Run the equator: June 2007

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Next - itinerary

Here are our plans for the next couple of weeks:

We're going to be hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu for the next 4 days. Then we'll be back in Cuzco for 2 nights - just enough to upload the pictures - and up we go to the Tambopata biosphere reserve in the Amazon jungle for 5 days. Back to Cuzco (again, can't get rid of this town...) and on the same day we will leave for Lake Titicaca. We'll spend a few days around the lake and on the islands, and we cross overland to Bolivia.

The Travelrats

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Get me out of Cuzco!

The Sacsayhuaman fortress
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For any pleasure traveler to South America Cuzco is a mandatory stop. And therein lies the problem: everyone comes here…

Cuzco is a very pretty high-altitude town with an impressive old center, a mixture of colonial architecture and Inca walls. Often, the colonial houses are built on top of the Inca stonework. With every earthquake, the Spanish houses used to crumble down but their Inca foundations would remain in place, attesting to the far superior building technology of the Andeans. And their stone workmanship is unmatched: blocks of stone of all sizes, from finger-sized pebbles to 50-ton gigantic boulders fit together perfectly with no space in-between, and no mortar was used to hold them together. Seismic resistance is achieved by building at an 8 degree angle (not straight up like the Spanish), by putting the larger stones on top of the smaller, and linking those stone bricks together with bronze keys to make them move as one in case of earthquake. I hope the pictures I took speak more than my words.

Yes, Cuzco is beautiful, but if you are like me and you hate being surrounded by throngs of tourists you’re in the wrong place… Just to give you an idea of how “touristy” this place is, let me tell you that for the last two months, ever since we have started our trip, I’ve been looking for a 58mm polarizing filter for my camera all over Central and South America. I looked in tourist-only areas and in large towns like Quito and Lima, without success; most photography shop employees hadn’t even heard of polarizers. In Cuzco every other shop has them. Regular and circular. All sizes, pick yours…

Inca emperor
The Inca reenacted at Inti Raymi
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On the street, one is always harassed by locals trying to sell you massages, postcards, artwork and tours or to get you into a restaurant, sometimes all of them at the same time. But that’s the least annoying of all… On the old town streets you have a higher chance of bumping into a group of loud 21-year-olds than into a local.

One thing that irritates me beyond sky and earth is the fact that in this town of billions of restaurants, most of them pretty, good and cheap, there’s a place, Jack’s café, which always has a line of white people outside. What the hell makes this restaurant so popular? The food must certainly be good, but it is so in other places as well, and it’s not like you can be a regular customer when you’re a tourist. Is it the fact that the owner is an American and most American tourists would consider an American-managed place safer than locally-owned restaurants – giving in to the unspoken preconceptions that locals are dirty and only a foreigner would know how to keep decent hygiene in the kitchen? Or is it the fact that it’s in the travel books and it’s located in a busy intersection? No idea… anyway, there’s no excuse for the waiting line!

View of Cuzco
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Of course, I’m being unfair and a hypocrite, because I, as a tourist, am part of the problem. But that doesn’t prevent me from wishing the other tourists the one thing I always wish them: “Stay home, yo!” (in the translated words of my friend Mihai M. who long ago uttered this memorable sentence as we were trying to get on a full bus to a remote village in the mountains of Romania.)

What about us?

Despite the crowds here, we had a good time. But make no mistake, it’s not easy to adapt to 3400 meters of altitude: not even thirty minutes after getting off the plane I have been hit with the worst headache in the history of man, and weak as I was, I was barely able to reach my hotel room and crawl in bed – all this, courtesy of altitude sickness. I woke up 4 hours later feeling worse, if worse had a meaning by then – at least Angela seemed to be better. And then we discovered the miracle cure – “mate de coca” – infusion of coca leaves. Not only it made me feel better, but it immediately took the headache away and poured some fuel in my lifeless legs, enough to make me able to get out of the hostel and explore the town which was happily and colorfully celebrating the ancient Inti Raymi festival of the sun. Coca leaves are a staple around here and it’s no wonder the ancient Incas considered it a sacred plant. I hope the US government, focused on its misguided war on drugs, will never succeed pressuring the government of Peru into outlaw this plant, as they did in Ecuador. But let’s not turn this travel blog into a political forum; I have my other blog for this, although it’s been quite dry over at livejournal since I started this trip...

We met again with Michael and Mor, our friends from the Galapagos, and spent some days together in Cuzco and visiting the Sacred Valley. It was good to see them again. They got fed up with Cuzco fast (for the same reasons as me) and decided to spend a few days in the village of Ollantaytambo, in the Urubamba valley. Hopefully, we’ll meet again in Bolivia and Buenos Aires.

