Travels in South America
E-mail updates from below the Equator

January to March, 1998
by Arlo Midgett

As some of you know, the Spanish class left on Saturday leaving behind only Joe, Joe, Dugan and I. Needless to say, we were all a little depressed to see everyone go, but soon got over it. We spent Sunday at the mall playing games in the arcade, eating at McDonalds, and watching movies in DTS surround sound. Oh, and for all of you who haven't seen the new Star Wars movie preview: Nyah, nyah!

On Monday, we hauled ass over to Latacunga to try to set up a climb up Cotopaxi - which we figured was over 19,300 ft. Juan, our guide from before, couldn't take us because we didn't reserve his equipment, but he set us up with another guy, Fernando. Fernando was okay, but we ended up paying more than I'm willing to admit. Part of that was because we almost HAD to do it that same night - otherwise Joe and Dugan would have had to change their tickets again. Fernando agreed but cautioned us that we might not have enough time to practice with our equipment and acclimatize at the refuge (4800 meters). We ignored him and we started out from Latacunga very late - after 7pm. We arrived at the refuge at about 9:30, ate dinner, and slept 'til about 1am. At 1am, we suited up and started up the rest of the mountain.

I can't describe to you how every part of this climb went. This is partly because there is so much to tell, and partly because I went through periods of walking unconsciousness during the night (no kidding - at least I didn't get sick repeatedly like another climber from Juneau that we met did, nor did I experience the tingling arms and silver sparkles dancing in front of my eyes like Joe did...). At over 5000m, the altitude does some very strange things to you. Keep in mind, too, that we were at sea level just 4 days before. It probably wasn't the smartest thing in the world to do.

Anyway, Rick was right. It wasn't fun, and it wasn't easy, but it was very rewarding. We arrived at the summit an hour or so after sunrise and saw everything laid out below us. The day was very clear with only a few clouds along the horizon (we were so lucky!) and you could see forever. Surprisingly, walking down was just as hard as going up and when we arrived back at the hotel at about 10:30 we all wanted to die.

Anyway, I wouldn't recommend that hike (or others like it) to anyone in good shape. You have to be in GREAT shape to not be miserable. I remember when I was thinking to myself after the first hour of the climb that I just COULD NOT make it, I asked our guide how much farther we had to go. He told us about 5 hours. Now I know that my willpower is stronger than my body, but not by much. I think if any of us had said "I don't want to go on," we would have stopped right there. We were just too damn macho (read: stupid).

Well, once we conquered that, we needed to get back to Quito so that Joe and Dugan could fly out the next morning. We arrived a little late, and had to wake up the owners of the Hostal Marsella so that they could get their tickets from the safe. Oops. But everything worked out... except that Dugan could never get any more money from his account and had to borrow a ton of sucres to leave the country ($25 export tax and $75 to change his ticket).

And then there were two. Joe and I are still in Quito. We plan to talk with Diego one more time to see if he has any suggestions on places to go. Other than that, we're looking and El Nariz del Diablo and Cuenca before heading off to pick up Joe's brother, Karl, in Peru. Who knows, though. We haven't decided anything yet.

Anyway, we'll be in touch, and a lot of you can probably expect to get postcards soon. Now that the group's gone, we have time to write 'em!

Hasta luego


El Nariz del Diablo
Well, I believe I left off last time with the time Joe, Dugan and I pulled off that 5897 meter stunt called Cotopaxi. After what seemed to be a very short time, Joe B. and Dugan had to leave, and that just left Joe S. and I. (A 3 HT with G on the M) 

So, Joe and I stuck around Quito only long enough to make some arrangements for the future. Diego, at the Colonial Spanish School, was an incredibly valuable resource there. He helped us finalize our Galápagos trip and booked reservations for our necessary flights throughout Peru (Peru is HUGE compared to Ecuador. Taking busses everyone is NOT an option!) Anyway, we ended up withdrawing over 12 MILLION sucres from ATMs to pay for all this - actually, we shut down at least two of the ATMs and STILL didn't have enough money. Joe had to use his credit card (which is 10% more tacked on). You want to talk nervous? Try walking down the streets of Quito with a wad of cash like that in your pocket. Maybe we should have taken it to the Hilton instead of Diego...  

Anyway, after studying the LP Ecuador book a lot, we decided that we wanted to spend our time south of Quito instead of North. Our first plan was to make for Riobamba - no problem. We spent the night there and got up (very bright and early - at 5:30am) and hopped on the train. We rode inside until we got to Alusí where we climbed up with the rest of the gringos to experience El Nariz del Diablo. It really is a spectacular descent! In some places there's no other way for the train to go down the canyons except by going to the end of a piece of track, switching the rails behind them, and then BACKING the train up for a couple of kilometers until they can reverse the process farther down! At any rate, we couldn't complete the entire "Devil's Nose" run because the tracks were out past Huigra, where we got off. Oh, and we were just DYING to visit the birthplace of Lorena Bobbit, too. That's in Bucay for all you trivia majors...

After all that excitement, we took a nice LONG journey back to Riobamba and our hotel. We spent the night there and then jumped on a bus bound for Cuenca. That bus ride was...interesting. We were in the VERY front of the bus, actually farther forward than the driver! A great view, but those of us with legs would like a little more room to move around, ya know?

Cuenca was pretty laid back and cool. Perhaps that was because we arrived there on Saturday night and saw most of it on Sunday, though. Mental note: Try not to arrive in a town on the weekend. Everything is closed and there's nothing to do/see! So, we made the best of a decent situation: We walked a lot. Our main destination was a nice, tall hill that overlooked the city. The view (and soaking in the sun) was worth the sweat it cost us to get up there. The way back to our hotel was fun, too. We got to dodge all the water balloons thrown at us from the cars. Carnival. Gotta love it.

We also spent half of Monday checking out a decent museum there, too. They also had some ruins in the back... but, as the book stated, they're really only of interest to archeologists. Nothing like what we saw in Mexico or that we're going to see in Peru. So we left Cuenca bound for...Machala. Anyone ever heard of it? Us neither.

Machala is...interesting, too. (Note: from this point, through the next week, I could count the number of gringos we saw on one hand. Not that I use my fingers to count, mind you.) Okay, Machala may have been a bad decision (mine) but we made the best out of it. We saw more banana trees than all of you have seen, combined. Um, it was quite hot (95 degrees most days) and very humid. Hmmm...the streets were perfectly square and most didn't have street signs. You wouldn't believe how often and how badly we got lost in that town. We checked out Puerto Bolivar with the intention of catching a boat to a small, beach-island-thing, but it was pretty cloudy and we blew it off. We were pretty disappointed and ready to leave for Peru the very next day...

Anyway, so what's to like about Machala? Well, we ran into this older guy from Delaware while we were having dinner one night and we ended up talking for hours (another gringo quotient example: He's been coming to Ecuador for AT LEAST 1 month out of each year for the last 6 years - always to Machala. He'd only seen another English-speaking gringo once before!) So, we were talking, right? He told us that Jambelí, the beach, is worth going to EVEN IF it's cloudy. It's that good - something like 80 km of unoccupied (at least on the weekdays) clean beach. Well, he was very convincing. We stayed another day... just to check out that beach.

It was worth it. The next day dawned very clear, and very hot. We hopped a boat to the beach and basked in the sun. The beach was, in my opinion, better than that of Puerto Lopez (but not La Playita!), but the waves were sorely lacking. Very calm, really. One interesting incident - we were given a free meal by one of the restaurant owners! It was a very sweet, natural cereal containing only fried bananas and milk. It was almost too rich to finish! Anyway, he talked with us for the better part of two hours about all sorts of things. We were switching constantly between Spanish and English so both parties could practice... it was fun!

Well, we returned to our air conditioned rooms and spent one more night in Machala. The next day we (or at least I) wanted to return to the beach, but the clouds were coming in again. At that point we still had enough time to make a break for the Peruvian border (about 2 hours away). We intended to just trade beaches - a little town called Máncora was supposed to be a surfer's paradise. First, though, I had to try to mail a package back home. I was getting tired of carrying so much junk around in my pack, I thought it'd be worthwhile to send it back. Well, now I'm not so sure. It cost about $20, they opened it and searched it, and I had to fill out forms in quadruplicate! I hope it arrives in one peace...

So, where was I? Ah, yes. The border. Crazy. No, that's not strong enough: It was insane! First, we were dropped off by our bus a few kilometers from Huaquillas - the border town. The bus driver was trying to tell us what was going on, but we were having a hell of a time understanding him. Finally we just jumped off the bus with our packs...

