The Penguins, the Pisco, the Sand and the Stars

We’ve been in Chile for two weeks. “Wait a minute,” you say, “weren’t you in Bolivia last week?” No, but I was writing about Bolivia. There was still a lot to recount and our first week in Chile wasn’t exactly action-packed. I mentioned in my last post that Lea and I had taxed our forty-something bodies’ tolerance for high altitude, cold showers, lugging backpacks up steep inclines, and what have you. After our mad dash through Peru and our month on the oxygen-deprived Altiplano, we’ve spent our first two weeks in Chile convalescing for want of a better word.

I spoke last week of my aching desire to get out of the mountains and down to a nice, pleasant beach. Did I get what I wanted? Well, yes and no. Here’s a Chilean beach:

Finally, right?

THAT PICTURE LIES. It looks warm and pleasant, but no matter how bright the sun and how inviting the sand, the harsh reality is that Chile, even more than Ecuador or Peru, is plagued by the despicable Humboldt Current from Antarctica. This photo offers a much more honest appraisal of the Chilean coastline:

Shiver me timbers.

I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t at least pleasant to sit near the beach for a while, listen to the waves, and smell the ocean air. Lea and I just had to bundle up in warm clothes to do it. Let’s settle on this photo for a happy medium:

Still, brrrrr….

Serene, tranquil, crystal clear, and cold as a bucket of ice on a polar bear’s butt.

Anyway, here’s the travel report:

San Pedro de Atacama

As I mentioned last week, San Pedro is the sister city to Uyuni, Bolivia. It’s entirely a backpacker town, full of hostels and travel agencies. After coming down from the Andean Plateau, the main thing San Pedro has going for it is that it’s warm and has actual air pressure. Even though we were still higher in elevation than Denver, it made a world of difference. We took off our jackets, slung on our backpacks, and felt like superhuman demigods with all that oxygen suddenly coursing through our veins as we hiked to our hostel.

Sandy San Pedro.

There’s a lot for a tourist to do around San Pedro de Atacama, but much of it seemed just like the stuff we’d covered in our three days across the Bolivian desert. The place we stayed was breezy with a nice porch looking over a garden and hot water in the shower. We got groceries and bus tickets, then didn’t leave the hostel for two days. (It would have been nice to do laundry, but there are no laundries in San Pedro. Oh well. Surely we’d be able to do it later…)

It’s dunes all the way down.

Caldera

Eight hours down the coast is the village of Caldera, which our Australian friend Simon (who had traveled ahead of us) recommended as a place to recoup. Instead of a room in a hostel, we found a little guest house right off the main square on AirBnB. It had a fridge and a microwave if not a full kitchen, so we went back out for dinner and groceries.

Oh My God. The grocery store was packed like the one open Piggly Wiggly on the night before Thanksgiving. Any comments we made about how crazy crowded the store was were met with a shrug and a rapid-fire blast of Chilean Spanish. We didn’t find out what was really going on until the next day, when we were down to our last clean anything and tried to take our clothes to the only laundry in town (open Monday, Wednesday, Friday). It was Friday, and it was closed. After much ringing of the doorbell and yelling “Hola!” someone appeared to tell us in Chilean Spanish (más despacio, por favor) that it was closed for the holiday and would be open the following Monday.

Side note: I keep saying “Chilean Spanish” because what the Chileans call Spanish isn’t Spanish any more than what a cattle auctioneer is speaking can legitimately be considered English.

Anyway, the holiday. November 2 was Reformation Day, a holiday that commemorates Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. The holiday is only observed in Germany, Slovenia, and Chile. We knew that southern Chile at least was supposed to have some German influence. So far we haven’t seen any bratwurst. Instead, we got to wash clothes in our AirBnB’s (cold) shower and hang it in the courtyard for anyone walking to Caldera’s central plaza to see.

Despite the frustration, we did get more recovery time on our surprise holiday weekend. The town has a pleasant park to hang out in, a nice little museum of paleontology with some megalodon fossils among other things, and a tiny beach with no shade or bars. We took a cab over to Bahia Inglesa, the supposed “tourist side” of the area, to find it wasn’t any more exciting. We did meet up with a guy named Jorge on Couchsurfing who took us careening over some sandy trails in search of seafood by the bay until finally settling on a restaurant in town. (The fried eel was fantastic, by the way.)

Caldera’s central plaza and church.

We had to get up before dawn on Sunday morning to catch our next bus. When we woke, not only was the shower still cold but all the power had gone out. We put on our wind-dried outfits, gathered our belongings by the light of our headlamps (Always be prepared!), gave up on the idea of washing ourselves, and once more hit the road.

La Serena

By now it had been a week since coming down from the mountains and it was time to ease back into seeing stuff and not hiding in our hostel. La Serena is the starting point for tours to the nearby Humboldt Penguin Reserve, one of the “must see” spots on our trip. But first we needed hot showers, clean clothes, and something to eat.

Instead of a hostel, we booked an honest-to-god apartment for four nights. The apartment had hot water, a kitchen, and an actual washing machine. Granted, it was small and had no dryer. There was a drying rack (also tiny) on the patio and two small bedrooms in addition to the master. Among our gear are two retractable clotheslines that we normally take camping to hang up towels. We strung those up in both the spare bedrooms and between them and the balcony were slowly able to do our own laundry over the course of several days.

The apartment was right around the corner from the travel agency (sweet!) and right across the street from a shopping mall with a supermarket. The less we eat out the more we save, so after rinsing several days of sand and dust out of our hair we set out across the giant American-style parking lot. As we approached the supermarket (called “Lider”) we saw a familiar logo. We thought, “That looks like… Surely it can’t be… No.”

Yep. For real, y’all. Chile has Wal-Mart.

Apparently Lider was a local chain that Wal-Mart bought out and kept the name. Everything inside, though, is just what you’d see in the States, down to Wal-Mart brands, sale stickers, and fonts on the labels. The arrangement of the store was confusing with plenty of quirks to remind us we were still in South America: huge wine selection, no cheese to speak of, and giant bone-in cuts of meat. But just like Wal-Mart back home, we had to keep going back every day for one more thing.

La Serena’s central park, far from the Wal-Mart

La Serena is split by the Pan-American Highway, east of which is the city proper with a green central park, some nice European architecture, the usual assortment of museums (that we didn’t visit) and a post office. Functioning post offices have been a rarity on this trip and postage rates in the first three countries we visited were sky-high, so we’ve lugged around an accumulation of items to be mailed back to the U.S., waiting for the right moment.

We pounced.

Going by the single data point of the post office in La Serena, the postal system of Chile is much more pleasant to interact with than our own. Not that that’s a high bar to clear.

Anyway, about those penguins…

On our last day in La Serena, with the last batch of clothes drying on lines spread through the apartment like the work of a giant spider, we got on a tour bus heading north to the coastal village of Choros, where we piled onto a boat and made our way to the islands where the penguins live.

Humboldt penguins are small, cute, and extremely shy – so skittish around humans that they’ve been known to jump off cliffs to get away from us. Therefore, you’re not allowed to get off the boat on the  islands where the penguins are. The penguins nest on top of the island and only come down to the shore to fish. According to our guide penguin populations are down this year for reasons unknown, but we were still able to spot a few as well as plenty of other birds, sea lions, and a pod of fin whales.

Our first penguin.
Two more penguins.
Three lazy penguins.
Colorful rocks.
This magnificent bastard.
Too cute.
Drying his wings.
Under all that water, the second largest whales in the world.
And yet this bird is not impressed.

There is one penguin-free island where we were allowed to disembark, hike, and look at rocks, gulls, and cacti. The weather was cold, cold, cold. I looked up La Serena’s latitude and realized that it’s just as far south of the equator as Jacksonville, Baton Rouge, and El Paso are to the north. November is late spring, equivalent to May in the northern hemisphere, so why was I still freezing?

Geography. The Andes have more influence on weather patterns here than anything else. Chile’s central valley is warm. The coast is frigid. The temperature in La Serena fluctuates from 50⁰ to 70⁰F all year round, even in “high season” – which is January and February. If you want to experience spring and summer, you have to get away from the coast. Which we did.

Vicuña

In a dirt parking lot behind the Wal-Mart, we picked up the bus inland to Vicuña, gateway to the Elqui Valley (Chile’s wine country) and heart of the country’s astrotourism industry. With some of the clearest skies in the world, northern Chile is vitally important to the study of astronomy. There are many world-renowned research facilities, such as the cleverly named Very Large Telescope and the even more original Extremely Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. While some facilities allow limited tours during the day, no way are they going to let you go at night. (Besides, modern research telescopes don’t have anything like an eyepiece you can just walk up and look through.)

Vicuña, on the other hand, has several observatories open to the public for night visits and stargazing tours. Having seen the night sky from the Altiplano (in the freezing cold) I wanted another good look before we went south into more humid, and probably cloudier, regions of the country. After hearing about some of the expensive private tours to observatories farther out of town, we elected the cheap route and chose to visit the nearby Mamalluca Observatory instead.

This may not have been the best choice. It saved us money, but we ended up being two of nearly sixty to eighty at the observatory that night. The English-language group had about twenty people, which means that even during a two hour tour the group was only able to view five celestial objects and no one individually got much telescope time. Not to mention all the idiots trying to take pictures of the sky with their iPhones using the flash.

However, the sky was clear and beautiful. We could see the Milky Way, and the guide pointed out the stars Canopus (brightest in the southern sky) and Alpha Centauri (nearest to our own Sun, if you count Proxima Centauri as part of the same system). When he pointed out the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, my brain blew a fuse and I stared at the sky like a cat fixated on a laser pointer.

A little background: The Magellanic Clouds are two smaller galaxies that orbit our own. They’re the Milky Way’s “moons” so to speak. Some personal background: I’ve been an astronomy nerd since I was a kid. It was my first career path, and I actually taught college-level astronomy for a couple of years in my early twenties. Alpha Centauri and the Magellanic Clouds were talked about in every book about the night sky that I devoured as a child, but I never thought I would see them. And there they were right in front of me. It was an exhilaration as powerful as what I’d felt watching humpback whales leaping from the water off the coast of Ecuador. I was looking at other galaxies with my naked eyes, and I hadn’t thought it was important to bring my camera.

D’oh!

The next day we did something that we hadn’t done since La Paz, and almost never did in Peru. We went to Jaime, the hostel owner (at Hostal Las Delicias, if you ever want to book a room) and asked to extend our stay.

