Sunday, July 7, 2013

Peru - Inka Trail and Amazon rain forest June 2013

Peru – June, 2013 I have been thinking for some time of a visit to the Andes, with Peru’s Machu Picchu specifically in mind. Last winter I decided to do it as soon as school was out this spring – and managed to talk a friend, Ben Perkins, into going with me. The plan was to spend 4 days hiking the Inka Trail, an extra day at Machu Picchu, where we would climb Huayana Picchu, then spend 5 days in the Amazon jungle. We had initially planned to spend two days in Cuzco, but the itinerary prepared by the company I dealt with, Pachamama, omitted that from the plan. We later wished we had kept it in, because Cuzco is a pretty and interesting city that merits at least a couple of days in its own right – and we needed the time to do laundry. Background: the Inka civilization “Inka” refers only to the governing elite, who never numbered over about 100,000. Commoners, from various ethnic and language groups, were required to spend 4 months of every year, as a form of taxes, either working the overlord’s lands or working on various construction projects, including roads, terraces, and temples. Many of these people lived in highland villages – where their descendants still live (I think “highland” means well above Cuzco’s 11,000 foot elevation.) The Spanish systematically destroyed as much of the Inka civilization as they could, just as they did elsewhere in South America, but the ruggedness of the terrain limited their activities, which partially accounts for the preservation of some sites like Machu Picchu, and also accounts for the continuation of many customs from pre-colonial times. Cuzco - 6 19 13 Our hotel, the Maytaq, is about 1.5 blocks from the main square. It is clean and pleasant, with good firm beds, a very nice bathroom, and a good, efficient staff. The walls are a little thin, so we were kept awake by other people getting ready for early departures. Breakfast was so-so, one egg, some good fresh fruit, some indifferent salami and cheese. If I return to Cuzco I will probably stay there again. The first day in Cuzco I had thought to visit some of the ruins there, but as part of a month-long festival of the sun they were having a kind of parade around the town square, with lots of traditional folk dances as well as marching groups of faculty members and (apparently) students from various departments of the local university, so we ended up spending almost the entire afternoon watching that. I got far too many good pictures; will need to do some heavy sorting. I later learned that the dancers were from universities all over Peru, and that it was a competition, with a judging stand in front of the main cathedral. (The couple at the right were central figures in what appeared to be a courtship dance.) That night we met with one of the Pachamama guides for an orientation and got two slightly unpleasant surprises. We thought we had ordered two pairs of trekking poles, but they interpreted it as two poles, so we had only one apiece. Also, we thought we had paid $50 each to have a private group and not be added to someone else’s tour, but the clerk apparently missed that, so we had been assigned with a group of five Brits. As it turned out, that was not a big problem, since all of them turned out to be friendly, compatible people and in good condition for hiking the trail. In Lima we had a very early wakeup in Lima to catch the plane - good thing we got to the airport a bit early, since the security line was a full quarter of a mile long. The problem was repeated in Cuzco: Fumbling with my watch, I apparently set my watch alarm to midnight. It repeated after ten minutes, so I had to hide it in the bathroom. Then Ben's alarm went off, and he dealt with that. We both had a hard time getting to sleep - then the hotel called with a wakeup call at 4 a.m., mistakenly believing that we were going to the trail that day. We both mostly dozed until the time when we really did need to get up. Touring the Sacred Valley The Sacred Valley tour was a bit of a bust. First we spent 1.5 hours driving around Cuzco picking up other clients and waiting for another bus, to trade English / Spanish speaking guests. Then we drove over winding mountain roads to Pisac, where we assembled along the trail from the parking lot and listened to a long lecture by the guide, then had just 15 minutes to poke around the site – which is quite interesting, and would have been worth at least a couple of hours. The view from the site is itself quite spectacular. Pisac is a vast slope of terraced fields with food storage buildings at the top. Each terrace has its own micro-climate; the Incas planted different species of corn, potatoes, and other crops at different levels; they also appear to have done a lot of agronomic experimentation. They also worked out a way to dry potatoes, and to store food in a way that it would keep for years, using a combination of air circulation and natural insecticides in various plants. The Inkas developed very complex systems of irrigation, by splitting stones and carving matching grooves in the stones to channel the water; many of these systems are still in operation. At left is an outflow from one of these buried “pipes,” with water spilling into a rock-lined ditch that leads down to one of the terraces. Most of the terraces are no longer farmed, but they