Friday, June 26, 2015

Peru Part 4: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Peru Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Peru Part 2: Aguas Caliente and the Cloud Forest
Peru Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest 
Peru Part 4: Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Peru Reading List 

Cusco and the Sacred Valley! Perhaps I should have started with this entry. We first flew into Cusco via Lima, and spent three days here "acclimating" to the high altitudes of the Andes Mountains before starting our Inca Trail hike. We also spent time here between our Inca Trail and Amazon trips. What a beautiful little city! So much to do. A week or two here, amongst these places in the "Sacred Valley", would have made better sense.

Rooftops over Cusco- a breathtaking sight!

Getting around Cusco was difficult at first. Even with Diamox (altitude medicine), I could barely walk three steps without having to stop and gasp for breath. It is a hilly city with a lot of stairs in certain districts, so until you get adjusted it's quite difficult. Another effect of the altitude, for me, was loss of appetite which was unfortunate because man, the food was AMAZING!

Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco.

Showing off my stylin' Peru hat! Sadly, Joey decided to eat it within a month of my return home (vengeance?!?)

Another beautiful view-
The Urubamba River Valley, also known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is apparently full of beautiful satellite villages to Cusco: Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo,  Chinchero, most with their own ruins and markets. Trace and I mostly stayed in Cusco but we did take our available Sunday to visit Pisac. We took a "collectivo" (which I guess is like a public bus here, but in Peru is some random guy's empty van with no seat belts...) which was quite the experience!! As Trace assures me over and over, YOLO! We didn't die or get abducted, for which I am thankful. And apparently they are "the way" to get around down there so no worries, Mom.

Inca ruins at Pisac.
Pisac was incredible. The ruins were busy, but views spectacular and Trace and I quickly broke away from the tourist crowd in deciding to hike down through the ruins to town. Maybe it took two hours or so? What a beautiful hike!

Sketching at lunch over the Pisac Market
The Pisac market too was incredible. We got down just in time, too, because it seemed to shut down around 3 o'clock. Trace and I had enough time for a relaxing lunch and a little shopping before heading back to our hostel in Cusco.

Time for some Sacred Valley take-aways-?

1. The markets are incredible (San Blas, San Pedro, Pisac). Lots of food and lots of souvenirs!

Also, lots of scary.
2. I have no idea how we didn't get sick, given that NOTHING is refrigerated. Everything sits outside all day long, sometimes on the street or on dirty benches. Meat, eggs, fruit, cheese....

More food laying out all day long, without any ice or refridgeration... OSHA or the FDA or some government agency would have a field day if this was the Unites States!

Dogs. Sigh. They were ALL OVER. Homeless. Matted. Sleeping in the street, licking rain out of cracks in the sidewalk. No leashes, no collars, none neutered (of course). It was heartbreaking. None seemed to be starving, though, which was a small relief. I tried to feed some of them and they totally blew me off, so they must have been content on some level. It's interesting because here in the U.S., our "unwanted" city dogs tend to be mostly pit bull types. In Peru, Trace and I saw homeless everything: Labs, golden retrievers, little Shih tzu types, shepherd mixes, collie mixes, Chows. A few gorgeous purebred Cockers. I only met one Pit Bull, and that was when I stumbled upon an animal rights march at Plaza Regocijo, and that dog was leashed and owned by someone.

Nighty night from Cusco....

And that sums up our trip to Peru! Time has flown and March/April seems like such a long time ago. If anyone stumbling on this blog has any Peru questions, feel free to post a comment and I can try to answer. I also suggest TripAdvisor's Peru forum and TripAdvisor's Peru Vacations page, which were invaluable to Trace and I in planning our trip.

Until next time...