A last bit of trivia about this place: Cuzco, and much of Peru, seems to have been invaded by an army of young Israeli backpackers. More than anywhere else, you hear Hebrew spoken on the street; there are plenty of restaurants with Hebrew-written menus and Israeli food, and the Spanish keyboard at the Internet-café where I’m writing this blog entry has Hebrew characters glued on the keys. We got the drill from Michael and Mor (themselves belonging to the chosen people as well) – apparently, traveling to South America, and more specifically to Peru, has become sort of a rite of passage for young Israelis. As soon as they get out of the army, many spend a few months traveling this continent. The funny thing is that even those who don’t want to or couldn’t care less about traveling do it because of peer pressure…

Well, I still have to meet any Romanians on this trip…

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Lima, Baby!

Lima balcony
Lima colonial-style balcony.
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It's winter in the southern hemisphere and I'm savoring its crisp, foggy taste in Lima. The garua blots the sky, the light is flat and seems to come from nowhere and the city looks frozen in time because there's not much of a difference between morning and afternoon, or night and day. Although we are at tropical latitudes, jackets are needed most of the time.

However, I like it. I've heard stories of how horrible Lima is, how it's not worth wasting any time here or how dangerous it is to walk the streets, even in broad day light. All crap! For two days now we've been exploring the streets of this gigantic urban sprawl. It's no Paris, of course, to keep you fascinated for weeks, but it has an unmistakable big-city charm given by the combination of elaborate colonial architecture, proud neo-classic republican buildings, as-ugly-as-can-be contemporary high-rises, ultra-modern glass and steel headquarters of international corporations and hip nightlife-r-us neighborhoods. Of course Lima wouldn't be Lima without the endless downtrodden, run-down streets with crumbling houses, some of them decayed colonial gems, streets that best reflect the nature of this gigantic town, born by the will of the gold-hungry conquistadors as a showcase for the power of Spain, and built by the blood, sweat and tears of the indigenous, the poor and the desperate, who were looking for a home as well.

We walked everywhere in daylight and in the evening and took cabs for the endless rides between the interesting neighborhoods (indeed, we didn't walk those dirty streets with tottering houses, I still have some shreds of common sense left). We had cheap lunches and then blew $100 on dinner at an overpriced Italian restaurant which we selected just to make ourselves feel better and to forget all that chicken and rice we had swallowed in the last weeks.

We'll fly to Cuzco tomorrow and won't be back in Lima again, so my adventure of discovery of the misty, cold streets will have to stop prematurely. There will be more big towns later in our trip: Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Cairo, Barcelona. They may rank higher in sights and beauty, but I'm almost sure that Lima could easily win the award for the city with the most crazy cab-drivers. And speaking of cabs, a lot of them are Daewoo Tico, which were produced in Romania in the nineties. How did they get so popular here?

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Monday, June 18, 2007

No more rain, please!

Angela in the rain
Welcome to sunny Ecuador!
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We are in Banos now and we can´t wait to get to Peru. The weather has been awful for most of our trip in Ecuador, except for the Galapagos. We left Cuenca and went north. From Cuenca to Ambato, then for another 2 hours to Banos. We got off the bus in Ambato, but the bus dropped us outside of town, so we had to take a cab to the main bus terminal to get one to Banos. We soon found out the cabbie took us to the wrong bus station. We met Milton there - a guy from Banos who was at the wrong terminal as well - and together with him and another woman from Banos us took we shared a cab to the "right" station where we got on the Bus.

About an hour into the trip we got stuck into what seemed to be a traffic jam that looked as if it has been going on for hours. It turned out the Tungurahua volcano just above Banos had another major landslide that took out the highway. Our bus driving started trying to turn this huge bus around on a cliffed road to go back (since it was clear things won't change very soon) while everyone else, hundreds of cars and buses were sitting there. We got off the bus and Milton, the guy we met earlier in Ambato, told us that we should start walking, since the town wasn't far away. He later told to us that this is quite common in the area, and although the solution - building a tunned - is known, nothing ever gets done, and the politicians are full of crap. So he yelled to the bus driver to open the bottom of the bus to get our bags out, grabed Angela's bag, and... vamonos!