Some helpful cabby (who obviously wanted our fare) pointed us in the right direction. We entered immigration, got our exit stamps with a bare minimum of hassle (we actually had to HAND him our passports!). We then grabbed that cab... which, it so happened, broke Rick's rule of getting into a cab with more than one person in it. There were 4 Latinos in there - apparently friends. One of them, who could speak about as much English as we can speak Spanish, became our self-appointed guide and began to tell us everything we needed to know about getting into Peru. By the time we got to Huaquillas, our heads were swimming.

First, the cab dropped us off some 5 or 6 blocks from the border. As we followed our "guides," the crowds and booths became thicker and thicker. Before long we were accosted by tons of money exchangers waving their calculators in our faces. Luckily, our guides shook most of them off for us... and took us right to their buddy. Now, we changed a little money there and got screwed, I'll be the first to admit it. But I only risked $20 US - enough to get us across the border and into a hotel in Tumbes. I actually half-expected the money to be old, outdated currency, so when we found out that we were only shorted about 30%, I was more relieved than mad!

So, with Nuevo Soles in hand, we were whisked across the bridge and into Peru. Strangely enough, there's nothing you need to do when you cross the border! Instead, our guide left us with a MOTO-TAXI, Peru's answer to the ever-present, private urban transport system. Basically it's a motorcycle with a couple extra wheels and bench-like chair mounted on it. We where then taken about 4km down the road to Peru's immigration: Not a single problem there...we got our 30 day passport stamp in no time.

We left immigration in a "taxi" to Tumbes. Now, taxis are strange in Peru. Almost none of them are yellow, nor do they even have something to indicate that they are, indeed, taxis! Our particular model (like MANY of the cars in Peru) looked like a 70s muscle car. It worked, though. We arrived Tumbes, got a room, then sat at an outdoor restaurant bordering the central plaza and watched many, many people get saturated with water balloons. We're still dry, though!

Tumbes was left behind the very next day... We had more important things to do on the beach. Things like laying motionless for long periods of time and such. Máncora was pretty cool. It was small, infested with Brazilian surfers, and cheap. My personal favorite thing about Máncora was the waves: Bigger, more consistent, and just more fun than in Puerto Bolivar and Jambelí! We spent a day and a half there - and I even saw a baby sea turtle!

We left Máncora just a couple days ago in the best bus so far. If every bus in Peru is like that one, I'm going to enjoy traveling here. The roads are pretty darn good, too. Get this, though: In Peru is seems as though the bus drivers are not allowed to stop to let passengers on or off EXCEPT in the terminals. Now, in reality, it still happens from time to time, but it sure is nice not to have people shoving past you ALL THE TIME! Okay, so even though we had a long, 4 hour bus ride, we arrived in Piura in pretty good shape.

Remember what I said about arriving in Cuenca on a weekend? Same thing applies here: Don't do it. Everything was closed... we actually found an internet place (with one whole computer), but it was closed until Monday. Oh well. We walked about a bit in the 90+ degree weather looking for something to do... The only thing of note was some sort of military parade/demonstration thing in the Plaza de Armas. Pretty interesting, I suppose. Note: Take off your hat when they play their national anthem to avoid having the military police blow their whistles at you.

The next day we spent waiting for our plane to Lima. We got screwed at the airport, though. We were assured when we bought our tickets in Quito - at least, we THINK we were assured - that we wouldn't need to pay anything more in Peru. Not true. They tacked on an 18% tax... we're still not clear on what it's for, but it amounted to about $35 each. Joe paid with his Visa, though, and if we can't get a straight answer from the central AeroPeru office in Lima, he's gonna cancel it.

Okay, then. Our flight was nice. A normal, big jet. They even (tried to) speak English on the plane, but it was easier for us both to listen to the Spanish part because the accent was SO bad. Oh, and we saw a spectacular sunset just before landing. So far, Lima isn't all bad. We were going to spend the night in the airport doing our internet stuff there, but apparently the only internet cafe is beyond the international section and we can't go in there. We talked to a cab driver, and he was nice enough to drive us about 40km away to the ritzy section of Lima (where things apparently are open on Sundays). Anyway, we found an internet cafe place open to 1:30am and that's where my ass is planted right now.

We're getting ready to leave, so I'm going to wrap this up. In my next message, I'll let you know if McDonald's was still open.

Hasta la vista,

Cusco and Karl
So, yes. McDonald's was open at midnight! And Joe and I, forgoing the McD.L.T., had the distinct pleasure of trying the McFiesta! Ahhh, now I've eaten at McD's in FIVE countries. Here I come, Bolivia!

Well, the rest of our night in Lima wasn't nearly so exciting. We caught another expensive cab back to the airport and waited. And waited. Would you believe that an international airport like Lima's wouldn't have a lounge? At least it had a 24 hour restaurant - were we were able to nurse a single drink for 4 hours.

At about 6am, we were ready to leave (well, we were ready to leave a lot earlier than that, but we needed a plane). Listening to boarding calls in Spanish, over crappy speakers can be an interesting experience. Especially after you've been up for over 24 hours. But we found our plane - although I almost wish we hadn't! There was almost no leg room, and since our bags (carry-on, remember) couldn't fit in the overhead compartments, we had to put them under the seats. I actually had to slide my bag, on the floor, from the aisle to the window because I couldn't possibly fit it down there from above my seat. The flight was mercifully short - maybe because I slept through 99% of it.

We arrived in Cusco and soon after did nothing exciting. In fact, it took all our energy to hail a cab, get a hotel, and go to sleep! We ended up sleeping that first day away (until about 4pm) only to wake up to torrential rains. Besides my wonderful trip to Puyo on a bike, I hadn't seen that kind of rain down here! I guess this is what they mean when they say "wet season!" So, without much to do or see in town, we just grabbed dinner and did a little window shopping.

The next day started bright and early (5am) when we had to pick up Karl at the airport. He was only a few minutes late, and luckily wasn't crippled by the altitude (Cusco is at something like 3300 meters). We got him back to the hotel, but instead of letting him sleep, we forced him to follow us as we viewed some small, Incan ruins and tackled some errands.

Which brings us to the big news: A landslide took out the train tracks to Machu Picchu the day before we got to Cusco. We talked for awhile with a few different tour groups to find out what our options were. 1) Hike the Inca Trail. 2) Take a train to the Inca Trail head and hike along the tracks to Aguas Calientes (about 25 to 30 km). Or 3) Fly round trip by helicopter.

Although the most appealing option to me would be to hike the Inca Trail, there were just too many problems. 1) Karl had NO time to acclimatize, 2) It's REALLY wet down here, and 3) it would take 4 days before we'd even see Machu Picchu (MP) and that would make us miss something else on our trip (either Lake Titicaca, Nazca, or Bolivia). Hiking the tracks seemed possible and cheap, but there were just too many questions no one could answer: Like how bad the break in the tracks were, how long it'd take, etc. That left us with the helicopter ride...

Our first look at a price indicated that it would cost $455 round trip, PER PERSON! Screw that - we didn't need a tour group to book us! We headed on down to the airport to see what we could find out, but only the helicopter mechanic was there. He sent us to the Helicusco office to inquire about tickets. We arrived there at 4pm only to find that they were closed (they were supposed to be open until 6pm!). But, there was a woman would could speak a little English, and she told us that there were people there and that we could find something out soon.

I don't think I can accurately convey how chaotic the next 2 hours were. As we waited for them to open their doors, the crowd behind us grew to about 2 dozen people, all clamoring for the VERY few tickets left to MP. Luckily, they handed out numbered cards, and we got #3! While waiting, we listened to many of the people at the front of the line who seemed to know what was going on. They assured us that we had a good chance to get on a flight, but there were always others telling us that we should forget it (or try the Air Force ´copters!). Believe me when I tell you that our Spanish skills were tested to the limits that day!

Finally, we got into the Helicusco office around 6pm. They had these huge pieces of paper taped together with their reservations handwritten on them. As each flight filled (24 people), they would just write "full" next to it. As you can image, it was a mess. I managed to tell the lady there that we wanted to leave as early as possible the next day, and return as LATE as possible the following day. The first thing she did is shake her head "no." I asked her to try, and, with the help of another person, 10 minutes later we had something like what we wanted. The only problem was that we couldn't fly out of Cusco, we had to fly out of Ollantaytambo!

Luckily, while we were paying for our tickets, a guy who was in the line with us asked us if we'd like to ride with him to Ollan. He was going to charge US $5 for each of us, but at least we wouldn't have to deal with the bus at 6:30am. The only catch was that we'd have to be ready and waiting on the corner of the Plaza at 5:30am because they had an earlier flight to catch! Still, it sounded better than a crowded bus... so we took them up on their offer. We spent the remaining part of the evening congratulating ourselves and winding down from all the excitement at Helicusco.

The next day started much too early, but we were ready and waiting when they showed up with their van. We had a GREAT ride though the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I'll can tell you that they may not cultivate their farms so high up the mountains as they do in Ecuador, but in this area at least, the patchwork-view is incredible! It must be one very fertile valley - it seems as though every square foot is part of a farm.

