Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.
If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.
I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!
You know you’ve been to South America when…
You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.
you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.
you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
you’ve never been so sunburnt.
you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
you were seriously impressed by the street produce.
the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
you don’t fear insects anymore.
you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
A memorable experience on Lake Titicaca, despite the mass tourism.
Read about the entertaining tourist exploitation of Lake Titicaca, the floating islands, Amantaní and Taquile in Peru.
Puno, rising even higher than Cusco at 3,800 meters, is Peru’s gateway to Lake Titicaca. Before heading on to Chile, Laura and I decided to check out the renowned city, lake and floating islands.
We booked our two day, one night tour through our hostel in Cusco, who told us things that didn’t make much sense at the time, partly because he spoke in Spanish and partly because I didn’t know what he was talking about. According to the brace-faced man behind the EcoPackers tour desk, we’d go on a boat to the lake to see the floating islands of Uros, then Amantani, then sleep at a host family’s house (no they don’t have wifi), then see the island of Taquile the next day. Sounds good to me. I only knew I wanted to see Lake Titicaca, because, well, the name is funny and famous. Having not done my research, the other places, I assumed, were worth a visit. So, we took our first night bus up to Puno, the higher altitude already forming a tight-gripped fist around my heart before the bus came to a stop at around 5 am next to the giant, glittering lake.
After being ushered to Jumbo travel agency/house, we waited around and had breakfast, all more or less in silence, the people who either lived there or worked there making sparse contact with us. Then it was time to go, so at our “tour guide’s” behest, we stashed our cumbersome backpacks in an upstairs bedroom that we assumed we would slumber in that night and made our way to the port. Our minivan filled steadily with tourists from other pick up locations as we made our way through Puno’s lively, somewhat dirty streets. Looking out from my window, I almost wondered if Puno was holding a casting call for authentic Peruvian women. Small, stout old ladies in wide brimmed hats, velvet pleated ankle-length skirts and two long, black braids down their back were everywhere, waiting in line, carrying children or groceries on their backs, selling juice. It was a sight, to be sure. I wondered what they would have thought of my cargo pants and hiking boots and tank top.
The port was already bustling at 8 in the morning. We climbed across the decks of small tour boats that bobbed and swayed with the weight of each of us, green pond scum covering the wavy water like a carpet.
As we sailed along the highest navigable lake in the world, shared between Peru and Bolivia, our upbeat tour guide began to tell us what to expect. The soft rocking of the boat and the guide’s steady monologue had me dozing, until I heard him say that we’d be staying with a family on one of the islands. Come again? I waited impatiently for him to stop talking, annoyed at how chipper he could be when I was so tired and now worried. I walked over and clarified that we would not be spending the night in Puno, and asked if we were to head back to Puno before night fell. He dismissed me by saying that we would not.
“But, we left all of our things in Puno. We thought we’d be spending the night in Puno. We were told that we’d be spending the night with a family in Puno,” I said, each word I spoke coming out angrier and crankier than I intended. The guide was unsympathetic and explained calmly and cooly that everyone else knew what the deal was, not his fault we didn’t. I marched back to my seat next to Laura, also cranky and frustrated, let out a steady blue streak from my mouth, and then began to laugh with my friend at our bad luck while we cursed the tour guide in Cusco who misinformed us.
After living for two weeks in the jungle, I was used to being a little dirty. What’s one night without a change of underwear or socks, or brushing your teeth? What concerned me was my lack of female, ehhhemmm, products. I brought with me but one tampon, so I asked the guide if I could buy some on the island, both shocking and horrifying him. No, I couldn’t. There wasn’t even running water on this island.
“Well, fine, I’ll just bleed everywhere,” I said loudly. The guide ran away disgusted. TMI, readers? Sorry, I’m not sorry. Don’t worry, there were other females on the boat who were sympathetic to my cause.
Back to the lake. Explorer Jacques Cousteau, searching Lake Titicaca in the 1970s for Inca treasure, discovered that the lake is 284 meters deep and filled with “little monsters,” giant frogs, now identified as Scrotum frogs (LOL), that could be up to 12 inches long, weigh up to 10 kilos (you like that combo of Imperial and Metric systems?), and have lungs like fish.
This sacred lake of the Incas is filled from five different rivers that run from the Andes. While foreigners are not meant to drink the water, the people of the 80 floating islands, about 20 thousand Aymaru speakers (a pre-Inca language), do so without a problem.
