there was a French woman in their group, too), went on our anaconda outing. The other group led the way. Our guide was quite a ways ahead of our group. I wondered how our guide would teach us about the local flora and fauna at such a great distance. He did not shout this information the 100 meters back to us.

Shockingly, about an hour after our anaconda hunt began—and less than one day after four other tourists were lost—two members of our group were lost, Elodie and Romain. Considering the distance between our guide and our group, I did not find this surprising in the least, yet I was still flabbergasted that they would allow this to happen, especially considering it had happened only the day before.

Our guide had previously informed us that shorts would be fine for the hike. We traversed quite a bit of terrain with tough bushes. Shane's legs were taking a beating. You know those sensitive programmers. He was a bit put out about that.

Self portrait, spider monkey. A few of us had joined the other group to continue the hunt, while the others in our group turned around to look for the lost sheep. We eventually cornered a snake and the brave ones took turns holding it by its tail. It was about 7 feet long and 3 inches in diameter. I wasn't particularly blown away, but it was still good to see one. I would've been really annoyed hiking around in the heat for three hours for nothing.

The others in our group had encountered the lost group members and we crossed paths, us leaving and them coming. Shane, Lucy, and I continued back with the Israelis, and the rest of our (reunited) group continued on the search for an anaconda. On the way back, during a short break, the guide informed us that there were ticks in these here parts. This additional, omitted item, made Shane even more agitated. One would have thought that the guides would have told us this tidbit beforehand ("shorts and sandals are okay").

Lucy, Berkley. Moreover, the guides had apparently just assumed that we would bring our own water. They hadn't brought any. This was a mere annoyance to us, but could've been deadly to the lost group the day before—or to Elodie and Romain.

Later that day, after we had eaten lunch, we returned to the pink dolphin hangout and swam some more. When we arrived, some other boats were already there (What a pleasant surprise to see Dennis and Sylvia from Belgium, the wonderful couple I had spent four days with on the tour in southern Bolivia).

Shane was bound and determined to have a close encounter with the strange but beautiful pink mammals. He must have treaded water for an hour. I grabbed my Panasonic TZ-3 in its underwater case and took a few snaps out in the middle of the river. I never did get a photo of a dolphin. They were shy. Lucy and I swam out in the middle and joined Shane. Lucy let out a shriek and told us a dolphin had brushed Capybara.against her feet. This happened a few times. She was freaked out and wanted out of the water. I thought she was a wimp—until it happened to me. As I was treading water, I felt something against my feet. This happened four times. I now understood why Lucy was freaked out. It was a mite scary. What an experience.

While headed back to camp in the boat, clouds moved in and the sky grew dark. By this time, we had seen so many capybaras and Caimans, we didn't give them a second thought. The storm clouds and cool temperatures they brought were refreshing.

After we arrived back at camp, I lay down in my bed for a nap. I enjoyed a wonderful hour of wind and rain along with the guitar playing and singing emanating from the dining area, floating through the screen and over to our set of dorm rooms.

Turtles—no idea how they did that.After dinner, we gathered in our boat, flashlights in hand (or headlamps on head), and headed out for some night-time Caiman watching. This was very cool. Make sure to take your own light, ideally a head lamp, which you should have as part of your travels, anyway. The angle at which a Caiman's eyes reflect light is extremely narrow and you won't see the reflections form other people's lights unless they're along your line of sight (i.e., almost directly in front of or in back of you). At times, I was reminded of being on a ride at Disney Land, like Pirates of the Caribbean. This was really nice.

Flowers (you tell me).The night was cool. The previous night, I had wondered why there were blankets on the beds. That night, I used mine.

The next morning, we partook of the last event of the trip—we went fishing for piranhas not far upstream our camp. Each of us was given a small piece of wood with fishing line wrapped around it several times. There was a regular fishing hook on the end of the line. We were given steak for bait. We simply threw the line off the edge of the boat—the bow of the canoe was grounded on the shore—and the piranhas went nuts. After about 10 minutes of the piranhas eating our bait, Shane asked if we supposed to be fishing for piranhas or just feeding them. At this point, they were having a feast.

Elodie, Romain, Christophe, Spain. We ended up catching a few. Shane caught a catfish, too. I looked over at the Israelis. Their boat was sinking. I think they had cast their net on the opposite side of their canoe or something. They had piranhas coming out their ears.

We ate our catch along with lunch. The piranhas tasted like fish—remember, I'm not a food connoisseur. They didn't have much meat on their bones, but the fishing had been entertaining.

After lunch, we loaded our bags into the canoe and headed back downstream to our put-in point three days earlier. The trip back down stream and along the rough road seemed to go more quickly this time. Some group members thought the trip was wonderful while others were underwhelmed. We all had a good time, however, and enjoyed making new friends.

Cuzco to Lima by Bus

The distance as the crow files? Three-hundred-fifty-five miles. The time? Twenty-four hours. That's an average speed of under fifteen miles per hour. Much of the drive is on twisty mountain roads through the Andes mountains. It's possible to drive for a long time in the Andes and not come to the end—or out the side. It's a really big set of mountains, I've noticed.

Our bus driver would have been fired if he were driving a limo (in the States, at least). He charged into all the corners fast, hit the brakes hard, and then took all the corners as fast as he could. It was uncomfortable, at least on the top deck of the tall double-decker bus, especially with lots of steep dropoffs to the side. Moreover, the stewardess wasn't very friendly and the dinner was sub-par, even for a bus. Not a great drive for me, despite the beautiful scenery.

However, I arrived in one piece, food in stomach, belongings in backpack, backpack in bus. Could've been much worse.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Taxis in Cuzco and Lima

There are two kinds of taxis in Cuzco and Lima: white station wagons and teeny tiny hatchbacks of varying colors. Take the small ones unless there are several of you with bags and need the space provided by the white station wagons.