Two hours later, we arrived at a nondescript fútbol field in Ollantaytambo that had been converted into a landing field. At least 200 (if you count the vendors) people were waiting for the first flight to arrive (fog-delayed). Since we still had hours before our flight, we decided to check out the Incan ruins in the area which were easily visible on the hills.

When we got there, there was no one at the door, so an old lady told us to just go right on in. Not wanting to argue (nor spend money), we did. This particular set of ruins was one of the only places where the Incas were able to hold off an invading force of the Spanish, and you could easily see why. It was a temple (fortress) set upon dozens of terraces on the side of a dusty mountain. We ended up having to climb to the top with our full packs (because we were planning on spending the night in Aguas Calientes...) and the altitude sure didn't help any. From up there, we were able to examine a lot of Inca stone work, the helicopters landing, and not much else. After an hour and many photographs later, we decided to head back to the field to check in early.

I think Helicusco actually means chaos. The first thing I tried to do was find someone that actually WORKED for them on that field. I had to ask around to find that out. When I finally talked to the woman, she assured me that we would get on the 3rd flight... a wait of about 1.5 hours. Not true. When we went back 2 flights later to get our boarding passes, we found out that we had been bumped to the next flight. We were disappointed, but Joe told them that as long as we get to Aguas Calientes that same day, we'd be satisfied.

Finally, our ´copter arrived. It was... less than we expected (the flight, I mean). We were quickly herded onboard, grabbed a seat, and watched the terrain slide by for about 20 minutes. Although the mountainsides were pretty spectacular, there really wasn't much else to see. At least they served us a Dixie cup worth of Orange Crush.

As soon as we arrived at the field (well, the grassy area next to the train tracks) in Aguas Calientes, I tried to check us in on our flight on the next day. No such luck. They set us up with a "guide" who was about 13 years old. They gave him a note (as if we couldn't communicate our needs to the office in town) to take to Helicusco and then we followed him down the train tracks. (Aguas Calientes has only one road - it goes from the town to Machu Picchu. And, as far as I could see, there were ONLY busses. No cars. No trucks.) Luckily I had bought a $1 plastic, touristy poncho because it started to pour before we arrived in town. Joe and Karl loved to make fun of me when I was wearing the stupid thing, but at least I stayed dry!

So anyway, this "guide" takes us into town. We talked to the Helicusco guy and he tells us that all we need to do is check in sometime the next day after noon and up until 1 hour before our flight. Fine, that's done. Off to find a hotel. We weren't too picky because we were in a hurry, so we grabbed the first one in view (luckily it had a GREAT shower). And, since we missed breakfast completely, we grabbed a quick, small lunch at the internet cafe. Yes, even Aguas Calientes, a one-street (one track, actually) town has internet access.

After that we quickly headed to the bus station to grab a ticket for the bus ride up to Machu Picchu. It was expensive ($6 US for a 6km ride) AND we had to wait awhile, but at about 2pm we finally started up the mountains towards the park.
And that's where I'm going to leave you for now. I promise that the next message will be an attempt to convey to y'all the impact Machu Picchu had on me. Some of you will undoubtedly be lucky enough to see my pictures when I get back... that will help. Words really can't do it justice.

Entonces, hasta luego,

Machu Picchu -- The Experience (Day 1)
Okay, let me try to put into words what really can't be put into words.

Machu Picchu (MP) is impressive. Those of you who have seen Palenque in México will have an idea of what MP is like. There are a lot of differences, though. First, Palenque beats MP hands down in the size-of-a-single-building-or-temple category. There are a few big structures in MP, but nothing like the Mayan pyramids or palaces. MP is bigger as a park, though. I know, I know. There's supposed to be a lot more to Palenque that they haven't unearthed yet, but, for now, MP stretches out farther. Also, (and I didn't notice this until the second day) MP doesn't have any plaques telling you what the structures are. I, personally, liked this aspect of the park. It made it seem just a little less touristy. Not much, but a little.

Part of the "bigness" of MP comes from the fact that it was a self-sufficient city in it's time (or so I gather). One of the first things you notice when entering the park are the huge terraces of the agricultural section. The main agricultural section must have 300 meters (high) of the mountainside covered. Each of those terraces stretch out about 100 meters to each side and are maybe 5 meters wide.

Enough background. I should just start at the beginning (my beginning, anyway). As I said in the last message, we arrived at the park at about 2:30pm. . . And bought our tickets. Joe and I were lucky. There was a 50% student discount so we only had to pay $5US for each day. Karl was less fortunate - he had to pay $10US on the first day (but only $5US for day 2). From the ticket counter you really can't see much of MP except for maybe a couple tall buildings and Huayna Picchu which is that towering, steep mountain in the background that you see in all the postcards. As we entered the park, it looked as though we were going to be lucky: The rain had stopped for the moment and it actually looked as if the sun might make an appearance.

The first structures you come across are a couple of restored, thatched-roofed, stone houses blocking your path to the main section of the park. We took a right to check out the scenic outlook (read: big cliff) that gave a great view of the Urubamba River and Aguas Calientes set underneath a sheer mountain face at least one kilometer high. After the necessary picture taking, we decided to head up to the agricultural section instead of into the city proper.

The climb up to the top of the terraces wasn't too difficult even though we were somewhere around 2500 meters at that point. Actually, I should speak for myself - Karl really didn't have much time to acclimatize, and he needed a couple breaks... Anyway, after a short time we emerged on a scenic outlook of almost the entire park. It's one of those places in which you could easily sit all day... and it was only going to get better.

After admiring the view for a few minutes, we continued to the top of the agricultural section. There's a small house (only one!) up there and, if I remember right, it's called The Caretaker of the Funerary Rock's House. The Funerary Rock is a small, stone alter dedicated to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) which is set a little behind the house. Around the house were three, docile, photogenic llamas. Of course we took pictures of them.

The view from Caretaker's house is one of the best in MP. Besides the mountain Huanya Picchu, it's the highest point you can get to. (Well, that's not EXACTLY true. Where the Inca Trail emerges over MP there's probably a good, slightly higher view as well, but we didn't have time to check that out. The Caretaker's house is much closer to MP, anyway... you can see the city in much more detail.) While Joe and Karl went to explore the last few terraces above us, I spent some time sitting on a nice rock that overlooked almost all the ruins.

After 5 or 10 minutes, I decided to move on. This was due in no small part to the bugs which were biting my sandal-clad feet - for the first time, I really sympathized with Patience and all the bites she had on her legs. These suckers ITCHED! So, leaving Joe and Karl to defend for themselves, I headed off in the direction of the upper city.

The city is different from any ruins I've seen before. Again, for those of you who went to Palenque, especially those of you who when to explore the waterfalls below, you might be able to get a feel for the city ruins of MP. Then again, there are a lot of differences, too. The city of MP is much better preserved than the house-like ruins of Palenque (not the temples of the main park). Although there are no roofs remaining, the walls usually stretch all the way to where the rafters where. You find yourself walking among high walls, through rooms, and emerging from time to time in small, open areas.

You've probably heard about the famous Incan stonework. Rumors of the fact that you can't even slide a razor blade through the cracks between the well-cut stones. Let me reassure you that this is indeed correct in many places, although from what I saw, MP isn't the best place in Peru to view that particular kind of stonework. Most of the city is built out of oddly-shaped, but still very, very solid rock walls - just not square-cut, like many of the famous temples. When I entered the city itself, I suppose I was a little disappointed when I didn't see every wall built just like that. I shouldn't have worried, though. When I reached the temple, there was more than enough to appreciate there.

Still waiting for Karl and Joe to catch up, I sat myself down at another site with a great view of the central courtyard of MP. There happened to be a gringo down there, all by himself, playing one of those pan-flute things. It was...interesting. He was playing okay and all, but it somehow disturbed the silence of the ruins. While I was sitting there, though, a guide came along with his group and started lecturing about certain parts of the park. What I learned by eavesdropping was that the Incans of MP had actually carved parts of the mountainside into the likeness of a condor and a puma. It was pretty vague-you needed to use your imagination-but it was there.

Before they left, I did, and headed for the temples. These basically occupy the highest section of the city and are a gathering place for the, shall we say, "spiritual" people that come to MP. There were a few people scattered around the high point meditating, smoking, etc. To each their own. Before I made it to the top, I stopped to examine the REAL Incan stonework of MP. There were a couple rooms and walls that really impressed me. First, there was a three-sided temple that had one wall that was just about ready to fall... and STILL it looked solid. The other two walls were perfect. They'd have passed the razor-test.