are maintained weed-free by national park employees (with the help of grazing llamas). On to Pisac town, where we spent over an hour in the shopping market, good for about ten minutes maximum in my book. We did enjoy the food market, with exotic varieties of potatoes, maize, and many fruits we’d never heard of. At right is a farming couple behind their food stand. Notice the white-skinned potatoes. After wandering around for much longer than either Ben or I was interested in, we drove an hour to a roadside restaurant for a long elaborate lunch, more than an hour. The lunch was good, but much more than we really needed, and I’d have much rather spent the time exploring the Inka sites. A trio in the courtyard played tunes on traditional instruments – a stringed instrument and some flutes, and that was very nice. After lunch we drove on to Ollantaytambo, where we visited a large site that was under construction when the Spanish arrived, and was abandoned without being completed. We skipped a site along the way that would have required about an hour walk each way - the shopping and long lunch did not leave time for such frivolities. That was exactly the opposite of what we would have asked for had we had the private guide we expected. This is only one of many ways in which I feel Pachamama let us down. On the hill behind and to the right of the terraces above you can barely make out the trail that leads up to the Inka Trail. At each site, the terraces provide a series of micro climates, and were used for agricultural experimentation, with different crops growing on each terrace, usually potatoes at the top, then maize, then fruit and other crops. At the very top were stone storehouses, constructed to achieve natural drying and cooling, and furnished with natural insecticide herbs that would preserve dried food for 20 years or longer. At the bottom were the residential areas, usually with a separate area for the temple and other public buildings. The Inkas were great builders and architects. Above is one of their building blocks, with a groove that matches a projection on other blocks, keying them together like Lego blocks. They also put smaller stones in between larger stones, to allow the stones to move during an earthquake without falling down – these will be more apparent in some of the later pictures. We stayed the night in the Pakaritampu Hotel, an interesting and comfortable resort complex situated on a sprawling set of terraced lawns. The dining room appears to have been constructed 70 or 80 years ago, with natural wood everywhere, almost elegant. Dinner was a huge disappointment - quite expensive, tough, and not very tasty, poor presentation. I had overdone trout in a wine sauce, served with equally overdone tasteless potato and at least one whole onion, which overwhelmed the taste of the fish. Ben had a grilled chicken breast, tough and flavorless - but he said the sauce was quite good. If I stayed there again I would walk into town and look for another restaurant. Breakfast was somewhat better – and, unique among the places we stayed, they actually had puffed quinoa as one of the cereal options. Immediately after breakfast we were picked up by the Pachamama bus and met our guide and the other members of our group. We then drove about 20 minutes to the trailhead, at Milepost 82, where we checked in with the park authorities, put on our packs, and set out. The picture to the right / above is my companion, Ben, standing in one of the doorways at Ollantaytambo. Hiking the Inka Trail The national park service issues permits for 200 trekkers each day; add guides, cooks, and porters, and there are about 500 people hiking each stage of the trek. The guides do a pretty good job of keeping the groups spaced apart, so you’re usually aware of no more than 15 or 20 other trekkers. The first day’s camp site was located in a small village, Wayllabamba, along with four other groups – but the camp sites were designed in a way that did not feel too crammed together. The second day’s camp site was larger, maybe 15 or 16 groups, but our guide, Jimmy, had selected a relatively secluded site at the very beginning of the trail upward. The third day’s camp site was the largest – since it is only a couple of miles from the Sun Gate, entry to Machu Picchu, almost everyone camps there. Not surprisingly, the toilet facilities became progressively worse as the size of the camp sites grew. Our group. Our guide, Jimmy Mansi (jj_mansi@, was quite good and if I return to Peru I will use him again. He was knowledgeable, considerate, and very good at planning the trip and securing a good camp site for us. Our hiking companions, all of whom were experienced hikers: Derek (, a little younger than me. Grant ( – ebullient and good-natured, and his father Geoffrey, about my age, used to be a runner until he hurt his feet, still in very good shape - hiked at about my speed. A married couple, Marc and Maria ( - Marc is a runner, very good shape. Both Derek and Maria seemed little unsure of their ability, but both of them kept a good even pace, and handled the most difficult parts of the trail very nicely. All in all, the group was quite well matched in terms of overall ability and pace. (Derek, Ben, me (Dave), Grant, Geoff, Maria, Marc) The cook was quite good - first night on the trail he did an excellent herbed trout; for breakfast the next morning