Jaime’d helped us book a tour of the wine region that we were going on that morning. The original plan had been to leave town the next day. Instead, we decided to stay so we could go out at night to someplace dark and take pictures of the sky. Jaime called around to several cabbies and tour companies to see if anyone would drive us. We ended up going with the same company, Elki Magic, who would drive us on the morning tour as well.

The church and plaza in Pisco Elqui.
The vineyards of the Elqui Valley.

The Elqui Valley is a splash of green amidst the Chilean desert thanks to the Elqui river and lots of irrigation. The valley is lined with vineyards, fruit groves, and quaint towns that have maximized the amount of greenery on display. They don’t just make wine in the Elqui region, though. They make Pisco.

The door to the distillery.
Drinking yourself to death indeed.

Pisco is an amber-colored brandy made from Muscat grapes, a signature high-proof spirit from both Chile and Peru, and the key ingredient in the Pisco Sour, one of the finest beverages known to man. On the tour we visited Fundo Los Nichos, the oldest pisco distillery in the region. It smelled heavenly. We saw the distilling equipment, the fermentation chambers, and the old Masonic club room beneath the distillery in which the club’s members were entombed behind bottles of pisco. We tasted samples and I was shocked that no one tried to sell us a bottle or five on the way out. We would’ve been easy marks.

The good stuff.

Later we went out and took pictures of the stars until midnight. The next day we slept in, lounged around, drank a bottle of Carménère pinot for lunch and had four pisco sours for dinner.

More of the good stuff.

That’s all caught up for now. I’m logging this from sunny Valparaiso. Next week I’ll be able to report on the largest swimming pool in the world. Hasta later, dear readers.

The sky looking back at Vicuna.
Orion rising upside-down.
That fuzzy blob I’m pointing at is the Large Magellanic Cloud. Up and to the right is the Small Magellanic Cloud. The bright star down and to the left is Canopus.

P.S. We’re finally back where there are flowers! It’s time for more of:

Lea’s Macrophotography

A Desert Is a Beach Where the Ocean Is Really Far Away

And now, for the main event. Copacabana and La Paz were both lovely surprises, but the thing that put Bolivia on the “Go” list was… a big, flat plain of salt!

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the remnant of one or more prehistoric lakes and has an “extraordinary flatness” according to Wikipedia, with its elevation varying less than one meter in altitude over its entire expanse. Apparently its so flat that it’s used to calibrate the altimeters of satellites passing overhead.

But first, let me recount how we got here. We left La Paz on a fairly sketchy bus for Oruro, a city in the middle of the Altiplano that claims the title of “Folklore Capital of Bolivia.” Its archaeological museum has a better collection of traditional masks and costumes than even the one in La Paz and its Carnival in February is said to be one of the most impressive in South America.

From there we took an awful, bumpy, bone-shattering train ride to the horrible desert town of Uyuni. We were trapped on the train with a large tour group of loud, fidgety college kids, some of whom spent the entire seven hours taking selfies. Uyuni was once an important rail station, but now exists to support the travel agencies sending tourists out into the Salar. We spent two nights there, but had we been able to finalize our tour arrangements online it would have been preferable to spend an extra night in pleasant Oruro instead.

Anyway, on to the tour!

Day One

The trip got very “Mad Max” quickly.

The first step, of course, is waiting for your ride. We signed up with Uyuni White & Green as our tour agency, but as has been the case throughout South America the travel agencies tend to consolidate with other operators and we ended up on a tour run by Salty Desert Adventures instead. (Which was fine; they were well rated on TripAdvisor.) Our guide, Jose Luis, was friendly and helpful but didn’t speak a word of English. This wasn’t unanticipated. At least I could understand the basics and Lea’s Spanish keeps getting better.

The first location we visited was the “train graveyard” just south of Uyuni – a scattering of old engines, freight cars, and the occasional passenger car left in the desert to rust and be graffitied. This is exactly the kind of photo opportunity I love and would have been fantastic if the trains weren’t crawling with tourists using them as adult monkey-bars. I had to walk pretty far from the crowd to enjoy the trains in peace, but there were a lot of trains and a lot of desert to go around.

Somebody invested serious time on this one.

Next on the itinerary was a short tour of a place where the salt was processed for commercial use. (Fun fact: Bolivia exports no salt, except what tourists take with them.) Basically it was just a room where the crystals were toasted, broken down, sifted, or whatever it is they do… I don’t know, man, it was all in Spanish!

Too much for your shaker.

There were big crystals to make Lea swoon and about a dozen shops to buy souvenirs. What surprised me was that this was our only shopping opportunity for the remainder of the tour. After this, we were truly in the Wild.

You can tell when you’re not far from Low Earth Orbit.

The Wild wasn’t far away. A short drive brought us to our first photo stop on the Salar. Other tour groups were still around, but the herd was starting to spread out. The first stop wasn’t completely dry, either – there were springs where gas and water bubbled up from beneath the desert. Mainly it was useful as a place for us wannabe photographers to check light levels and test exposure times before heading out into the Unbearable Whiteness. Another quick stop for lunch, then we were on our own in the vastness of the Salar.

That’s when Lea grew to ten times her normal height and tried to stomp me.

Who knew I was such a good source of potassium?

Silliness aside, the beauty of the place is mind-bending. Yeah, sure, the Andes are majestic and such, especially around Machu Picchu, but the Salar is so alien that it hurts your brain just to look at it. There’s nothing but white all the way to a horizon so blurred by mirages that the mountains appear to float in the air.

This is what it looked like all around us.
The salt up close.
Fellow travelers.

After drinking in the beauty for an hour or more, we drove on to Incahuasi Island, a rocky outcrop in the salt flat where a forest of cacti hang on for dear life. Beyond that (after half an hour of trying to get our jeep to start) we got to watch the sunset before moving on to our first lodge, a hotel made entirely of salt.

The view from Isla Incahuasi.
Day’s end.

A hotel made of salt sounds cool. The salt bricks do in fact provide really good insulation against the frigid night air on the Altiplano. What no one thought to mention, though, was that the floor was nothing but salt-sand. Aside from two narrow beds and a stone block that served as a nightstand, there was literally nowhere to set anything down in our room. We ended up piling everything we pulled out of our backpacks on top of our backpacks and playing “the floor is lava” as we tucked in for the night.

This was less than pleasant. Had we been staying in a campground on the beach with warm air all around and tiki bars really close by, it would have been a different matter.

Day Two

The salt hotel was in the little village of San Juan, which is also home to the Kawsay Wasy Necropolis. This wasn’t included in any of the tours we looked at, but we asked if we could make a side trip and our guide arranged it. Therefore, while everyone else was snug in bed, Lea and I got up with the sun and rode to the edge of town to engage in our cemetery-haunting hobby.

A mausoleum at sunrise.

This particular cemetery is unique in that the inhabitants used natural stone towers to act as tombs for their dead. The remains have been left in situ and can be viewed through a small “window” in each of the Necropolis’s burial chambers.

Trick or treat.

After that and breakfast, our gang took off in our jeep for even more wonders of the desert. Specifically, alkaline lakes full of flamingos. Also (not in the lakes) wind-eroded rocks.

And an active volcano! Our first stop was at a baño and snack bar with a fantastic view of several volcanoes in the area, one of which was actively smoking.

Nothing to worry about at all.

The first lake we stopped at was a very interesting shade of pink. The second was an algae-covered green with a saline froth along the shore and, in place of seaweed washed up on the sand, a rind of salt-encrusted flamingo feathers. Flamingos were everywhere. Back in the Galapagos we spent quite a bit of time stalking the handful of flamingos we saw, always waiting for that perfect shot where one of the birds would pull their head out of the water for the briefest of instants. If we’d known what was coming, we wouldn’t have bothered. If Hitchcock had wanted to make a sequel to The Birds starring flamingos, he could have filmed it here.

A flockade of flamingos.
Intellectually I knew they could fly, but still…

Then there were the rocks.

Plenty of rocks, in interesting shapes, but like the trains on Day One they were crawling with tour groups. Taking a photo of this particular formation without someone posing in front was nigh impossible. But I did it!

I’m surprised no one’s pushed it over yet.

I’m going to mention right here that at this point in our excursion, neither Lea nor I were feeling very well. Without going into the gruesome details online, suffice it to say that both of us were feeling the mileage weighing on us in different ways. It wasn’t altitude sickness per se, those headaches and feelings of light-headedness you get when you suddenly find yourself thousands of meters higher than you were. We’d been at high elevation ever since Cusco, but the fact is that we’d both been pushing our bodies beyond their usual limits, hauling backpacks and ourselves up and down mountains in the rarified Andean atmosphere (with its accompanying lack of oxygen) and were both paying the price.

We ached for sea level. We longed for beach chairs under a cabana. We wanted heat, dammit, enough air to breathe, some decent adult beverages, and life without an alarm clock once in a while.

The wind on the plateau steadily picked up all day. The sky was cloudless, but the sun wasn’t enough to fight what eventually became a full-on gale by the time we got to our final vista: Laguna Colorada.

What that gorgeous, unearthly image doesn’t show is the tropical-storm force winds picking up thousands of needle-sharp volcanic sand grains and blowing them right in my face every time I turned west. As windy as it was, Lea overheard one guide comment that often it was even worse. We took our photos then decided to enjoy the view from the safety of Jose Luis’s enclosed 4×4.

That night we stayed in a hostel that only ran their generator from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Skylights warmed the building during the day, though, and at least it had a floor! It was quite an improvement, even if we had to use headlamps and flashlights to brush our teeth and pack.

Day Three

Up before sunrise. The wind had died down overnight. The first lake we passed had frozen over. We got up that early for the best views of the geysers. (“Not geysers,” says Lea. “Mudpots.”) They’re more active in the morning and the steam is better seen in the early sunlight. The last time Lea and I were taking photos of geysers, it was in Iceland in January 2015. This was warmer than that, at least, and we didn’t have to worry about ice on the ground. Lea, though, made sure to inform me that when walking around mudpots like these, the ground could theoretically open up under us at any time. (Email subscribers click here for video of our potential bubbly demise.)

If you gotta go…

After the geysers, the group went to a hot spring bath. Lea and I did not partake, not wanting to add wet clothes to our backpacks. The last stop for us was Laguna Verde, another salt lake which wasn’t as verde as normal because there wasn’t enough wind to kick up all the algae. Still, more great views of volcanoes:

One last chance for Bolivia to blow us up.