The name Titicaca, according to our guide, but debatable according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, means “Gray Puma,” titi meaning puma, and caca being the color of stone. Legend has it that looking down from above, the lake takes the shape of the sacred puma. But how did pre-Inca people know the shape of the lake? Hhmmmm.
It was quite gray, at least in the early morning. However, as we glided farther out towards the floating island Uros, and the sun rose higher up, the water turned turquoise and then a royal blue. They call them floating lakes because they literally float. The islands are made by man of reeds and anchored to the floor of the lake by eucalyptus tree sticks. The president of Uros Island, who leads the 25 people who make up the 10 families who live there, described how to make a floating island in Aymaru, a pre-Inca language with lots of hard consonants. This was just for effect. The people of the floating islands all speak Spanish because they learn it at the six floating schools funded by the Peruvian government.
To make a floating island: you must remove the roots and soil of the reeds that grow in the lake’s shallow water and leave them in the sun to dry, giving them a cork-like consistency which makes them buoyant. Then you must cut blocks out of the dried soil to use as a platform for the island, then unite these blocks with eucalyptus sticks and rope. Interwoven reads cover the floating soil, and voilà, you have a floating island. Houses are merely shells which can be lifted and moved by four men if necessary. The kitchen is made of clay and rests in the center of the island. And if the anchors break, to prevent the island from ending up in Bolivia, the people create a sail which they stick in the middle of the island and pray for wind to take them home. When they need to use the restroom, be alone, or head into town, they have little reed boat taxis that can fit up to 30 people. I rode in one called the Mercedes Benz.
While Mr. President spoke, I watched as barefoot women in pastel-colored skirts, straw hats, bright vests, and wind/sun burnt cheeks went about spreading out homemade cloths on the floor for sale or tending to children or handling dead birds, all the while their long braids with little balls at the tips swaying. Apparently, in addition to a mostly fish diet, the people of Uros also hunt birds and eat eggs. They used to barter their fish with the mainland for potatoes and corn, but times have changed, and Puno wants money, not fish, so Uros has opened its shores to tourists, selling their way of life alongside textiles and crafts. A few of us doubted that they actually lived there and wore those costumes every day, but it was still a cool attraction.
The next stop was the island of Amantani, where we would spend the night. This is a real island, not a floating one, large and looming and tiered with ancient steps for agriculture. The island has nothing but the basics. There is no running water and any electricity is run by solar power.
Straight off the boat, we were assigned a host family. My host mom was named Maritza, and she was adorable, probably in her twenties, and two months pregnant by one of the tour guides, Ruben. They walked us up the hills, past bahhing sheep and hoeing farmers, to our individual houses. We filed into a lovely, flower-filled, sunny courtyard, and were greeted with hugs and kisses by Maritza’s mother and father, two sweet-hearted individuals with faces, hands and feet like burnt leather.
With our family was a nice German man, a kind Canadian couple, and a happy Ecuadorean couple. After we settled into our comfortable rooms, we settled down to a lunch of quinoa soup, about four different types of potatoes, some rice, and fried salty cheese. After, Maritza served coca tea and some sort of mint leaves.
As I walked with the herd from the house to the hill we were to climb to watch the sun set, I marveled at the communities on the island, and how they seemed to know nothing about the world around them. But, then again, the world probably knows nothing about them. The ten communities, each with their own two springs, are made up of Adventists and Catholics, still with a strong base in Indian culture. For example, the hill we climbed for about half an hour was called Pacha Tata (Father Earth), and the locals hold Pacha Mama rituals on it, offering Pacha Tata potatoes, beans, corn, and other produce from the island. They believe in the mystic energy of opposites and the cosmic energy of life. Everything, from animals to rocks to earth, holds life, and there is a counterpart to everything.
While it all sounds quite magical, there is a down side. The island schools finish at the high school level. Children then go to the mainland for university, and often don’t want to return. The shrinking communities lead to intermarriage, and, you guessed it, genetic disorders.
Still, I’m not sure if I’d like to leave the simple life on this beautiful island. From the top of the hill that has become the home to an organized rotation system of carrots, potatoes and green beans, the biggest lake I’ve ever seen spread out blue and shining like the sea. Women selling alpaca sweaters, jewelry, and chocolate bars exchanged words in Quechua while sheep grazed the sides of the mound and bahh’d hilariously. As the sun set, I realized with a kind of nerdish glee that it was setting in the east, and therefore rises in the west, because we were in the Southern Hemisphere! A few of us Northerners then tried to figure out which way was North and which was South, and I wished I had paid more attention during my high school earth science classes.