Directly behind that temple was a room that was created with exacting detail. You could pick a horizontal line made by one layer of rocks and trace it all the way around the room. Most of the rocks were bigger than my torso (at least!) and they were lined up more even than bricks (without mortar, too!). I believe that small, unassuming room was one of the most impressive things in the whole park.

I spent some time looking down the other, very steep side of MP where, almost on the side of a cliff, the Incans had constructed more terraces. At that time in the evening there were hundreds of LBBs (Little brown (and blue!) birds) swooping back and forth along the terraces, presumably eating bugs. More power to 'em. Anyway, while watching them I also overheard a guide talking to another group about a rock I was standing next to. Apparently the Incas knew how to find magnetic north because when he placed his compass on that rock, the four corners pointed north, south, east and west. Pretty cool.

After that, Joe and Karl finally caught up to me as I was about ready to ascend to the tall temple. (I'm sorry I don't have the proper names for all you ruins buffs out there. Perhaps Joe will fill in the blanks as he had a booklet which he would consult at frequent intervals. I preferred to wander and wonder. Maybe later I can find the time to actually look up the names of the buildings!) We climbed those stairs and sat up there by the alter for awhile. It was nice... the sun was coming out and we had the whole park laid out in front of us.

It was getting late, though. The park was going to close at 5:30pm and it was about 4:30. We really didn't want to have to climb on the very last bus, so we decided to start walking back towards the entrance.

When we crossed the courtyard to walk though the actual, urban section of the city, we came across a gated Trail head up Huayna Picchu. Up until that time, we didn't know that you could even climb it. There are terraces on the top of that jagged looking, sheer cliff-like mountain, but it didn't occur to us that there would (or could!) be a trail. We talked to the guard and he told us that it could be hiked in the mornings and that it wasn't TOO difficult. Joe and I resolved to tackle that the next day.

From there we wandered back through the urban section which was filled with house-sized buildings without roofs. We walked pretty quickly through there because we knew that we'd be exploring them in-depth the following morning - we didn't want to spoil it for ourselves.

Soon we found ourselves back in the parking lot waiting for our bus to fill up so that we could leave. Once we started going down the hill, and interesting sideshow started. A Quechua kid, about 14 years old, started running down the stairs that crossed the switchbacks in the road. At each passing of the bus, he'd be on a different side, waving and YELLING "Aaaaaaadioooooooos!" and on the other side "Goooooooooooodbyyyyyyyyye!" I'd guess that the road is about 5km long and he actually beat us down to the bottom. Of course, he got on the bus at the end for donations.

That's pretty much it for day 1 at Machu Picchu. We returned to Aguas Calientes and had dinner before Karl and Joe returned to the hotel and used up all the hot water. I spent some time at the internet cafe... watching The Beastmaster in Spanish! What a classic.

Okay, I gotta run again, but I'll try to type up MP Day 2 soon!

Hasta entonces,

Machu Picchu -- The Experience (Day 2)
Okay, Day 2 started nice and early. Like at 5:30am! We got our stuff together, left it in the hotel manager's room and went out to grab some breakfast. As you might imagine, NOTHING WAS OPEN! Oh, well. We grabbed some fruit and water from a sidewalk stand and went over to the bus station. The first bus leaves at 6:30am, and even though we got there at 6:15, it was already full. Luckily there were enough people waiting to immediately fill a second bus. Off we went!
Arriving at the park in the early morning is a very good idea. Even though there were already at least 60 people there, it seemed as though the park was almost empty. Just after we bought our tickets, the sun made its appearance over the tall peaks around MP and started burning off the mist. And there was a lot of mist to burn off! Or maybe you'd call them clouds... they seemed to be there, off and on, all day.

Knowing that we were going to have to leave around 2pm to catch our helicopter flight back to civilization, we went straight to the sections that we skipped the day before. Actually, Joe and Karl went to the upper city, I think that's what it was called, while I explored the prison section and lower city. I really enjoyed walking through the ruins that morning - The organized tours start in the agricultural section and move through the upper city first, ergo: I had an entire section of the park to myself for at least an hour. I took a lot of pictures, crawled into dank caves, and generally just did a lot of wondering.

After some time, Joe and Karl caught up with me and I spent a little time showing them all the nifty things I had found. At this point, it was about 9am and the mist/clouds over Huayna Picchu didn't look to be thinning at all. Since Joe and I were going to climb that sucker, we wanted to give the sun as long as possible to give those clouds the boot. No breakfast = hungry hikers. We started to work our way back to the hotel at the entrance. On the way, though, we kept getting sidetracked. At one point we spotted a pair of "Incan rabbits" which seemed to live in a pile of rocks in one of the ruins. They were pretty cool, and I'm pretty sure if Indra were there, she would have done a great job mimicking the sounds they made.

Finally, we made it to the restaurant. Here's a tip for anyone planning a day trip to Machu Picchu: Pack a lunch! For a continental breakfast (bread, coffee, juice) we're talkin´ over $5. For lunch (which did look quite good, I have to admit) you're going to pay $16. Not too bad if you're in the United States, but remember that lunch at this hotel would cover the cost of 3 nights in a Peruvian hotel!

We caved in, though, and ordered breakfast. Mostly it was because we needed to wait out the clouds over Huayna Picchu... Joe and I decided to give them until 10:30 - then we were going to go no matter what. In the meantime, it was time to play the official card game of Rick Bellagh's UAS Trips: Shithead!

When 10:30 rolled around, the mountain still looked pretty iffy... but at least we could see some of it! Karl decided to stay in the restaurant and we would just meet him there when we got back. We signed ourselves into the climber's register at the Trail head, (Hey, they make you bring identification with you on this hike - is that in case they need to identify your body if you fall to your death or something?) and started up at 10:40am.

The climb was, well, not too difficult. Sure, the altitude affected me and I was winded, but I think I could have made most of the hike without a break - Maybe I'm just jaded after the climb up Cotopaxi, though. It took us about 50 minutes. The trail itself wasn't so bad. They had ropes and cables set up in most places to prevent the balance-impaired from falling off the kilometer-high cliffs. There were a LOT of rocks stairs, though - some of them, I assume, were placed or cut by the original inhabitants of MP.

About 5 to 10 minutes from the top was great lookout over MP and the mountainside. I think I saw Canada from up there. Anyway, Joe and I snapped a few pictures of MP laid out before us before continuing up to the top.

The next part of the climb was actually pretty interesting. The very top of the mountain was terraced (like everything else in Perú!). We climbed stairs, walked under arches, passed through small tunnels with more stairs, and finally arrived at the top. Let me tell you, we were very lucky to get those pictures 10 minutes before. By the time we reached the peak, we were completely inside the clouds that had formed. It was raining pretty hard and once again I was glad that I had my dorky poncho... it kept my camera nice and dry. So, Joe and I stood on top of the highest boulders, looked around to see more boulders disappearing about 20 meters away in the mist, and got rained on. We started back down soon after.

It continued to rain on us the rest of the way down the hill. When we checked back into the register, it was only 12:15pm or so. We walked back through a deserted park... or so it seemed. Everyone was huddled under all the buildings with thatch roofs. We caught up to Karl who was still at the same table in the restaurant (which was now very full!) playing solitaire. We thought to wait out the rain and see some more of the park, but it never really let up. At about 1pm we decided to head back down to Aguas Calientes and get everything squared away with our helicopter tickets.

The bus ride had the same entertainment as the day before. A native boy (different one, this time) beat us down to the bottom of the mountain yelling "adios!" and "goodbye" at every corner. Personally, I didn't think he had the style that the first kid had.

Well, afterwards we did all sorts of normal things in Aguas Calientes that don't have anything to do with Machu Picchu; like eating lunch, getting our bags, and checking with Helicusco. So I guess that's pretty much all there is for this update.

Next time: Lake Titicaca and Bolivia!

Perdón, ¿Dónde está Lago Titicaca?
Well, that's enough about Machu Picchu. Let me tell you what was next:

We fought tooth and nail to get back onto a helicopter! Well, it wasn't that bad, but for awhile there it looked as though we were going to have to spend ANOTHER night in Aguas Calientes. From this point on in the trip, we had budgeted our time exactly so that we could see everything that we wanted. A delay of a day would most likely have bumped off the Nazca lines from our list...

The problem was that the flights were running late and that the weather tends to get a little foggy at night. If the fog set in, there would be nothing we could do about it... they would just cancel the last flight(s) of the day. Guess which flight we had. After talking with the Helicusco people, though, it looked like things were going to be okay. Because enough people didn't show up for the last few flights, we were bumped to an earlier flight. Now, it seemed that this particular flight would be going to a tiny little village some 2 hours away (by bus) from Cusco and we were going to have to make other arrangements to get back there, but at the last minute we got clearance to fly all the way to Cusco. Ahhhh, problem solved. On the way out of Aguas Calientes the pilot graced us with a Machu Picchu fly-by... too bad the sun was right in our eyes! The rest of the 30 minute trip was mostly spent flying over the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Also pretty cool - especially if you had a window seat!

