Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Peru: the Good, the Bad, and the Very Poor


We arrive at the huge bus terminal in Guayaquil, Ecuador expecting to stay the night before being able to catch a bus to Lima, and we´re wrangled yet again and suddenly on an overnight bus destined for Piura, Peru. Fast asleep in our camas on the bus, we´re rudely awakened first, to go through Ecuadorian immigration; second, to go through Peruvian immigration; and third, to get kicked off the bus in Tumbes, Peru. Protesting farmers are blocking the roads to the South, so we´re given a five-dollar refund and left to fend for ourselves in the small, garrison town. After hearing about the dangers and lengthiness of previous protests, we decide to buy $140 tickets for the only flight out of the Tumbes airport: a 9p.m. flight to Lima. So we have about twelve hours to kill, and we spend them at the internet joint that´s run by a woman who wears her pajamas for a good part of the day; the pastel-colored Plaza de Armas; and a restaurant called Budabar, where we sip some beers to cool off and where I eat some delicious Peruvian ceviche. Finally it´s time to leave Tumbes, and we board the nice, air-conditioned plane at the tiny airport and sleep the whole way to Lima.

Luis, the taxi driver hired by our next hostel, picks us up at the Lima airport, and halfway through the ride to The Point in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima, I notice that Luis is falling asleep. First he makes a turn, leaving the signal on and drifting into the next lane, and then his head falls backward and his eyes roll with it. I hold on for dear life, and yell, ¨Hey! Hey! Hey!¨ so that Luis comes to and slams on the brakes, barely avoiding rear-ending the car that´s stopped at the red light in front of us. Thankfully, we pull up to the hostel a few minutes later, and I can´t help but notice its resemblance to a fraternity house with its pool and ping pong tables, 1a.m. bar crawls every night, wall of shame, etc. We settle into our dorm room for some sleep, woken up occasionally by party-goers and honking cars (if you´ve ever been to Peru you know that drivers use their horns very liberally).

The whole next day is spent lounging about the hostel. We use the wi fi to upload photos, and, in the company of some hungover hostel mates, we watch There´s Something About Mary and later the news, which mostly consists of footage about the U.S. Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River. We leave once to get some groceries and thoroughly enjoy being in a supermarket for the first time since leaving the States. I, personally, am ecstatic to see a good selection of cheeses since the only type of Ecuadorian cheese was not very tasty.

The next couple of days in Lima are also lackadaisical. We move to a more low-key bed and breakfast in the well-to-do Miraflores neighborhood, which is run by a group of older people and adorned with religious paintings and figurines. From the b&b, we go to a restaurant for some causa and chicha, popular Peruvian fare, and to the oceanfront, which is lined with parks and shops. Around midnight we head to my friend Jorge´s hostel. Jorge is a friend of mine from my last visit to Peru, and he is just as I had remembered him: hospitable, poetic and witty. He serves up some wine and some paella that he made, and we sit and talk with a few of his hostel guests. One of them is Flavia, a large-breasted, black-haired, gregarious Brazilian woman, and a couple of others are Chilean hippies who tell us about the four months they lived in Nederland, Colorado. The morning after Jorge´s, we hit up Starbuck´s for some familiar comforts; return to Punto Azul, the restaurant we had eaten at the day before and where Stephen eats fish for the first time in ten years; and in the evening we take a cab to the Plaza de Armas to watch the end of the parade that celebrates the anniversary of Lima. We sit in the plaza, admiring the colonial architecture and people watching, and then head to Barranco, the neighborhood known for its art and nightlife. We have a bottle of wine at Barranco´s oldest bar, with no frills and a bunch of posters haphazardly tacked onto the walls, and then head back to our b&b, ready for the next day´s trip to Cusco.


Cusco is a twenty-hour bus ride from Lima. We arrive in Cusco, thrilled to be off the bus and excited about visiting the capital of the Inka world, and our level of happiness grows when we see that Obama´s inauguration is live on the television screen in the bus station. Our happiness and excitement, however, turn to sheer panic when we notice that Stephen´s camera bag, with $4,000 in photo gear, his passport, credit cards, iPod, etc., has been snatched out from under us. We head immediately to the office of the unsympathetic tourist police and file a report. One of the officers tells us that we may be able to reclaim the stolen goods from the black market held every Saturday; he promises to accompany us to the market, but unsurprisingly, he´s not around on Saturday morning.