And that was it for us. The rest of the group had one or two more stops to make on their way back to Uyuni, but Lea and I had chosen this as our exit point from Bolivia into Chile. For a nominal fee our guide helped us across the border and gave us tickets for a bus to take us into San Pedro de Atacama, Uyuni’s sister tourist town on the other side of the mountains.

We longed for warmer air. We longed for thicker air. We wanted to be someplace flat. We dreamed of getting back to the coast. We imagined the sound of waves and the feel of a humid sea breeze.

We waited for two hours in a cramped, stuffy van just to get our turn at the inspection station at the border into Chile. As for the beach? That, my friends, is another story.

P.S.

Here’s our route through Bolivia. As you can see, we barely touched the country and kept entirely to the upper Andean plateau. Should we return, and I have to say we probably will, it’ll be to visit the green areas on the map – and Oruro one more time.

P.P.S. Jared’s Book Corner

There’s not a lot of Bolivian literature available in English translation. However, there is American Visa, a gripping crime novel from the mid-1990s about a down-on-his-luck Bolivian teacher who will do whatever it takes to escape his native country and get to the United States. Check out my full review on Goodreads.

Jared’s Top Ten Things To Do In La Paz

La Paz is a big city. So were Quito and Lima, but the geography of La Paz never lets you forget it. No matter where you are, you’re either at the bottom of the valley looking up at cliffs carpeted in buildings, or you’re on one of those cliffs looking down at the entirety of the metropolis.

That’s a lot of city.

La Paz sits in a valley in the Andean Plateau formed ten million years ago when the rising mountains cut what would become Lake Titicaca off from the rest of the Pacific, causing it to erode a huge swath of real estate as it drained. The city started life in the bottom of the valley, but now fills it and spills out over the rim.

La Paz is a fun, colorful city where something’s always going on. If you’re bored, you’re doing something wrong. Lea and I spent a week in La Paz (mas o menos). Here’s what I recommend based on our experience.

  1. Lots of Cardio

This is going to happen whether you want it or not, so just make it part of your plan. With the sole exception of several blocks along Calle Illampu, I never saw a single level street in the city. Imagine if you scooped up another South American city, dumped it in the mountains of West Virginia, then levitated it to the height of the lower Himalayas, and you’ve got La Paz. Being at high altitude already increases your heart rate. In La Paz, walking one block up the street is like doing five minutes on a Stairmaster. Why even pay for a gym membership when you could just move here?

You can always sit in traffic, but where’s the fun in that?
  1. Get Haircuts In Spanish

I’d already done this in Quito but it was Lea’s first time. The lady in Ecuador cut my hair so short that I was able to go two whole months before getting it cut again. Even so, my top had only just reached its normal length, but the back was slowly turning into a mullet. Lea had hers cut just before we left Atlanta, but it had reached the point where she couldn’t ignore it any longer. Fortunately, our hostel is right next to a row of about twenty barber shops. Guys stand in the doorways calling out to people walking by, as if a haircut is ever an impulse purchase.

Seriously, though, this is an experience everyone should try at least once. Find a barber or hairstylist with whom you only share a handful of words in common and try and explain in pantomime how you would like your hair to look for the next six weeks. Charades was never this fun.

In the end, Lea rated her haircut as “close enough.” My barber gave me something like  flattop with lots of gel (that I wasn’t expecting) and gave my beard and mustache the best trim they’ve ever had.

  1. Shop Your Touristy Heart Out in the Mercado de Brujas

The heart of the backpacker/tourist district of La Paz is Calle Sagarnaga, where there are hostels and travel agencies galore (as well as, if I may say so, an excellent Mexican restaurant called Kalakitas and a damn fine Cuban place called Sabor Cubano). The block between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz, along Calle Linares and an adjoining alley, is the Witch’s Market (Mercado de Brujas). This is the souvenir-shop center of the city’s tourist industry.

This way to mojitos and/or death.

The whole street smells of incense even after the shops close. About a quarter of the stores sell “witchy” items like herbal remedies, sex-aid potions, Tiwanakan totems, and mummified baby llamas (seriously) but the rest sell regular Andean souvenirs: T-shirts, bags, rugs, wall hangings, and about everything imaginable made out of llama or alpaca wool. Lea and I have avoided buying souvenirs so far, but knowing Bolivia was the least expensive place on the continent we finally broke down. If you happen to get a Christmas present shipped to you from South America this year, the Mercado de Brujas is probably where it came from.

Bless and/or curse your friends and loved ones.
  1. Ride the Teleférico While Commuters Look at You Strangely

Several times on this trip we’ve ridden teleféricos (aerial gondolas) in other countries. In Quito there was the one up the side of the Pichincha Volcano, as well as the open-air cable car across the waterfall gorge in Mindo. In Peru there was the spanking-new teleférico that took us up to Kuélap, the ancient walled city outside of Chachapoyas. Those were all tourist attractions. The teleféricos in La Paz, however, are actual public transportation.

This beats any subway I’ve ridden.

That didn’t stop us from being geeky tourists. There are at least seven color-coded teleférico lines in La Paz serving as a sky-borne subway system. We rode the Orange Line, which goes east-to-west across the north part of the city, and the Red Line, which rises from the valley floor to El Alto, La Paz’s high suburb on the rim of the valley and home to a five-square-kilometer street market on Sundays. Except for our first ride on the Orange, in which we had a car to ourselves, we shared our gondolas with regular commuters minding their own business and ignoring the silly gringos taking photos through the scratched-up plexiglass.

Made it to the top!
  1. Witness the Warping of Spacetime In Mercado Lanza

At the bottom of Santa Cruz and Sagarnaga, about two blocks from our hostel, was the Plaza San Francisco and its big shopping center, Mercado Lanza. All cities in South America have mercados with crowded walkways between tiny stalls the size of walk-in closets. Most mercados are single story affairs. Mercado Lanza is another beast altogether.

Looks harmless enough…

From the outside it looks like a box. From the inside it looks like a car park designed by M.C. Escher in a particularly vindictive mood. The stalls are metal boxes on concrete ramps that shoot off in every conceivable direction: bookstores, vegetable stands, flower shops, and even restaurants that can sit up to eight people if they really like each other. Lea took me there on my first day in town, and the first words that went through my brain were “five dimensional hypercube.”

Hey, you got your transdimensional physics in my shopping mall!

What really blows my mind is that no matter which level you’re on in the mercado, there’s an exit directly to the street. How that works I’m not sure. I just enjoyed my Bs15 ($2) dinner and tried not to think about the geometry of the space. That way madness lies.

I swear they twisted a flea market into an infinite Mobius loop.
  1. Visit Enough Museums to Become an Exhibit Yourself

You’d think we’d be sick of museums by this point and you’d be right, but La Paz has a depth and breadth of museums to keep even jaded three-month travelers like ourselves entertained. The only problem is having to climb mountains to reach them. That and the fact that they like to close at lunch and not re-open until late in the afternoon.

San Francisco Church & Museum

Lea checked out the Precious Metals Museum and the Museo de San Francisco before I arrived. Together we went to the National Museum of Art and the Museum of Ethnography & Folklore, both of which have impressive collections. The latter has an entire room of masks, a room of metalwork (both ancient and contemporary), and a room of clothing and hats made of plumage.

National Archaeology Museum

We later went to the National Archaeology Museum (also known as the Tiwanaku Museum) and tried to go to the Contemporary Art Museum (in a building designed by Gustave Eiffel of all people) only to find that it had been shut down. Wandering around, we saw a Museum of Geology and Paleontology that wasn’t marked on any of the maps, but didn’t get to go because of the aforementioned funky hours and an afternoon thunderstorm.

An alabaster fountain at the National Museum of Art.

We did not go to the Coca Museum, the Museum of Bolivian Beverages, or the Museum of Musical Instruments, but all those things are out there if you happen to be in town and feel so inclined. I’m convinced there’s a limit to how many museums you can visit in so many cities before they invite you into a glass case of your very own and lock the door behind you.

  1. See Where Bolivianos Go When They Die

As is our habit, Lea and I visited La Paz’s biggest cemetery. The Cementerio General was actually the easiest place in town to find, since half the buses list “Cementerio” prominently as one of their destinations.

The cemetery in La Paz is big and does not waste space. There are no individual “graves” as we would think of in the U.S. and very few large family monuments. The Cementerio General is a massive apartment complex of a graveyard, including several structures that I could only think of as high-rise housing projects for the dead. The “streets” within are better marked than those in the city itself.

We visited the cemetery as they were getting it ready for Todos Santos. Artists had been creating large, creative, beautiful, and funny murals throughout the complex. It’s too bad that we’re going to miss all the excitement. Day of the Dead may not be as big in South America as it is in Mexico, but La Paz as a city seems to be really into Halloween. The Cementerio General may not be the prettiest cemetery Lea and I have visited, but thanks to it’s current artwork I’d say it’s definitely the most “gangsta.”

  1. Tour the City In an Open Bus While Ducking Tree Limbs and Power Lines

La Paz is too big to see just by walking. Luckily there is an open-top double-decker tour bus that runs three times each day. It costs Bs100 ($14.50) per person and has audio that you can listen to in seven languages. The tour runs from the north end of town through the historic center, up to the panoramic Mirador Killi Killi with its 360° view of the city, then south through the middle class Miraflores neighborhood and finally out the bottom to the Valley of the Moon and its eroded rock formations.

Enjoy this city tour at your own risk.

A few words of warning about the tour: First, the bus is fairly tall and the crazy bundles of power lines strung across La Paz’s narrow streets are fairly low. The tour guide told us not to stand up and that’s the best piece of advice I got all week. Otherwise I’d have been clotheslined by an electrical cable and Lea would have collected on my life insurance. Even staying in my seat, I had to duck more than once.

Just saying…

The same goes for trees, which the bus is not low enough to clear. I only got smacked in the head one time, but there were several close shaves. The other problem is that the bus’s shock absorbers aren’t what they could be and La Paz’s streets aren’t that smooth to begin with. I learned to take what pictures I could while the bus was stopped. To do so with the bus in motion would have resulted in having a camera shoved up my nose.

Lea and me at the top of La Paz.
Formations at the Valley of the Moon.
  1. Try To Take Pictures of the Surrounding Mountains

Speaking of photography, if there is one challenge that is both maddening and irresistible it’s trying to take pictures of the snow-capped mountains that circle La Paz’s valley, of which the giant volcano Illimani is the crown jewel. In the city itself they’re usually obscured by the buildings or the rim of the valley. If you do get high enough to see them, they’re often shrouded in cloud.