The next day was spent puttering around Cusco. We did all the normal tourist things: We left our bags in a safe room in the hotel, had our laundry done, took goofy pictures, developed them, and sent a few of them to y'all. By the time that was done we were ready to get on our nightmare, overnight bus to Puno.

It wasn't really ALL that bad. There weren't any chickens on it. But it was still annoying because we stopped in Nowhere, Perú for TWO HOURS in the middle of the night. I sure hope it was because the bus driver was too tired to continue. Any other excuse would piss me off too much.

We arrived in Puno around 6am and I got my first view of Lake Titicaca. Let me tell you: It's the biggest, highest, most navigable lake _I've_ ever seen! As soon as we got off the bus, we were instantly assaulted with people trying to sell us tours and take us to hotels. We picked one and checked it out. Decent. It had beds. We took it and crashed until about 2pm before even thinking about checking out something else in Puno.

When we got up, the very first thing we had to do was to make reservations in another hotel. Why? Because ours didn't have cable TV and the Superbowl was the next day! The hotel we selected had "Fox Deportes" and we figured that would be good enough. Besides, we had to try out one of those "luxury" hotels that were so expensive. We paid $10 each.

The rest of that day was pretty uneventful. We were still pretty tired...

Day two in Puno was more interesting. After dropping off our bags at the new hotel, we wanted to check out the festivities. You see, Candlemas was just beginning to get underway, and there was a lot going on. We headed for the stadium where traditional folkish dances were being performed by groups of people from the neighboring villages. The stadium was pretty full, though, and although we could see the patterns they danced on the field, we couldn't see much detail. Before we left, we watched an interesting group called Los Uros who are from the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. They had costumes made almost completely out of reeds and stood out quite well from the 80 or so other groups.

After that, we took a cab up to one of the local parks that offered a good view of the city and Lake Titicaca. Not much to do there, though, so we snapped some pictures and left in search of an internet place. (By the way, internet cafes are a great way to assure your parents that you're still alive. Much cheaper than long distance phone calls, too!)

While we were there, we met a guy about our age from Florida and invited him to watch the Superbowl in our hotel (if it was on). We grabbed dinner and headed back there to see. Yep. It was all in Spanish, but at least we got to watch it. The only bad thing was that the Broncos won. What's next, the Bills?  

We still had another day in Puno, so we decided to book a tour of some of the parts of Lake Titicaca. (The lake is about 100 miles long... there's really no way to see all of it in a short amount of time!) We did get to see two different islands, though. The first was the floating islands of Los Uros. Very interesting. The islands really are made up of reeds that are constantly being replaced on top as they rot away on bottom. From time to time you'll spot whole reed boats below your feet that were added to the island when they had outlived their usefulness. There were also those reed boats in the water, too, and most of them had ornate, puma heads built into the bows. The only thing spoiling the islands were the vendors trying to sell stuff. You can't walk 10 meters without someone saying "buy something from me!"

After that, we had a nice, long ride to the island of Taquile. Hint: Bring a book on Lake Titicaca tours. We spent about 6 hours on the boat that day... Once on the island, we had to climb up some 500 stairs to get to the village at the top. (Karl was heard to remark more than once: "Nobody said anything to ME about stairs!) Remember, we're at about 4000 meters (almost 12,000 ft), here. It'll kick your butt.

At the top, we were allowed to wander around the town a little bit, and while we were eating at a small restaurant, our guide told us about the customs of the local people. They were interesting. You could tell their marital status and sometimes even their moods by the clothes they wore. I think that the tourism (even though they control it) is starting to take it's toll on the inhabitants of Taquile, though. Many of the kids are running around offering to pose for your pictures (for a few soles, of course) and trying to sell you friendship bracelets.

At about 3pm, we left them behind and started our long, slow, windy, rainy voyage back to the Puno. By the time we got off that boat, we were really ready to get off that boat. It didn't help that they had packed on about 10 more people from Taquile before we left...

That night in Puno we met with Steve again and we were introduced to another girl from the U.S. which he had met-Alice. After having dinner with them, we pushed through the tide of humanity which had gathered in one of the plazas to see what was going on. Basically, it was a marching band (a staple in Puno's celebration of Candlemas!) playing while fireworks were launched into the sky from the center of the plaza. It was great! Every 10th firework explosion would rain down little rockets on the crowd! Good thing we were upwind...we never got hit.

Alice and Steve left soon after, but not before we exchanged e-mail addresses and prospective hotels for La Paz, Bolivia. Since we were leaving to La Paz the next morning, and Alice in 2 days, we thought we might meet up again. We headed back to the hotel and I managed to write some postcards before going to sleep. We had to get up early the next morning to catch our 8 hour bus ride...

Bolivia or Bust
I suppose some people get used to waking up early on vacations, but I don't think I'm ever going to get used to it. The bus ride to Bolivia was about an 8 hour ride, and since the border is open only during the day, you can't really take a night bus... This means you have to leave in the morning. Wonderful.

So we left in the morning. Actually, the bus ride really wasn't all that bad! After about 2 hours of watching the view of Lake Titicaca and farmlands pass by, the bus stops at a casa de cambio so you can change your soles (or dollars) to Bolivianos. A few minutes later they let us off at Perú's immigration to get our exit stamps. No problems, quick and painless. Then we stroll across the border (which is signified by an arch in the road) and get our entrance stamps on the Bolivian side. We were each given 60 days without any questions. Too bad we had only planned on having 4 days in La Paz.

The bus continued on to Copacabana, a small town on the shore of the lake. We ate lunch there before catching our next bus, but it was a quick lunch - about 30 minutes.

The bus ride through the next section of Perú was nice, but I managed to sleep through some of it. One interesting note: We had to cross the lake at the narrowest point - about 400-500 meters. We got off the bus and onto a boat while the bus just drove on down to a barge that was barely big enough to hold it. I guess they knew what they were doing. Our bus was waiting for us when we arrived on the other side.

Now let me tell you about our first glimpse of La Paz. As you drive near it, you're on what they call the Altiplano, or "high plain." There's a lot of flat farm land to drive through up there... As you approach La Paz, it really doesn't look all that big -- just a group of somewhat shoddy looking set of brick buildings that seem to line a section of the horizon. They don't even appear to have any depth.

Once you drive between them, there doesn't seem to be much more to the city, either. There are streets, cars, and all that, but it doesn't look like a CITY. And what you do see looks pretty run down...

And then it happens. The highway you drive along takes a turn and suddenly the Altiplano drops off into a huge, bowl-shaped canyon. On every side - all the way to the top! - buildings and houses line the walls. I got some great pictures, but I don't know if they're going to show how amazing it really is.

When we got to the city, we felt a little lost. This was the first place we had gone without a Lonely Planet guide, and we realized quickly how much we missed having it! Although Steve let us flip through his before we left Puno, we never did get a chance to photocopy the section on La Paz - not even a map! At least we wrote down a few prospective hotels. We found one, took it, and set out on a quest to find dinner.

Our buddy Karl was smitten with the idea of eating at McDonalds. Joe and I had a hunch that there would be one in La Paz, but we didn't know for sure. We grabbed a cab, and I asked him to take us in the direction of a good cinema - I'd noticed that the high-tourist, and that means McD's, usually has those good theaters in them. Sure enough, the Prado was the place! By that time it was already late afternoon, so we grabbed a bite to eat and checked out the movie theaters.

Ever since I saw Titanic in a Mexican movie theater I've never had high expectations for others in 3rd world countries. I'm starting to change my opinion, now. We decided to see El Truman Show in one of the two theaters in the Prado and it was great! First, we selected some balcony seats - front row, dead center. And while we were waiting for the movie to start, they had four television sets mounted on the walls of the theater (at least 50 inches each) playing something from the Discovery channel to entertain us. They turned them off when the previews started... and when the previews ended, they played up the DTS surround sound logo by killing the lights at JUST the right time. Someone enjoys their job!

Day two in Bolivia wasn't very exciting. Karl managed to break the frames of his glasses that morning and we had to spend a large portion of the day waiting for them to be repaired. We walked around a lot, checked out a couple internet spots, booked a tour and our return tickets, and generally got familiar with our little section of the city.

We had a goofy goal for day three, though. We were going to play golf on the highest course in the world! No such luck. After a $10 cab ride to the golf course, we were told that to just walk past the club gate we would have to pay $50 (US dollars!). It would be another $25 for clubs, balls, caddies, etc. Well, on a student budget, we just couldn't justify that kind of money. Besides, none of us could play golf anyway - we just wanted to goof off.