Peru Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest

Peru Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Peru Part 2: Aguas Caliente and the Cloud Forest
Peru Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest 
Peru Part 4: Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Peru Reading List 

While hiking the Inca Trail was the main focus of our Peru trip, Trace and I decided to peg on an extension to the Amazon while we were "in the area." Why not? What are the chances we'll ever be in South America again, right?  As a rather nervous traveler, Trace always [tried] to get me out of my comfort zone with "YOLO, Jen, YOLO!" This stands for "You Only Live Once" and is apparently something young people say to each other nowadays. So we had been throwing that phrase back and forth all winter, trying to be brave, hip and cool, when I noticed a section of one of my Peru books mentioned the Amazon Rainforest as a "must-see" when visiting the country. Well... YOLO... I mentioned it and Trace said "Hell yeah, let's go after we finish the Inca Trail!"

And that was that.

I did regret ever bringing that up, several times in fact, during our trip!!

Hiking the muddy rainforest trail from Lake Sandoval (it had dried out a bit...)

Trace and I chose our eco-lodge carefully. We wanted be be with a reputable (obviously) and knowledgeable company when going into the Amazon.  It's a dangerous place. Both of us read extensively before our trip and were aware of the risks. This isn't the Adirondacks of northern New York. Not only is everything creepy and crawly and unfamiliar, but even the trees have mechanisms to cause infection and trauma if you touch them unknowingly. The lodges only have electricity (via generator) two or three hours a day. The lodges all don't have walls and screens. No one seems to carry guns in case, you know, you get charged by a huge anaconda. And if you get sick or break a leg, you are REALLY far away from civilization. Good luck getting out in a timely manner.

It was crazy.

After a lot of thought, we chose a 5-day, 4-night trip with Chuncho Lodge, which is based out of the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado (we flew there from Cusco, about 45 minutes airport-to-airport). From there, we spent a few days far up the remote Tambopata River and then transferred to Lake Sandoval via Madre de Dios. If you ever decide to visit the Amazon Rainforest in Peru, email Jorge at Chuncho! They were fabulous!

The Tambopata riverbank, at Chuncho Lodge.

On one of our many hikes with guide Jesus.
Early afternoon hammock time! It would get so so so so so so hot and humid after 10 a.m.. You have NO idea. I though New York in the summertime was bad, but the Amazon brings it to a whole 'nother level of uncomfortable.

Visiting clay licks ("colpas") off the Tambopata River, where parrots and macaws congregate. These guys were in the trees above the colpa.

Oropendala and Amazon Parrots above the colpa near the Tambopata. A storm was coming and the wind was up, so they were nervous to come down and feed. That's okay... we got some great pictures anyway!

Canoe trips on Lake Sandoval- great photo opportunities!
A Black Caiman stalking a fishing boat at dusk.... the fishermen didn't care, but us gringas were a little nervous about it! We saw Black Caiman at Lake Sandoval and Spectacled Caiman along the Tambopata River. It was cool seeing two species and comparing them together.
Giant Otters at Lake Sandoval one morning- worth the 5 a.m. wake-up call! They are HUGE, and can get up to 6 feet long. Bigger than my foxhound, Joey! Very rare. They were so playful and affectionate with each other, but I guess can be very aggressive and are nicknames "River Wolves" by the native Peruvians. Trace and I were overjoyed to see them, as was our fabulous guide Jesus.
Our eco-lodges along the Tambopata AND at Lake Sandoval had an abundance of fruit trees, so we got to see several species of monkeys up close and personal... Howlers, Squirrel Monkeys (like this guy), Spider, Cappuchin and Titi monkeys.
A Howler Monkey family at Lake Sandoval. They sounded like freight trains when they hooted! Crazy.

Bats. Everywhere. If you have bataphobia, do NOT come to the Amazon. They roosted on tree trunks during the day and flew through the lodges at night (not all lodges have walls. At night you wrap yourself in nets, so the bugs don't crawl up in with you and bats don't drop in your lap!!). Notice the foggy picture, yeah. The humidity finally got into my inner-camera lens and really killed it for a couple hours.

