Monthly Archives: April 2016

Danny in the Andes: Road to the Trail

Before I get into this, a few things I’d forgotten about the trip thus far.

First… It amazed me how little time it took to get used to the trip. The different culture, the constant moving, it became the new normal almost right away. So thoroughly was it the new normal that by Arequipa I already couldn’t believe that I’d only been in Peru for four days. The group was my home, my companions my friends. Home as I had known it was a distant memory, an incorrect life I no longer maintained. My other friends merely ghosts. Ghosts with Facebook accounts I checked up on when I had WiFi and who liked my Instagram photos like ghosts do my metaphor is flawless.

Second… The road to Chivay provided some of our better llama viewing. Llamas and other camelids. During my bus tour of Arequipa, I learned about the various types of fur-bearing camelids found in Peru: llamas (which you know), alpacas (softer fur, fuzzier), vicunas (non-domesticated, but provide the softest fur), and guanacos, which people didn’t seem to care much about and really only came up the once. The drive to Chivay included a herd of vicunas and a few herds of llamas you could get pictures with, although we were expected to slip the kid minding them a few soles.

Vicunas in the wild,

Vicunas in the wild.

And again.

And again.

The llamas have accepted me as their cute and fuzzy brethren.

The llamas have accepted me as their cute and fuzzy brethren.

Third… no one in Peru looks Spanish. I began to wonder about that. Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand… the Europeans moved in and shoved the locals into isolated pockets, so the population became mostly white. Some native Mexicans have more European features, but a lot still look Mayan. Peruvians look entirely native. Get inland, and a lot still speak their original language instead of Spanish (also true of Mexico, now that I mention it). I guess the Spanish conquered the area, but didn’t have any interest in living there.

Fourth… as long as I’m addending old blogs, when I ranked the best picture nominees, my gag title for Room was “Not THE Room, Thank You,” when it should have been “The Somewhat Breakable Kimmy Schmidt.” My bad.

Cusco

Formerly the capital of the Inca empire, the city typically used to acclimate to altitude before tackling the Inca Trail is Cusco, sometimes spelt Cuzco, and formerly known as Cosco until the Spanish decided they didn’t want it to be confused with discount grocery chain Costco a few centuries down the line. Or because they found “Cosco” tricky to pronounce. They told me the second one was the real reason, but does it actually sound more likely?

Parts of Cusco, notably near our hostel, still incorporate ancient Inca walls into their buildings. It wasn’t uncommon to see a building that was Inca to about chest level, then more modern from there.

My arrival in Cusco was a little different than the rest of the group. They went on the standard intro/city highlights walking tour with Ellard while I finally reached the first portion of my “adrenaline package,” the one upgrade I chose to get. (I considered the “my own room” upgrade, decided against it, then got it for free by being the only guy in the group. Score!) So while the others checked out the town square (warned you) and other nearby sights, I was horseback riding on the hill overlooking the city.

That's Cusco in the background.

That’s Cusco in the background.

In addition to a couple of old Inca temples, the horseback ride featured two Australians who were doing the ride the day after their Machu Picchu hike (as I was supposed to, but the river was too high for my other activity).

This was… informative, if harrowing. They both had a lot of tips and insights, but the guy was determined to talk about punishing day two was. I tried to mention how hard the climb up the sand dunes had been, but it didn’t deter him.

“You have a stairmaster at home?”
“No, but I’d take one over the sand dunes—“
“Because that stairmaster feels like heaven next to the stone stairs on day two.”

Here I began to wonder how necessary I was for this conversation, since I hadn’t engaged him on the stairmaster topic at all. He also seem quite amused picturing me on those stairs. So, you know, that was a little hurtful.