The sun set quickly, and we made our way back down in the twilight, our flashlights illuminating our paths towards the rocky bottom. After dinner at our home- more potatoes and rice with a smattering of peas and carrots- our hosts gave us traditional Peruvian garb to don for the party at the local community center/dance hall. The girls put on flowy pleated red skirts, peasant tops, and colorful fat-sucking belts while the men wore ponchos and knitted caps. Laura and I twirled around the courtyard singing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, much to the amusement of our new family.
We left the solar power lights of Maritza’s home and walked in the dark to the festivities. Lightning illuminated the star-filled sky, unaccompanied by rain, as I stumbled about staring straight up in wonder of the astrological scene expanding infinitely above me. I felt like I had stepped into a fantasy world, which only continued when we got to the dance hall. A group of local teens made up the band that played traditional music and had us all, gringos and Amantani residents alike, holding hands and jumping around, twirling our skirts and giggling like school children. My starch-filled belly could only be active for so long, and soon I knew it was time to retire to bed.
After a 7 am wake-up call, a breakfast of crepes (yay, more carbs!), and hugs and kisses to our new family, we were back on the boat and on our way to our last stop, Taquile Island.
The island looks much like Amantani, except perhaps slightly more technologically orientated. Stone paths and arches decorated with stone faces wind about the hills. Leathery men and women walk around carrying heavy loads without the use of horses or mules to assist them. 2,400 Quechua speakers make up the six communities, each with an elected president, that inhabit the land. Covered in agriculture stairs, for lack of a better word, that were hacked into the hillsides in pre-Inca eras and were continued by the Incas, and then the Spanish, Taquile Island, originally Intika Island meaning sunflower, is named after conquistador Pedro Gonzalez de Taquila.
UNESCO recognized Taquile Island as the home to the best weavers in Peru in 2006. In fact, they are so serious about their tight stitches that men can’t get married if they don’t work hard at their threading and weaving skills. The males begin their knitting lessons at five years old and work to knit a hat of good quality by their teenage years. You can tell a married man from a single man by his hat. Single men’s hat are red and white, while married men wear red hats. When the time is right, the single men peacock their hats by allowing the woman of their choice to pour water into the hat. The more water the hat holds, the closer the stitch, the better the weaver. Romantic, isn’t it? And what does the lucky lady do to earn her new beau’s heart? Why, after three years of living together and sharing a bed to see if they are compatible, the female cuts off her long hair and makes her man a belt that he wears every day, under another belt that she also made him. So sweet. I had tears in my eyes as I listened to a married man showed us his silky black braided belt. Tears of laughter, actually, as Laura and some English couple and I giggled silently like a couple of naughty kids in Math class. To top off these strange ways of life, the native man showed us how to make a curiously well-working and nice-smelling shampoo out of a plant, which he used to more or less bleach some dirty gray sheep’s wool, and how married men greet each other. Instead of a handshake, they open up their married-man’s weaved purse, and put coca leaves from their bag into their buddy’s bag. All very neighborly stuff.
This crash course of Taquile Island life was the side show to a 20 sole lunch of bread, soup, grilled fish, and you guessed it, potatoes and rice. The family who owned the restaurant in which we dined also performed a graphic song and dance about hoeing the fields. Charming. All that was left was a sleepy two and a half hour boat ride back to mainland Puno and I could be reunited with my backpack. Overall, a good experience, but crazy touristy.
Home of the Incas and high in the sky, Cusco will leave you breathless.
From shopping for Inca trends to enjoying world-class Peruvian cuisine to engaging in cheap extreme sports, you won’t run out of things to do in Cusco.
Altitude lethargy is different from jungle lethargy. Rather than melting into and with your sweat among the palm trees, the thin mountain air of Cusco makes it feel as if your veins, from your heart to your fingertips, are lighter than the air they’re missing. Like if you stood up too quick, without inhaling as you ascend, you’ll float away. The only solution is to take it slow, drink water, and enjoy the healing and energizing effects of the bitter coca tea leaves like the natives have done for centuries.
