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Warren and Cynthia's Wacky World Adventures

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Mar '09

Alausi, Riobamba, & Quito, Ecuador

We managed to find a 2PM Transportes Patria bus for $5 pp to Alausi. Nothing like sitting on a hard bar running through the middle your derriere for 4.5 hours. Our goal was to catch a ride on the Devil’s Nose train. The train usually originates in Riobamba and travels south to Alausi, then tackles the steep switchbacks of Devil’s Nose. With 5 switchbacks around and through a steep canyon, the tracks are an engineering marvel. Unfortunately, during the off season, the rain frequently washes out the tracks between Alausi and Riobamba so we’d be taking a chance to get to Riobamba (passing Alausi on the way) and then there was no guarantee we’d be able to ride on the roof since two Japanese tourists were killed (supposedly decapitated by an overhanging wire) in 2007. So we opted for the touristy ride of a “mini train” which was more like a bus converted into a single engine train car that runs on the track from Alausi down to Simbambe station and back. This is the heart of the Devil’s Nose. The ride cost us $7.80 each and had some great views of the canyon, Devil’s Nose … and the steep falls down the canyon side if you fell out of the train. Check out this video we took from the train

Ecuador is most known for: its rare wildlife in the Galapagos, the highlands and the equator. The Galapagos are extremely expensive ($1000 each for flight and cruise around the islands – and with our luck all the wildlife would be on vacation elsewhere), and the highlands were completely socked in with clouds, so we stopped in Riobamba to break up the trip to the Midal Del Mundo (Middle of the Earth) outside of Quito. At least we can say we saw one of the indigenous hummingbirds (larger and differently colored).

We’ll remember Riobamba for its pork BBQ; there are sections of the markets where stalls of huge BBQ’d pigs are semi-carved, on display and ready to eat. Walking in, it’s like disturbing the hen house – all of the women clucking at once, waving succulent chunks of pork at you hoping to have you try and buy their pork. All we can say is, “that was some darn good pig!”.

Quito is the capital of Ecuador. It’s clean, got bike lanes (which residents do use) and an efficient trolley and bus system. The city would have been even nicer if it didn’t pour down rain on us every chance it got. We did get one nice day – luckily when we wanted to the do the touristy thing at the Equator. We caught a local bus to La Ofelia (a large transfer station), then switched to the Midal del Mondo – all for 40 cents. For $2 each, we entered the site and took the mandatory straddle the equator pictures, walked into “town” and had chicken and rice for lunch (no, really, chicken and rice – I know it’s hard to believe), and then returned to Quito. We explored the main square and churches, did some shopping, but mostly wondering why we were at the equator in the middle of summer and were having to wear jackets and long pants.

Even though we fast-tracked it through Ecuador, we were left with the following impressions:

• They are a very vibrant people – buildings, sculptures, clothes are all very colorful

• Air pollution in the cities is terrible and deforestation is the most destructive we’ve seen – for hours for as far as the eye can see entire hills are carved into fields

• A now very rich entrepreneur sold an aircraft carrier’s worth of clown head garbage cans to Ecuador .- you can’t turn a city corner without being startled by one.

We made our plans for the trip north to Columbia. Next stop, Pasto, Popayan and the coffee region of Columbia. For more pics, check out the gallery.

Feb '09

Vilcabamba & Cuenca, Ecuador

We booked Linea bus line from Trujillo to Puira, splurging on the “full cama” which, contrary to the name, only means you get about 3 inches more recline. At least this bus line had only a 5 soles difference between full- and semi-cama. The only real complaint we had was an overnight bus should never arrive 40 minutes early, especially when you are sound asleep at 5am.

Aside from the “adobe pillows” and discovering “C” is the knob for “hot” in the shower, we found a surprisingly decent Hostal San Jose (1737 Av. Grau) in Puira. Walking the center of town, we joined other pedestrians tasting Pisco Sours being made by a “Gastronomia” school. Putting Gastronomia” and “free” together usually spells trouble, especially when raw egg whites are involved, but our systems managed to handle it.

Bright and early we slogged in the heat to the Transportes Loja bus station for the only trans-border bus to Loja, Ecuador we could find. After 4 police stops where they boarded, took passports and IDs while we waited (at first nervously and at last, impatiently) the bus dropped us at Peruvian immigration and zipped across the bridge to wait (we hoped). Joining 4 British girls, we walked to the right first to stamp out of Peru, then walked to the left to turn in an immigration card, then walked straight across the bridge to stand in line to fill out more paperwork and get another stamp for entering Ecuador. It seemed like a silly dance and after 30 minutes of waiting while watching monkeys run around in the trees, we were tempted to grab a branch and join them.

Arriving in Loja, we immediately got a bus to the small village of Vilcabmba for $1 (plus a 10 cents pp terminal exit fee). Yes, that’s not a typo, it was actually a US dollar because they use US currency as their own. They do mint coins, but we treated those like hot potatoes – you can’t spend an Ecuadorian 50 cent piece in the US. Arriving about 1.5 hours later in Vilcabamba, we checked out the 3 hotels and settled on Hotel Margarita, a clean, bright hotel with an egg breakfast and cable TV, a block off the main square, for $20 a night.