Attempt One: We read in the Footprint South American Handbook (that we chopped up to carry with us and discard in pieces as we leave each country), that there was a great view of Illimani at sunset if we walked up Calle Max Paredes, dodging homicidal bus drivers and edging around market stalls, up to the intersection with Avenida Buenos Aires. What the book failed to mention was that when we got to Buenos Aires all we had to do was turn around to see the mountain. We walked up and down several blocks looking for this supposed “view” until we gave up and headed back– only then to see the mountain right in front of us, all its glory blocked from photographic perfection by the hundreds of power lines strung across the street.

Mountains north of La Paz, seen from the Cementerio General.

Attempt Two: While walking around the Cementerio General, I happened to look down one of the alleys to see – snow capped mountains! I started looking for the best unobstructed angle and eventually  decided to climb the stairs to the top floor of one of those “high rise” mortuaries I mentioned. Several of the mountains were in easy reach of my telephoto lens, although it was hard to keep trees, roofs, and other structures out of the frame.

Attempt Three: The Cementerio General, as it turns out, was right next to a station for the Red teleférico line. Instead of heading home by bus, we walked around the corner to the gondolas. On the way down we had a fantastic view of Illimani, blocked by the grill of the gondola doors. Once we reached the bottom, we bought two more tickets to ride back up, this time with the doors facing north and the large bay window facing the mountain. At last we got our shots of Illimani! At the upper station we had to buy two more tickets to get home. The attendants gave us funny looks, seeing as we’d gone through their turnstiles three times in ten minutes.

Illimani Volcano, seen from the Red Teleferico.
  1. Watch the Flying Cholitas Kick Ass

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If you’re in La Paz on a Sunday, there is one thing you absolutely have to do. If you’re just passing through, miss your bus or skip your flight so you can hang around and see this.

Traditional Bolivian battle attire…
…and not quite traditional.

The Flying Cholitas are women wrestlers who fight in full traditional outfits. They perform in El Alto on the rim of the canyon in a back-alley gymnasium that has the feel of an underground Fight Club. It takes place around and after dark in one of the sketchier areas of town, so booking a tour through an agency is recommended.

Egging on the crowd.

The show is up-close, intimate, and spectacular. It begins with some regular male luchadores to warm up the crowd, but when the ladies come out it’s Game On. They throw each other into and out of the ring, they chase their opponents into the stands, they go after the announcers if they don’t like what they hear. They’ll beat each other with plastic water bottles (with the effect of soaking any spectators nearby, such as your humble author). Once they tied one of their opponents to the ropes with her own braids before laying the beat-down.

The Flying Cholita mid-air tackle.
The good old boot to the neck.

Cheesy? A little. Hilarious? Absolutely. Surreal? You better believe it. But it sure as hell beats following a gaggle of tourists taking selfies in front of ancient monuments. Anyone taking a selfie in front of the Flying Cholitas would probably be rewarded with a metal folding chair to the head.

The Escape Hatch will be going dark as Lea and I head out into the salty Bolivian desert. I’m confident that when I report back, the photos will be worth the wait.

Stay tuned, dear readers.

The Highest Quiet Little Town In the World

I have a confession to make. I was really reluctant to go to Bolivia. As a matter of fact I almost didn’t. When we first started planning this trip, Bolivia was on my list of “don’t need to go there” countries. Also in the planning stages, Lea and I discussed the idea of splitting up at some point and traveling independently for a week or two. When that came up, the obvious choice in my mind was for Lea to head out to the Bolivian salt flats while I made my way down the Pacific coast to some nice little beach town in Chile.

Instead, how about a nice little beach town in the High Andes?

Why the prejudice against Bolivia? In all honesty I had it built up in my mind as an impoverished slum of a country much like Tanzania, which Lea and I visited in 2012. Tanzania was a mix of staggering natural beauty and horrifying poverty, and even for travelers living conditions there were far below anything I ever wanted to experience again. Knowing that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America (except for Venezuela, which is in total economic collapse), I expected much the same.

I’ve never been happier to have been so wrong. Wow, do I love Bolivia.

Copacabana on a sunny day.

I’m writing from a hostel in the heart of La Paz, but this week I just want to talk about the little resort town on Lake Titicaca that completely changed my mind: Copacabana.

We bused into Copacabana from Puno, the main Peruvian city on the lake. The difference was staggering. Puno was bigger and more westernized, also with a big tourist sector, but like many of the cities we visited in Peru it looked like a giant garbage heap. In Copacabana, suddenly everything was pretty and not just the landscape. Yes, the buildings were dilapidated and under continual repair, but suddenly they were in color. Vibrant blues, greens, and orange-painted walls were everywhere. The main church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, is a blazing white with glistening green and orange tile work on the spires and Moorish-style domes.

The Basilica stands out in the center of town.

What I’m trying to say is that yes, Bolivia is poor, but the people here make an effort. My first impression of the country is that Bolivianos take pride in where they live and despite the hardships they do what they can to put their best foot forward. I know I may be an arrogant, spoiled American talking out of his ass about things whereof I understand very little, but I’m here to tell you that crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia was like stepping from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.

Start to finish, this mural went up in less than eight hours.
Even the stray dogs just want to chill.

And Copacabana is so laid back. It’s a tourist town for sure, but it’s not a pushy tourist town. There are hostels, restaurants, and travel agencies everywhere, but no one’s chasing you down the street to make you shop at their store. It’s possible to just sit on a bench and stare at Lake Titicaca in peace and quiet for as long as you’d like. For just a few dollars more, you can do the same from the roof of a backpacker’s bar while sipping 2-for-1 Cuba Libres.

Sitting on the dock of the bay…
…complete with paddle swans.

(It was in Copacabana that I feel we really caught up with the Backpackers. In Peru we were among more traditional “two week package with luxury accommodations” tourists.)

The only trouble with Copacabana is that it’s so damn high. The elevation is 3,841 meters and the tourist maps don’t stop reminding you that Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world. That’s fantastic, unless you’re in your mid-to-upper forties and your body is already showing signs of wear and tear from extended travel. After a week at this elevation (counting the time in Puno) Lea went ahead and traveled “down” to La Paz (highest capital city in the world). Like a dork I stayed behind for two days to do a couple of hikes – because 3,841m just wasn’t high enough.

The first was to climb this thing:

Cerro Calvario is the hill that overlooks the city. On its peak is a series of monuments representing the Stations of the Cross. From below it was obvious that the views from on top were spectacular. And since the trail starts right in the middle of town, I thought “won’t be too hard, just bring some water and take it slow.”

Abandon hope ye who enter here.

It took me about an hour to reach the top. The steps and ramps on the path up were wildly uneven and it was all I could do to sit and breathe when I reached the summit. The views were fantastic, however, as you can see from all the aerial shots in this article. Having reached the top, I made sure and stayed as long as I wanted. The way down, though less taxing on the lungs, was far scarier. Once I exited the path from the hilltop, there were three choices of streets back to the center of town. I chose the shortest, but it ended up being so steep and slippery that halfway down I turned around and climbed back up so I could take a longer, gentler route.

At the summit.
This cat was waiting to claim my soul if I passed out and died at the top.

The next day I rode the ferry out to Isla del Sol, which according to myth is the birthplace of the Inca. Every square foot of the island is terraced and I swear they call it “Island of the Sun” because there isn’t any shade. At present there’s a feud between the people on the south side of the island and the north (something to do with the northerners allowing development on sacred ground) so only the south end is currently accessible to the casual hiker.

I did *not* take a paddle-swan to Isla del Sol.

Nevertheless, I took the boat to the village of Yumani, climbed the Inca Stairs, and walked the long donkey trail to the south tip of the island, then back up (and down) to Templo Pilkokaima, the main archaeological site on the southern end. I had five hours from when the ferry dropped me off in the morning until it went back to Copacabana in the afternoon, and I needed almost all of that for the hike.

The Inca Steps begin here…
…and end here.
Isla del Sol from the southern tip.
The road block for this episode of The Amazing Race.
Woman and alpaca.
Templo Pilkokaima.
Pueblo Yumani.

Despite hiking my body right up to the limits of its endurance two days in a row, I felt more relaxed in Copacabana than I had anywhere else on our South American trip since Mindo, Ecuador (another peaceful backpacker haven – I see a pattern forming). Still, there was a lot of continent left and it was time to move on.

Fun fact: Copacabana is on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Titicaca and, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, does not connect to the rest of Bolivia except through Peru. Since border crossings are a pain, the buses ferry across Lake Titicaca to get to the road to La Paz. Thankfully, they make the passengers disembark and cross on a separate ferry. Otherwise, we’d have been going across the water like this:

I kept telling myself, “They do this every day.”

The Escape Hatch will return in just three days for a special La Paz report before I lose the Internet entirely in the wild Bolivian desert. ¡Hasta pronto!

Peru In Ruins: Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lago Titicaca

It’s official: Machu Picchu is the most beautiful tourist trap in the world. Make no mistake, Machu Picchu and its surrounding landscapes are breathtaking. So is the cost of getting there, staying in a hotel, and eating a meal. Here’s an example: Anywhere else in Peru, $12 will get you an eight-hour bus ride from one city to another. In Machu Picchu, $12 is what it costs to ride the bus up the mountain to the site, and another $12 is what it costs to ride back down.

But it looks just like the postcards, only better.

Supply and demand, baby. You’re a captive audience and everyone knows it. The process to get entry tickets and train reservations is so bureaucratic and byzantine that I’m going to have to write a whole post just to give people instructions on how to do it.

The mountains seen from Machu Picchu are just… wow.

In the dark, ignorant days of the 20th Century, we were taught that the Middle East’s “fertile crescent” was the Cradle of Civilization. The truth is that there were at least five cradles where civilization emerged on its own without any prompting from outside influence. One of these was the Peruvian Andes, which is why you can’t fall down a flight of stairs in this country without landing on some archaeological remnant of a bygone era.

The upside of that is that if you’re interested in history, then wherever you go in Peru there’s something unique to see. The downside is that is that you feel pressured to visit historical site after historical site as you travel around the country. I mean, how do you choose which ancient civilization to skip? Because there’s so much history to see in Peru (and little else that doesn’t involve adventure sports) we’ve kind of rushed our way through the country. We budgeted six weeks for Peru, but instead we’ve sped through it in four.