In Angela's words: So Fritz has his bag, this guy has my huge bag and I have the little bag and we start walking in the freezing cold rain, in high altitude. We walk for about a 30 to 45 minutes (I am gasping for air because half the way we are going uphill) and finally get pass where the police blocked off the freeway. Then some truck stops and we hop in the back with the Chicken boxes and chicken you know what everywhere, we get to the landslide. We get off the truck, thank the lady and 10 others and grab our bags, walk pass the huge landslide (we wish we had the little camera because there is no way describe how huge this lahar was). The earth was hot. We walk another 45 minutes or hour then the guy we are with flags down a taxi who doesn´t want to take us. Finally he agrees. It is a hatchback and the only way for us to fit is if I sit in the trunk hatchback! Anything to get out of the rain and not walk! Then we get to Banos and get a hotel room, finally. Have dinner and next day, we both are sick. Now Fritz and I have been sick for 2 days. We are getting better and moved to a hotel with a better bathroom. Needless to say we are ready to get out of Ecuador. Wednesday we take a bus north to Quito and take an evening flight to Lima. I will be so happy to get some sun!

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wet county

We are back in continental Ecuador, in Cuenca. It has been raining for 4 days straight and I can't help but think of drizzly Seattle...

Our goal here was to take language lessons at the "Simon Bolivar" Spanish school, but we had to drop out after three days because of some misunderstandings about the price - the lessons ended up being more expensive than we thought. Nonentheless, we got some good practice: I got to learn the various cases of the subjunctive and Angela learned shopping-Spanish. We stayed with a family and this provided even more opportunity for language practice.

It's very cold these days and no Ecuadorian house has any sort of heating system. The three blankets we have on the bed solve the problem for the night, but other than that it's back to thick socks, sweaters and rain coats.

Tomorrow we leave for Baños, which is a scenic village on the way between Cuenca and Quito, on the edge between the sierra and the oriental jungle lowlands. Hopping for better weather...

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Las Islas Encantadas

Sea lion
My favorite sea lion.
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I won’t try to tell you how beautiful, amazing, fascinating or (insert superlative adjective of your choice) those islands are; I will let the pictures speak for themselves instead. They may not want to speak out loud either because during most of our cruise the sky was covered with clouds, which didn’t make my camera happy at all. However, the 300mm lens helped a lot with the wildlife. There isn’t really a need for such powerful zoom except for close-ups; in most places the animals are so close you can touch them - which, of course, you shouldn’t and neither should you feed them the crackers that you brought with you to snack upon.

Dinner time!
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There are a few daily flights to the islands from Quito and Guayaquil, and people pour in by the hundreds (or should I say thousands?) into the airport built by the Americans in the 40s on Baltra island. The first thing one does after leaving the tarmac is to reach for the wallet and pay the $100 park entrance fee. I don’t know what happens with this money but I hope it goes to a good cause. Next you find your guide (assuming you booked a tour, which is what most people do, unless they decided to hunt for last-minute deals in Puerto Ayora), and meet the rest of the group you will share the boat with for the next 5 or 8 days, depending on your tour package. You check out the faces of people waiting for their luggage and pray that whoever it is, they not be too annoying, stuck-up, boring, too old, or speak no English...

Land iguana
A little awkward but still happy.
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Life on board is as easy as you make it… and as comfortable as you paid for. The only difference between the various classes of boats is what you get on board; the wildlife doesn’t know the luxury cruise passenger paid a thousand dollars more than the hippies on the economy boat. We chose a “tourist superior” class schooner which offered great comfort for its size. The cabins were small but they all had private bathrooms with hot water. The food was great and there was enough of it, three times a day, including desert with lunch and dinner; I don’t think I have had such a regular meal schedule since I was 6 years old and living with my parents (no, I wasn’t in the army). There were only 12 passengers, which is a good group size; you can get to know them all, and if somebody is annoying or awkward to talk to, you can always switch places at the table for the next meal. As antisocial as I am, I didn’t get to hate anybody; I spoke Italian with an older Italian couple, there were two German guys which helped me practice the rusty remains of my German, and I tried my Spanish with the crew. Everybody else was from English-speaking countries… except for the British couple Lisa and Matthew – I didn’t understand a word they were saying. We became friends with Mor (that’s a girl name, in Israel) and Michael, and we may see them again in Cuzco and Buenos Aires since they are following a route similar to ours.

Albatross mating ritual

Our guide, Juan, was an ageless-looking forty-something black guy, spoke decent English using lots of infinitive verbs, and had a peculiar sense of humor. He liked to repeat things: “sea lions, sea lions, sea lions” or “boobies, boobies, boobies” (the birds, that is) and sometimes gave short moralizing lectures about the ravages that homo sapiens would perpetrate on “his” islands if the park authority (and himself as a representative) wouldn’t protect them.

