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Floating Islands - Lago Titicaca - Puno, Peru

October 11, 2008

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This morning is a typical one for me these days. I’m still up very early, missing my run with Rob, but making do with some coffee and computer time planning our next few days. Kelli and the kids are up in the room sleeping. Eliot will most likely make the first foray out into the world. This is when I do most of the postings and I thought I’d put up some out of date, but still interesting (at least in my opinion) pictures.

These photos come from our one day spent on Lago Titicaca back in Peru. It is the highest navigable lake in the world, shares its waters with Bolivia and is strikingly beautiful. As you may have read, we planned a two day tour with an overnight with a local family on Isla Amantani, but had to change things when Eliot got sick during the night. Regardless, we were still able to visit the famous “Floating Islands” and Isla Taquile. Both islands are still inhabited by their indigenous people, who speak Quechua and are in varying degrees focused on fishing, agriculture and tourism to support themselves and retain the integrity of their lifestyle and heritage.

The Floating Islands were fascinating. They are constructed by assembling 1 meter square “bricks” of the root structures of the local reeds strung together by ropes and anchored to the lake floor. The dried up section of reeds from above the water are then simply laid down together to make the floor or ground of the island. They are continuously harvesting more reeds to lay on top and maintain the integrity of the islands. It takes around 6 months to construct and the islands then last for about 8 years. The sensation of walking across them was very weird. It was soft and spongy, very unlike the terra firma that we experience every day.

Arriving to the islands was a bit strange. Both for the uniqueness of their construction as well as the outright focus on tourism as a way of life. Our tour boat was greeted warmly by the residents of the island who demonstrated various aspects of living on the island, showed us their homes, sang songs and took us on a ride in a reed boat. From the leader of the island on down to the youngest walking child, they performed for the tourists. The children even parroted songs in Quechua, Spanish, English, French and Chinese. Honestly, it was a bit weird and spooky. On the one hand it seemed good that they have found a way to support themselves on the other it felt a bit exploitive.

After the Floating Islands we visited Isla Taquile which is primarily a farming community. Again they have a focus on tourists, but it is clear that they take their farming very seriously and it provides them with most of their food. We only spent a few hours on the island and it felt a bit rushed as our tour guide shuttled us from one location to the next to be sure to stay on schedule. With all of the moving we were able to take in some of the truly spectacular views of the island, lake and sky. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t spend more time their or have stayed overnight.

Machu Picchu

October 5, 2008

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Our whirlwind 20 days in Peru are almost over and everyone has had a great time here. The fatigue factor is a bit high, though. Peru is much larger than Ecuador, the third largest country in South America by land mass, and there is so much to see. We have been on the move quite a bit. Our blog postings and pictures are a bit behind, but we’ll post Machu Picchu now, and catch up as we can with the rest.

After visiting Cuzco and a number of the Incan sites in the Sacred Valley, including Moray, Pisac, the salt pans of Salinas, and Ollantaytambo (which we loved!), we headed via Peru Rail to Aguas Calientes. We arrived in the late morning, settled into our hostel and headed to the Museum at the bottom of the Machu Picchu mountain. There are no taxis in Aguas Calientes, nor does bus service stop at the museum, so we walked the two miles. It started to rain, of course. After some attempts to convince passing bus drivers to pick us up (we didn’t have our rain coats) we soldiered on only to find out that the museum was closed because of the anniversary celebration for the town. So, we explored what little there was of Aguas Calientes for the remainder of the day and then prepared to leave early for Machu Picchu the next morning.

The morning came early. We wanted to be at the top of the mountain for sunrise. That meant waking up at 4:30 AM, wolfing down a merely passable breakfast and then walking to the bus station by 5:00 AM. Here are some pictures of the kids at that hour. They were pretty excited about Machu Picchu and were able to summon some good smiles very early in the morning.

Even though it was low season, the crowd waiting for the buses was big and we made it onto the 5th bus of the day. We rode the bus up a dirt road with 13 switchbacks, as counted by Jack and later verified by him again from the peaks of Putucusi and Waynu Picchu (young mountain), to the entry gate of Machu Picchu (old mountain). While Kelli, Ainsley and Eliot waited for our tour guide, Jack and I walked across the grounds to the Waynu Picchu gate. Waynu Picchu is the mountain peak that can be seen in the classical pictures of Machu Picchu. The number of hikers on the trail to the top is limited to 400 a day, and we wanted to be sure to get tickets. (We’ll post some pictures about that hike soon.)

So, what was Machu Picchu like? We had all seen the fantastic pictures and read much about it. As the saying goes, pictures do not do it justice and words are insufficient to describe the grandeur and mystery that surround this wholly sacred place. The Incans built Machu Picchu and other structures so high on the mountains as to be nearly incomprehensible, especially when one considers that the building material consists of rocks so large that some weigh close to twenty tons. For most of the morning we were enshrouded in clouds, literally, viewing across the vast expanse to snow-capped mountain peaks, waterfalls, and a rushing river in the valley far below. We feel so fortunate to have experienced Machu Picchu. Being there for the sunrise and the entirety of the day, hiking through a glorious day in communion with Incan history, was truly a gift. From here we’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Climbing Waynu Picchu

October 5, 2008

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At 10AM we waited in line at the Waynu Picchu guardhouse to sign in for the 1+ hour hike to the top of “Young Mountain”. While waiting we reunited briefly with a Dutch couple we met previously on Lago Titicaca and a US couple with a 4 year old son whom we met in Aguas Calientes. The Peruvian authorities had instituted a sign in/sign out process because someone “disappeared” a few years back. They are more careful now to ensure that everyone returns each day. They also confiscated food that people carried in their backpacks, including most of ours, which was later returned to us after the hike. I understand the desire to stop littering, but preventing people from carrying food during a strenuous hike is a bit loco if you ask me. We were able to keep a small package of crackers after Kelli told the authorities that a child like Eliot needs to eat during such a strenuous hike.