Cusco: Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, and Starbucks

I’ve covered our visits to several of the big tourist sites in previous articles. Once we hit the Cusco area, though, we were suddenly in the Inca heartland, a.k.a. Tourist Central. Those of us brought up in the American education system probably think of the Incas as the dominant civilization of South America, but in fact they were merely the short-lived final stage of pre-Columbian Andean culture before the Spanish arrived. The Inca Empire only lasted for about a century. They conquered all the other Andean peoples, imposed their own culture on top of the others, then the Spanish appeared and convinced some of the Inca’s subjects to rise up and… you know the rest.

I guess it wasn’t just the Spanish who moved in.

Cusco was the Inca capitol, and it looks like the Spanish bulldozed the city and replaced it with a little bit of home. There are colonial Spanish churches, monasteries, and architecture everywhere. Unlike other cities in Peru, the roofs of the houses are pitched, not flat, and covered in terracotta tile, giving Cusco a distinctly European flavor. It’s only when you wander down the streets of souvenir shops leading to the central plaza and look at the stonework that you notice the bones of the old Inca city on which modern Cusco was built.

Inca stonework in Cusco.

Inca stonemasons built walls by fitting stones together so perfectly that no mortar was needed. They didn’t square them; they just polished them somehow (it’s still up to debate) so that their walls were seamless. They saying is that the stones fit so perfectly that you can’t slip a dollar bill between them.

The stonework in Machu Picchu isn’t as amazing as in Cusco except for the fact that it’s at the top of a damn mountain. This site was never discovered by the Spanish and was unknown to Americans and Europeans until its “scientific discovery” by Hiram Bingham in 1911. (The locals knew about it, of course, and there’s evidence that it may have been stumbled upon by German explorers as early as 1867.) The site has been cleared of vegetation and is now open to thousands upon thousands of tourists every day.

How better to appreciate this ancient site than by completely blocking the view?

My advice: get there early and get through quick. The buses start up the mountain at 6:30 and do not stop. Floods of people will arrive behind you, and apparently the main reason they’re there is to take selfies. If you’re interested in seeing the site itself, you’ll constantly be craning you neck over one tour group or another, or some teenager doing fashion poses for her boyfriend, or a mass of senior citizens with their walking canes and selfie sticks. I kid you not – there was one group of elderly tourists following us around who for some reason were dressed just like Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange.

“Out for a bit of the old ultraviolence.”

Our final stop in Peru was the city of Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Puno is at the highest elevation we’re going to be on our trip through South America (unless we get to see the Flying Cholitas on the outskirts of La Paz) and we’ve had a hard time breathing given the lack of oxygen. We didn’t go see any ruins, but we did ride out to the floating islands of the Uros people who live on the lake.

Reed islands and wicker boats.

The Uros are a very old culture who now live mainly off the tourists who visit their islands. The islands, made from reeds and mud, float on the surface of the lake and each houses four to five families. There were 87 islands in the community we visited. Some were mainly residential while others were geared for the tourist trade with reed hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The Uros aren’t entirely without modern conveniences – the first island we visited had solar cells to run electricity to the huts.

The Uros.

Peru has been both beautiful and taxing. It’s too modern to think of as a “developing country” but in many ways it seems to be lagging. We’ve stayed places with wide-screen televisions in every room, but no heating and unreliable water. We’ve gone to big-box stores cloned from (and cleaner than) any American Wal-Mart, but you can’t find a pair of sunglasses or more than one size of Band-Aid to save your life. And don’t get me started on the lack of garbage cans.

Next stop, Copacabana (Bolivia, not the one from the Barry Manilow song). Pretty soon there will be salt flats, the Island of the Sun, and Flying Cholitas.

Things I Forgot to Mention

Parades Everywhere!

Waaay back in Chiclayo I mentioned that one of the things we saw in our mere eight hours there was a random street parade. At the time, we thought it a lucky happenstance. Then there was a 6:00 a.m. procession in Chachapoyas, two days of parades near the university in Trujillo, a parade in the Callao district of Lima, a Festival of the Saints parade in Cusco, and nighttime and daytime parades in Puno, including one to celebrate the anniversary the city’s hospital. Apparently Peruvians will throw a parade at the drop of a hat. Our hostel in Puno was so close to the goings-on that it was like booking a room in the French Quarter without realizing it was Mardi Gras.

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Not Just Any Old Last Supper

In both the Convento de San Francisco in Lima and the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin in Cusco, there are paintings of the Last Supper. These aren’t copies of the Da Vinci Last Supper. The one in Lima is, shall we say, crowded. Apparently Jesus and his Disciples had quite a large wait staff for the event and the meal included South American staples such as chili peppers. In Cusco, the main dish served at the Last Supper was roasted guinea pig. We weren’t allowed to take photos and the painting in Cusco was policed rather heavily, so I’m just going to post these pictures I stole off the Internet and a video from John Cleese and Eric Idle that puts things into perspective.

The Last Supper, fully catered
The Last Supper with Guinea Pig

My Recommended Read for Peru

One thing I’m doing is reading a novel by an author from each country we visit. I completely forgot to update you guys on my book for Peru: Death in the Andes by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s the story of a Peruvian policeman investigating a series of disappearances in a remote village of the Andes, during the height of the communist terrorist organization Shining Path’s reign of terror. It has the structure of a murder mystery with the tension of a horror novel. Read my full review here.

 

 

That’s All, Folks!

For those interested, here is the map of our trip through Peru and a picture of Lea with a llama. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be checking in from La Paz.

Nazca: Graffiti of the Gods

When doing research for this trip, Lea found a long-term travel course on the website BootsnAll which suggested that instead of planning a rigid itinerary, one should pick “pillars” for the trip – stops along the way that you know you’re going to hit no matter what. If we were going to Peru then the biggest pillar for me, perhaps even more so than Machu Picchu, was going to see the Nazca Lines.

The Hummingbird.

The Nazca Lines fascinated me all the way back to my school days in the 70s, when UFOlogy and pseudoarchaeology were going through a revival. Even then I never bought the “runways for flying saucers” theory, but the lines were there in the desert, laid out so that they can only be seen from above, by a people without the technology to view their own works of art.

The Condor.

So imagine my surprise when, on the day Lea and I were trekking to the Nazca airport in order to catch a flight and see the lines with our own eyes, I wasn’t even a little excited about it. When I realized this, it bothered me a great deal. What was wrong with me? This was one of the things I’d most wanted to see on this trip. Why was I in such a funk?

The Pan-American Highway ran right through the Lizard, which was unknown at the time.

Lea pointed out the obvious: we’ve been doing some hard, hard traveling ever since we left Loja. The distances are longer, the cities are more confusing. The learning curve for Peru is steep, and it seems to reset itself with each new city we visit. We’d just followed up a seven-hour bus ride and late night arrival by getting lost trying to find the place we were staying. I’d had food poisoning once already (and little did I know would get it again later that very day).

The Monkey and geometric pattern. Except where his tail is partially washed out, it’s all one line.

But thank Apu and the other gods of the Peruvian desert, all my dreariness fell away once I climbed into an eight-seat “flying ceiling fan” of an airplane, took off, and saw the outline of a giant whale sketched in the desert, crisscrossed with perfect geometric lines that had been there for two thousand years.

My very first geoglyph.

(Side Note: After viewing the Lines, you should attend the planetarium show at Nazca’s DM Hotel. The cost is S/.20 per person, with shows in French, English, and Spanish. It goes in depth about the possible astronomical significance of the Lines as well as their relationship to nearby sources of water. It also talks about Maria Reiche, the German scientist who devoted her life to studying and preserving the Lines, and who once lived at the hotel that now houses the planetarium. If the sky is clear, the planetarium operator will point out the southern constellations and show different celestial objects through a telescope.)

Speaking of Apu, see that thing behind the Andes that looks like a giant sand dune? It’s a giant sand dune – Cerro Blanco, the Everest of dunes, 2078 meters high.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I left off last week we were still in Lima, though we had moved from the slightly shady port district of Callao to the Centro Historico. This gave us time to wander around the Plaza San Martin, the Plaza de Armas, the Basílica de San Francisco (with museum and catacombs), watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace, visit the excellent Museum of Peruvian Art, and eat a bucket of Norky’s Fried Chicken.

The fountain in Lima’s central plaza.
Catedral de Lima.
The Presidential Palace in pink at night.
These boots are made for walking.
The Archbishop’s Palace.
Not the Archbishop.

We also went to Lima’s Chinatown, which had plenty of Chinese shops, iconography, restaurants, and not a single Chinese person that we could identify.

Yeah, right.

After a week in one place, the longest we’d stayed anywhere since Quito, it was time to move on. We took the afternoon bus to Nazca and took a chance on our accommodations. So far, aside from the two-week homestay that was part of our Spanish class in Quito and our one night at a posh resort in Papallacta, we’d made nearly all of our reservations at various backpackers’ hostels through Booking.com.

We’ve also been using the website Couchsurfing.com to meet people in various cities, just so we could have human conversations that aren’t business transactions. The results have been hit-or-miss: we’ve met some fantastic people who we’d love to stay in touch with and see again, but we’ve been stood up completely twice so far. The main deal with Couchsurfing, though, is that it lets you connect with people who will let you stay in their homes. We hadn’t bit that bullet yet, and one strange guy we met in Trujillo nearly scared us away from the idea. In Nazca we went for it, and we’re glad that we did.

Our host was Hendrie. (Hi, Hendrie!) Hendrie was awesome. He put us up in his house, told us where to get the best seafood in town, haggled with a tour operator to get us a deal on an adventure excursion, and even walked us to the bus station when it was finally time for us to leave. Remember when I said that the learning curve in Peru is steep? If you can get in touch with a guy as generous as Hendrie, everything becomes so much simpler. Experiences like this are why Lea and I plan to host travelers ourselves once we get back to the States.

Lea, me, and Hendrie.

Now about that adventure tour…

There are several archaeological sites around Nazca in addition to the Lines. We didn’t want to miss out, and a tour would hit several of them at once. Hendrie told us that the tours leave at 2:00 p.m. and if you get there a half hour before you can usually get a discount as they try to fill empty seats. We got one that was going to visit four locations, but we didn’t fully understand at the time what we were signing up for.

Our ride.

We went with a large group of Tahitians in taxis to the edge of town, where two dune buggies were waiting for us. (Say what?) The dune buggies took us off-road on bumpy trails to visit the Nazca aqueducts, an ancient burial site that had been looted by grave robbers (leaving the bones to bake in the sun), and the pyramid complex at Cahuachi.