Instead we had our cool cab driver take us to the Valley of the Moon. While he ran to get some gas for his car (and some cokes for us), we wandered around taking some pictures of the strange rock formations. Joe made the comment that it looked like a dirt glacier...

After that, the driver took us to a park high above La Paz so that we could get some panoramic pictures of the city. It wasn't as good a spot as when you first see it from the highway, but it was still pretty good. Finally we got back to the Prado but we didn't really have anything planned for the rest of the day. We tried our hands at pool (billiards) on Bolivian tables, but the pockets are MUCH smaller than on American tables and we found it more frustrating than entertaining. After that, we located an expensive(!) bookstore that sold books in English for Karl. He wasn't interested in picking up one of the Spanish books Joe and I offered him. Go figure.

Day four, our last day in La Paz, was going to be spent at the ruins of Tihuanaco. Karl and I still went, but Joe was sick and wanted to spend some more time in bed. I'm glad I went, but it really was kind of a let down after seeing Machu Picchu. The Tihuanacos were pre-Incans and although they had similar buildings and temples, the certainly didn't rival the style and size of the Incan ruins we had seen. I'm sure this park would have been more interesting to someone with an interest in archaeology, though. One cool thing, when we got back to La Paz, they stopped the bus so that we could take pictures for the best look-out over the city. It was sunny and everything!

We finally met up with Joe again at an internet place... that night we checked out a another movie in another theater - Rush Hour. The theater was about as good as the other one... too bad the movie wasn't.

Day five sent us packing back to Perú. We basically repeated the process in reverse. Copacabana for lunch, cross the border without problems, change our money, etc. We got back to Puno that evening but were really too tired to check out the ongoing celebrations... But we knew that the next day was supposed to be bigger and better anyway.

Puno: Part Deux!!
On our last day in the Lake Titicaca area, we were split in the things that we wanted to do. We wanted to see the burial tombs in Silustani and we wanted to watch the parades in town. It turns out that the tours to Silustani start at 2:30pm and usually don't get done until 6pm. Since we already had bus tickets FOR 6pm, we didn't think that would be the best idea. Instead we decided to skip a tour and just go out there ourselves. We found a cab driver willing to take us, and took off at 10:30am.

Silustani is pretty cool. There are all sorts of burial towers... some no more than a ruined ring of stones on the ground, some that are over 10 meters high and built with the traditional cut-stonework of the Incans. I'm not sure, but I think that the Silustani were pre-Incan also... although the Incans took over the sight and even made some of their own burial tombs there as well. I could be wrong, though. We didn't have a guide.

We bought a few trinkets and doo-dads at the site, skipped the museum, and headed back to town. Although the parades had started about an hour earlier, they were still going strong (and would continue going strong at least until we left at 6pm!)
The parades of Candlemas in Puno are incredible. They break up into groups of about 25-50 people - all decked out in very elaborate costumes - and dance their way through every street in the city. A typical parade would be made up of the following: A banner carrier at the front, 4-8 beautiful girls dancing behind them, next comes either a group of dancing men in devil costumes or older women with noise-makers, finally followed by about a 20-piece marching band. Oh, and some of the groups had a bunch of dancing Yeti, too. The parades are truly amazing. Each group goes on for hours and hours, and carries energy with it where ever they go! When a parade enters a street, if you're on it, you CANNOT leave until it's over. There's no room to sneak past the gathered spectators. And there were 80(!!) different parades going on that day! It puts our 4th of July parade to shame.

Finally, we had to leave. At 6pm we started our long series of bus rides that would finish out Karl's trip and get Joe and I back to Quito just in time for our Galápagos trip. We didn't have a whole heck of a lot to do in between, though.

The Nazca Lines
So let me tell you about Arequipa and Nazca. Hmmmm...Arequipa. We grabbed a hotel, slept through some of the day, found a place to eat lunch, looked (but didn't buy anything) through some bookstores, and just killed some time until the next bus. 

Nazca was cool. Well, it was really, really hot, but it was neat. How's that? We stepped off the bus at about 6am and right off the bat we found a good deal for checking out the Nazca lines. We booked a flyover for 8:30am and it cost us about $30 each. In the meantime we grabbed breakfast and a shower. That was a mistake. Breakfast, not the shower.

When we got to the airport, we found out that we were going to fly in a four-seat Cessna. Very cool. I called shotgun and got it. Our pilot spoke a little English, but not very much. Basically he was able to say stuff like: "There. On the right. You see? Monkey. Monkey. There... You see it? 110 meters! Monkey. ... Monkey." He was sorta annoying, but the lines weren't. They're a little harder to see than I had imagined, but they're still very impressive. And the HUGE desert landscape is covered with them!

On the way back to the airport, the pilot asked me if I wanted to try flying. Yeah, baby. YEAH! I gave it a shot... and although I was feeling a little motion sick before grabbing the wheel, (okay, yoke...whatever!) the feeling INSTANTLY transferred to Joe when I took over. :) I chickened out, though. I wanted to ask the pilot if I could fly in circles for awhile, but I just did what he told me to do - keep it level at 2700ft and fly towards the airport. Easy enough to do, although I was surprised at how difficult it was to keep at one altitude...

Anyway, I think Karl and Joe were glad when we landed... (And we found out that in another plane, a tourist from our hotel DID toss his groceries! No more breakfast before flying!)

After that we still had the day in Nazca. We booked another short trip to the Nazca cemetery and while we waited around we reserved our bus tickets for that night. The cemetery was amazing! It was in the middle of a vast, dry desert and there was almost nothing there! About 10 tombs had been excavated, all with skulls and mummies displayed inside... But what was more amazing was what was all around: Bones (human), fabrics, shards of pottery. All this stuff was from the result of grave robbers - or so we were told by our guide. Apparently the park has almost no support and the people of the area are not as superstitious as those in the mountains. For many years the tombs have been robbed and the valuable items sold off to collectors on the black market. In fact, I lost a lot of respect for a really cute English girl that was on our tour when she put a rib bone in her backpack...

The tour continued when we went to the home of a guy who specializes in Nazca pottery and then to a site where people are still working to extract gold from the surrounding mountains. These parts of the tour were informative, I suppose, but I got the impression that we were just being taken to help out the family friends of our guide. *shrug*

We killed the rest of the day in Nazca at a nice restaurant while it rained. Apparently the town was pretty surprised. It almost NEVER rains there. As you can imagine, we were pretty ho-hum about it.

Now we're in Lima - A city that everyone has told me is terrible, but that I kind of like. Maybe it's because we're in Miraflores, a pretty upscale section. Maybe it's because we're eating at McDonalds and watching movies again. Or maybe it's just because there are THOUSANDS of really beautiful women around here and some of them have been blowing me kisses. Nah. Couldn't be that.

Anyway, we dropped off Karl at the airport last night and he should be back in the states by now. Joe and I are about to head back to our hotel and get our bags before heading to the airport ourselves for our flight back to Piura. We've got a lot more traveling ahead of us (see above), but I think we'll have one more shot at checking our e-mail again before going to the Galapagos in on the 14th. From there, though, we'll likely be out of touch for 2 full weeks. What a great way to end all these damn bus rides!

Hopefully my next update will be chock-full of Galapagos stories. I'll bet you can hardly contain yourselves.

Hasta la próxima,

Want to know why we ended up hating bus rides in South America? Probably because of all the time we spent on them during a one-week stint.

Here's the breakdown: 
2/6 - 8:00am - 3:00pm Bus from La Paz to Puno
2/7 - 6:00pm - 6:00am Bus from Puno to Arequipa
2/8 - 8:30pm - 6:00am Bus from Arequipa to Nazca
2/9 - 11:30pm - 6:00am Bus from Nazca to Lima
2/11 - 3:10pm - 5:00pm Plane from Lima to Piura
2/11 - 6:00pm - 10:00pm Car from Piura to Tumbes
2/12 - 8:00am - 10:00pm Bus from Tumbes to Quito

Too many buses!

The Beginning of the End
Here's a tip for all you would be travelers: Don't bus in Perú! It's not that the buses are bad (actually, they're pretty good), but the distances you have to travel are... too much!

Joe and I successfully left Lima behind and flew to Piura. We were desperate to get back to Quito on the 13th (it was the 11th) so we'd have at least a day to get things ready before going to the Galápagos. Because of that, we decided to take a car instead of a bus to Piura. Talk about 4 hours of hell... we were crammed into the back seat with two other people! This, I don't suggest. (One good thing did come of this little ride: It gave me time to puzzle out Rick's riddle: A 3HT with G on the M. Here's a "hint" he gave me: A 3WT with M and R in E. Good luck! It took me a couple weeks...

Okay, so we arrived in Tumbes and spent the night there - we were getting worried, too. The first two hotels we checked were completely full. Anyway, the next morning we got up early and headed for the Perú/ecuador border which is only a half hour away. Passing through was easy enough, even if we did have to flash our passports a half-dozen times.