And protected they are, indeed. There is a limited number of tour-boat licenses (a hundred from what I gathered), which effectively limits the number of tourists that disembark each day on the islands. Getting new licenses may be possible if you have lots of money and friends high up in the government but it doesn’t seem to be the norm. The routes of the boats are also regulated by the park authority to prevent too many boats from anchoring in a place at the same time. The park also sets the times when tour groups from various boats can land on the islands in an effort to prevent overcrowding of trails and to avoid stressing the wild life, which one day may not be so eager to share the same habitat with the humans and may run away at their approach. The number of people in a visiting group is limited to 16 and trail paths are also marked and must be respected – not that most people who visit Galapagos would want to steal albatross eggs from their nests - the dangers here are erosion and carelessness. These practices seem to be bearing fruit - the islands are clean (no coca-cola bottles or cigarette butts anywhere), we’ve rarely seen more than one other group on the same trail with us and the animals still ignore you when you get close to them.

Fritz and Angela
That's us!

We did a few dives and a lot of snorkeling as well, and while the underwater scenery wasn’t too impressive, it was interesting nonetheless. There is no coral reef in the Galapagos (at least not at the sites we visited) so the bottom of the ocean isn’t of much interest. There were many fish down there of course, but no huge schools like we were expecting. The highlights were always the manta rays, the sting rays, the moray eels and… the sharks and we saw quite a few of them. Of course, the sharks were small and were minding their own business; otherwise I don’t think we would have been getting close to look at them with excitement; we would have done quite the opposite, if I may say so…

If I had discovered Galapagos when I was younger I would have certainly dreamed of a different career path: the joke of the day on the boat had been revolving around the new “hot” profession, the goat killer. The islands, it seems, have a large numbers of species introduced accidentally by the humans, one of them being the goat. These creatures are such pests that no other species can compete with them for food, surely not the slow giant tortoises and the iguanas. Goats devour all plant life and have the reproducing capabilities of a copying machine. Besides, in a bizarre twist which serves only to prove Darwin’s theory of evolution, they have adapted their bodies to drink salt water. Lest the last of the endemic wildlife die of hunger, the government started a goat-eradication program some years ago and has successfully eliminated the quadruped on most islands, bullet by bullet, goat by goat. It seems to be a well paid job, although it must be quite exasperating to have to keep aiming at pairs of horns for eight hours a day. Do you think these guys have a “bring your daughter to work” day?

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Saturday, June 2, 2007


Quito by night
Night view of Quito
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We've been in Quito for almost 5 days and I can say that this city definitely has its unique charm. The colonial architecture and the countless churches of the old town, the vibrant atmosphere of the new town mix with a bit of Latin-American style which makes the whole look like it's sort of a shanty town and result in a very convincing urban scenery. The city is like a long ribbon spread over many hills along a central valley; much of it consists of more or less run-down suburbs which quickly start to look all alike and do not provide much excitement for the tourist, but there's enough that can keep you busy for a few days of sightseeing. To this picture, add the people going about their colorful business of selling and buying all kinds of wares and foods alien to the western traveller's eye and you'll get more than enough to keep you coming back to the streets each day.

Angela and I had a pretty busy schedule - we explored the town, we saw the churches and a couple of museums, and we climbed Guagua Pichincha, the volcano that towers above the town (in the "teleferico", mind you, not walking, and it was cloudy - no view, no photos.) We saw the botanical garden and the reptile vivarium and we went to "Mittad Del Mundo" - a cheesy and pathetic visitor's park an hour north of Quito placed smack on the equator, for the benefit of the silly tourists who want to have photos of themselves with a foot in each hemisphere.

Pig head
Bon appetit!
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Today we went to Otavalo, a town a few hours north of Quito where each Saturday a most famous textile market takes place (and a food market, and an animal market, and a you-name-it market, but the textiles are what put the town on the map.) Angela went crazy with the alpaca-wool products and as a result we are now blessed with a full bag of soft things that will have to find their way home somehow. Given the limited space in the backpacks, there may be a need for another visit to the post office soon...

We have realized that out hostel is situated right in the "hang-out" neighborhood - as a matter of fact, I'm at an I-cafe now and lots of people are just standing on the sidewalk outside... to see and be seen seems to be the goal (even if the night is quite chilly.) We've been cruising the streets looking at people buy haven't been into and bar or disco. Not much socializing has happened either - as a matter of fact we (or at least I) have been keener on talking to strangers in remote places with few people; as soon as we got into this real town I started feeling the loneliness of large numbers. Since my Spanish is not yet up to the level of casual conversation and the last people I want to talk to are other American tourists, I guess socializing will have to wait until we reach Cuenca where we will be taking Spanish classes and living with a local family.

Tomorrow we'll be flying to the Galapagos islands, so there will be no more posts for about a week. No internet on a sail boat... what an outrage!

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