An ancient Nazca aqueduct, still operational.
Dem bones.
Cahuachi.

Then our drivers took us out into the dunes. “So the dunes are the fourth location?” we wondered. “They’re certainly pretty. I wish they would stop so we could take some pictures.”

That wasn’t the plan. The drivers did stop, but only to let some air out of the tires for better traction. We climbed to a high ridge with our buggy looking out over a pretty damn steep abyss of sand. Lea and I realized what was about to happen when we saw the other dune buggy zip down the cliff.

“No. No no no. No no no no no….”

The other passengers let out a roller coaster scream as our buggy shot over the edge, down the valley, and up the other side. And again. And again. And again. After the third plummet I stopped shouting “No” and just accepted the fact that our buggy was going to roll and we were all going to die.

So here I am, reincarnated as a llama, typing my final blog entry before the farmer comes to shear my wool.

Well, it might have ended that way. Llamas don’t do stupid things like sign up for dune buggy excursions without realizing that if they stick you in a dune buggy it’s for one reason only. As it is, we survived (though our two buggies spent a bit of time helping a third get unstuck from the sand). By the time we headed back for Nazca the sun had set and we barreled along bumpy off-road roads with only the vaguest bit of faith that our driver knew where he was going.

We got back to town in plenty of time to pick up our luggage, say goodbye to Hendrie, eat a dinner of cow’s tongue spaghetti from a street vendor, and get on a fourteen-hour night bus for Cuzco.

With a pound of sand still in our hair, eyes, ears, and teeth.

Trujillo to Lima – ¿Vale la Pena?

It’s been two months since we left on our voyage. Back then, I put up a snarky post in answer to the people who thought we’d lost our minds. Recently though, I’ve had doubts about my ability to hang in there and see the journey through. The last thing I want to do is quit, go back to the U.S., and get a soul-crushing job. On the other hand I have to ask if I’m still enjoying the experience or if I’m sticking it out for the sake of stubbornness.

The thing is, there’s so much left I want to do. Machu Picchu is so close (relativey speaking). I want to see the Bolivian salt flats and the stars from the Atacama Desert. I want to swim in a pool big enough to see from orbit. I want to spend the longest day of the year in Tierra del Fuego. I want to bask on the beach in Uruguay. And I want to write stories, novels, and finish this blog, dammit.

The spirits of my ancestors agree.

The problem may be that Ecuador was easy from a travel standpoint. Peru, on the other hand, is hard. You wouldn’t think there’d be this much culture shock crossing a simple border – not like walking from Israel to Jordan and back last year, for instance. But I’m telling you, Peru just makes everything difficult.

Por ejemplo, Quito was nice enough to upload their metropolitan bus routes into Google. Lima, whose routes are much more confusing, did not. Everywhere else, the buses have their major stops printed in the front window so you can tell where they’re going as they approach. In Lima, the destinations are printed on the side, so you can’t tell if it’s the right bus to flag down until it’s already passed you by.

See?

And it’s the little things, like the lack of hot running water (probably true everywhere in S.A.) that makes it impossible to really clean pots, plates, and silverware. It’s the fact that we booked an apartment with a kitchen that it turns out has no pots, and no bowls, and a single skillet so small you can only fry one egg at a time. It’s the fact that getting around has become a logistical nightmare.

Lima is a labyrinth with streets that weave and split and merge in horrific traffic scrums. Our home town of Atlanta recently made a list of top ten cities with the worst traffic in the world. I can only assume Lima wasn’t counted because the analysts they sent here are still stuck in gridlock.

The spirits of my ancestors laugh at my feeble attempts to get from one side of town to the other.

One point in Lima’s favor: So far all the places we’ve visited have been overrun with dogs. Lima is full of cats.

I’m typing this from a fourth-floor studio apartment near the historic city center. Someone somewhere in the building has been playing (and badly singing along to) the exact same song over and over again for hours. We spent the last four nights in a very nice hostel in a sketchy part of town, but we haven’t had a chance to explore the museums, cathedrals, and other historic sites. Plus, we need a week off from long-haul bus trips.

Trujillo at night.

We came here from Trujillo, a much more sane (in my mind) city that wasn’t too hard to navigate. Trujillo sits right between the ancient capital cities of the Chimu and Moche cultures, each of which is entirely different from the other, and both are very different from the civilizations up in the Andes. The diversity in art and architecture styles is astounding.

Carvings on the walls of Chan Chan.
More of Chan Chan with a design that is probably a seabird, but all I see is “sideways rabbit on a pyramid.”
The face of the mountain god at Huaca de la Luna, Moche.
The uncovered exterior of Huaca de la Luna, original paint still intact.

Truth be told though, Lea and I are getting ruined-out. Archaeology is one of the main draws for Peru, to be sure, but we’ve been visiting archaeological sites and museums several times a week for a month, and the ceramics are bleeding into each other at this point. We’ve made reservations for Machu Picchu – a logistical nightmare in itself – but after that we may have to put a moratorium on visiting anything not built in the last hundred years. After all, South America’s got to have something else to offer, right?

Actually, yes.

(Side note to email subscribers: click here to watch the video.)

That is the Peruvian Paso, a horse breed known for its smooth ride and silly walk. The horse show in Trujillo is not to be missed if you’re down there. The program is normally in Spanish, but we happened to crash the party on a day that a Holland America cruise ship booked the event for its English-speaking passengers. We got to enjoy the show, but las turistas from the cruise ship were treated to empanadas and pisco sours. (emoji angry face)

In Lima we’ve spent four days learning how to get around the city, how vitally important it is to ask the bus conductor whether it goes to the stop you need even if it’s listed on the bus itself, and to just accept that you’ll probably have to walk five blocks at the end of your ride in any case. We went all the way out to La Punta, the tip of Lima’s harbor that juts out into the Pacific, in search of an excursion company – to no avail; one was closed and the other’s office wasn’t open to the public. On another day we went all the way to Miraflores (the part of Lima where the rich people live) to buy our train tickets to Machu Picchu – to no avail; the office only accepted credit cards, which we prefer not to carry.

Each of those trips took far, far longer than any bus ride should. The trip from Callao to Miraflores was an hour and a half each way. On the way back, we discovered that Lima must be South America’s Las Vegas from the sheer number of cheesy casinos we passed. All was not lost, though. We were able to sort out the Machu Picchu reservations online (though we still need to find somewhere to print our tickets) and after twelve back-and-forth emails with the excursion company we were able to set sail for Palomino Island to swim with the sea lions!

The technical name for a large group of sea lions is a “poopberg.”

Isla Palomino is a small rock off the coast that is home to a large sea lion colony. It’s an hour and a half by boat from Lima’s harbor, around the large Isla San Lorenzo and the smaller El Frontón with its spectacular swarms of seabirds. The tour’s promotional material shows happy swimmers smiling in the sun surrounded by inquisitive lobos marinos. The truth, dear readers, is that in late September the Humboldt Current is still merrily turning this part of the tropics into an extension of Antarctica. It was cloudy, windy, and cold as Dante’s Inferno.

Didn’t matter. I squeezed into my wetsuit and flippers, pulled on my goggles and snorkel gear, jumped in the water, and headed for the sea lions.

Only a guide and one other passenger were brave enough to join me. The water was too murky for the goggles to do any good and the cold went right through my bones and came out the other side. And the smell – no BBC Planet Earth documentary can ever clue you in to the smell of that many animals in one place, doing all the things that animals do (in the water too). Still, I did it!

And that probably answers the question as to whether I’ve lost my mind.

Chachapoyas: Sneaking Into Peru Through the Back Door

If you look at any travel book on Peru, they all make the (logical) assumption that you’re going to fly into Lima or one of the other southern cities and work your way outward from there. There’s a reason for that. Coming into Peru from the north does not make a good impression.

There are three border crossings from Ecuador: one along the coast road, one through the mountains, and one in the jungle. The experts all agree that the mountain crossing at La Tina (near the Ecuadorean village of Macara) is the best option, and the Loja Internacional bus company runs a border-crossing route to the city of Piura. Our intended destination was the Andean town of Chachapoyas, but since there’s no straight way to get there we had to spend a night in Piura, catch a morning bus to the coastal city of Chiclayo, then take an eleven-hour overnight to our final destination.

“Imprisoned Man of Ayabaca” welcomed us into the country.

To call the cities of the north Peruvian desert unlovely is being generous. Deserts can be beautiful places, but not when there’s trash strewn everywhere. Blogger Jessica Groenendijk talks about this in detail in an article for Living in Peru. Basically, the closer you get to human habitation the more garbage you see strewn along the road, piled into empty lots, and mounded between buildings.

I’m talking whole trash bags left out to rot and be ripped open by the thousands of wild dogs roaming the area. When walking anywhere, you have to watch every step in order to avoid piles of trash and dog excrement. There’s no green space in these cities; everything is concrete, asphalt, and dirt, so there’s nowhere else for the dogs to go. Lea and I were only in the area for a few short days, but that was enough to put the northern Peruvian wastelands right up there between Texas and Tanzania on the list of places I never want to go again.

But enough about that. On to Chachapoyas!

Chachapoyas is an Andean town of about 20,000 people just on the Amazonian side of the mountains. It’s a launch point for excursions to many natural and archaeological sites, such as Kuélap (the other Machu Picchu). Kuélap was a mountain-top city built by the Chachapoyas, one of many civilizations who were swallowed by the Incas in the decades before the Spanish conquest. Until a few years ago, Kuélap was only accessible via a two-day hike up a pretty steep ravine. Now there’s an over-mountain cable car that will safely deposit you at a tourist landing 2km from the site, from which you can hike the rest of the way in.

The walls of Kuelap.

And see, here’s where tourist attractions in Peru differ from those in the U.S. and, honestly, many other countries we’ve visited. In the U.S., you can drive right up to the Grand Canyon, get out, and look. A few years ago, Lea and I drove all over Mt. Rainier, stopping for photos wherever we wanted, and hiking a few side-trails whenever the mood hit us. In Peru, though, you’ll bounce over miles of twisty, single-lane dirt roads until you finally have to stop, get out, and hike two to six kilometers (or more in some cases) to see whatever it is you came for.

And are the trails level? No siree, Bob. What’s the point of a mountain landscape if you don’t have to climb up and down and up and down for hours on end to appreciate it? Some of the sites have horses you can hire to ride part of the way, but that means the rest of us get to watch out for piles of horse crap instead of enjoying the scenic vistas.