The next day we enjoyed breakfast with Dale and James – a couple from Montana that had just arrived on an overnight. We decided to do the Mandango Bluff hike while they headed for a nap. Stopping to pay our $2 pp entry fee, we were each handed a bottle of water and a bag of raw sugar – because, of course, if I carry anything on a hike it should be a bag of raw sugar. Maybe there are some animals along the way that it can protect us from “Quick! Throw the sugar!”. I bet it hurts when it gets in your eyes. The hour hike was filled with many different butterfly species moving about and quite a large spider population (that we’d fortunately not noticed until the way down). Nearly rock climbing the last 15 minutes, we finally reached the first summit. Reveling in the breeze on the narrow ridge, we decided that between the spectacular views and the precarious trail to the final summit, we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do without any disasters so it was time to return. We continued our hike to the other side of town and marveled at the purely manual labor used to repair a bridge and, shortly thereafter, at what happens to neglected bridges – but a broken down bridge is better than no bridge at all (at least on foot). Back in town, we amused ourselves by watching the kids prepare for Carnival – seems stalking innocent people and throwing water at them is all the rage. One kid took his water throwing seriously, chasing people with his tank-enabled, high volume Supersoaker.

We made it back into town and met English-speaking Sylvia, the owner of Vilcabamba Horses (1/2 block west of the plaza on Diego Vaca deVega), and she offered us a deal for a tailored 5 hour horse ride to the waterfall and river. Before giving her a deposit, Warren confirmed “Tiene fuerte caballo para pesado gringo” Do you have a strong horse for a heavy gringo? She laughed and assured us she would.

Dale and James decided to join us so we gave Silvia the heads up and we all met at 10 AM the next morning. Warren was given the “strong” horse as promised and James was left with one a bit shorter. With his long, dangling legs and floppy hat, James looked like he was on a pilgrimage. Even the guide was giggling.

The roads went from cobblestone to dirt to a river-crossing, then to a trail leading up the mountain. The trail was amazingly steep with large loose rocks, loose soil, and precipitous drops. We were all muttering the same prayer “please horsie, don’t stumble”. Warren’s horse lead the way up, stopping to pant heavily and fart every couple minutes. Warren said it was his “turbo boost”. That didn’t make the rest of us feel any better about being behind him. We made it to a really picturesque 2-level waterfall with a cool, misty spray. After the waterfall, we took another trail down to the river where Cynthia enjoyed a dip and a bit of a whitewater experience as the current dragged her down the river about 50 yards. We got to walk, trot and canter throughout the ride – it was amazing and we had no regrets except for the saddle soreness we felt for a few days.

We left Vilcabamba for Cuenca the next day. Cuenca is probably Ecuador’s most picturesque colonial city. We spent the afternoon strolling along the beautiful river, admiring the pretty city streets and marveling at the fruit vendors selling wheelbarrows full of fruit; we’d no idea they grew with Georgia PLU stickers – how convenient. We didn’t stay longer because we wanted to catch the Devil’s Nose Train in Alausi, just about 4.5 hours from Cuenca. Next stop Alausi and Riobamaba, Ecuador. Check out the gallery for more pics..

Feb '09

Huraz, Trujillo, and Huanchaco, Peru

Our flight went without a hitch from Cusco to Lima and we caught an 8 hour Movil Tours bus for the mountain city of Huaraz. We booked the front seats on a double-decker bus that afforded us panoramic views of our trip. Unfortunately that backfired as we had terrifying views of our driver passing on blind cliff-side curves. We weren’t sure to be thankful for the pouring rain that came later, or terrified. At least we no longer could see out of the window through the rain. In Huaraz, we grabbed a taxi for 5 soles with Randy, an Alaskan we’d met on the bus, and although Alberque Churup Hotel was expensive for what it offered (50 soles for a double, shared bath) it was late so we all got rooms.

The next day we met Katie and Laura, Canadian girls that wanted to share a taxi up to one of the mountain lakes. Looking at the books and talking to the hostel owners we agreed to split the $40 (120 soles) cost to visit Lake Rajucola (in the rainy season it was the only one close enough that was still likely to be reached by car and not completely covered in clouds) . Randy appeared and wanted to go too, but the hotel guy said that 5 passengers was too much. However, after talking with the taxi driver, he said it would be OK as long as one of us got out and walked through the security checkpoint. We loaded five of us in a Toyota station wagon, with Cynthia in the way back and off we went. 50 yards before the checkpoint, we both got out and the other’s did a Chinese fire drill. We had to refrain from waving at them at the checkpoint as we walked “non-chalantly” along the road. The driver took us up a dirt track for about an hour before we were nearly thwarted by a stream crossing. He did not want to attempt it. Standing there, debating, a truck loaded with firewood managed to cross from the other direction. They stopped and seemed to encourage him. As they tossed rocks around making what our driver hoped was a more passable route, he finally decided to attempt it(Check out the video). Three-quarters of the way through he got stuck, but Cynthia was not about to come this far without a fight and ran through the stream pushing and yelling from the back of the car. The car made it across and we were once again on our way. After two more crossings and about 1200 meters we arrived at the lake. It turned out to be a beautiful pristine glacier lake. We even witness pieces of it breaking off with a thunderous boom. On the way back, Warren played driver’s helper and got out several times to move rocks, wood and even a donkey from the road. Luckily, we made it back to the hostel before the skies opened up; a daily occurrence there this time of year.