A Striated Heron on Lake Sandoval. We saw several herons- Tiger, Striated, Capped and Cocoi (which look almost identical to our Great Blue Herons in the U.S.).

An Opossum Mouse we encountered on one of our night hikes along the Tambopata River. Night hikes were especially frightening after we heard some stories about "Chewa Chucky", a half boy/half goat monster that lives in rainforest southeast Peru and abducted people. Thanks for that, Jesus.

Welcome to my Nightmare: Walking to the bathroom for your before-bed potty and spotting a spider bigger than your face, dragging itself along by gargantuan front legs towards you. Apparently it is harmless and is called a "Harlequin Beetle." Our guide Jesus  thought it was funny to pick it up and try to bring it "up close" for us to see. NOOOOOOOOOOO...  No. No. No. No.
Amazon Racerunner lizard and other bugs I was able to sketch during our trip to the Amazon.
Our trip with Chuncho Lodge was exquisite and terrifying. It was amazing to see two different parts of the Amazon, both the Upper Tambopata River and Lake Sandoval. Many eco-lodges are located along the Madre de Dios river right out of Puerto Maldonado and I'm glad we didn't stay at one of those, because the Madre de Dios is very wide and busy with boat traffic (and not as pretty as Tambopata). We took it once along our trek to Lake Sandoval and didn't see any wildlife at all, besides a few shorebirds. Tambopata, meanwhile, was very remote and beautiful. We saw the parrot colpas and a few other animals but my favorite part was Lake Sandoval, where every outing was full of wildlife.

4 a.m. boat ride up the Tambopata River- if you visit the Amazon, headlamps are a must!

Some interesting tidbits from our trip:

1. The heat and humidity of the Amazon is unreal. UNREAL. I am a winter girl and anything over 70 degrees makes me uncomfortable. And the sun. I can't stand it. I like cloudy, gray skies. The Amazon weather was like... Imagine the hottest, wettest, steamiest wool blanket wrapped tightly around you, then being duct-taped into a garbage bag and put in a furnace to burn to death. Okay maybe not that bad but it was BAD. Ever Trace, from Florida, was wiped. I don't know how people live in that kind of climate... it was brutal.

2. Because it's SO hot and humid, nothing ever dries. So you are constantly dripping with sweat and your clothes are constantly drenched. YOU WILL NEVER DRY. Which probably led to #7...

3. Because it was SO hot and humid (did I mention that?) our hikes/boat trips/explorations ceased by 10 a.m. and didn't resume till 5 p.m.  There was lots of time for me to sketch, wander around the lodge (I didn't go very far because I was scared of being attacked by something), read, and nap.

5. Eco-lodges only have electricity for a few hours per evening (via generator), so there are no fans. No lights after dark. I'm not sure how food is kept refrigerated, maybe I don't want to know. Amazon secret.

6. There are so many fruit trees in Peru! Fruit we've never heard of. Especially in the Amazon. We got to try so many juices- YUM.

7. The CDC recommends a Yellow Fever shot for visiting this part of the Amazon rainforest. I got one and, under the guise of "better safe than sorry", took Malaria pills too. That didn't help me from developing some strange spots on Day 2 in Tambopata that, by the end of our time in the jungle, had spread into welts across my abdomen, down my sides and legs, up my back, down both arms and up my neck. It disappeared once I got back to "normal" 45 degree temps in New York. Jungle rot?? I dunno.

The Amazon was quite the experience. After our 5 days, we headed back to Puerto Maldonado (our jungle adventure jumping-off point) to recover and ponder our memories of bugs, birds, bats, and Chewa Chucky. Would I visit the Amazon again? Maybe. If there is a cold season (ha). If you love the heat, humidity and adventure though... you can't find a better place!

Next entry... Cusco and the Sacred Valley!