he made herbed scrambled eggs for me that were also very good. Things went downhill a bit from there, not surprisingly since the cook and his helper carried cooking equipment table service, and all food on their backs. (I could have done with half the table service.) One of the ways Pachamama let me down was by not passing the information about my celiac disease along to the guide or cook. The cook did a quite good job of improvising, so usually I ate as well as the other guests – all except snacks, which often involved cookies or crackers, and even the candy bars were chocolate covered shortbread. Tea, before dinner, involved popcorn as well as some kind of wheat-based snack; everyone else dug into the popcorn first before eating the wheat-based snack. I took what I thought was more fruit-nut bars than I would need; turns out I didn’t take nearly enough. Fortunately, Ben brought far more than he needed, and generously shared some of them with me. The trail. Most of the trail is paved with more or less flat stones; the slopes have steps. (That’s why you are not allowed to use metal-tipped trekking poles.) Some of the steps were uncomfortably high, especially on the steeper slopes – but I still preferred them to loose gravel and cobbles. The routine. The day began before daylight, usually about 5:30, but 3:15 on the final morning. A porter delivered heated water and soap for washing, followed by a cup of hot coffee or tea. We then dressed, stuffed sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and everything else we wanted the porter to carry into a duffel bag and packed our day-packs, then assembled in the mess tent for breakfast. This was often centered around pancakes or bread – but the cook provided me with some kind of egg dish, usually scrambled eggs, and sometimes potatoes. After breakfast, we put on our packs and set out up the trail. We would usually pause for a snack along the way, stop for lunch around 12:30 or 1:00, then hike another hour or two and make camp around 3:00 or 4:00. The porters broke camp after we left, passed us along the way, and had things set up for lunch and camp when we got there. They are strong, incredibly fit, and almost run up the trail under their loads. Officially they are not supposed to carry more than 25 kilos, but their loads looked twice that to me. Weather: generally cool – 40s at night, low to mid 60s in the afternoon – and mild, with occasional rain that rarely lasted longer than 30 minutes. I never put on my rain pants; the nylon hiking pants hardly got damp. At the highest camp, the rented sleeping bag was barely sufficient – I recommend a heat-reflective “space blanket” to throw over it. Fleece warmups are not necessary, but on the coldest morning I wore long underwear until just before we started hiking, and a fleece sweatshirt as well as my quilted jacket – both came off within the first 15 minutes of walking. A member of a later group reported sleet at the top of the first, highest summit, so we were lucky with respect to weather. First Day. The first day's hike was short and easy. We didn’t start until probably 10 or after, hiked a gradual grade on excellent trail, climbing an easy, steady grade to a ridge, from which we could see the very pretty Llactapata ruins on a facing slope below us. Here, both the storage and residential areas are at the top; a religious shrine lower right. The Inkas liked circles; the scalloped terraces apparently have religious significance, as does the number three – it wasn’t clear what the circles represent; possibly the sun. On the ridge above the ruins is the ruin of a fort, which probably also served as a relay post for the runners, who constituted the Inka’s main medium of long-distance communication. Beyond the fort we descended into a long valley; about another hour brought us to the village of Wayllabamba and our first camp site. The easy walk on the first day provided a nice chance to get to know everyone, and get a feeling for the group as a whole. During the day I walked along with every member of the group, getting to know them and learning all the names. Grant had probably the slowest pace; his father, Geoff, had a good steady pace quite similar to mine. Derek, Maria, and Ben were somewhere in between. On the first day, Marc walked ahead of the others; I gather he has done quite a bit of trail-running, and would have liked to run more. It could be that we were matching each other’s natural pace, or there may have been a kind of implicit competitiveness. In any event, it was a nice, even trail and fun hiking. The camp sites are located in pastures below a small ruin of an Inca relay station, below some farm buildings and outbuildings. After we’d set up camp, I asked Jimmy where the bathrooms were located and he replied - see those two chickens? It's right behind them." I asked him what I should do if the chickens move, and for just a second I think he thought I was serious. Toilet facilities along the whole trail are rather Spartan - sitdown toilet at the first campsite, squat toilets after that (pretty scummy on the last night, probably because there were so many people using them.) Second Day. Immediately after leaving camp we started on an uphill grade toward the 14000 foot (4,200 meter) summit (below). The trail alternates between quite moderate and very steep, through woods at first, then over a barren slope