We decided we’d had enough of cold rain and altitude so we took an overnight bus to Trujillo and the beach town of Huanchaco. Our taxi driver, although overcharging a bit with a 15 soles fee, actually came through for us by waiting at Naylamp Hostel as we discovered it was booked then bringing us to Plazza’s Hotel that was in our price range. They were so nice and although the room was not yet ready (it was 7:30 AM) they said we could go to an apartment across the street and sleep or shower while they got it ready. Much to our chagrin, we didn’t understand this at first because such hospitality is rare (even in the states). Once we did understand, we begged off and walked the beach.We’d arrived on a Sunday and were amazed at the sheer numbers of people on the beach. We guess that is to be expected when the beach is less than 10 miles from a city of almost a million people.

>The next day we toured an archeological site called Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon). It was created by the Moche people who were eventually conquered by the Incas. It is still a working site with scientists making new discoveries to go along with the remarkable friezes and artwork already on display. They take pride in the fact that they conserve rather than restore. We got to see a male and female hairless Peruvian dogs – well, actually the females have a small tuft of hair on their head. There is actually a law in Peru that each archeological site has to have a breeding pair of these dogs to preserve the tradition.

We hadn’t eaten since much earlier in the day, so we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner at a place called “Chill out”. We met the owner there earlier and he claimed to have the best burgers and the cleanest kitchen. Well the burgers were quite tasty, but we are quite sure the cleanliness part was not quite accurate. The burger Cynthia ate didn’t agree with her and she spent the night and the entire next day running to the bathroom with a nice case of food poisoning which made her violently ill. At least being holed up in a large, breezy 4th floor room with TV, bath and refrigerator made it somewhat tolerable. (Our taxi driver on our way out of town said the burger was probably made of “carne de burro”.)

After a day in the hotel room, we decided a day dedicated to the beach would be in order. We shopped around and found a boogie board for 15 soles ($5) for the entire day, rented an umbrella for 5 soles ($1.75) and sat on the beach. Between people watching, attempting to ride the surf, and relaxing, we were able to have a nice, low key day at the beach.

The last day was spent exploring another archeological site called Chan Chan. This beach city was also built by the Moche people more than 500 years ago. It was populated by over 200,000 people and they are still restoring and uncovering new dwellings. Actually, the restoring part looked like an Indiana Jones movie where they were building the city. Right now they have restored an huge temple complex which is open to the public. Rested a bit (and purged in Cynthia’s case), we made our way to the northern city Puira as a jumping point into Ecuador. Next stop the cities of Vilcabamba and Cuenca Ecuador. For a lot more neat pics of our time in northern Peru, check out the gallery

Feb '09

Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru

We made our way to Cusco for the same reason that most tourists have, Machu Picchu. Cusco is a beautiful colonial city that was built on the foundations of the capital of the Inca Empire. The stone wall foundations still stand today, surviving numerous earthquakes because the stones are fitted so precisely that they didn’t need mortar to keep them together. Someone get on the phone to California.

Cusco is a city where you can make a living selling lengths of string on the sidewalk, drive whatever way you prefer on a street (the signs say “Preferencial” instead of “Una Via” here, so, hey, you choose) and rent rooms with showers so small you’d have to step outside if you dropped the soap.

There are a couple ways you can reach Machu Picchu: the tourist train to Aguas Calientes (AC) for $100 round trip per person or the Inca trail. Slogging through the muddy forest, spending 4 cold nights in a soggy tent during the rainy season for a mere $400 pp seemed a tad bit unappealing. We took the train. With the backpacker train leaving at 6:50 AM and departing Aguas Calientes (the town below the ruins) at 5 PM, you could actually visit the site all in one day. Like U.S. planes, the train actually had a snack cart that would come through the aisle offering drinks and snacks at outrageous prices. We chose to stay a night in AC so we could get an early start the next morning, beat the tour groups and do some additional hikes. With our 124 soles pp ($41) admission tickets and round trip bus ride for $14 pp we were out $310 just to visit the site. And for all that money, they still feel the need to suck another 1 sole from you to use the bathroom – better to wait until you return to AC where the train station and the INC building (corner of main square) have free toilets.