That night we (save Maria, who booked too late and had to go on a different trek) were introduced to our guide-to-be, Evert. He walked us through what we could expect from day to day on the Inca Trail. His accent meant that it sounded a little like he was saying “Inca Trial.” Which was not… not inaccurate.
We also had the opportunity to rent equipment for the hike. But each piece had to be considered carefully. Budget issues aside, our G Adventures duffel bags (which, unlike our day bags, we wouldn’t have to carry) could only hold six kilos of stuff. An air mattress would make nights in the tent more comfortable, but would also take up one of your kilos. A sleeping bag keeps you warm, but that’s another two and half kilos. Two walking sticks? Those you carry yourself, so… those are fine.

I got the lot. Only left me two and a half kilos for clothes and whatnot, but I do value my sleep.
One group dinner, in which everyone opted against the guinea pig (partially because it is hell of expensive), and our intro day in Cusco wrapped up.

The Homestay

Next up… a traditional homestay with a women’s weaving collective the village of Ccaccaccollo. I could tell you to pronounce it but I think you’d learn more looking it up yourselves and then reporting back. We arrived, were split between Fransisca and Patricia, two sisters/civic leaders, and were shown to their homes, where we were served lunch. From there, we were handed traditional garb and brought to the potato fields to assist with the harvest.

There were two opinions of this particular stop. Some had been looking forward to this the entire time. They saw this as a trip highlight. These were, shall we say, the outgoing people. Other members of the group… say, the more introverted members, who aren’t great with strangers even when they do speak the same language… those who perhaps don’t see chores in a potato field as an exciting vacation experience… maybe those people weren’t looking forward to this stop so much.

Yes, fine, me. I was talking about me. That second bit was all about me. If you didn’t get that.

Still, the ladies were excited enough for this stop that I allowed myself to believe I was worrying for no reason. And by and large, I was. The people we stayed with were far too friendly, welcoming, and generous for the stop to be considered any sort of burden, potato chores or no potato chores. Our homestay consisted of lunch with our hostess, an hour or two of chores in the potato fields, dinner (featuring a few of the potatoes we’d helped harvest, also lamb), then a night in the guest room(s).

Yes, Maria and I ended up way further uphill than the others, and the climb up the hill to Patricia’s house was… daunting. (There was a less steep path, but I was forced to admit it was longer.)

Decent view from her balcony, though.

Decent view from her balcony, though.

Also the doorways weren’t quite designed for average North American heights…

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On the other hand, Patricia has a proper flush toilet (even if the “flushing” has to be done by pouring in a bucket of water) and a bathroom door that went all the way to the floor, unlike Fransisca, who had a hole in the ground and a door that ended at squat-level. So we had that going for us. Also, we had easier chores.

Post lunch, we were given traditional Peruvian garb and led to the fields. While the others had to actually dig up potatoes (save for Tayla, who maimed enough potatoes that she got moved to babysitting), Maria and I only had to gather them and rub off excess dirt. And avoid spiders. And look like we weren’t avoiding the spiders, just causally moving to another part of the field.

That last part was also just me.

Maria, getting into the harvest.

Maria, getting into the harvest.

Kate and Amy harvest spuds, Tayla enjoys some playtime with one of the kids, Ellard... is also present.

Kate and Amy harvest spuds, Tayla enjoys some playtime with one of the kids, Ellard… is also present.

Also, Patricia’s daughter spoke decent English, which was a perk. She was studying it at university, which surprised me, because she did not look older than 13. Between that and Patrica’s mad cooking skills, it was a decent lunch. Her son did not speak English, so Maria did her best to use her limited Spanish to chat with him over dinner. Apparently he used to be a porter on the Inca Trail. That’s… the main thing I was able to pick up.

Post-chores, Ellard gathered the ladies for a fashion shoot in the traditional skirts, something he does with the women of all of his tours. Just women. Not the guys. He says he doesn’t enjoy or see the point of photographing dudes. Which, you know… that’s fine. That’s his call. It’s just not something Citrus Photography’s Tim Nguyen or Abby + Dave Photography would say. For what that’s worth. (Okay, Abby and Dave are wedding photographers, so that’s not entirely fair…) Since “being photographed” lands slightly beneath “chores in a potato field” on the list of things I enjoy, so no, I wasn’t exactly miffed about being left out.