We spend a week in Cusco, but it´s filled mostly with running errands (getting new passport photos, ordering new credit cards, etc.) and hanging out at our hostel, Loki, a 450 year-old building, formerly a viceroy´s estate, which houses some 200 beds and is known for being the place to party. There´s trivia on the first night at Loki, and because it´s sponsored by a charity that does its best to put impoverished children of Cusco through school, we learn that there are about 14,000 child laborers in Cusco and that the weekly pay for teachers is fifty Peruvian soles (roughly 17 dollars) - interesting information to learn after having been robbed earlier in the day. Hours after trivia, I'm startled awake when an intoxicated girl jumps into my bunk and lies on top of me, thinking that I'm her friend who had previously slept in the same bed. I manage to say "Wrong bed," and suddenly top bunk seems a lot more appealing. Later in the week we witness the spectacle of a toga party at the hostel, and Gal, our Israeli bunk mate, and his muchachos, blatantly do lines and give us a hard time for not wearing togas. Oliver, another bunk mate who´s Swedish, is a lot of fun to hang around, and though we don´t exactly keep up with his drinking (he pours a glass of rum with a splash of Coke and says, ¨What? I´m a viking!¨), he certainly helps us to forget our troubles.

We debate doing a trek to the jungle or renting motorcycles to tour the Sacred Valley, but we decide that these options are too expensive (a jungle trip could cost us one month´s budget) and too risky (renting 2008 Honda 250´s in a country where auto insurance does not exist could lead to an early termination of the trip). Alas, we make the decision to go to Lake Titicaca for a few days before returning to Cusco to pick up Stephen´s new passport and credit cards.


Puno is a touristy little town that would have no appeal if it weren't situated on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, which straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia. We stay at Inka's Rest, a comfortable hostel where our kind host, Alfredo, and his wife and son make us happy to no longer be in a Loki-type accomodation. Alfredo books a tour of the lake for us and recommends a local remedy for my sour throat. His son, about our age, tells us about the year he spent living in Brooklyn and his love of TV on the Radio and other American music.

The lake tour has two stops: Uros and Taquile. Uros is a series of floating islands that are made of a cork-like substance and reeds. The indigenous people that live on the islands quickly put on display their handicrafts (also made of reeds), and the wide-bodied president of one island, who oversees six families, does a little presentation for our group of twelve or so. Uros is interesting, but it's essentially a tourist trap of reeds and inhabited by people with high-proteins diets who view us with dollar signs in their eyes. Taquile, much further from the mainland, takes a while to get to on the in-board motor boat, but we sit on the boat's roof and enjoy the views of the largest lake in South America. Taquile, covered in farm land and a number of solar-powered huts, is serene except for the chaos in the main plaza. There a handful of young girls relentlessly begging you to buy their bracelets. "Un sole, un sole," they say, with puppy-dog eyes and weathered skin that's never under the protection of sunscreen. An old man obliges when I ask to take his photo and afterwards asks for money for the photo. It seems the importunity in Peru has no limits, and it's just as annoying as it is sad.

Besides the Titicaca tour, Puno is pretty uneventful. We have dinner with a couple of girls from Cyprus who we met on the tour, and I try to kick my nasty cold. Before I know it, we're back on a bus to Cusco. The overnight bus gets us to Cusco around 6am, and the day does not get any easier from there. I find out that, back in Cincinnati, my five year-old cat had to be put to sleep because of heart failure, and minutes later I have to haggle with a sheisty travel agent to get a refund for bus tickets that he had previously sold to us for what we found out to be an extraordinary rate. Stephen, luckily, receives his new passport and bank card, but we have several hours to kill until our late night bus to Arequipa. It's days like these when the life of a backpacker seems torturous and you have to remind yourself that it's all worth it in the end.