Peru, Part 2: Aguas Caliente and the Cloud Forest

Peru Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Peru Part 2: Aguas Caliente and the Cloud Forest
Peru Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest 
Peru Part 4: Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Peru Reading List

I loved Aguas Caliente, perched right in the Cloud Forest below Machu Picchu!

After our 27 mile, 4 day backpacking trip up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Trace and I decided to spend the night in Aguas Caliente, aka Machu Picchu Town, aka Gringoville. Yes, it is very touristy! There are no roads into the village, so no one can leave by auto. Buses shuttle up and down the mountain from Machu Picchu to town, and there is a train that connects it to the outside world. It gave me a very laid-back, gritty, granola vibe, and I have to say I really liked it.

A beautiful Chestnut Breasted Coronet, one of the four species of hummingbirds we saw in the Inkaterra nature preserve.
We stayed at the fancy-schmancy Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel. We decided to splurge and it was totally worth it!! Of course, we looked and felt like the Beverly Hillbillies compared to all the other guests. Our "cheapy" room was $550, and it makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit to realize we paid that much for only ONE night. The other rooms/villas/suites were $700+ per night and as you can imagine, the clientele was pretty preppy and upperclass. As bumpkins and tightwads coming off a 4-day camping trip, Trace and I felt a little out of place but we tried to pretend we were High Society and we both were happy with our pick. We will probably never be able to afford such luxury again!

The Highland Motmot, moss covered trees with bromelaids!
 Inkaterra is located on a nature preserve and even has a bear sanctuary (for endangered Andean Spectacled bears)... it has free excursions throughout the day for visiting the bears, bird watching tours, and a huge tea plantation and orchid growing program. It was pretty amazing and I have to say, worth every penny!

Four roosting guan in the Cloud Forest.
Trace and I took part in a couple of the birding and nature tours, but unfortunately we didn't see  the highly-desirable Cock of the Rock, national bird of Peru. We did see several type so tanager, 4-5 types of hummingbird, Highland Motmots and Andean Guan, which are like wild turkeys. They were just all so beautiful!

Slate-Throated Redstart.

Hiking the nature preserve at Inkaterra with camera and sketchbook in hand!

I can't round out a post on this blog without mentioning dogs! Aguas Caliente was POPULATED with Peruvian Hairless Dogs, in the U.S. known as Peruvian Inca Orchids. Whenever we left Inkaterra and went into town, we saw one or two zipping about on their business. Dogs in Peru are not spayed/neutered and leashes seem unheard of. Many dogs were homeless but these guys seemed to live with people, just not be hanging out with them.

Best picture I could get of an Inca Orchid dog, somewhere in town near the main square.

I have to say, our overnight in Aguas Caliente was one of my favorite days in Peru. It was hot and HUMID, but nothing compared to our future time in the Amazon. Temps seemed to hang in the low 70's so it was a bit uncomfortable for me- Trace thought it felt very Florida-like and didn't mind at all. Everything about the Cloud Forest was spectacular... the birds, the orchids, the bromelaids, the moss, EVERYTHING!  If I ever visit Latin America again I would definitely make it a point to see more of these amazing ecosystems!

Some sketches from the Cloud Forest... Blue-Grey Tanagers feeding on banana feeder and Chestnut Breasted Coronet and Green & White Hummingbird at Inkaterra's feeders; "Water Bottle Plants" and other interesting flora we saw on our nature hike. I used pens and markers... which, FYI, can explode at high altitudes! I lost several during our trip!! Just sayin'!!


Peru, Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Beginning the Inca Trail! With our tour company INTI SUN TREK. They were wonderful!
Peru Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Peru Part 2: Aguas Caliente and the Cloud Forest
Peru Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest 
Peru Part 4: Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Peru Reading List 

It has been a month (give or take...) since I returned from my 2 week adventure in Peru with my friend Tracy. It was truly an incredible trip of a lifetime. We spent some time in the Sacred Valley before hiking the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, then spent 2-days in the Cloud Forest of Aguas Caliente, then embarked for the Amazon Rainforest via Puerto Maldonado, which wasn't far from the border of Bolivia.