Cusco, shaped like the sacred puma, sits 3,339 meters (11,152 feet) high in the sky, nestled near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountains. Qusqu, in Quechua, the language of the Incas, was the capital of the powerful Inca Empire until Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores swaggered in like White, horse-mounted gods and destroyed Inca temples in favor of Catholic churches. Inca stone bases and small even steps blend seamlessly with Spanish balconies and smooth cobblestone streets, an aesthetically pleasing and constant reminder of the muddling of the two cultures.
While Cusco is often overlooked as a stopping point before the famous Machu Picchu, I find that I’m having a hard time leaving, despite the effects the dry air is having on my skin. Maybe it’s just the hostel I’m staying at or maybe it’s the way every time you turn your head, you seem to rest your eyes on an image from a postcard, but the picturesque city seems like it provides endless opportunities for activities and sights.
Where To Stay:
I am staying at EcoPackers hostel on Santa Teresa, 375, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While some people may opt to stay at Pariwana, the party hostel chain with a roof bar, I find EcoPackers the perfect mix of cozy and trendy. When you walk in to the hostel, rated Top 3 in South America by TripAdvisor in 2013, you are greeted by an open Spanish-style courtyard with lawn chairs and hammocks. Around the lounging guests are other rooms to relax in after a long day of traveling or exploring, including a dining room with a beautiful Machu Picchu mural, a fully stocked bar, and a living room with leather couches, bean bag chairs, a fireplace and movies playing on the big screen. The staff is friendly and professional, the wifi is decent, and the place is simply convenient, offering laundry services for 5 soles, locks for 3 soles, towels for rent, an ATM, a tour agency on site, a proper bar, an affordable restaurant, breakfast and coffee included, coca tea leaves, candy and drinks for sale, a book exchange and hot showers. The dorms and bathrooms alike are clean, comfortable and warm. Rates range from around $11 for a bed in an 18-bed dorm to $18 for a 4-bed dorm to $56 for a suite with a private bathroom. I paid $12.50 for a bed in a 10-bed dorm where I met plenty of kind, interesting people from all over the world. The hostel also offers promotions of four nights for the price of three in February and March.
Where To Eat:
NunaRaymi– Located just outside the Plaza de Armas, this warm restaurant caters to tourists with a menu in English while still remaining authentic and affordable. Most main dishes cost anywhere from 31-33 soles, or $12-$13. I tried an alpaca dish covered in a plum and chincha (purple corn) sauce, served with a creamy rosemary spaghetti and a quinoa-crusted trout filet covered in a citrus-ginger sauce and served with vegetables. Did I mention that if you show your EcoPackers bracelet, you receive 15% off your bill?
PachaMama– Named after the Inca goddess mother nature, this small restaurant is like so many others calling out to you near the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, I found their Aji de Gallina, a very traditional Peruvian dish of chicken and potatoes in a slightly spicy yellow sauce, to be divine. I was doubly pleased by the offering of a salad bar with my meal and the kitchen’s willingness to substitute my rice for vegetables, all for 25 soles.
I’m also a sucker for street food. Things worth trying are “choclo con queso,” (big corn with melted cheese), ANY street meat, guinea pig (like the Quechua Jesus ate), and empanadas, sweet and savory.
Where to Drink:
MamaAfrica in the Plaza de Armas, next to Mushrooms, is a great club to get drunk and dance with locals and tourists alike to a good variety of music from salsa to techno to hip hop. They also offer salsa lessons!
KM0 in the stylish San Blas barrio plays live music every night in a smoky atmosphere. Sip on a chilcano and puff on a hookah while you listen to local artists.
What To Do: As a tourist town, Cusco offers a wide variety of activities to partake in while enjoying the sights. Here are a few that I tried:
Free Walking Tour:
First of all, I’d like to say that I love free walking tours. I’ve joined them all over the world, from Krakow to Barcelona to Quito, and the guides are always incredibly informative about the history and architecture of their city. Of course, the tours are not completely free as the guides work for tips, but they more than earn it with their positive energy and helpful tips, and by pointing out the highlights of the city that you might not have seen on your own.
I believe EcoPackers usually offers one that meets at 11:40, but for whatever reason their tour was canceled on the day my companion and I went, so we met up with a different group, called Free Walking Cusco, in the Plaza around 12:15 for a two hour tour.