Arequipa and Colca Canyon:

Arequipa brings a nice change of pace. It's a lot less touristy than Cusco and Puno, and with buildings made of volcanic rock; a plaza with palm trees and a backdrop of snow-capped peaks nearly 20,000ft high; and a restaurant that serves up delicious falafel, I'm feeling quite content. We stay in Arequipa for a night and head out the next morning to Colca Canyon. The bus ride to Colca is quite possibly the worst of the trip thus far. Sitting in the back row of the old bus that bumps along poorly-maintained roads for six hours is a painful experience, and it doesn't help that the bus is over capacity by about thirty people for a good part of the ride. Once in the main square in the town atop the canyon, we´re hassled by a man trying to sell us tickets into the canyon that are unofficial, mas or menos. He follows us a couple of blocks to our hostel, and our host, a guy named Pablo, ends up arguing with him for about an hour. The fight turns physical with pushing and shoving, but luckily nothing more severe. We end up evading the entrance fee, which, as we discover, is not applied towards things like cleaning the litter along the trail; instead the money stays in a neighboring town, seemingly doing nothing for the good of the canyon.

After downing the calories from a couple of pb&j's and some fruit, we head through fields of purple corn and yellow flowers down into the canyon. We hike down switchbacks for about three hours into the depths of the canyon. At the bottom near the Rio Colca we stay the night at an oasis. We jump into a pool that´s fed by a waterfall, sleep in a bamboo hut, listening to the sounds of insects and the river, and walk down to the river in the morning. It´s the perfect sliver of tranquility, but perhaps it makes me a little too complacent before the sweaty, heavy-going ascent back to the hostel. Once there, I have an alpaca steak and beer and then crash.

The next day it´s back to Arequipa for nothing more than taking it easy and drinking boxed wine with other hostel guests from Australia, Canada, Argentina, Germany and Colorado. The German girl, in a very diplomatic but stern way, tells me her perspective of the United States ever imperialistic policies and cautions me against having high hopes for the potential of one person, a certain Obama, to change the world. The Canadian is the kind of lonely traveler who talks a lot, and she never manages to finish a sentence, always starting new ones before finishing those that she´s in the middle of. I´ve had my share of socializing, and it´s time for bed because tomorrow we go to Chile!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ecuador: Loud and Lush

The Beginning:

On New Year´s Eve we watch the ball drop on a television screen in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan because it's 20 degrees outside (one degree with the wind chill) in Times Square. We catch our 5:10 am flight on New Year's Day, and we're in a cab on our way to a hostel in the Mariscal neighborhood of Quito by 2 pm. After wandering around for a while, figuring out that most everything is closed for the holiday, we resort to eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner because it's one of the few places that's open, and then we resign to ¨relaxing¨in our hostel for the remainder of the evening; I hear a series of loud bangs outside and convince myself, and Stephen, that they're gunshots - all of this after he tells me that the Lonely Planet listed Mariscal as one of the three worst neighborhoods in South America.

The next day we go to Parque Itchibimba, where the locals bike, play soccer and walk their dogs, which is interesting since most of the myriad of dogs in this country run loose and fend for themselves. A cafe near Itchibimba serves up cervezas on a terrace that overlooks the sprawling city, so we sit and enjoy Ecuadorian pilsners, a far cry from the delicious pilsners we drank so often while studying in Prague, and the buena vista. La Mitad del Mundo, the center of the world, is our next stop that day. It's a yellow line that marks the equator, so we pose for photos with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere. Sure it's unoriginal, but how can one resist? The attraction is also comprised of a big, ugly monument, overpriced gift shops, cheap-looking waterfalls and statues, a planetarium and museums, etc. It reminds me of cheesy amusement parks back home, especially with the dramatic music that blasts from the speakers, but the locals eat it up, with the rainy weather and all, so we do too.

Sadly, I manage to loose my point-and-shoot camera on the way to dinner that night. Thank you, The North Face, for designing a jacket with deep inner pockets that have slits, not big enough to notice off the bat but just big enough for a small camera to slip out of. Hopefully this kind of luck, on just the second day of the trip, is not indicative of what's to come over the next few months because, while I could stand to shed some of the weight I'm carrying on my back - roughly 50lbs - I'd like to do so on my own accord.