We set our alarm for 4:30 AM hoping to catch the 5:30 AM bus. Awakening to the sound of pouring rain, we verbalized a few good expletives then opted for two more hours of sleep. Catching a 7 AM bus (busses actually leave continuously from 5:30 AM each time they get full) we made it up to the ruins around 7:30am. We each had a small backpack with water bottles and some food buried in the bottom, but they didn’t even give our packs a cursory glance.
As we entered the site and headed up to the left to reach the Guardian hut where the obligatory photos are taken, we met Inca Trail trekkers just coming off the trail. Wet, cold and quite miserable looking, seeming to barely notice the ruins, we no longer felt badly about taking the geriatric route.

We lucked out as the clouds lifted revealing the site. (Video 5MB wmv file).  It’s not as extensive a site as Tikal in Guatamala, nor as old (only about 500 years). What makes Machu Picchu so amazing is its location – the effort to build a large city on the peak of a 7000 foot high mountain is mind-boggling. Sadly, it was only occupied for about 100 years before being abandoned (maybe they all got a deal on ocean front condos).  We spent almost 4 hours exploring the ruins. Although it was too wet to climb Huayna Picchu as we’d planned, Cynthia insisted we do at least one hike. The Inca Bridge trail was short, but the guide books warned of “precipitous drops”. Cynthia ate crow after poo-pooing that description. We nearly crawled along the 2 foot wide trail with “precipitous drops” of several hundred feet over the edge. (Video 5MB wmv file).

We caught the 5 o’clock train back to Cusco and walked with the crowds back to our hotel. Although we’d paid 50 soles in advance to reserve a room at Hostal Tu Hogar where we’d been staying, when we arrived at 9:30 PM, our name had been crossed out of the books and our reserved room given away for 10 soles cheaper than we’d paid in advance. Fortunately we had a receipt, so we at least got a room. Cynthia got up early, found a cheaper and nicer hostel (Andes de San Blas, Carmen Alto 227) and we spent one more day relaxing in Cusco.

We decided to forego the 24 hour bus ride back to Lima and booked a flight to Lima to start our northern trek. Next stop, the mountain village of Huraz. Check out the gallery for some great pics of Cusco and Machu Piccu.

Feb '09

Puno, Peru (Lake Titicaca)

From Arequipa, we boarded an 8 AM San Cristobal del Sur bus for Puno and Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world at almost 16,000 feet. This bus ride was the first in which we encountered a safety check where officials boarded the bus and actually made sure everyone had, and was wearing, a seatbelt. Definitely a foreign concept here. I must admit I never pay attention to the flight attendants because, come on, who doesn’t know how to work a seat belt? Answer – at least 20 percent of Peruvians, each having to be painstakingly shown individually. Hats off to all you flight attendants who can show 100 people in 3.14 seconds flat.

Before arriving in Puno, we spent 20 minutes trying to weave through Juliaca, an ugly, sprawling, muddy, industrial metropolis.. With the exception of busses, because they’re way bigger, tuk-tuks rule. They’re as numerous as hairs on a dog (except a male Peruvian dog, which is hairless, but that’s another story) they even have a monument dedicated to the tuk-tuk.

At the Puno bus terminal, we jotted down bus times and costs to Cusco. Succumbing to a tout we ended up at the Panamerica counter at the very end of the terminal. We not only booked a bus out at our preferred time (1PM) the next day, but also a morning Lake tour and a taxi ride to a decent hotel they recommended. Amazing how connected these Peruvians are! We checked into the Hotel Samana Wasi for 40 soles($13) which included a lovely antiseptic smell, cable TV, private bath, hot water, and a whopping 10 minutes of free internet.

Puno turned out to be not so bad for a one-night stay – we even found a popular and cheap non-tourist place for dinner, Bahamas Restaurant on Jr. Duestua 237, a block or so east of the pedestrian walk. At 9AM we got picked up from the hotel for our tour of Islas de los Uros -44 artificially made floating (anchored, so not drifting) reed islands. Our guide gave each part of the tour in both Spanish and English. It is estimated that 2200 people “live” there; they‘re a tourist attraction now, hence the “live”. They use mostly row boats to get to the mainland and, when not motorized, the rower stands and pushes the oars forwards, versus sitting and pulling them backwards; looks rather precarious. The islands seems to have a few amenities, like a solar panel for electricity (yeah, candles on a reef island – probably not a great idea) and an ice cream man who arrives on a reef boat. Watch out for the slight of hand – we had the “President” of an island try the old “Can you give me two 5s for this 10?” and try to palm one , turning back to say, “Hey, you only gave me one 5”. Fortunately, Cynthia had seen this before and was (this time) on guard and caught the guy. He laughed as if “Oh, just joking.” Yeah, right.

After visiting the market to admire all the alpaca-ware, and passing the Lockness monster’s distant cousin (now a half submerged paddle boat), we caught a 2 soles tuk-tuk to the bus terminal. We could have walked 10 minutes along the lakeside, but it was Warren’s birthday and he really wanted a ride. At the terminal we had lunch (“Ham and cheese with Edd”) and then Warren got to spend the next 6+ hours of his birthday on a bus ride to Cuzco. The highlands were beautiful and it seemed at times that we were looking over a European landscape with fertile grounds and red terra cotta roofed homes. Check out the Puno / Lake Titicaca Gallery . Up next, Cusco and Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.