I've mentioned before that I'm not really a traveler. So two weeks of anything anywhere from my house is a bit of a stretch for me. And then peg two days of travel on either end, and, well, I'm not exactly comfortable.  But I did it. And I lived. And I had a good time. (I did miss Lela and Joey horribly,

Did I have an emotional breakdown on the trip? Yes (several...). Did I suffer altitude sickness in the mountains, despite taking medicine? Yes (every day....). Did I get a horrible Amazonia jungle rot infection that spread over almost my whole body? Yes (cleared up... eventually. A long eventually). Did I cry a lot? Yes (oh God, yes). Did I fall and hurt myself and bruise my ego? Yes (yes, yes, yes). Did I hate my friend Tracy for getting me into this? YES!!!!! LOL. But of course all that is temporary. It was an exquisite trip. I am thankful that she cajoled me into going and that I was brave enough to say YES!!

Along the Urubamba River on Day 1. We hiked the trail March 30-April 2.

 Being in the Andes Mountains is amazing. The views were unlike anything I've ever seen. And going in March, aka Rainy Season, was a great choice because everything was green and chartreuse and in bloom. The rain was very minimal- some drizzle Day 2 and rain for a couple hours on Day 3, but nothing horrible- and when it did get cloudy/drizzly, the fog really added "ambiance" to the hike. I mean, there's nothing spookier than exploring Incan ruins laying in banks of fog under an ominous gray sky, is there? No, there isn't!!

Hiking up Dead Woman's Pass. We hiked for 9 hours on Day 2, almost all straight up.

Before the trip, I had trained for (and run) a 13.1 mile Half Marathon. With that, I ran stairs once a week for an hour, lifted weights several times a week, and cross-trained biking/pilates. This was good because at the end of long days hiking, my muscles weren't that sore. But I couldn't breathe. Even taking altitude sickness medicine, I constantly felt like I had a plastic bag tied tightly over my head. Every step was a nightmare. I few feet, I had to stop, lungs heaving, begging for air. Tracy did not take altitude medicine, only Ibuprofin and coca tea, and still fared better than I did. She really rocked it! But I just suffered. S.U.F.F.E.R.E.D. Altitude sickness affects people differently. I guess I should be thankful that I didn't also experience nausea, just breathlessness, but it was difficult.

Trace, myself, and Flavia- the other woman in our group- make it to the top of the Pass!

Along the 26 mile, 4-day trip we saw many Incan ruins, culminating with Machu Picchu at the end. My favorite ruins were Winay Wayna. Yes, even more than Machu Picchu. Machu was kind of a tourist trap and it was hard to enjoy the place when you are surrounded by hundreds of shoving tourists. Winay Wayna, perched up in the mountains on Day 3, was a study in solitude. Wrapped in fog and drizzle. Perched on a STEEP mountainside. It was spooky! Trace, Flavia, and I got to explore it alone in the rain. It was an amazing experience and everything I expected Machu Picchu to be (but wasn't lol... thank you, Winay Wayna!).

Winay Wayna Ruins along the trail- definitely my favorite stop along the trail.

Hiking along the 27-mile trail was alone was pretty amazing though, even without the ruins. We started in the Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River, where the scrub and cacti were plentiful. It was very high-desert-like to me. Along the 4 days, you ascend up into cloud forests (which are rainforests perched high in the mountains) where the scrub and cacti change to lush greens, twisted trees and orchids of various sizes and color.  Jimmy, one of our guides, was well-studied in ecology and I was thankful that he lagged behind with me to answer all of my questions! He also helped me several times when I was so exhausted and breathless that I just slipped and fell, including one time where he carried my own backpack when I couldn't anymore. Walking poles totally helped, but at the end of the day there were so many times that I was so "out of it" mentally, physically and emotionally that I just couldn't keep my legs from tangling and going down. I'll be honest... it was a huge blow to my ego. I was The Experienced Hiker and Camper of our little group, and the youngest to boot, and after training so hard for the Half Marathon and hike... I thought I would do better. Humble Pie! I was always in the rear, struggling to keep up!!