with grasses and short scrubby brush. I’ve noticed before that, especially on steep slopes or difficult terrain, it is very difficult to hike close behind anyone. If they slow or stop abruptly it breaks my rhythm and leaves me out of balance – which increases muscle strain and quickly tired me out. Accordingly, I brought up the rear for the first half of the ascent, stopping every time I caught up with the next person and waiting until they were almost out of sight before starting again. As we started up the final stretch, shown above, Geoff moved out ahead of the group, so I decided I would keep him company. That worked well, since we hiked at about the same pace. The last stretch of trail to the pass (called “Dead Woman’s Pass” because, from a distance, on the far side, it looks like a woman lying on her back) is shown above; looking back down from the summit is shown on the left. Everyone in the group seemed to be keeping a good, steady pace, with Geoff in the lead, so I walked along with Geoff at my own comfortable, slow but very steady pace all the way to the summit – on each step my heel was barely in front of my toe, breathing deeply and rhythmically, heart rate (measured when I reached the top), 130. To the left is a picture of me with Geoff at the top. I thoroughly enjoyed the hike up to the pass – the temperature and weather generally were pretty near perfect. Ben says he “hit the wall” on about the last hundred feet of elevation, but he still came up only a few minutes after Geoff and I reached the pass. It was very pleasant when Geoff and I reached the summit, although a wind came up not long after the others arrived. The descent was equally steep, but I was able to do the same - keep an even pace - and it didn't hurt my knees nearly a much as I feared. Marc ran down part of the stairs. Second night our camp site, at Pacamayo, had a nice view out to some mountains that were half hidden behind clouds most of the afternoon - cleared up about sunset to give us a very nice view. Unfortunately, we had to eat in a mess tent so could not watch the last of the sunset. The view, taken from partway up the trail above camp, is shown above. The mountains are all above 20,000 feet. Day Three. The third day was the longest day - included another summit, about 4,000 meters, but easier because we started from higher up the mountain. Near the bottom of the pass, we stopped for about a half hour at Runkurakay, shown to the left. A light rain fell for about a half hour while we explored the place and took photos, including photos of the Inka citadel of Sayacmarca, shown below. The trail passes below Sayacmarca on the left – a couple members of the group walked out to it but I didn’t. The trail continued on for maybe a couple of miles, over undulating ground, past a campground where we stopped for a brief rest – but most of us preferred to go on after only three or four minutes, since the campground was pretty crowded and not very attractive. As we continued on Ben told me something that was a little disturbing. Water had been a little bit of a problem – Jimmy would say there will be boiled water at morning, noon, and night, but there often wasn’t enough at morning and night. Ben wasn’t sure, but he thought he had seen a porter come back from the spring next to camp with a bucket of water from the spring and dump it directly into the pan from which the assistant cook was doling out water. I mentioned it to Jimmy, because I was pretty sure he would want to know, then at a brief stop took out my water filter and filtered the water from one canteen to another. If it happened, the spring must not have been contaminated, because no-one got sick. To the left: a “fountain” at Runkurakay. All of the towns have one or more of these. The water flows in through the slot in the rock and down the groove to cascade into a shallow pool. Eventually we came to another campground, just above Puya Patamarka, where the porters had set up lunch. After lunch, Jimmy wanted us to rest for a half hour, but I was restless so I told him I would wait at the ruins (to the right and below). I was glad I did, because I had plenty of time to look the place over. When the group came up, Jimmy just talked about it for ten or fifteen minutes, and then we went on. Beyond the ruin, you can see the trail winding on around the mountain toward our third and final campsite. At the bottom of the terraced area is a stream and a series of five pool / fountains, with a pasture beyond, in which some cows grazed. The trail follows the stream and goes around the bottom of the terraces. We followed the trail gradually downward, through forest, and eventually came to a fork in the trail. The bottom trail leads directly to our third and final campground, but we took the upper trail, which leads to the top of a large set of terraces overlooking the campground and the river far below. We spent 30 or 40 minutes there, then followed another trail down to the camp, which was already set up. Day 4: The Sun Gate and Machu Picchu Jimmy warned us that the porters would awaken us at 3:30, to get down to the entry gate to the M-P trail as early as possible, but all of us were up and dressed by 3:15. (That was good, because getting up early meant getting in to the toilet before the lines formed.) We ate a somewhat hurried breakfast, grabbed some fruit (and snacks for those able to