Anyway, the hike was quite steep at parts, but not too difficult or dangerous. The trail had the usual Incan steps most of the way and more modern cabled handrails at especially difficult stretches. Eliot on this segment of the trip has turned out to be quite the good hiker and climber. He really enjoys it and we talked a lot about hiking in Colorado with his cousin Teddy after we return to the states.

The entire hike took about 2 or 3 hours, with some well deserved time at the top spent soaking in the views and snacking on some chocolate. After returning down to Machu Picchu we had a bit of a picnic lunch with the llamas nearby and then headed off to hike the final stretch of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate. Eliot was running on empty at that point and he and I headed down to the entry gate for a snack and some rest, while Kelli, Ainsley and Jack continued the hike to the Sun Gate. At the snack bar, there was a scene of yet another group of girls wanting to take pictures with Eliot. He was a true sport and smiled his way through every permutation of the five girls with him. Eliot with each one. Eliot with two of them. Eliot held by one in her arms. Eliot with four of them. Etc. It must be his “blondish” hair, fair skin and small size that attracts the picture takers. We continue to wonder aloud how Tess Johnson survived what must have been even bigger crowds, given her curly, true- blond hair.

In the end, we were really thankful to have received 5 of the 400 tickets to climb up Waynu Picchu.

Bus Travel in Peru - Our Luck Runs Out

September 28, 2008

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We had great luck in Ecuador with our many days of bus travel.  In all, we took eight bus rides varying from one to eight hours in duration.  Bus travel in Ecuador is not luxurious;  some times it is downright uncomfortable and scary.  Not once did we experience a break down, delay or other issue on any of our trips, however.

I kept telling the kids that as our trip progressed, next to Peru and then to Argentina, the quality of the bus service and roads would improve.  In most respects that was correct, except in Peru when our luck with bus reliability finally ran out.

First, our bus from Nazca to Arequipa got a flat tire. It was a little bit after 6 PM and we were making great time heading South along the barren, desolate and desert-like Pacific Coast of Peru.  The scenery and vast, empty beaches were stunning.  Huge waves were rolling and there was empty desert in every direction.  All was great until we heard a sound like a small explosion. It was pretty clear that a tire had just blown. We wondered what that meant for our trip. Would we be stranded waiting for a repair vehicle or new bus? The driver pulled to the side of the road and stopped to examine the situation. He then started driving again. Would we just keep going with a flat tire on to Arequipa? No, we soon stopped again, this time in front of a typical shack like house on the side of the road. We were told that they would change the tire and we would be back on the road shortly. So, the two drivers got out the spare tire and changed the tire in no more than 30 minutes. Impressive! It ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise as the stop allowed us to view a beautiful sunset on the Pacific Ocean. We also got a small peak at life in this region of Peru. Suffice it to say, life looked pretty tough. A ramshackle house made of many different materials, a turkey running around the yard and no electricity or running water, perhaps.

That was last Saturday and this past Saturday (yesterday) brought yet another long bus ride. This time from Puno (on Lago Titicaca) to Cuzco (near Machu Picchu). We had splurged a little and booked a bus line called Inka Express. This transformed a straight 6 or 7 hour bus trip into a 10 hour journey with an English speaking tour guide, stops at 6 archaeological sites along the way and a stop for lunch. Well, it didn’t quite work that way. We were again traveling through stunning scenery, this time in the high plains of the Andes headed up towards the high point of our journey, when we felt the bus lurch, slow down and begin to spew white smoke everywhere. We thought we had our second flat tire on a bus in Peru. The smoke kept coming, however, and we began to think that this time it was different. Again, they stopped the bus and got out to take a look. Our tour guide gave us an update and said that the bus had some engine trouble and that we would try to drive slowly for 15 minutes or so to our lunch stop and that the company would send us a new bus. So, we started moving again. He opened some windows to get us some air, but the smoke started coming in. The bus moved very slowly and the smoke just kept coming. It quickly became clear that it was not possible to drive the bus further so we stopped at a random spot along the road.

Most everyone had a good attitude about the situation and we then proceeded to wait for some help. Cell phones didn’t work so our guide flagged down the few passing vehicles and sent one of the bus staff in one of them to get some help. We played cards. We waited. We met some locals and nearly cleaned out the one small tienda that was clearly stocked for local consumption, not a broken down bus full of tourists. We waited. Kelli got a bit of a walk in. We waited. We met a very cute 5 month old girl. We waited. We observed some old political ads painted on the roadside. We waited. The kids did some homework and then after 2 or 3 hours a new bus showed up to take us on our way.

All in all, if this is the worst of bus travel in South America we still are lucky. We’ll see!

Islas Ballestas - near Paracas, Peru

September 25, 2008

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We decided to take a short boat tour of Islas Ballestas on our way from Lima to Arequipa last Saturday. The bus ride from Lima to Arequipa is a mere 16 hours, so in order to take the tour and get to Arequipa that same day we left Lima at 4:15 AM. Ouch! ! We arrived in Paracas at 8:20 or so and headed straight for the harbor to catch our 8:30 boat. The tour lasted until 10:30 and we rushed back to the bus station to head to Arequipa, where we arrived just after midnight. Even though we traveled in relative luxury on a double decker bus, and on the 1st floor (sort of like 1st class on an airplane) for the last eight hours, everyone was quite exhausted. That said, as you will see from the pictures below, the day was worthwhile!

…..not quite!

June 23, 2008

We plan to go here, but haven’t yet arrived. Take a look at the map at the top right side of the home page to see where we are and the “Where?” page for where we intend to go.