Feb '09

Colca Canyon, Peru

After about 2.5 hours of a harrowing, rainy bus ride along the cliff edge of the canyon, we arrived after dark in Cabanaconde. We made reservations for Hotel de Fuego, but after following an employee from the bus to the hotel and see 3 different rooms, we opted to look for something else. There seemed to be only two other places and for 60 soles ($20) we decided to treat ourselves to the tiled, clean room offered at Hotel Majestic Colca. We ate at the only place open – wood-burning pizza place a block and a half south of the main square which turned out to have fabulous food. Our waiter was “Elvis” – he’s lost a bit of weight and a few inches, but seems alive and well in a remote area of Peru.

The night was very chilly – no such thing as central or space heating. We had 4 layers, 2 of which were alpaca blankets, but we concluded that alpaca must be slippery animals because the blankets kept sliding off onto the floor. Also, donkeys like to scream at night.

The next day was beautiful with a sprinkling of clouds. After a little tea made with coca leaves, we headed in the direction of the trailhead for Sangalle, an “oasis” at the bottom of the canyon. Unfortunately, the trailhead was not as easy to find as we thought – should have turned right after crossing the small ground-level aqueduct. An hour later, asking four locals and climbing / slogging through corn fields, we finally found it. We descended down gravelly, slippery switch-back after switch-back to stunning views of the canyon. It took two hours to descend 1000 meters, where at 30 minutes before the bottom, there were actually painted rocks pointing to “Oasis” and “Pool in Rock”. No, really? Where were those signs 2 hours ago. We were a bit behind schedule so we rinsed scrapes and relaxed aching muscles for an hour at the “Oasis” – a small area consisting of a tiny pool and some very basic straw camping huts. In hindsight we found out the “Pool in Rocks” was a nicer resort next door – and would have been an easier descent.

We began the ascent and Warren started to realize that no super powers were forthcoming from the coca tea we’d had earlier that morning; the altitude and scanty lunch were beginning to take their toll. The process of two switch-backs-then-rest was repeated until (with Cynthia complaining that all the stopping was causing her to tighten up) we finally reached the top, though not after the skies opened up and a cold rain added insult to injury (not to mention 5 lbs of caked mud to our shoes). Finally after a lusciously hot shower, Warren climbed into bed to get warm, but just couldn’t seem to get his body temp up. Cynthia came to the rescue with her hair dryer. Warren swears never again to mock the fact that Cynthia carries a hairdryer in her backpack.

We booked a bus the next morning on Reyna and learned that having assigned seats doesn’t mean comfort. Since we were in the first seats, it seemed that being able to stand in front of our seats was expected. So much for leg room. Warren tried in vain to stem the tides but eventually wound up with blankets, armpits and butts in his face for a good hour of the trip. Aside from the 45 minutes we spent on the side of the road as the bus driver turned mechanic, poured out a bucket of parts and attempted to pound a few into what might let us continue on through the rest of the journey to Arequipa, we enjoyed the panoramic views of the canyon as we rode along the rim. We finally made it back to Arequipa for a much needed day of rest and relaxation. Next stop Cusco and Machu Picchu. Check out the gallery for more pictures of the Colca Canyon.

Jan '09

Nazca Lines and Arequipa, Peru

We got a 4 soles ($1.25) taxi to Ica and caught a local bus (Soyuz Peru Bus Line) for Nasca; a town with little (OK, nothing) to offer except the famous Nasca lines believed to have been created by the ancient people of the area. (For more information go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazca_Lines). We had a few choices for viewing the lines: have a local bus drop us along the highway (and hope for a return one), negotiate a taxi there and back for 40 soles ($13) or take a possible vomit comet flight for the two of us for $120. A guaranteed return trip and the rather distasteful thought of loosing our lunch the same way it went down, had us hailing a taxi. We got to see three figures from the tower: the frog (or hands? Not sure who decided a frog looks like a pair of hands…), tree and lizard (mostly destroyed by the highway). Upon our return to town, we booked an overnight bus to Arequipa on Cial bus lines for 50 soles ($17 vs. the $27 for Cruz Del Sur). We waited out part of an extremely rare desert rainstorm in a restaurant / bar where our waitress set down a small snack bowl, consequently introducing us to the burnt, dusty taste of roasted corn kernels called choclo – aptly named since they tasted like chalk dust wrapped in a crispy outer layer. The unusual rain took its toll and the bar began to spring many leaks, including one that shorted out the bar lights and the beer fridge (time to go!). We waited out the other part of the storm in the Cial waiting room, where the rain caused a ceiling tile inside the ticket office area to come crashing down. We attempted, in vain, to squelch our fears at how well a desert-raised bus driver could drive in the rain…

Waking up to the sight of a more lush country side and the Cial bus version of breakfast – a saran-wrapped, semi-sweet roll filled with a paper thin slice of bologna, our bus arrived in Arequipa early Sunday morning. Taking a too expensive 5 soles pp mini-van (hindsight: take a taxi) with 4 Argentinean backpackers, the driver was unable to drop us at our Los Andes Hotel because the streets were blocked off. Walking a few blocks, we discovered that the town was hosting a “National Pride” ceremony and parade (as many towns do on Sunday) on their Plaza de Armas. Arequipa sits underneath a large perfectly shaped volcano called “Misti”; aptly named since we never really saw it – it was always covered by clouds.