eat wheat) from a bag provided by the porters, and hurried down to the gate. One reason for getting up early is that the porters take a separate trail down to the river, where they need to catch an early train back to Ollantaytambo – where they hook up with another trek and set out again the next day. (Above – with Ben at the Sun Gate. Left – Derek, Grant, Ben, Geoff, Marc, me, then Maria bottom row.) Another reason is to reach the Sun Gate before M-P is totally jammed with tourists. Because of his organization and his success at nailing down good, well-positioned campsites, and because we all hustled, we were about third in line. After the gate opened and our papers were stamped, we filed through and marched at a comfortable but fairly fast clip through the woods in growing twilight. All members of our group showed our mettle as we kept the pace up, and eventually passed all the others at least a mile before we reached the Sun Gate. I took some photos from the Sun Gate, but I got much better photos from the top of the terraces (above). The crowds showed up fairly quickly – fortunately, the first several busloads coming up from town headed up the trail toward the Sun Gate, so we were able to get a few good pictures before the place was totally over-run. Jimmy led us on a tour for something over an hour, explaining what we were seeing, then left us with tickets for the remainder of the journey plus instructions, including a recommendation for a really good restaurant, Indi Feliz, of which more later. One of the most interesting aspects of all the Inka ruins is the architecture, the way they incorporated the landscape, and different shaped rocks, into their building. Most of the doors and windows taper inward toward the top, which apparently strengthens and stabilizes them – this is apparent in the photo above left. We also found it quite interesting how they incorporate oddly-shaped rocks (many of them either resembling the Southern Cross constellation or one of the nearby sacred mountains) into walls (above), and build walls around rocks projecting from the mountain. They also either found or carved rocks and rock slabs into pictorial representations of mountains, often mountains directly behind them (picture to the left). Below is a sun dial that caps the temple to the sun god, itself carved from and built upon a natural projection of the ridge. The sun dial, carved from the ridge-top, marks the seasons: At high noon on the day of the summer solstice, the projection at the top casts no shadow. The crowds thinned out after noon, possibly because it was getting warmer. One useful strategy for those staying more than one day would be to arrive at the site right about noon and stay all afternoon (wearing plenty of sun block, of course). (Right: me, Huayna Picchu behind.) Around three we were pretty tired, so we caught a bus down to Agua Caliente, retrieved our duffel bags, and checked in to our hotel, the Killa. We were not very impressed with it – it was at least clean (no cockroaches, etc.), but the beds were spongy, and the only window looked out onto a stair case / maintenance area on the ground floor – more like a daylight basement, really. Breakfast was the most pathetic I had – a little fruit and a few rolls (I couldn’t eat) plus a little granola I also couldn’t eat. We walked up the one tourist street, kind of interesting, but with restaurant representatives hustling you every step of the way. When we got to the end of the street we realized there is, contrary to what we’d been told, a hot springs just outside town, but we hadn’t carried bathing suits, and didn’t care enough to go clear back to the hotel for them. We wandered around a little more, had a beer (Ben) and glass of wine (me), then went to the Indi Feliz for what was easily the best dinner I had anywhere in Peru. The place specializes in trout and serves it about a dozen different ways. I had trout with Mango sauce and a passion fruit chutney, a salad of papaya and avocado balls in a nice vinaigrette, tomato stuffed with pesto, and finished off with a chocolate parfait, accompanied with a small dish of passion fruit mousse. Everything was delicious. The bill? $30! What was weird about the place – and the whole town – was the nautical theme, with mermaids, ship’s helms, and so on all over the place. Day 5: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. We got up early and caught the first – well, actually about the third – bus up to MP. We were maybe 50th persons in, but most of the others headed first up to the Sun Gate, so we had close to an hour to take people-free photos, like this photo of the sun temple and its terraces in the sunrise. We had tickets to climb Hyanna Picchu at 7, but when he saw the crowds lined up Ben decided he didn’t want to. I was about 30th in line, but they made everyone sign in (and out) so that spaced people apart pretty well. With my usual slow steady climbing gait, I passed party after party, eventually passing the last ones on a terrace about 40 feet below the summit. It didn’t really feel very crowded, and I was very glad I did the climb. It took almost exactly 30 minutes to reach the top – half what the guide-books predict. The trail was mostly stairs, some of them steeper than anything we encountered on the Inka Trail. Most but not all of the steepest sections had rails or steel cables to hold onto; many of