As our guide walked us towards the beautiful Compania Church, he began to explain how the Inca and Catholic cultures combine. While we weren’t able to enter the church without paying a fee, he described the famous Last Supper painting inside, with Jesus and his apostles dining on a big Peruvian style loaf of bread, a guinea pig, and beer, Peter’s cheek apparently full of coca leaves. On our walk, our guide spoke about Cusco as a region very strongly connected to the cosmos. The northernmost part of Cusco, called Saqsaywaman, he said is the best location to see the movements of the stars and to find portals to other dimensions. This Inca spirituality has been repressed by the Catholic religion, but it is prevalent that the locals still take this way of thinking to heart.
Our guide led us through the winding streets, up steep stairs, making all of us pant from the exertion made difficult by the altitude, to the bohemian neighborhood called San Blas. The neighborhood was styled like Granada, Spain, as can be identified by the signature Andalucian balconies, but is also influenced by the early Middle Eastern residents, painted clean white and blue to ward off the evil eye. I was pleased to see original arches over the doors, one claiming to have been built on September 9, 1660.
While in the now-artsy neighborhood, we went into a music shop to sample some of the local tunes. An artisan who makes these curious small guitars (the Spanish wouldn’t let the natives play their guitars so the Incans created their own, small enough to fit under a poncho) called charangos, among other Peruvian instruments, played for us the most amazing music on 16 strings. You could almost hear the history of the Andes mountain region coming from under his fingertips, sorrow making way into joy as he applied more or less pressure to the acoustics.
At the end of our tour, we were treated to delicious pisco sours, a classic Peruvian cocktail.
Mercado de San Pedro:
Every city has its own lively market. The San Pedro market is your one-stop shop for souvenirs and groceries, tchotchkes and tripe, hot soup and cold juices, Chakana necklaces and harem pants, ceramics and cat food. My friend Laura and I spent about three hours there yesterday, haggling over prices of hand-made hats and alpaca blankets to be sent home to friends and family.
Not far from the San Pedro Market, this smaller and calmer market is filled with hand-woven, Inca-inspired, old as dirt, cut from stone, tediously beaded, beautifully painted goodies. Go to the San Pedro Market first to see what the best price of items is, because this market tends to try to charge a bit more for their wares.
Horseback Riding near Saqsaywaman:
Saqsaywaman (signifying Satisfied Falcon in Quechua) is a walled fortress of even higher altitude than central Cusco in the north part of town. This smooth-stone blocked complex, built in 1100, is said to have a strong spiritual presence. Legend has it that when the Spanish followed the Incas there from Cusco during the wars, the outgunned and outnumbered Peruvian warriors would tackle the conquistadores over the cliffs, killing themselves as well as the Spanish, rather than die at their hands.
The historical park costs 70 soles to enter, but we found a way around that while still including another activity. Try taking a cab to Cristo Blanco, a place where red-cheeked children play soccer in fields next to mountains and alpacas, and asking about the horses, caballos. Our cabbie’s family just so happened to own horses for hire, and a ten-year-old boy named Raul tailed behind our horses on a tour among infinite, dry mountains and plateaus to the backside of Saqsaywaman, some really cool caves, a pretty lagoon, and la Templa de la Luna. The horse ride cost 30 soles, but I tipped little Raul an extra 5 for being such an informative and equestrian-skilled guide.
The tour dropped us off in a rather secluded spot, but Raul told us how to get into Saqsaywaman. We snuck in among the tall eucalyptus trees and admired the beauty of nature and the scattering of an occasional ruin. Laura and I each took a minute to sit and meditate on the ground, and something about the energy of the place and the vibrations of the earth beneath me and the whistling of the wind around me made me feel rooted to the world, and very much a part of it, however small. All I could think was, I am grateful.
Bungee Jumping: Right near our hostel is the office for Action Valley Cusco Adventure Park. As Laura and I were walking by, we decided to see what it would cost for our first bungee experience. An hour and $95 later, we were on our way to the outskirts of Cusco to free fall among the watching mountain people. When we got to the venue, which also offers paintballing, a climbing wall, and a slingshot, we were instructed to jog and stretch to warm up. I went first, listening intently to the instructions in Spanish as I was strapped in by my legs, waist, chest and neck. Up the steel-caged cherry picker 122 meters, a few deep breaths, and a gentle push from my guide and I was falling, falling and then something happened that I can only truly describe with a noise like “hhuuuuunnnfff.” I felt the tightness of the harness where there was just only air, bounced a few times, and finally settled, feeling the weight of my upper body as the blood rushed from my feet to my head and I watched the tall, thin trees spin around me. I heard the guys working the bungee yell, “Abrazos, Rebecca! Abrazos!” What? Hugs? I looked up, or was it down?, and saw the white landing circle quickly getting larger as it came up to greet me, and saw the men who had yelled at me for hugs with their arms outstretched, and opened mine up just in time for them to catch me and settle me down on a mat. It took me a few tries to stand up, but I finally did with a smile on my face. The next day, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, but it was well worth it.