When you arrive at the bus station, do not take a cab right from the station. Throw your pack on and walk off the premises and flag down the little hatchback. You'll get a much better price. It also doesn't hurt to haggle as you're walking out to get an idea of the price you'll want to pay the cab.

Here's an example. When I arrived in Lima today, I got off the bus, got my pack, and walked out the front door. Immediately, several men came up to me and asked if I needed a taxi. I said yes and asked how much it was. There was actually a board on the wall of the bus station stating the prices to various parts of town. The price to the neighborhood of Barranca in Lima was listed as thirteen Solis. I said no thanks and kept walking. As I past the taxistas, I heard "twelve," then "ten," "nine," and "eight." I kept declining. I got other bids for nine again, which was funny since one of them had already said eight. I kept walking, figuring that I'd find a miniature car outside the gates. One pulled up and dropped someone off. I showed him the address of the hostel (which I had written on a small piece of paper before leaving Cuzco) and he said eight. I insisted on seven and he finally caved.

Seven Solis down from thirteen? Listen and learn, kids.

One last tip? When you leave your hostel, ask the staff how much the taxi should cost you to different parts of town so you don't get ripped off. You won't know unless you ask.

Friday, October 17, 2008

La Paz

La Paz as viewed from Killi Killi Mirador. As I travel, I see commonalities between cities and also notice some new things in each new place I visit.

When the bus first peeked over the edge of the altiplano down into the valley where La Paz is nestled, I had flashbacks to Rio de Janeiro. The hillsides are covered in brick-colored houses all the way up to the rim, and the low points contain the wealthier houses and the downtown areas. The biggest difference between Rio and La Paz, of course, is that La Paz isn't perched over the ocean. In its background, however, are big, beautiful mountains. The setting is gorgeous, just a bit different.

A street vendor. The thing that might stand out the most at times is how you feel. Its elevation is over 3,600 meters, or almost 12,000 feet. I'm currently staying on the 4th floor of Wild Rover Hostel. When I get up to my room after hiking up all those stairs, I almost pass out. I'm panting like crazy. The same thing happens when you walk around outside. As the city is situated in an entire valley, almost every street is a hill.

La Paz has the biggest markets I've yet seen. I've visited a couple and I must say I've never seen so many individually packaged items in one place in my entire life. You can buy just about anything you want from cleaning products to any kind of food or produce to candles to shoelaces. You name it.

A girl in the plaza feeding the pigeons. In other parts of the city, you may not find a huge market, but you'll find all the usual street vendors selling whatever your heart may desire, and at least the non-food vendors tend to bunch together. For example, you may find three or four guys making duplicates of keys or selling candles. I even saw a lady cutting out shoe inserts with a pair of scissors. Another beautiful thing you'll find in La Paz that I didn't encounter much in the more southern countries is street vendors selling slices of pineapple and cups of fresh-squeezed orange juice. A cup of orange juice costs about 28¢ and a slice of pineapple costs between about 14¢ and 21¢.

Almost regardless of which direction you head, you'll be on a hill. As if the hills and the altitude weren't enough to make life a challenge, the sidewalks are barely wide enough for two people to pass. And where there are light posts, there is barely enough room for one person to squeeze through, especially if you're wearing a backpack.

A key duplicator touching up his work by hand. The streets are narrow and I've heard more honking horns in my few days here than in the rest of my trip put together (part of the honking is just taxis advertising their availability). There are myriad taxis and a couple other forms of public transport. There are what appear to be old school buses acting as the city buses. This is the first time I've seen these old buses used as the primary public transport on my trip. There are also loads of minivans with someone hanging out the sliding door hollering out the destination. They stop anywhere and everywhere picking up and dropping off passengers.

For the most part, when I've been hungry, I've just wandered around looking for a hole in the wall joint. The first day I was here, I had some beef, rice, soup, and a Coke. The price? Nine Bolivianos. In American, that's $1.29. Another day for lunch, I had chicken, potato, a nice bowl of soup, and some other gizmos on the plate that I didn't really like—nor was I able to identify them. The bill came to a whopping eight Bolivianos. That translates to $1.14. I have no idea how these people make a living. Their rent must be only five bucks a month.

A little girl announcing shoes for kids. I always like to get to a high spot when I visit a new city for some overview photos. I enjoy seeing the lay of the land. There's a hill right in the middle of the city called Killi Killi Mirador. It's a nice little park-like viewpoint with virtually 360-degrees' view of the city. At least from this hostel, it's very easy access. Six pesos will get you to the top in a taxi, and an easy 20-minute walk will get you home.

When I first arrived here after my trek in the south, I slept fine. I guess I had acclimated to the high altitude. Then I went to the north and the edge of the jungle. After returning from three days at sea level, I had trouble sleeping. Every few minutes I had to take a deep gasp of air. The next night I slept fine again.

Women in Bolivia? Well, the attractiveness quotient drops several notches on average in comparison with Argentina and Brazil. The missing European and African influence makes a really big difference.

A taste of one of the markets. A word about Wild Rover Hostel. It's a very nice hostel and is kept very clean. The bathrooms are very nice and are cleaned continually. There is a bar and I believe you can buy food there. It can get a bit noisy at night. Just reserve yourself a bed in the 4-bed room—it's pretty quiet. There is a travel agency situated in the main office for booking tours—convenient. They also have WiFi. If you're in La Paz, I definitely recommend staying at this hostel.

There's certainly much more to this city than I saw, but I'm on a mission—I'm headed northward, and fast. If I'm in this neck of the woods again, this is a city I'll come back to.