The skirt wouldn't have looked as good on me anyway.

The skirt wouldn’t have looked as good on me anyway.

Amy on the left, a more-cute, mostly-equally-fuzzy stand-in for me on the right.

Amy on the left, a more-cute, mostly-equally-fuzzy stand-in for me on the right.

In the morning, we were given a tour of the weaving process. We felt the differences in four types of raw wool, in order of softness… from sheep wool, which we soon knew to be garbage in comparison, to llama, to alpaca, to baby alpaca, to ultra-soft, luxurious, largely unaffordable vicuna. We watched how it’s spun into thread, and saw how one seed is used to dye the wool. Different colours are achieved through additives like lime juice or by simply rubbing the dye with a certain crystal. No, for real. A crystal. I saw it happen. Otherwise I wouldn’t buy it either.

Speaking of buying… the weaving collective’s creations were available for purchase. Scarves, blankets, sweaters, hats, made from llama or alpaca… I checked out a nice green baby alpaca scarf my hostess had made. At first I thought it might make a nice present, but then I felt it. It had to be mine. Also Patricia gave me a discount because she made it personally. Kate eyed a headband, but wasn’t sure she needed it.

“Do you need it?” I asked. “Possibly not. Are you working it? A little bit.” That may not have been the deciding factor, but she did buy that headband, so I like to think it had an impact.

We also got our first glimpse at our trailmates for the hike to come, as their more basic tour stopped at the village that morning.

Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo… roughly translated, the town of Ollantay, an Inca warrior of sufficient renown to be promoted to the nobility, but who got into a Romeo & Juliet situation with the Emperor’s daughter. Or so the legends say. I mean, it definitely probably could have happened.

Ollantaytambo was conquered by the Inca emperor Pachacuti, who incorporated it into his estate. It would later become a key Inca fortress: when the Spanish took the Inca capital of Cusco, the Incas fortified themselves in Ollantaytambo, managing to hold back the invaders. These days, it’s the last port of call before the beginning of the Inca Trail. Well, the typical start point of the Inca Trail. It actually goes all the way to Cusco, but that version takes 15 days.

There are two old Inca forts you can climb to: one of which costs money and is more official, and one which is free, but has posted signs saying (basically) “No railings, please don’t climb up here, but if you do, please do it before 4:30 ‘cause that’s when we close this gate.

Ellard told us it should take 20 minutes to climb to that fortress. So I took this as a test. I’d been anxious about day two of the Inca Trail since before I left, and was even more so after my encounter with the Australians (I mean, he didn’t have to tell me he found the visual hilarious, did he?). So if I could make it up that hill in twenty minutes, taking my time and enjoying the view as the Australians recommended, then I’d be good. Or so I was choosing to believe.

Success selfie!

Success selfie!

I made it, and on schedule, and the view was impressive. Thus emboldened, I gave a wave to Kate and Amy, who were on their way up while I was on my way down, and returned to town for… erm… a last burst of internet access before being unplugged for most of four days, IF you must know.
One last group dinner before the six of us parted ways for a spell, a final attempt to see how much stuff we could take with us (2.5 kilos goes fast), and then resting up for a big day ahead.

Next time… the trail.

Danny in the Andes: Pre-Andes Adventures

Let’s get back into this.

Last time we talked about the buses that carried our little group through Peru. Well, parts thereof. As we discussed, it’s a big country, and our tour allowed us to see a wide variety of places. Let’s talk about a few of them, shall we?

Nazca

If you know the name Nazca, you probably know it for the Nazca lines. A series of drawings in the desert that can only be seen from the air, and thus were forgotten for centuries. Near those lines is the actual town of Nazca, which is… a place people go when they want to see the Nazca lines and then leave really quickly. It’s a tiny place. Ellard, our guide, did not advise walking into town, feeling that the town square was safe but the surrounding town was… less so.