A bad, bad thing happened to me there, though. In Perú they have "moto-taxis" (that are basically 3-wheeled motorcycles) to move people around. Well, I threw my bag on the back of one and instead of checking the dangling straps carefully myself, I relied on the judgement of a boy riding on back that said "Every thing's okay back here!" Well, it wasn't. A shoulder strap got caught in the tire and before I could manage to get the driver to stop it had torn the whole thing loose. Do you know how much of a pain in the ass it is to CARRY a backpack around everywhere? Oh, I was pissed. But what could I do? I haven't mastered "mad Spanish" yet.

We continued on. We had at least 3 more buses ahead of us and the border town was not a place we wanted to stick around looking for a place to get my bag fixed. We took a 2 hour bus to Machala and then found another bus to Cuenca that took 4 hours. Once we got there, we needed a break, so we made reservations for a bus at 9pm (about 4.5 hours later) and ran some errands.

I got my bag fixed in 20 minutes once I finally found the place to have it done! They only wanted about 5,000 sucres for the job (about 75 cents or so). Hah! I thanked them profusely and gave them a 20,000 bill. It was worth it to me (and they did a great job, too!) Joe and I also had our first real drenching in Cuenca that night. They were celebrating Carnaval and it was CRAZY. Here's another tip: If the sidewalk in front of you is drenched during Carnaval, cross to the other side. You will likely avoid getting pitchers of water poured on you. Not that that was the only way they'd get you. I saw plenty of big water pistols and the air was filled with water balloons - I even saw a pickup truck with a water CANON mounted in back. God help the cute girls in that town...

The 9pm bus to Quito was the last (thankfully!) and I am so glad. I was REALLY ready to be done with buses! We arrived at 6am and decided that sleep would be the best thing to do. So we did. BTW, for those of you who left early, you can count yourself lucky as far as the weather is concerned. It was COLD when we got back to Quito. And RAINY! Well, I guess Juneau isn't any better...

We ran a bunch of errands that last day before going to the Galápagos. Stuff like getting our tickets seemed pretty important at the time. I also had to spend some time arranging for my flight to Los Angeles - I'm so glad you can book tickets over the internet. I shudder to think how much it would have cost to do that from an Emetel office. (And before you all say "You can call a 1-800 number!" you should know that Joe's calling card was charged over $100 when Joe and Dugan used it to call American and Alaskan Airlines´ 1-800s!)

El Archipiélago del Colón
So. The Galápagos. How can I give y'all a clear picture about how our next 13 days went? I'm not going to give you the blow-by-blow because we basically spent the first 8 days on a boat tour that stopped in at least 2 places each day... Here, I'll just try to give you the highlights of the whole Galápagos experience:

First, you have to get up REAL early to catch the plane from Quito. Other than that, it's like any other flight - except that they don't have assigned seats... pretty weird on such a big jet, I thought. Also, when you arrive at the Galápagos airport, you have to get your passport stamped and you have to pay $100 just to enter the airport. Crazy.

Our guide met us at the gate (that's THE gate) and we met up with most of the other members of our group: 2 Italian guys, a German couple, and a Japanese couple. We waited around for our bags, changed into shorts, and then took a 5 minute bus to where our boat was waiting.

Our boat, the Mabell, wasn't hard to pick out. Among all the yachts, sailboats, and catamarans, ours was the tiny little, I don't know, "boat" anchored among them. We were on the student budget! It wasn't so bad, though. We all had cramped rooms and a dining area almost big enough to sit everyone comfortably. We also met the remaining two members of our tour, Jaseng and Guy, she was from LA, and he was from Israel. Joe and I actually hit it off pretty well with them...

Right from the start, we headed for the first stop: A beach on Isla Santa Cruz. But I'm going to lump all the tours together... Let me tell you about our routine, first.

We started out on Sunday, Joe and I. Not everyone had the same length tours... Guy and Jaseng were doing an 8-day trip, but they had already spent 3 days on the boat. Everyone else was going to get off in Puerto Ayora 5 days later... Joe and I would be the only leftovers at that point. We also had a crew that changed (although that's a different story!) We had a captain, a cook, an engineer, and a skiff-boy as well as our guide. A good bunch.

Each day we would wake up at sunrise and get a huge breakfast at 7am. Then we get tour #1 - usually a walk along a trail of an island. Then, usually, snorkeling for awhile. Huge lunch, then the boat moves on. Repeat first part. Eat huge dinner, sleep. So each day had two walks and two swims, give or take.

The walks:
Um, wow. The wildlife in the Galápagos is everything they say! I have pictures of iguana and birds so close that I had to stop moving forward because my lens can't focus any closer than 5 inches! You're never allowed to touch any animals, but they can (and will) touch you if you let them.

Let's start with the sea lions. They're on almost every beach and are usually pretty friendly. You can walk among them and usually they won't even bother to move out of your way. They just open their eyes, maybe move their neck a little, check you out, then go back to sleep. The young ones, and some of the females, though, will come right on over to you. Some want to play, most just want to smell ya. You do need to watch out for the males that patrol the beach, though. They can be dangerous when protecting their harem...

The giant tortoise. Wow, they're pretty big alright. But we only saw them in the Darwin Center - a zoo of sorts. We saw the tiny newborns and the 500 pound adult males, including Lonely George - the last of his species. And there's actually a funny story where one adult "chased" me and pinned me in a corner...

The iguanas. They're pretty cool if a little... reptilian. There's marine iguanas on most islands and a couple places have the land iguanas. They're both very tame, and I had a land iguana follow me up a trail once. I sat down, a few inches from him and took a nice, close-up picture of the pores on his nose. Hope it comes out.

The blue-footed boobies. Okay, everyone's favorite Galápagos bird, I guess. I don't know... they're funny and all, but to me weren't all THAT interesting. I did get some pictures of their mating rituals...

Speaking of birds: There's also the ubiquitous frigate birds, pelicans, and finches (as well as an occasional heron, hawk, and pink flamingo). The frigate birds are very agile... you should see them snag things out of the water with their beaks (or out of the mouths of pelicans!!) without ever touching down. We had ample opportunity, too, because every time the cook threw something out the window, the birds would SWARM! Pelicans are...well, pelicans. I've seen 'em before. I suppose it is interesting to see them "fish." And the finches are, well, cute, I guess. There's a lot of them too. Did you know that they're endemic?

What else is on the land: 
Lots of interesting lava formations, cactus forests, and dry, hot weather. There's a smattering of other animals (especially birds), but I think I hit on the exciting ones (for me, anyway).

Now, what about underwater? 
Glad you asked. I actually liked the snorkeling far more than the land trips. That's even considering that my single, biggest complaint was that the water was, for the most part, very murky on this trip. People blamed it on the rough ocean, spring tides, and the rainy season. Whatever, it was still great!

The highlight: Swimming with the sea lions. Wow. It's incredible how interested in you they are... they'll play with you in the water for hours if you let them. And they come SO close! Within inches of your snorkeling mask... I would recommend going to the Galápagos for this alone. Just remember to head the other direction when the possessive males show up.

Sharks: Have you ever seen a shark's face two feet in front of yours? Do you want to? You, too, can have your heart jump into your throat! Actually, the big joke down in the Galápagos is that all the sharks are vegetarians - no one has been attacked. They even have hammerheads down there, although I only saw one and it was from the boat. But I DID see plenty of white-tip and black-tip reef sharks. And yes, sometimes THAT close. I really didn't care for it.

Stingrays, you ask? Well, the claim to have all sorts of rays in the Galápagos, but I didn't see any eagle-, manta-, or other- rays. Just bunches of normal, everyday stingrays. Still, I got to follow one that was bigger than me for awhile... Bite your head off, man.

Marine iguanas: I don't know... I got way too much enjoyment out of watching them swim above me. Call it a personal quirk. It was also really cool to see them clinging to the bottom of the ocean, eating seaweed.

Other seafood: I also saw an eel, a lobster, thousands of multi-colored fish (some in HUGE schools!), sea cucumbers, sea urchins, more fish, coral, etc. etc. It was good.

So, barring the minor details like sunburn, seasickness among the other passengers, daily morning swims, etc., that's pretty much how our first 8 days went.

Half way through those 8 days we stopped in Puerto Ayora and had just about everyone changed. We had a new group to get used to and an old group of semi-friends to miss. Actually, that day in P. Ayora Joe and I broke from the tour and spent the day with Guy and Jaseng. We rented some kayaks for 3 hours and did some snorkeling around some cliffs and a shipwreck. Fun, but tiring. We met the new members that evening at dinner and before leaving that night around midnight, we joined Mikel, a German, and Miron, another Israeli for drinks at a bar. It turned out that as we were saying goodbye and exchanging addresses with Guy and Jaseng, we were meeting new friends that we would hang out with later (and would say goodbye to and exchange addresses with)!