Magical section of the trail through the Cloud Forest. Trace in the lead!
On Day four of the hike we hit Machu Picchu, waking up at the bum-crack of dawn and climbing up, up, up, up to the Sun Gate (hiking up a steep mountain with only a headlamp to shine the way- terrifying) to watch Machu Picchu unwrap itself from Night. Wow! It was really beautiful, even though we were surrounded by 400 other hikers-in-waiting (yeah yeah, I'm an introvert). After climbing down to the park, Trace and I spent about four hours in the ruins itself. I know people who have said they spent 2-3 days up there. But it was wall-to-wall tourists and Trace and I just wanted to get out of there. We had experienced Inca Greatness along the 4-day trail, seeing I think 10 different ruins in solitutde and although they were smaller than Machu Picchu, they seemed, to me, just as beautiful if not more so.

Myself, Trace and Flavia above Machu Picchu. We made it!!

Enjoying the Machu Picchu ruins with several friendly llamas!

 There were so many blogs I read about hiking the trail, but my Inca Trail Tips to add to the ones already circulating out there:

1. Choose your Trekking company very wisely. You can't hike the Inca Trail without a licensed tour company. They will secure your permit through the government so you can hike.We used Inti Sun Trek and they were wonderful! Small groups, knowledgeable guides, great equipment (luxury camping at its finest!), AMAZING 4 course meals and vegetarian options... they treated their porters great (come companies don't, so that's a concern when choosing an ethical company). Inti also participates in volunteer trail clean-ups, which we loved! And they had us camping at the lighter-use campgrounds, so we were away from the pack. 500 people are allowed onto the trail per day, and you don't want a company that will keep you in the middle of the pack, sandwiched with other people. With Inti Sun's careful planning, we mostly had the trail to ourselves and only saw big packs of other hikers climbing Dead Woman's Pass and climbing to the Sun Gate on day 4.

Cloud forest, with Machu Picchu peaking out from the fog in the background.
2. Do youself a favor and train for the hike. I read on a lot of forums how people hike the Inca Trail with no training and have no problems. I can't even imagine!! Granted, I am a bit overweight. I do walk daily with my dogs, hike on the weekends, and run regularly. And I trained for my Half Marathon before the trip. I'm glad I took the time because I struggled enough with breathing... if I had screaming muscles to add to that, I think I would have died LOL.

3. Water bladders and hiking poles are essential. I'm not a hiking pole-person because I usually have dog leashes in my hand. But I bought some cheapies off Amazon and they worked very well and helped on the days I was so exhausted I wanted to collapse. The water bladder is kind of a weird concept but I bought a $10 generic one at Walmart and it was great. It's so nice to be able to drink something without taking off your backpack!

4. Even if you are a bibliophile, don't bring a lot of books. I bought some books to read (paperbacks) and a big flora/fauna guidebook that I wanted to toss into the river after 20 minutes of carrying it. It was so heavy!! There's really not a lot of time to poke around and study the flowers or search for bird species on the trail- you can stop and take pictures, enjoy the scenery but you're on a schedule to get to camp for lunch and then dinner. So no poking.

5. Don't expect to have a lot of time to stop, sketch or paint. Same as above. There's no poking around on the trail and you'll be too tired to, anyway. I did my sketching back in Cusco and on other parts of our trip. I was so emotionally exhausted I couldn't even journal at night. You wouldn't think that hiking 8-12 miles a day would be so hard but given the altitude and steep ups and downs- it's crazy. I've never been that drained. It was insane.

Day 4- Machu Picchu peaking out of the mountain shadows...
Anyway, that is Part 1 of the saga. Stay tuned for further adventures from Peru!