the stairs were four-footed jobs, more like ladders than stairs. The views were spectacular, and there were some very interesting buildings and terrace walls near the top. I hit it lucky with weather, and was able to take a great panorama photo. Near the top are two tunnels, both quite tight squeezes. The mountain is very steep, which is apparent when looking down across some of old buildings near the top. After I climbed down, and rejoined Ben, I went down below the main tourist part of the site, all of which has been carefully restored. Below the main site are some ruins that do not appear to have been restored at all, which I found very interesting. Ben got several bad bites around his ankles, probably fleas from the llamas. I was glad I wasn’t wearing shorts. We had to catch a train at a little after three so we left the site about noon, had lunch, then sat around the train station for an hour or so. On the train, I sat next to a very interesting guy from Australia, half aborigine who works in youth services and also in providing STD information to the aboriginal community – using the storyboard technique, which he has adapted to fit the “Dreamtime” storytelling style of the Aboriginal community. I got his e-mail and will contact him again later – I’m quite interested in hearing more about his work. Our adventure took a potentially ugly turn when we reached the station in Ollantaytambo, where we were supposed to be met by a driver bearing a Pachamama sign with my name on it. We saw only one such sign but it had someone else’s name on it, and when I spoke my name to the driver (who did not speak English) he said “no” and shook his head. After we approached him a second time we saw him talk with another driver; the other driver (who also spoke no English) came up to us and said “Pachemama? Dahveed?” So we said “si,” and followed him – very nervously, given all the warnings about taxicab scams. But after we were in the car, he said “Maytaq hotel, si?” so we relaxed a little. Only a little – the man drove like a maniac, 10 to 20 mph faster than the highway was good for, left hand side of the road more often than on the right hand side, tail-gating, passing on blind curves. We were terrified. Needless to say, we did not give him any tip at all. Amazon Rain Forest One thing we did not think about while planning the trip was laundry – and that plagued us the remainder of the trip, as we rummaged repeatedly through our dirty clothes looking for the least dirty pair of socks. I tried washing some socks on the second day in the Amazon, but they never did quite get dry. With electricity provided by a diesel generator, there was no clothes drier, of course – just the (rare) bits of sun. We stepped off the plane into about 90 degrees and 99% humidity – shirts immediately turned wet with sweat. We found our guide with only a little difficulty, boarded a bus along with 20 other passengers to the Rainforest Expeditions office, a half mile away, where we were given a duffel bag and directed to put only the clothing needed for the jungle in it, and leave the rest in storage. First disaster – when I went to open my suitcase I found the zipper had jammed, and as I tried to unstick it, the zipper lining began to tear. I managed to open the other half, and get most of what I needed out (but I forgot my hat – which I turned out not to really need anyway). While we were doing that, it started raining, a true tropical downpour that finished the job of soaking our shirts to the skin, but also cooled the place off a bit. The rain ended not long after we all loaded onto the bus for the one hour trip to the boat landing. The road passes through a shanty town called “Infierno,” and the name looks apt. The dwellings are made of thin posts (they looked like 2x2s) with plastic tarps for walls and roofs, packed fairly tightly together. (Ben says the ones near Johannesburg are twice as crammed together.) The road was partially gravel, but mostly packed clay – and it takes little imagination to guess what happened to the clay in that rainstorm. So, halfway there, going up a hill the bus slid sideways into the borrow pit. We all got out, and the men were directed to help push the bus out, which proved to be pretty hopeless. Fortunately we were just uphill from a road construction gang, who finally brought a backhoe up to help us out. On the way again – then, about a mile short of the landing, we came to a long area of clay fill that was churned into a total mess – and at the far end, a larger bus was stuck, sideways, blocking the entire road. Several other vehicles were sitting in front of us, waiting for the chance to try their luck. At first the guides suggested we just walk – it wasn’t much more than a ten minute walk. But then another helpful piece of equipment came along, fished the other bus out of the mire – and so we climbed onto the other bus, and completed our trip. The result – we started the boat ride at least an hour late. Once on the boat and underway, the guide handed out lunches – a rice concoction, saturated with soy sauce. Pachamama had not informed this guide about my gluten intolerance either. So I ate further into my rapidly dwindling supply of fruit-nut snacks. But on the river, tooling along at probably 20 mph, we had a cooling breeze and it was very pleasant, almost dreamy. It is not far as the crow flies to the first