We toured the picturesque colonial city, strolling a meandering side walk lined with trees, flowers and benches along Calle Bolognesi (which overlooked acres of a recreational area that included soccer fields, basketball / tennis courts, kids area, swimming pool and even a jogging trail (and, yes, there were joggers)) and ended up at the mirador in the Yamahuara area. There we enjoyed the overlook and the cartoon poster displays of SALON International de HUMOR GRAFICO by artists all over the world, depicting the hazards of global warming (LINK OR PIC). Back on the Plaza de Armas, with the help of the friendly and free Tourist Information office (just left of the “Super” grocery across from the cathedral), we planned our next day’s departure to the Colca Canyon. We cooked in the Los Andes kitchen, then Cynthia relaxed in our room working on the free WiFi while Warren found the Steelers / Ravens game on a TV in one of their 2 TV rooms.

Monday we struck out for the Colca Canyon, a remote area that is stunningly beautiful and actually deeper (but not wider) than the Grand Canyon. We opted for the 8 AM (vs 6 AM) Andalucia Line bus, finding out that it only went to Chivay and we’d have to wait for a bus from there to Cabanaconde. We paid the 12 soles (plus a 1 sole each terminal tax) and got on the local bus. The local bus is not only cheap, but it is rarely, if ever, stopped by the Colca Canyon Park Authorities who extort a 35 soles pp tourist fee. You do, however, have to put up with cramped conditions, alpaca passengers and stepping in the occasional bag of vomit that might roll into the aisle – which Cynthia did explosively (where are the shoe shine boys when you need them?).

The wait for the next bus to Cabanaconde turned out to be almost 4 hours, during which we stored our bags in one of the tiny shops in the station after negotiating with the owner, then toured the tiny town of Chivay (a 2 minute walk from the station – so we’re not really sure why there were so many Tuk-Tuks – maybe just for show since it looked more like a display, as Warren noted, of Pimp Your Tuk-Tuk During a long wait outside the station, Warren had to bodily lift a plump old Peruvian hill woman out of her bicycle-wagon transport because no other man was big enough or strong enough to do so. It earned Warren a giggled “Gracias” from the old woman and a round of friendly applause from the onlookers.

After much confusion about whether the line forming in the bus terminal parking lot was for Aeriquipa or Cabanaconde, we decided to plant ourselves in line and see what happened. The Aeriquipa bus pulled up, people boarded (some from our line) and then the Cabanaconde bus came. According to the bus line operators, it was the final bus to Cabanaconde. It was a mad crush of humanity trying to push, shove and elbow their way onto this final bus. Did we make it? Read more in our next post…Check out additional pictures in the gallery

Jan '09

Ica & Huacachina, Peru

Sun, Sand and Wine

We left Lima at 7:30am on the upscale Cruz Del Sur bus line; for the extra price you get to play a game of BINGO (better brush up on your Spanish because the Spanish number announced by the attendant is not always the same as what she announces it to be in English), had a lovely plastic wrapped breakfast snack, and an onboard bathroom (for urinal use only – there’s always the side of the road if you have to do something else). Every time we looked out the window, we’d have to question if we’d gone anywhere – the entire 5 hour stretch to Ica basically consists of desert waste land to the east (broken intermittently by shanty towns) and ocean to the west.

Ica is the wine / pisco capital of Peru. Pisco is a spirit that comes from distilled wine and is famous for its use in Pisco Sours. We caught a taxi with Jose (who turns out to be a travel agent who sells tours, go figure) and for 6 soles ($2) he took us to the desert oasis town of Huacachina.

We stayed at the Hostal Cusari in a beautiful room overlooking the pool for just $20 a night. That afternoon, we climbed aboard a dune buggy (complete with shoulder harnesses) for an exhilarating, gut wrenching, rollercoaster ride over the dunes (check out this video – which does NOT do it justice). The ride was often interrupted by the need to wax up a snowboard and go racing down the nose-bleed high sand dunes (eat your heart out White Sands, New Mexico). One of the kids in our group was a snowboarder, demonstrating that snowboarding and sandboarding are two different animals, by proceeding to perform a magnificent face plant. Glad we elected to slide down on our bellies… Check out this video of goofy Warren sliding down a dune. For 45 soles ($15) per person, it is a must do – well worth the sand you’ll be removing from every crevice in your body for the next 3 days. Who needs expensive exfoliation spa treatments? We finished the day in the dunes by watching the sunset over the hills and riding back, at the same breakneck speeds, in the dark.