Sigh.

Yes, I know Peruvians are acclimated to these kind of hikes and think nothing of it. I also know that all the cool stuff in the Andes is really inaccessible and that the country has done its best to open these sites up for the public to enjoy. But the fact that these sites are so inaccessible just proves that Andean cultures were bugnutz insane to begin with.

Hey, should we build our settlement in this nice, fertile river valley? No, let’s erect a giant city on the highest mountain we can find. If I understood our guide correctly, all of Kuélap’s water had to be carried up from the areas below. Well guess what, homeys? Your impregnable walled mountain city ain’t as defensible as you think if all I have to do is cut off your water supply and wait for your defenders to die of thirst.

The cliffside mausoleums of Revash.

Anyhow, the walk up to Kuélap wasn’t as bad as I’m making out, despite the altitude. The way down was scarier, what with the afternoon rain making the stepping stones slick with mud. The next day we rode even further out of town to see the Revash mausoleums (a much more difficult trek on foot from the visitors’ station) and the Leymebamba museum of Chachapoyas culture, featuring artifacts recovered from the burial sites at Revash and Laguna de los Condores, mock-ups of local sarcophagi, and a collection of actual mummies. I’ll say this for the Chachapoyas – they were masters of space-saving dead body storage techniques.

The afterlife is a little cramped.

Back in the town of Chachapoyas, we met up with an awesome guy named Leo who teaches business administration and English at the local university. Leo took us out for shots – Amazonian shots. We went to a bar called Licores la Reina where Leo ordered a sampler of twelve regional liquors which we had to sip and decide which we liked best. Most were derived from fruits available in the Amazon, but I actually liked the Leche and Cafe based liquors (much to my surprise). Lea and Leo settled on one called “Seven Roots” and ordered a small pitcher. I did not partake; that one was too woody for my tastes.

Speaking of tastes…

Eating on the Road

Oh my god, we need vegetables. After nearly two months in South America, Lea and I have been dying for vegetables, as well as anything that doesn’t fall under the heading of “typical local cuisine.” The food here isn’t completely lacking in variety, but it does suffer somewhat from what I call the “Morocco Problem.”

We spent two weeks in Morocco in 2015. Ever since, any time someone has suggested going out for Moroccan, we decline. Moroccan food has no variety whatsoever. Your choices are kabobs or tajine (a kind of stew). Your meat selections are chicken and kefta (minced beef or lamb), and sometimes only kefta. I don’t need to draw a chart to show how limiting that is, and how you might get sick of it after two weeks of nothing but. “Did these people learn nothing from the French?” I still ask when I think about that trip. Apparently they did not.

Anyway, Ecuadorean and Peruvian tipicos is like this: Your meal starts with soup, usually chicken or rice in chicken broth, often with bits of potato for good measure. Your main course is a pile of rice with a small cut of meat (chicken, flank steak, pork, guinea pig), more potatoes (often French fries), and a “salad” that is either a spoonful of coleslaw or perhaps a few slices of cucumber in vinegar.

Yes, we ate your pet. It was a little gamy.

We cook for ourselves when we can, but finding hostels with kitchens and refrigerators has been tricky. Finding something we can make into a meal is problematic as well. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Grocery stores in South America are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” In the markets there are plenty of fruits available (which the Ecuadoreans are heavily into juicing) but the vegetable selections are sparse.

We’ve often settled for jelly and butter sandwiches, or sprung for small packages of cheese and sandwich meat that we can use all at once and not have to refrigerate. The same for milk and cereal – it’s a nice break from the “bread roll with tea” breakfast that seems to be standard, so in Chachapoyas we improvised refrigeration by setting our milk carton in the bathroom window and leaving it open to the 50⁰ night air.

Every menu in every restaurant.

Our first cooking adventure was in the Galapagos. Our second hostel had a kitchen, albeit short on plates, bowls, pans, and utensils. The grocery stores were short on… a lot, actually. They had plenty of pasta, but nothing obvious in the way of sauce to go with it, not to mention usable cuts of meat. Sure, you can buy a whole dead chicken or half a cow or pig, but packaged cuts like you’d find in the U.S. aren’t really a thing.

On our first night we settled for noodles and butter, but the next time we improvised pasta primavera. Essentially, we bought any vegetable that looked good and used a packet of cream of asparagus soup for the sauce. I’m not sure what we ended up with, but it tasted good.

Pretty good, actually.

So far our cooking, when we can do it, has featured pasta heavily. When we see ingredients we might like in something, whether we’re going to use them soon or not, we grab them because we never know if we’ll see them again. This weekend we hit the jackpot when we came across peanut butter, packets of green curry, and a jar of cayenne. For protein, we’ve kept to tuna and eggs as they’re the easiest to deal with. We’ve gone vegetarian for a lot of our self-cooked meals because if we don’t serve ourselves veggies no one else will.

Our stash.

That is, until we crossed the “Chinese Restaurant Line.”

 

The point came when we just had to have something besides tipicos, bread for breakfast, and street food. We sprung for Domino’s near the end of our stay in Quito. We found a really good Lebanese restaurant hidden away in Puerto López. We ate Cuban in Guayaquil and lavished our praise on the owner. Once we got to Loja, though, Chinese restaurants started springing from the earth like toadstools.

 

To be clear, we’ve yet to see an actual Chinese person in any of these restaurants, and the food is even further from authentic Chinese cuisine than what you find in an Alabama Chinese buffet. Nevertheless, they serve vegetables. More vegetables than we’d seen in ages. We ate Chinese three nights in a row in Loja, and a Chinese restaurant was our first stop when we reached our current city of Trujillo. (More on Trujillo next week.)

Our hostess in Chachapoyas let us use her kitchen, so we concocted something like tuna casserole one night and pasta with vegetables and a mustardy pepper sauce the next. In Trujillo we have our own kitchen (albeit with what amounts to an electric camping stove) and we’ve had noodles with stir fry and soy sauce for three meals in a row. The last was extra good because of that cayenne I mentioned.

Buen provecho!

Yes, enjoying local cuisine is a vital part of travel and immersing in another culture. Sometimes, though, you just need a break. A long break. And a kitchen. And a bottle of hot sauce.

Loja, and a Word About Transportation

When last we met, dear readers, we were watching the whales in the waters off Puerto López. Puerto López, just so you know, is a dump of a town with a nice beach. In fact, we spent all of our non-whaling time in Puerto López sitting on the beach under a cabana, eating jelly sandwiches and street food, and generally not doin’ nothin’. From there we made our way to our final stop in Ecuador, the bustling mountain town of Loja.

I’m going to pause here for a special message to all my loyal subscribers who are following this blog via email. First, thank you! I hope you’re enjoying our adventures in South America, and I appreciate you all for coming along. Second, it has come to my attention that if you’re reading this in your email, you’re missing out on two things: the banner photo at the top of thepost and any videos I’ve embedded. I don’t know why WordPress won’t include those in the mailing, but you’ll want to see both for this article so feel free to click on through to the actual website for the full effect.

Ready? Ok.

The gate to the city.

Loja is a bustling and surprisingly affluent town in the southern Ecuadorian highlands. It’s pleasant enough during the day, but it’s really beautiful at night when all the historic buildings are lit up. Another great thing about Loja: although it’s surrounded by mountains, the central district is predominately flat, easy to walk, with a fairly simple north-south bus line on the central thoroughfare.

A river runs through it.

We spent five days in Loja before heading to Peru. Five days was good because I ended up being sick for some of it and a bus ride would have been miserable, but five days also felt a little long because there wasn’t quite as much to do around town as we’d thought from the guide books. The museums and churches went by quickly, and we never managed to get into the one we wanted to.

This one was nice, though.

From a religious perspective, this is the most significant time of year in Loja due to the presence of La Virgen del Cisne, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary that resides in the village of El Cisne but is moved to the Cathedral of Loja in early August, where she remains until the end of September. We tried several times to see her, but apparently there is always mass going on when she’s in residence and we didn’t want to be tacky and intrude with our big, stonkin’ tourist cameras.

While I was convalescing, Lea scoped out some cool murals.

The biggest natural attraction near Loja is Podocarpus National Park. Since it’s a lengthy taxi ride out of town and a really long walk from the ranger’s station up to where the trail heads begin, at first we didn’t think we would get to go. However, via Couchsurfing.com we met a couple of cool guys named Santiago and Darwin who offered to drive us up there and show us along the easiest (but still insanely steep) trail to the mirador over Loja valley.

Myself, Lea, Santiago, and Darwin at 9,500 feet above sea level.

Loja is also known as a center for the arts, and especially music, in Ecuador. On a recommendation from Santiago and Darwin, we spent our last evening at a concert at the Plaza de San Sebastián. The music was good Ecuadorian pop, but on our way there we were visited by an apparition.

Waaay back in the Galapagos, just around the corner from our hostel, there was the decapitated body of an Alice-In-Wonderland-style caterpillar ride, like something the Joker would strap Batman and Robin to in a dilapidated theme park. The caterpillar’s body was stretched along one street while his head was parked around the corner. Later, in Mindo, we saw a photo of the caterpillar on a flyer for an artisan’s fair that was supposed to take place while we were in town. The fair was a bust (five tables of baubles for sale) and no caterpillar in sight. But there in Loja, on our last night in the country, completely out of nowhere, the caterpillar appears in all its neon glory. We even got video!

However, for every good thing, there is an evil opposite. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – in all its horror – the gas truck of Loja. Play this video with the audio turned up, if you dare:

In Ecuador, gas for cooking and heating is brought to your home in a way similar to how milk was delivered in the golden age of black and white sitcoms – by a guy going door to door in a truck. In Quito, the gas truck would drive around honking its horn and if you needed gas you would yell out your window for it to stop, then run to pick up a canister.

In Loja, however, the gas vendor tools around playing the ditty in above video like a demented ice cream truck. It never stops. You can hear it all over the city. It runs incessantly from early in the morning until after sundown. The first time I heard it, I thought it was some idiot practicing the only four notes he’d learned on his flute. By the second day I’d figured out it was a vehicle of some sort. By the third day I wanted to hurt it.

The fourth day I spent ill in our third floor hotel room, sitting at a desk with the window open while beating a new short story into shape. The gas truck ditty drifted through the air like a bad smell for the ears. I could hear it nearby. I could hear it far away. I could hear it in my frickin’ imagination, whether the truck was there or not. Lea suggested I record it for posterity. I refused in the name of peace and sanity. She went and did it anyway.