Laguna Quilatoa:

I wake up feeling groggy after having had some vivid dreams of a good friend dying in a horrific car accident and not being able to find a date to the high school dance. It's not atypical for me to have such odd dreams, but perhaps the traveling and malaria meds aren't helping. I have to snap out of the slumberish funk that I'm in and gear up for the trek to Chugchilan, a tiny, remote town - as in the nearest bank or atm is three hours away - in the Laguna Quilatoa region of Ecuador. While the trip does not seem too far or daunting, bus travel in Ecuador, essentially the only way to get around, is out of this world. ¨Wranglers,¨as we call them, hang out of the bus doors, even when the buses are moving, calling out the names of the destinations and recruiting commuters and tourists alike. The bus lines are privately owned and the competition is stiff, so I guess the wranglers figure that if they yell loudly enough the names of the destinations (¨Ambato! Ambato! Ambato!¨ or ¨Quito! Quito! Quito!¨) they'll bring in more business. In addition to the tenacity of the wranglers is: the smell on the buses (frequently of farm animals that may or may not be riding next to you); the vendors, often children less than 10 years old, who hop on the buses from one stop to the next in hopes of selling newspapers, fruit candies, coconut ice cream, etc.; the loud, percussion-intensive, festive-sounding music; and the roads that the buses take, which are usually narrow and unpaved.

The road through the lush mountainscape to Quilatoa is winding, and the bus often comes within inches of the steep drops that line the side of the road or the farm animals that graze alongside it. I catch myself gasping aloud a few times when I think with ninety percent certainty that we're going to tumble down to our deaths or clip a cow. With some relief and a little bit of apprehension, we step off the bus at a nondescript fork in the road and walk half an hour to The Black Sheep Inn, our home in Chugchilan for a couple of days. We´re greeted with, ¨Hey, you guys made it!¨ and Andreas, our ex-pat host who looks and sounds perfectly American though he´s lived in this part of Ecuador for nearly 15 years, shows us around and makes us feel at home. His eco-friendly lodge has composting toilets and a yoga studio, among its many other amenities, and he and his wife Michelle serve delicious farm-fresh breakfasts and dinners to us and the fifteen or so other guests, all Americans except for a French couple. Among the group are: Craig, a young buck who talks a lot, drives tour buses in Denali National Park and pretty well convinces me to move to Alaska for the summer; and Jeff, who´s taking a break from building Adobe houses in Arizona and perhaps the oldest and wisest of the bunch, as he´s the first to accept Andreas´ offer of post-Mexican dinner tequila shots. We sit around the cozy lodge, swapping stories and travel tips, and everyone raises their glasses to Stephen on his 23rd birthday.

Re-energized from the comforts of The Black Sheep, despite the rooster crows that started around 3am, we set out with our guide Alfredo to hike from Laguna Quilatoa, the bonito lake-filled volcano, back to our abode in Chugchilan. Andreas had recommended that we ride on the roof of the bus that takes us to the volcano, so Alfredo kindly asks the bus driver if it´s okay. He says no, but it´s probably for the best because we don´t need to make a reputation for ourselves as crazy gringos. Atop Quilatoa, we commence the pretty strenuous hike, and Alfredo begins to warm up to us. Possibly the sweetest fifteen year-old boy I´ve ever met, Alfredo is soft-spoken but speaks his Spanish very clearly, and he tells us about the placid scenery we´re passing through and growing up in Chugchilan. He is attentive and patient, which are good traits to have when you´re leading a couple of out-of-shape, unacclimatized gringos up and down steep grades at high altitudes. Alfredo also seems to withstand embarassment as the young Quechua girls going the opposite direction giggle at us, whether it´s because Stephen and I are huffing and puffing so much or because we look so foreign to them. After about four hours of hiking, we say bye to Alfredo, return to The Black Sheep, drink some boxed Chilean wine, and call it an early night since we´ll have a 3am wake-up call the next day.


We board the 4am bus out of Chugchilan, the only way out of town other than a milk truck that leaves a few hours later but that only brings you 26km to the next small town, and the festive-sounding music is already going at full force even though the sun will not rise for another couple of hours. Commuters pile onto the bus, which becomes so crowded that people are forced to pack into the aisles, and the woman in the aisle next to me sort of leans on me for a couple of hours. I don´t really mind. It´s the cowbell in one of the songs that plays over and over that drives me a little nuts.