Now that I’ve limited Nazca’s appeal to the World Heritage Site it’s next to, it’ll probably seem weird to admit I didn’t actually see the Nazca lines.

See… maybe you were hoping to go easy on your credit card, since you hadn’t 100% paid off the trip itself. Maybe you were trying to see how long the cash you picked up before you left was going to hold out. And if those things are true, maybe you balk a little at the fact that between plane fare, park fees, and other fees I can’t quite recall the Nazca line tour came out to $140 US for a half hour flight.

Whereas, if you chose not to take the flight, you could a) sleep in, and b) lounge by the pool all morning. If you’re not going to see another hotel with a pool this trip, that option has a certain appeal. And lord have mercy the water was incredible. On a hot day in the desert it was the exact, and I mean exact right temperature. Sun, swimming, and the Welcome to Night Vale novel made for a perfect and relaxing morning, followed by lunch in town with the ladies (save for late riser Tayla, who was on the group’s tightest budget, and was just getting into her pool groove, and elected to stay at the hotel).

The restaurant strip near the town square of Nazca reminded me a little of the walk to Moulin Rouge in Paris. Or Chungking Mansions, a shopping centre in Hong Kong that I can only assume was named ironically. There are people stationed outside each restaurant on a mission to get every person they see into their restaurant. Some would find that entertaining. I find it kind of awkward. That’s more attention from strangers than I really need. Menu could be interesting, though…

Fried rice with which species, exactly?

Fried rice with which species, exactly?

Post-lunch, Maria (the only one of us to do the Nazca line flight) took her turn at the pool while the rest of us headed further into the desert for a tour to the sand dunes. We got a chance to see the heart of the former Nazca civilization, the aqueducts that provide Nazca its water to this day, as well as old burial sites… which sadly have been just super looted over the centuries. Still, it means we didn’t have to keep our distance. So if super close looks at old bones is your thing, that’s the place for you.

Then the buggy broke down. And not just a little. After a series of alarming clunks, our tour guide pulled to a stop in the middle of the dunes in order to search our tracks for pieces of the engine.

Into adventure!

Spirits remained high.

That’s not the most comforting thing that can happen to you mid-desert.

Fortunately, the same company had a second tour that was just behind us. Once their people were deposited at the top of a dune for some dune-boarding, the second buggy returned for our roller-coaster ride through the dunes. Which, as it turns out, was a way more thrilling ride than the actual dune boarding, and involved way less climbing back up the steep-ass sand dune in between. Don’t get me wrong, sandboarding was fun, just closer to crazy carpeting than anything else.

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Adequate thrills, ahoy!

We returned to the hotel with just enough time for a decent shower to rinse a surprising amount of sand off of ourselves before our traditional Nazca dinner.

Not that anything could free us of the sand. Not completely. I couldn’t wear my shorts again for the rest of the trip for fear of my phone or iPod being damaged by the sand I couldn’t get out of my pockets. My camera stopped working, meaning I had to take all of my pictures on my phone. Which, yes, is technically superior to my 11 year-old digital camera, but still.

Totally worth it, though. Good day.

Arequipa

With Arequipa we were now firmly out of Spanish-influenced Peru and into Inca territory. We weren’t what you’d call well-rested, but bounced back for our tour of the… I’m going to be using this term a lot… town square. Which we were excited to learn was going to end with crepes. Ellard is a good guide, because not only does he know the historical facts, but also where to get crepes.

I like crepes. Is that clear? I think it’s clear. God I should find a place to get a crepe this week… sorry, I’m back.

Arequipa was a free day. Recommendations included a convent, a famous mummy (or at least a well-preserved mummy), and a monastery. I opted for a bus tour of the city, getting a good sense of Arequipa as a whole. Highlights? My first sighting of a restaurant whose sign included an adorable (and realistic) cartoon guinea pig gesturing for you to come in and devour the flesh of his kin. This gets more common in smaller towns.