Then I remembered that one of the reasons I write is to take things that are stuck in my head and put them in someone else’s. So here it is again:

You’re welcome.

Friday morning came and it was time to say goodbye to Loja, to Ecuador, and to all its friendly people. In general Ecuadoreans are kind, laid-back, genial, and helpful. I’d like to think that was true everywhere, but Ecuador seems like a special place. It’s certainly somewhere you should visit, and even after six weeks I was sad to see it go.

Our route through the Galapagos.
Our route through mainland Ecuador.

Then we got on the bus.

Oh my god, y’all. The bus.

This is a whole other article, but I’m going to lay it right here so it’s on the record before one of these things tumbles over a cliff and crushes us.

We spent a lot of time in Ecuador getting around by bus. Having entered Peru, we’ve come to realize that we’re going to spend a lot more time on the bus, because Ecuador was a relatively small country and now all the places we want to go are pretty far apart. In fact, as I type this, I realize that we’ve spent 22 hours of the last three days on a bus, including an 8 hour border crossing trip from Loja to Piura, three hours early in the morning from Piura to Chiclayo, then an 11-hour overnight that left Chiclayo at 6:00 p.m. and arrived in Chachapoyas at 5:00 in the morning. Thankfully our hostel acknowledges the reality of the local bus schedule and let us check in that early. We were dirty and we were tired.

Riding a long-haul bus through the Andes is like flying on an airplane where there’s turbulence for the entire flight. Riding in the Andes is a workout for the abs as you try and keep yourself sitting upright while the cabin sways back and forth. Riding in the Andes is EXCITING! especially in Ecuador where the bus drivers don’t slow down for anything, not even hairpin curves next to boulder-strewn ravines.

The buses show movies. The movies are mandatory, pirated off the internet, and of course dubbed in Spanish. Sometimes the volume is low enough that you can ignore it (such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer: Retaliation on our very first ride) but some are piped in so loud that you can’t block it out (such as last night’s Spanish dub of Wonder). We watched Eugenio Derbez’s Instructions Not Included and its direct French remake Two Is a Family (higher production values but not as funny – even in Spanish I could tell). We’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, both with the last fifteen minutes missing. We saw the first half of Snakes on a Plane before the bus’s TV went out.

The buses don’t stop. Well, that’s not true. They won’t stop when you want them to. They’ll stop in traffic jams, they’ll stop to pick up passengers and let them off, they’ll stop to let vendedores sell questionable snacks, but they sure as hell won’t stop for ten minutes to let passengers stretch their legs or use the bathroom. (To be fair, the bus from Guayaquil to Loja did stop at a hillside restaurant to let people grab lunch, but it was the odd bus out.)

The buses in Ecuador are sketchier (and scarier) but Ecuador’s stations are centralized and some are even nice. The bus terminals in Guayaquil and the south end of Quito are practically airports. In Ecuador the bus lines tend to stop and leave from shared stations, so all you have to do is walk up and down a hall of ticket-sellers looking for the destination you need. In Peru, it’s not so easy.

Peruvian buses have handy safety videos in Quechua.

In Peru, the buses are somewhat nicer (dinner included, sleeper compartments, potential for cat pee smell), but the stations are a mess. Each bus line has its own separate station and its own dedicated routes. There is a website called Andes Transit which purports to list bus routes and schedules. It was somewhat accurate in Ecuador, but its Peruvian information veers into fiction.

From Ecuador we landed in Piura at Loja Internacional’s station, then taxied to the other side of town to a hostel I’d booked that was near the Movil Tours station, whom Andes Transit indicated had a direct route to Chachapoyas. Andes Transit lied. Movil could have bussed us south to Chiclayo the next evening, but we’d have had to stay overnight. The guys at the Dora bus station directed us to Linnea, two miles down the road in the other direction, who ran multiple routes to Chiclayo, so we took a collectivo back across the city to book an early morning ride.

When we got to Chiclayo on Linnea, their station was only two blocks from the Civa station, so we hoofed it down the road, bought our tickets for the night bus, and checked our massive backpacks at the equipaje desk.

So what do you do with an eight-hour layover in Chiclayo when you’ve been up since 4:00a.m. and doubt you’ll get much sleep the next night? Well obviously you visit a witch doctor’s market, stumble upon a surprise parade, give props to a random street band, and crash a wedding.

Also, we were able in eight hours to scratch Chiclayo off the list of places we ever need to visit again. (Pro tip: skip Piura too.)

Here in Chachapoyas there’s not much to do on a Sunday, so we went ahead and walked eighteen blocks in a big circle to scope out the options from the various bus lines in town. The winner is probably going to be Movil Tours, who are the only company to offer a direct line to our next stop in Trujillo, and have sleeper seats available for S/.85.00 ($25.68). Not bad for a fourteen hour ride back to the coast.

But first we get to enjoy Chachapoyas and the Fortaleza de Kuelap. Stay tuned, mis amigos.

P.S. Lea’s Macrophotography Exhibit II !

Whales!

So you’re in this boat. It’s a gray Thursday morning, the kind that Douglas Adams predicted would mark the end of the world. You’re speeding away from the questionable seaside town of Puerto López toward some offshore rock called Isla de la Plata, part of Machalilla National Park, where they’ve got frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and snorkeling. They call this coast the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” and so far it’s lived up to its appellation. The big draw for this excursion is that during the months of August and September, humpback whales are known to call this stretch of water their turf. You’re not guaranteed to see whales, of course. But there’s always a chance. You watch, but to either side of the boat as far as the horizon, the sea is unbroken cloud-gray and blue.

But then…

A flurry of excitement. Someone’s spotted something way off to starboard. You crane your neck. There – off in the distance – a spout of water. Then another! Whales breaching the surface to breathe. The captain and the tour guides confer, but the boat presses on toward the island. The whales are too far away. Nevertheless you fumble to extract your trusty Canon T3 with its telephoto lens out of the safety of its drybag. You check the settings – high shutter speed, continuous shooting mode, focus, ISO – and you get ready, watching the horizon with a much less casual eye.

They’re here.

More excitement. Several passengers yell “Whoah!” in unison. Another whale spout, this one much closer and ahead of the boat. The captain changes course. You’re going after them. You shift into a crouch. For millions of years your forebears have been hunters. That instinct quickens your pulse, sharpens your senses. Your weapon is a camera, not a harpoon, but the lizard brain at the base of your skull doesn’t know the difference. The chase is on.

You hear the splash before you see it – like someone dropped a bus into the water. You swivel your lens forward and zoom in toward the spreading bruise of sea foam flattening the waves in a wide oval. You wait. You wait.

Then you watch a hill of black flesh crest a wave and blow a spout of water toward the sky. It sinks back under the ocean and a giant tail follows, black on top and white below. It slaps the sea as it plunges, sending up a wall of spray. Your camera has been clicking three shots per second. You ease up on the trigger and let yourself breathe. Come back, Mr. Whale. I’m not done with you yet.

The captain idles the engines. All the passengers hush. Then another cry and a giant splash forward. You turn to catch it but it’s gone. A whale had jumped out of the water and you missed it. Its tail rises up from the sea and splashes as it sinks, as if it’s laughing. At least you got a picture of that.

Another whale breaches and blows. You swivel for the shot. You’re getting the hang of it, but you’re still slow on the trigger. You quickly figure out that your camera loses focus when the horizon vanishes on the upswell of a wave, so you learn to wait until the boat is sliding down the other side to keep your focus true. You watch for signs that a whale is about to appear: the spout, a slight fuzziness on the water’s surface that hints something big is just below. You shoot several more whale humps and plenty of tails, but the handful of times that a whale leaps full out of the water you’re just too slow to catch it.

One whale sticks his tail straight up in the air and slaps the surface repeatedly. The captain guns the motors and steers the ship around the pod for different viewing angles. You set your camera down in  your lap and simply enjoy the experience. There are whales all around you, creatures that make elephants seem small, graceful beings that dwarf the tiny hull you hope protects you while giants casually swim by.

Fee. Fi. Fo. Fum.

The breachings become fewer and farther between. The pod is moving away save for one, maybe out of idle curiosity about the strange hairless monkeys in their silly little raft. The captain sets course for the island and revs the engine for the next item on the day’s agenda. You look behind for a final glimpse and, jaw dropping, see that the whale is following. Instead of your life flashing before your eyes, all you get is a silly line of dialog from an early episode of South Park: “Oh my god, it’s comin’ right for us!”

You take the shot.

To your relief and secret disappointment, the whale does not Moby Dick your tour boat. You reach the island safely, where you climb a friggin’ mountain to take pictures of boobies and frigates, eat tuna sandwiches while being pestered by hungry sea turtles, then snorkel a reef with big, colorful fish and a fairly strong current.

Big boobie and little boobie.
Frigate birds roosting.
Fish in your face.

All in all a good day. You peel off your neoprene wetsuit pants, wring out your soaked t-shirt, wrap your thin, quick-dry African towel around your shoulders, and relax as the captain steers you for home.

But wait. There’s more.

Not fifteen minutes into the ride back, another breach is sighted. This one is close, just off the stern. The captain slows and adjusts our course. A pod of humpbacks is coming alongside. Unlike the ones from this morning, these aren’t feeding or marking territory. These are here to play in the afternoon sun.

Your camera is out and you’re ready this time. And now, the whales are making it easy. You can’t know for sure, but you suspect they’re putting on a show for the cheers and applause every time one of them leaps into the air, flips over, and flops on her back with a splash like God skipping stones. This is what life is about, they seem to say. Why, what did you think it was?

This pod, your group soon figures out, is a family. There is a huge female, a smaller male, and a calf just learning the ropes of what it is to be a young, little leviathan. The mother is a maestro of megaton water displacement, but every now and then her pup leaps from the water in a spiral of sheer delight.

Gone is the primitive hunter in the back of your mind, replaced by pure exhilaration. Speeding along the waves with a trio of vast beings whose lives are so alien to your own, yet who share a common experience of play, of the sun and the waves, of a child running off the end of a diving board and cannonballing into a pool full of adults, it brings such a feeling of unadulterated joy that you want it to last forever.

In the same opening chapters to The Hitchhiker’s Guide in which Douglas Adams ends the world on a Thursday, he also makes the claim that dolphins (and I’ll expand this to all cetaceans) are much more intelligent than human beings because despite their large brains, all they do is muck about in the water having a good time. Damned if the man wasn’t right.