We connect in Latacunga and then in Ambato (¨Ambato! Ambato! Ambato!¨), and by noon we make it to the town of Baños, known for its thermal baths and spas, currently active volcano, and adventure sports. An elderly gentleman takes us in his bicycle rickshaw to our hostel, where we sit on the rooftop terrace and enjoy a couple of cervezas and the view of a nearby waterfall. After meandering around the touristy little town, we head back to our rooftop to play some cards (¨Spit¨to be specific) and to have more Clos, the same cheap and seemingly popular Chilean boxed wine that we had in Chugchilan.

Our second day in Baños is chalk full of some much-needed relaxation. We start the day at Las Piscinas de la Virgen, the baths that sit at the bottom of the same waterfall that can be seen from our hostel´s terrace. We alternate between the near scolding bath and the icy, smaller waterfalls, avoiding the milder bath because of the number of small children occupying it and the lack of chlorine. In the evening, I treat myself, for only $25 with tip, to an hour-long hot stone massage, which is just what my body needs after the Quilatoa hike and the uncomfortable bus rides, and further into the night, I happen upon strange little parade in the center of town. It´s comprised of: a clown who leads the way with his whistle; a souped up Volkswagon; a bunch of young-looking drag queens who are wearing black biker shorts and silver jackets and dancing to Ashlee Simpson; a couple of gorilla suits that run into the crowd to envelope vulnerable spectators and a big mossy suit that envelopes me; and a lot of masks, some decorative and some just plain creepy. It reminds me of a mix between Halloween and Pride Parade, but I never find out what the occasion is.

The following day we´re ready for more adventure, and we head to a company called Rainforestur to meet our canyoning guide, who turns out to be un chico simpatico named Henry. We put on wetsuits and canyoning shoes, which resemble Chuck Taylor´s, and then ride in the bed of a pickup truck, passing through a couple of long, pitch-black tunnels to our drop-off point. After five minutes of training and a muddy fifteen-minute hike, we´re rain-soaked and ready to go. With Henry´s guidance and encouragement, we repel down a series of five or so waterfalls ranging in height from five to forty meters. The first waterfall has me a little bit nervous, but by the third, I´m jumping down and having a ball. Henry, fearless as they come, runs face-first and without a helmet, down a couple of the waterfalls, and he has us go down the last two smaller ones as if they´re slides. Playing in las cascadas and hanging out with Henry, who tells us about his up-and-coming paragliding hobby and the girl he moved to Holland for years back, is more fun than we expected - $30 well-spent! In the nighttime, eager to spend more time with Henry, we head to the Leprechaun, the bar where he works and where he pours us flaming ¨Bob Marley¨shots. We watch some of the Mexican X-Games and chum it up with our new friend and then say farewell.


11 hours of buses. I sleep, practice my Spanish, and play with a spunky, four year-old Ecuadorian girl. We arrive in Montañita, the surf town that attracts hippies and party animals, and a couple of boys offer to show us to our hostel, El Centro del Mundo, for one dollar. We find the hostel on our own, just a couple of blocks down the road, and we´re a little overwhelmed by the ¨beachfront behemoth.¨ An Italian guy who doesn´t even work at the hostel shows us to our beds in the dormitory, located in an open-air loft and made up of two dozen dingy mattress pads, trunks, and holey mosquito nets. The overall look of the place is pretty drab, but for $3.50 a night, a beachfront setting, and a social atmosphere, we figure we´ll put up with the grunge and noise - creaking wooden floors and loud music from the nearby bars that plays until the wee hours of the morning - for at least a few nights.

Stephen wakes up on day two in Montañita with about twenty mosquito bites on his left hand. Not realizing that the mosquito net was not a force field, he rested his hand against it while he slept. We go to town, get some mentol chino for Stephen´s hand and a couple of desayunas, and then we hit the beach. We play in the waves of the warm Pacific, continually say ¨No gracias¨to the guys who keep coming by in hopes of selling sunglasses and hammocks, watch scantily-clad beach-goers, and get way too much sun (note: playing on a beach near the equator while on malaria pills that make your skin more sensitive to the sun leads to bright red skin). Back at the hostel, we sit in hammocks and share joints and beers with a couple of Colombians, Alexander and Juan. Alexander is the kind of disarming guy you take to immediately, and Juan, short-limbed and hilarious, gets so excited when, somehow, we get on the topic of condors and the way that they ingest their prey from the inside out.