resort, Refugio Amazonas, where we were to spend the first night, maybe 20 or 30 miles, but the way the river snakes around it is more like 60 or 70. We had to stop at a check station along the way – and then we came to another tourist boat that had engine trouble, so we had to take on their passengers. With all of these adventures, it was after 7, and totally dark, when we reached Refugio. It is a quite luxurious jungle resort, private baths, a natural wood dining area and bar, very plush. Both dinner and breakfast were quite good. The group. Ben and I were grouped with three New Zealanders, Keith and Lynn, and Evelyn (21 years old, just graduated, blowing her wad on a trip around the world “as long as my money lasts.” How great it would be to have had that kind of trust and confidence at that age!) Our guide, Daniel, was, like Jimmy, quite knowledgeable and attentive; all around a great guide. The weather. After the initial bit of steamy heat, it settled down to a very balmy 60-65, down to mid 50s at night, with occasional 30 minute showers (but it dried up and didn’t rain at all on the last day or two). There weren’t many mosquitoes, and someone said they’d heard there isn’t any malaria in that part of the forest – but I chose to heed the travel nurse and used DEET liberally, in spite of Ben’s teasing about it. I got no bites at all – he got probably a dozen, which wouldn’t justify any spray at all in a normal forest. After breakfast, with our bags packed and ready to be carried down to the boat, we walked through the forest to an oxbow lake (formed when the river cut a new channel) for a ride around the lake in a small flat-bottomed boat. Quite a few birds, notably three of a weird-looking species Daniel says is supposed to be a link between dinosaurs and birds. We also saw evidence of piranhas when Daniel threw pieces of bread in the water – the water would almost boil as the small fish scrambled to take bites out of the bread – but the water was far too muddy to see anything under the surface. Late in the morning we boarded the boat and started up river again, stopping at another check station at the border of the wildlife preserve. After that point we began to see much more wildlife, including a caiman sunning itself on a sandy beach, a couple of storks, several white , a heron, kingfishers, small hawks. Daniel handed out omelette sandwiches which were very good – but apparently Lynn’s had gone bad, because she became quite ill and was in bad shape through the next entire day. The water was rising rapidly, partly from the previous night’s rain, but it had also rained pretty hard during the night. By the time we reached the TRC (Tambopata Research Center), the sandy beaches were all under 2 meters of water, and the river was full of whole trees and other debris, which the boat driver had to pick his way through and around. We arrived around 4 p.m., just as a small group of howler monkeys had descended from the trees, probably to get water. Seeing them only a few feet away was neat. I didn’t get very good pictures both because they moved so fast and because of the foliage – problem with auto-focus; if there’s even a small branch in front it focuses on that, not on what’s behind it. That plagued all of us throughout the trip. (Howler monkey.) The TRC. Like the Refugio, the TRC is located about a quarter of a mile back from the river, along a pretty jungle trail. It is a large, sprawling wood building, with one wing, devoted to the researchers and volunteers, off-limits to guests, and a large dining room at the other end, with guest rooms lining a walkway between. There are no screens on any of the windows, but every bed is surrounded with mosquito netting. Shared bathrooms, four each for men and women, line a walkway between the two wings, with a laundry area at the far end. (Left: A tree frog seen at night – about an inch long.) We got up early almost every morning, to get to the clay licks before dawn, but also for other expeditions that required an early start. There is electricity (and very, very slow internet service) for a couple of hours midday and in the evening; otherwise lights are kerosene lanterns, candles, and flashlights. The trails around the TRC are all a little muddy; some are very muddy. They supply “Wellingtons,” what I think of as irrigation boots, which hurt my feet – on two days I wore my hiking boots and picked my way around the mud; on two other days I wore the rubber boots. A huge herd of wild pigs makes it worse – rooting for tubers, they plow the soil in a five meter wide swath, turning packed, semi-dry mud into a stinking, sticky sty. Wherever they’ve been you need rubber boots. Flora and fauna. We went on two night walks, and saw interesting spiders and tree frogs, but no animals. During the day walks, we saw quite a few monkeys, but only a handful close enough at hand and sufficiently unobstructed by foliage to take pictures. Most of the birds were quite distant. Very few tourists had binoculars, but I would not go again without both a really good pair of powerful binoculars and a camera with a much stronger telephoto than mine. The clay lick (right) is particularly interesting. Birds begin gathering in the tops of nearby trees well before dawn, first parrots and parakeets in lower trees, then macaws in the highest branches, up on the bluff. They descend in thick groups to feed in