The following day we walked into another hotel, Casa de Arena (“Sand House”), to price a Bodega (winery) tour. The guy at the desk said that it would be 25 soles ($8) each for a private tour of three bodegas. When asked how soon we could leave, he said “Whenever the driver is ready” and pointed to a driver seated with his back to us. Turning with a gold-toothed grin, it was Smiley, the driver of the dune buggy the day before. Cynthia gave him a hug (he seemed quite amused by her yesterday – we probably did more snowboarding than any other group because she kept running up to him yelling “Uno mas! Uno mas!”) and we hopped into his taxi.

The first bodega turned out to be the largest and most like our own in the states with about 400 acres of grapes. We were given a tour in English and they have a very large production facility. We were devastated by the sight of a huge room filled with barrels that were destroyed by the earthquake - imagine the knee-deep mixture of wine, pisco and 50 year old brandy spilling out onto the floor! We returned to the tasting room and sampled the wines. They actually had 4 dry wines (a rarity in Peru where sweet seems to be the only flavor of wine). We actually enjoyed the wines and purchased 3 bottles – which we decided to carry in our bellies over then next couple of days – much lighter than glass bottles in a backpack, wouldn’t you agree?

The next stop was El Catador, a bodega which had 4 different styles of pisco and one fortified sweet wine. Four shots of pisco later we staggered into the taxi and were off to the last Bodega. This one turned out to be a small one with only pisco and sweet wines. Smiley gave a quick tour of a very weird museum with pisco in an urn which was retrieved by dipping in a notched bamboo stick. The place was more like someone’s cobwebbed attic than a winery with its crammed displays of artwork, stuffed animals and human remains. Smiley gave us a great little tour: we had cotton ball souvenirs that Smiley had jumped out and picked from a field for us (although Warren’s managed to escape by attaching itself to the rear of a woman Smiley’d picked up for a short ride), learned some more Spanish and got were shown the Soyuz bus terminal – which would be exponentially less expensive to take to Nazca than Cruz Del Sur.

We finished the evening hanging out next door to the Case de Arena with some folks we met on the buggy tour. They offered “two for 1” drinks (which we’ve come to learn means “two drinks for the price of 1 and ½” ) to lure patrons, as well as free salsa lessons (which were difficult even for Cynthia since the male teachers were several inches shorter that she). After the scantily clad marengue dancers showed up, we beat a hasty retreat to the Casa de Arena bar, played some pool and called it a night.

Check out the gallery for more pictures of our time in Ica/Huacachina . Next we are off to the Nasca Lines, the colonial city of Arequipa and the Colca Canyon.

Jan '09

Lima, Peru

Departure morning started at 6 AM: last minute packing, a ride to the metro (thanks Nick!), the metro to Washington National (Cynthia reaffirming that riding the train “backwards” does make her ill), all culminating in a rather uneventful flight to Miami. As we waited at the only bar in terminal D for our scheduled 4:30 PM departure to Lima, we watched an entire plane of disgruntled passengers unload: canceled flight. Shortly thereafter, our flight was delayed (back to the bar) then 2 two hour after we boarded they made an announcement to deplane (back to the bar). They said by 8 PM they’d make a final decision. At 8, our plane wasn’t going anywhere – they’d have to commandeer a plane arriving from Caracas – new departure time 10PM (back to the bar). At $8 a beer, we could have bought a plane and hired a pilot by the time we boarded. We quickly lost our excitement at being back onboard when they announced that one passenger “decided not to go with us”, so we would have to wait for his luggage to be removed from the plane. Welcome to flight 917 part two. We finally hit the skies at 10:40 PM. Row 33 on the AB6 is right where the aisle narrows so not only did Warren’s seat get bumped continuously by the food and beverage cart, but he was treated to some rather unsightly rears which he called “optical smelling salts”. We arrived in Lima at the ungodly hour of 4 AM. The airport has been mostly remodeled: signs are now in Spanish and English, it is easy to navigate, and our luggage was actually on the turnstile within an hour after landing. Luckily Hotel España had been paying attention to the flight schedule and had our driver waiting for us (along with a couple dozen other sign toting drivers) as we exited the baggage claim.

Lima, the capital of Peru, has a population of eight million, but we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of trash on the streets. Between an army of cleaning people working around the clock and lots of garbage cans (that look like R2-D2 from Starwars), they keep the city impressively clean. We wandered the central market, bought fruit, then walked thru Chinatown where we marveled at all the casinos and the complete lack of Chinese people. Guess they were all upstairs counting the money. After trying in vain to get an English speaking guide to tour the Museo de le Inquisicion, we just walked in. It’s free and amusingly graphic with its tortured waxed figures, but all the signs are in Spanish.