On day three we stay out of the sun until about 3:00, when we go with Theresa, a hostel mate from Michigan, to rent surfboards. For two hours we thrash about in the waves that are probably not meant for beginners, making a poor attempt at ¨gleaming the cube¨. Afterwards, we get meriendas, set-menu dinners that usually cost about two U.S. dollars, at an English-run vegetarian restaurant and go to bed early, exhausted from the sun and surf.

Puerto Lopez:

Ready for a change of scenery, we decide to head to Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village, and while waiting for the bus that will take us there, we meet a couple of Frenchies, Roland and Gemma, who are instantly our friends. Roland, tall and lanky and with a single dreadlock and Rastafarian-striped pants, speaks French and some Spanish, and Gemma, a fair-skinned belle who rolls about twenty cigarettes a day, speaks French and some English. Between the four of us we communicate in all three languages, frequently alternating from one to another in the same sentence. We arrive at Sol Inn, a mellow hostel that´s home for the next few days, and we get a room with four bunks, two for us and two for the Frenchies. We also befriend Phillipa, a Scot with heavy eyelids who helps us with our Spanish; Jacob, an Aussie with blond ringlets; and a laid-back Quebecoise named ¨Mich¨.

The next day, our hodgepodge crew makes a trip to Los Frailes, the beach that´s part of the nearby national park. We arrive at la playa and find only two other people and hundreds of beautifully colored crabs. Everyone takes turns snorkeling with the fins and masks that we rented, and then Stephen and I use the fins to do some body surfing. Riding the waves and getting thrown onto shore is maybe the most fun I´ve had in a year, and I feel giddy like a schoolchild. Pretty soon our hunger sets in so the group hitchhikes back to Puerto Lopez in the bed of a pickup truck, makes a cheap but substantial pasta dinner, and shares stories and shoots pool with other hostel guests, including a couple of bubbly, Argentinian girls. Roland, the free spirit that he is, shares a special moment in the hammock with a black puppy that has a red bow tie and fleas galore.

Day three in Puerto Lopez is rainy and the unpaved streets are full of mud and puddles, so I spend most of the day at the internet cafe, ¨Skyping¨my parents and getting in touch with the Real World. We awake on day four to another big bowl of Roland´s delicious fruit salad, and then the group heads to the office of the tour agency that will take us to Isla de la Plata, ¨The Poor Man´s Galapagos¨. We then head to the port, full of fratas, pelicans and fishermen, and take a boat about 40km offshore to the island. Upon our arrival, a sea turtle swims beside our boat, and Stephen claims that there were tears in my eyes, though I might have to disagree. On the island, our guide, serious and somewhat awkward, takes us on a hike and shows us around the blue-footed boobie colony, and he seems thoroughly disappointed when, after two and a half hours of walking in the hot, hot heat, the groups opts to go back to snorkel instead of moving on to see two more bird colonies. The water is warm and very clear, and we swim with huge schools of fish, trumpet fish, eels, and some of the most beautiful, colorful fish I´ve ever seen. We jump off the top of the boat a couple of times before leaving the serenity of the island, and back on the mainland, Stephen and I pack up our things, say goodbye, and then commence the long trip to Lima, Peru.

On Leaving Ecuador:

Two weeks into the trip and one country down, I´m becoming accustomed to the backpacker´s life of: budgeting, long bus trips, questionable food and drink (and lots of bottled water), lack of sleep, and makeshift bathrooms that rarely have both toilet paper and soap. Despite the many rigors involved in backpacking, I´m excited about the possibilities of each day, the people and the places I´ve been lucky enough to encounter, and the feeling that the world truly is my oyster. I am learning more and more Spanish every day and becoming more street-savvy by the minute. I am sad to leave Ecuador behind, but I am anxious to see the rest of what Sud America has to offer - the good, the bad and everything inbetween.