roughly the same order. You can see them – barely – with the naked eye, but fortunately the guides bring a powerful telescope, and they have become quite good at taking pictures through it with tourist cameras. (Two macaws close enough for a photograph. Below – a small (1/2 inch) white furry caterpillar.) Macaws typically lay three or four eggs each year, but depending on the season, may be able to feed only one or two of the chicks. The mother will choose the largest and healthiest chick to feed, and let the others starve. The researchers at the TRC decided to try saving the surplus chicks by bringing them back to the center and feeding them. When they were released into the wild, some of these thrived, some wandered out of the wildlife refuge into nearby agricultural areas and were killed, or were killed by predators. A couple of them apparently decided they preferred the easy life at TRC and remained as quasi pets (and pests). To the left is a picture of one of these climbing down a rope next to the wall of the room I shared with Ben. When he reached the bottom he stole a piece of coca candy I had left over from the Inka trail, unwrapped it and ate it. These two birds are also notorious for swooping down from the rafters at mealtime and stealing food from guests’ plates. We saw five of the six species of monkey that live in the vicinity of the research station, but I was able to get clear pictures of only a few of them. Here are two of these pictures. On the final day, we got up early again to catch the boat back to Puerto Maldonado. We left before dawn; I got a nice shot of sunrise over the jungle on the way back. We had to stop at one of the resorts to pick up several of their guests who were also catching an early flight out – they were not ready yet, so we had to wait nearly a half hour for them. As it turned out, this ate up most of the spare time we had, so we ended up having no time at the main office to sort and repack our baggage. Instead, we just grabbed our bags from the storage area and threw them on top of the bus, then did the repacking at the entrance to the airport. In the resulting confusion, I lost track of some of my luggage and ended up leaving it behind – it cost me over $200 to have it shipped back to me. Our flight had us back in Lima at 4:00 p.m., and our flight to Houston did not leave until midnight. Pachamama had promised us a car and driver to take us for a partial tour of Lima and some time to walk around the coastal suburbs of San Isidro and Miraflores before returning to the airport. However, the driver did not show up, so we ended up having to wait around the airport for over 8 hours – and to make matters worse, the flight to Houston was delayed an hour. We were a little worried that the delay might make us miss our flight from Houston to Portland, but miraculously, when we got to Passport Control in Houston, there was no-one there except other passengers from our flight, so we breezed through in plenty of time. (After I complained about it, Pachamama agreed to refund the money for the tour, plus an extra $30 each because their staff did not thoroughly clean my sleeping bag – the first night on the trek I found someone else’s long underwear in it.) Retrospective: It was a great trip overall. The Inka Trail was not as crowded as I feared, and I’m glad I did it – but in the future I think I will go for the less popular, hence less crowded alternatives. The jungle experience was very good as well. However, I kicked myself the whole time for leaving my binoculars behind. I would strongly recommend to anyone planning to visit the Amazon rain forest to invest in a really good pair of binoculars, and in a camera with a zoom that goes to more than the 3X my camera did. You rarely see birds closer than 100 meters, and even the monkeys are usually high in the trees, often some distance away. I wasn’t the only one – I saw very few other guests with binoculars, and only about 1 in 5 had really good cameras. The guides have good binoculars which they freely lend, but with five people in the group, it did not replace having your own. The other advice concerns packing. Do not count on washing clothes in the rain forest – they won’t dry unless you catch one of the rare sunny dry days. And my friend Ben had a much better luggage situation than I – a compact but roomy duffel bag to check and a large capacity day pack with no waist strap which he carried on to the plane. The built-in padded waist strap on my day pack is great for the trail, but so awkward to stow in the carry-on luggage space that I rarely use it that way. With his luggage arrangement, Ben did not have to hassle with repacking at the Rainforest Expeditions office – and he did not have the difficulty I did keeping track of everything. A light-weight nylon rain jacket is sufficient – I recommend nylon shirts and pants, which will shed most of the rain and dry quickly. You should carry a fleece or light jacket to the rain forest – we were lucky, but I understand it can get down near freezing in some weather conditions. On the Inka Trail, there is a “tipping ceremony” the last night – this was not very well explained to us. In effect, you should carry an envelope for each member of the staff – guide, cook, assistant cook, and each porter; you write the person’s name on it and put the tip in the envelope. We managed, but it was awkward.