Well, with the tour over, Joe and I weren't quite ready to leave the Galápagos just yet. We found a great hotel (with the best showers in Ecuador!) for a whopping $6 a night and settled down for a few days. They went by quick, though. Here's some highlights:

Tortuga Bay. What a great beach! Too bad you have to walk an hour in the equatorial sun to get there. Hmmm... maybe that why we practically had it to ourselves!

Sitting on the roof of our hotel. Nice place to get sunburned if you aren't careful. I spent many an hour up there watching iguanas, sea lions, pelicans and frigate birds while writing postcards.

Hanging out with new friends. Mostly Miron and Mikel but we also spent some time with some Italians, Norwegians, British, and American folks!

There were also a bunch of little things we did there. Nothing too exciting, though. Basically we were just winding down our vacation time before going home. No more rushing to see things!

Well, that leads us to the flight back to the mainland. Did I mention that we had to pay an extra $15 to change our tickets? It seems that Diego made a mistake when making reservations for us and didn't get us "open" tickets.

Well, that's about it for the Galápagos! There's still a few more pictures I want to share, though. In no particular order, here they come...

Chapter: The Last
So, we flew back. We spent one day in Quito, which was enough by then. We had to check our e-mail to make sure that all our flights and stuff were in order.

The next day we traveled to Otavalo for the Saturday market. Wow! Those born to shop would love it there. Too bad so many of you on the Spanish trip didn't get to go... I managed to fill a duffel bag full of stuff and I don't think I even spent $50 US. Maybe that's because the exchange rate was around 10,000 sucres per dollar, though. Anyway, we shopped quick and headed back to Quito. Not before having lunch with Miron, 2 Norwegian girls, and a Brit that we had met in the Galápagos.
So, with 4 more days left in Ecuador, we decided to spend them in Baños. We did a whole lot of nothing there, so I won't bore you with the details. Plantas Y Blanco is a nice place to stay, though.

Now, with almost exactly 12 hours to go, we're back in Quito. We spent today tying up all the loose ends: Buying a gift for Diego for all his help, paying Diego extra money because of a mistaken exchange rate when we bought our tickets, a little last minute shopping and mailing, and, of course, one last trip to an internet café.

Tomorrow we head home. I'm going to miss being down here a lot, but it's also going to be nice getting back to the states. If only I can stop myself from ordering food in Spanish...

That's going to be it for the updates, folks. If y'all want extra information on something or just want me to ramble some more in your directions, let me know. Those of you in Juneau, I'll see you soon (after I spend a little time in Los Angeles) and I should have TONS of pictures... if I can afford to have them developed, that is.

Take care, y'all, and keep in touch.





And Finally, here's two e-mails I received from Yaseng (the girl we met in the Galapagos) about the state of Quito just days after Joe and I left:
Hi there from QUITO, still!

Just had a looooong ride back from world-famous market town, Otavalo, to change some more money, see the arqueological museum, e-mail, and call family and Guy. I might have to ride back after this letter...

The situation here is pretty frustrating. Public transport in Quito is still disrupted. I had to walk a lot to get to where I wanted to go. The national strike is somewhat over, but a few things remain closed for the rest of the week -- banks and money exchange houses -- are the most important. From Monday to Thursday, even the shops, post offices and phone offices were closed, along with the regional network of roads (Mon. and Tuesday) and national network (Wed. and Thursday). I love to sightsee and shop for souvenirs in Otavalo, but with everything closed, I didn`t have much to do... Very frustrating, because this also means that my trip to Colombia will last 12 instead of 19 days... And the government still hasn`t resolved anything. Love the strikes (my second in Ecuador in six weeks)...NOT.

I wrote all the postcards and letters I had wanted to send out--the post office wasn`t open for me to send them and then the prices of postage just doubled!

I went bike riding around the Otavalo region on Monday to see more of the area. The roads were already being blocked by piles of rocks, trucks, burning tar, burning tires, groups of peasants threatening with sticks (along with the burning of things), BIG eucalyptus trees cut and strategically placed across the roads, and even a meter-wide trench dug into the Panamericana highway on the way to and from Quito! I felt somewhat vulnerable and stepped around each road block very slowly and apologetically... But nothing got thrown or aimed at me. It was an interesting first-hand look at the first day of the strike. It got pretty bad on Wed. and Thurs., especially in the big cities (bombing in Quito, etc.). Otavalo, normally very lively, was dead.

Now I can get around, somewhat, at double the price. I want to be out to Colombia on Sunday, and pray that no more obstructions block my passage. More from Bogota... ;)


Hello again from Quito!

Just can`t tear myself from this place! NOT. Been to Colombia and back. Yep, still in one piece, minus the mental sanity... ;) I don`t know why the US news paint such a gruesome pic of this friendly nation. 
Every traveller I`ve met raves about, esp. the Colombians... I`ll have to see it for myself, someday.

The strike here in Ecuador continued until this past Sunday, and raging on along the coast and southern parts. This country, and the roads, are a torn up mess. I should be glad no one pelted a fireball or rock at me on my cautious rides back from the Colombian border to the border town (where I stayed two days, Fri. & Sat., to wait out the indigenous protesters´furor en route south to Quito). The sucre still bounces up and down, between 9,000 to 12,000 to the dollar, at various hours of the same day!!! Changing money here can be nerve-racking. So is the shopping--prices shot up 20-50%.

Not many dead, reportedly, though some injured by unwarranted police violence, bombings (mainly in Guayaquil), and flying rocks and other objects. Banks remained open at irregular hours, though accounts over $500 have been frozen by government mandate. Price of gas came down from 350% to about 190% after the government accord... All city transport, and inter-urban routes, were shut down Monday and Tuesday. Even the taxi drivers gave their ten cents by parking across streets and stopping all traffic--they want the price of gas and tires, etc., to come back down to the previous prices. Good thing most people weren`t in a hurry to get places, or were very patient about the situation. The government is wreaking havoc...still.

Well, I thought escaping Ecuador after the first week of the strike would take me far from the madness. WRONG. There was a truck-drivers´strike in Colombia! (Though not as interrupting or crippling as Ecuador`s general strike.) Lines of trucks parked along one side of the two-way highways while groups of drivers, and police, gathered and stared at passengers in passing public transport. Not a very comforting way to get from Point A to Point B, which I ended up doing a lot of.

Can you believe that after crossing the borders of 25 countries that I FORGOT TO GET THE ENTRY STAMP INTO COLOMBIA?!

"Strange are the ways of God" indeed. I could not believe the stupidity of my omission. I lost two days and nights and 45,000 pesos ($30 or so) getting back to the border and begging for a waiver of the fine ($100) and an entry stamp with the date of the day I entered. I must have lost some weight there, sweating and flooding the floor for about an hour while waiting for the mercy of the immigration officer and his superior. How could they resist the teary eyes and innocence?

"Strange are the ways of God". That was His way of stopping this locomotive from heading to Bogota as planned, and TRYING to fly out on 27 March. I found out, on the third day in Colombia, when I took the time to slow down and see a few things, like the travel agents, that there were no seats available on any of the cheap flights ($300 or less) to Miami due to the Semana Santa traffic. "Dios Mio!" I cried as I realized that I had completely forgotten about the holiday--it`s almost like X-mas--mass exodus of people to and fro 26 March to 4 April. I wouldn`t have been able to fly out, without paying a high price, if I had gone on to Bogota. "Strange are the ways of God".

So I headed back to Ecuador after four days in Colombia, and butted head, again, with the strike--couldn`t get past the border town until yesterday. Then I just found out today that no seats are available on any flight out except for today`s and tomorrow`s, due to the Semana Santa traffic in the connection from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City, Panama to Miami. So I`m out to Miami tomorrow (for two weeks there).

What terrific ways to end my long trips: got my day-pack stolen in Peru (after 7 months there) near the border of Ecuador and got slowed down almost to a stop by the two weeks of striking in Ecuador. I should be glad for the available seat on tomorrow`s flight out...

I was teary-eyed on the bus ride back toward Quito, knowing that I was reaching the last few days of my one-year-and-two-months journey. But the thought of a great Isreali waiting in Miami, and adventures there, eased the sadness and injected a sense of thrill into my veins... Another journey awaits. ;)

Well, if any details are desired, please specify and I`ll try to elaborate, OK? Thinking of you... Let`s try to catch up in L.A. (8-30 April). Sorry, no photos to show for all the fun I`ve been having. If you really have to get a hold of me in Miami, try (xxx) xxx-xxxx.After 8 April, try (xxx) xxx-xxxx (my family should be able to tell you where I am this time). Hasta luego!