Also, a building in the… downtownish area that was done up like a castle, complete with Smurfs waving from the windows. An adorable, if questionably legal, family restaurant? That’s what I thought too. But no, once we got closer, it turned out to be a dentist’s office. Not sure unlicensed Smurfs and medieval décor are going to lure in the kids like you think, Mr. Dentist.

Arequipa was unique in one way. Apparently the more rural areas in the hills view Arequipa as a great place to go for new opportunities. Which isn’t odd, people do that in cities around the world. No, what made Arequipa different of the cities we saw was that people don’t move to Arequipa. They sort of shimmy up next to it.

Arequipa is surrounded by unofficial shanty towns. People come, put up a house, maybe open a garage or a restaurant, but do not officially live in Arequipa. Which is a problem for the city, because they don’t pay property taxes. Pretty sure they have power, though, I guess they pay for that? I doubt entire neighbourhoods are running off an extension cord to the nearest outlet.

This was one of the LESS shanty shantytowns.

This was one of the LESS shanty shantytowns.

 

Arequipa is also the first city where we went drinking together. Happy hour drinks, two for 15-20 soles (7-10 dollars). Which started as “Maria and I split a happy hour special” and turned into “Hey, now I have two drinks” before long. Right around the time Amy showed up. Probably a coincidence. She’s a lovely girl of strong moral character, who said she wasn’t?

Turns out “I Never” has a phone app. We learned some things about each other.

Good night. Noisy hostel. Did not sleep great. But frankly “did not sleep of great” nights really outnumbered “fully rested,” and I didn’t die, so whatevs.

Chivay

Time to leave the “big smoke” as people say. Not people I like or respect. Why did I say “big smoke,” off to a terrible start on this section…

Nestled in the Andes.

Nestled in the Andes.

Chivay is a small town near one of Peru’s more impressive natural sights, the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Observe.

Observe.

Also a good place to see giant condors. Which, yes, are immense, majestic birds. Birds that are super hard to get a really good compelling photos of if all you have is your phone and it’s super bright out so the screen is hard to see but damn it you’re trying your best.

Gonna have to trust me a little on "big" and "majestic."

Gonna have to trust me a little on “big” and “majestic.”

I got to spend some time with Maria, checking out a church and the local market. Fresh juice, ice cream, and addressing the fact that when I was picking out one day’s worth of stuff to bring to Chivay (leaving the bulk of our luggage back in Arequipa), I neglected to bring my swimsuit.

Yes, that’s right, sports fans, I created an opportunity to play “What Did Dan Forget to Pack” mid-trip. That is dedication to a bit. Or to not thinking about what I need to bring with me for the day leave me alone I have a condition.

I needed a swimsuit for the hot springs. That would have made this part clearer. Kate, Amy, Maria, and I had a relaxing trip to the hot springs that afternoon. Not much more to say about than that, except it was a nice time. But that’s why I now own three swimsuits, which just… it’s insane. That feels like way too many swimsuits for someone who is in water once a year. Gonna have to do some river rafting this August, that’s all there is to it.

Okay. Shake it off. Proper story.

Our guide for the Colca Canyon portion of the trip brought us to the local dinner theatre that night. They performed a variety of local dances, including a traditional wedding dance, and a dance sequence meant to indicate catching and curing malaria. Although the curing involved more suggested sexual activity than I think is medically advised.

Here’s the thing.

Midway through the wedding dance, their first number, the worst case scenario came to pass. They started wandering into the audience and pulling people out.

Few facts about me… I enjoy scuba and rafting, I love cheese, I gag on eggs, and I hate, I hate, I HATE audience participation. And mere minutes after the chilling realization that it was happening… they came for me.

I mean, it could have been worse. I only had to make and dance through arches. I did not have to catch or cure malaria. Others were not so fortunate. Or were more fortunate, I guess? Really a matter of perspective.

Also I found out I like alpaca. But did not bother to order guinea pig because, like always, it was the most expensive thing on the menu. Seriously, steaks cost less than guinea pig.

Next time… our tour through the south comes to an end, and the road to the Inca Trail begins.