Continuing on the “gruesome” theme, we paid 5 soles each for a tour of San Francisco church. Since you can only go in with a guide, waiting 20 minutes for an English speaking one was worth it. The choir area had a 9 foot tall 4 sided pedestal that held gigantic choir books allowing the surrounding choir to see what they were singing; beats having to hand write 100 small books for each choir member. The most amazing part was the catacombs under the church. From the areas that they have uncovered so far, they figure that the catacombs contain the remains of more than 25,000 individuals. We wandered the city seeing many parks (most of which were surrounded by 10 foot tall lockable iron fences), the pedestrian mall which looks like any other shopping street in any big city, the Plaza de Aramas (with its book end tanks) and, foot sore, we ended up at the El Estadio restaurant on the south corner of the Plaza San Martin. Waxed soccer payers are seated at some tables – a little creepy – but the food (we recommend the Carasucia – yellow potatoes in a Huancaína sauce – for 7 soles) was excellent, service wonderful and they took Visa.

Our second day we walked a couple miles southeast from the hotel in search of a clinic for yellow fever vaccinations. On the way, we marveled at the corn vendors – the kernels were each about the size of a Lifesaver; as a popcorn lover, I nearly fainted. We found Clinica Maison de Sante (on JR. Miguel Aljovin) to administer the vaccinations for 75 soles ($25 each instead of $125 in the U.S.). No worries about dirty needles, these places are all internationally accredited vaccination centers.

Hoping to learn more about the ancient cultures whose sites we will be visiting, we took a 10 sole taxi ride to the Museo de la Nación. It was Wednesday and for some reason we got in free – which was best since we were disappointed with the single small room of artifacts on the first floor. We did walk through an interesting and graphic photography display detailing the 20 years of internal strife (1980-2000). Because of economic woes caused by the government (10,000% inflation), some militant extremist groups (Shining Path and MRTA) caused much bloodshed. No fears of that now as the economy is fairly stable and tourists bearing money are welcome.

After the museum, we hopped another taxi to the section of Lima near the ocean called Miraflores. We wandered about a bit then climbed down to the shore, noting that no matter how pretty the city, any uninterrupted wall always smells of urine. We walked along the beach eyeing the foamy water and brown waves; the books were right, even though the locals were swimming and surfing, the sea looked quite polluted.

We walked back up to town to find dinner and finally settled on a little hole in the wall. It seems it was a bad decision because Warren ordered a tortilla (which Cynthia forgot to mention means omelet here) that caused him a little discomfort for the next 24 hours. Suffice it to say, with a 5:30 AM alarm, little sleep, if any, was had.

Check out the gallery for more pictures of our time in Lima. Next we are off to the oasis town of Huacachina.

Feb '08

Utila & Roatan Islands, Honduras

Off on a bus from San Pedro Sula, I traveled to La Ceiba on the north-eastern coast of Honduras. La Ceiba is the jumping-off point for the Bay Islands, the Caribbean islands of Utila and Roatan. I figured I started the trip scuba diving in the Caribbean, I might as well finish up there.

On the ferry to Utila, I met some other divers and the owner of Alton’s Dive Shop, Julie. She invited us to jump in the pickup that was meeting her and check out her dive shop. Off we all went, about seven of us with our packs loaded in the back of a pickup Central American Style. After much deliberation (well not that much), and the desire to dive a wreck deeper than 100 feet, I decided to obtain my advanced open water certification with Alton’s. The wreck, The Haliburton, is a 120 ft. long freighter that is still intact and was an incredible dive.

After completing my certification, I moved on to the island of Roatan. There are no direct ferries between the islands, other than the occasional catamaran for hire, so I had to take a ferry back to La Ceiba, and then hop on another to Roatan. Roatan is more the stereotypical Caribbean island with beaches, snorkeling, boating, zip lines, and lots of other activities other than diving.

The first day I rented a moped and put almost 75 miles on it exploring the island. It was quite exhilarating driving a vehicle wherever I wanted after 2.5 months of being limited by busses, taxis and boats. Actually one of the most “liberating” sensations was when the moped decided it didn’t want to be ridden any more. I was coasting down hill on a dirt road (pretty slowly), when the bike stalled, causing the engine to lock up the rear wheel. Moped went one way, I went another, and a patch of skin from my leg went another. Luckily, no major damage was done to the moped or my body.

I finished my stay on the island with two days of diving with Ocean Connections Dive Shop in West End. We did some incredible dives: a wreck, a coral cave and along a coral reef wall that was just teeming with life. Diving here on Roatan was much better then the dives I did on Utila. There was more aquatic life and more interesting coral formations. I also discovered that road rash and salt water create quite an interesting sensation once you enter the water. Ouch!

Next, I’m planning a short stay on the mainland coast in La Ceiba, then to San Pedro Sula for my flight back to the states.

I was lucky enough to have two dives where someone had brought along an underwater camera, so check out the diving pictures (plus others) in the gallery. There is even a short video of me floundering under the water. It is only 11 seconds, but I couldn’t reduce the size so it is 20 Meg. If you have a speedy connection, give it a look.