Get a Tattoo: On another whim, Laura and I decided to get tattoos to symbolize our journeys. Tattoo Willka in the Plaza offered us the low price of 90 soles each for our small, separate mountain-inspired tattoos. The shop was clean and well decorated, the artist was skilled, and it cost about $70 less than it would have in Boston or New York.
Get a Massage: I totally would have done this if I weren’t terrified of anyone touching my muscles after the shock of bungee jumping. Women on the street offer massages to passerby for as cheap as 20 soles an hour. That’s like $6, people. I can’t attest to whether or not they’re any good, but it’s still an option for weary travelers.
Choco Museo: This free museum of chocolate hooks you in by offering free samples of chocolate on the street. Learn all about the cacao plant and the history of chocolate. You can even take a chocolate workshop and learn how its made from bean to bar.
More Walking!: Cusco is not too big of a city, and if the weather is nice, every street seems to offer a beautiful sight. Cruise the Avenida del Sol after the Plaza de Armas, looking in at shops as you pass by the Qoricancha, a revered Inca temple dedicated to the sun god Inti. Pay a braided haired lady in traditional mountain garb to take a picture with her and a baby alpaca. Check out the churches and cathedrals if you’re into that sort of thing. Take in the mountains around you, rising like gods above the tiled roofs. The city is just gorgeous. Enjoy it.
Victor Zambrano Gonzalez fights illegal mining and deforestation in his home in the Peruvian Amazon.
Gonzalez nearly single-handedly re-forested 40 hectares of land on the Tambopata River, which is now home to his medicinal plant refuge, Fundo Refugio K’erenda Homet.
The 360% increase in the price of gold from 2001 to 2011, according to NASA, has led to a boom of unlicensed miners in Puerto Maldonado and the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon, the most biodiverse area of the world. The Peruvian government has estimated that illegal gold mining, and the deforestation and mercury poisoning that comes with the highly destructive hydraulic mining, has devastated over 40,000 hectares of Amazonian forest in Peru.
The poor town is now dependent on the illegal mining, becoming slaves to this culture that has not only ruined even protected parts of the rainforest like the Tambopata National Reserve, but also led to human trafficking, forced labor, extinction of indigenous groups, and countless deaths. People and wildlife alike are suffering at the hands of multinational corporations with no souls and deep pockets, and it is up to conservationists like Victor Zambrano Gonzalez, president of the National Tambopata Reserve management committee and founder of private conservation area Fundo Refugio K’erenda Homet, to fight big business to preserve Pacha Mama’s culture and history that goes deeper than the roots of the biggest Capirona tree.
“I am on the front of a war with illegal gold miners destroying this zone,” said Gonzalez. “Mining and logging are permanent threats to the Madre de Dios region.”
Victor can proudly say that his 40 hectares of government-protected land is free of illegal mining and logging, a luxury he had to work hard for. He founded the reserve, about 3.5 kilometers down the new Interoceanic Highway outside of Puerto Maldonado, in 1988. A Madre de Dios native and kin to the first Peruvians to colonize this part of the jungle from Arequipa and Cusco in the early 20th century, Victor always identified with the Indians of the region who lived as one with their land. In his youth, he spent 15 years away from his home training and teaching in the marine corps. When he returned in the ’80s, he was shocked to find the land around the Tambopata River where he now resides completely deforested due to small-scale mining that took off with the increase in gold prices in 1973.
“People told me I was crazy to try to restore it, that the land was dead now. But I feel a love for this land…I would give my life for it,” he said.
So Victor set about planting trees in the region in the hopes of returning the earth to her original splendor. With the help of a donation of 1,000 trees from an American organization, he used the disorganization of the jungle itself as inspiration. Rather than trying to make order of which trees and flowers and plants he was planting, tracking the sun like other farmers have done, he planted trees among flowers and medicinal plants with no particular order. Pachamama isn’t organized, he reasoned, why should he think that he could do better?
“I always try to break the boundaries,” he said, gesturing emphatically with his hands as he stood next to a wall covered in his framed recognitions, such as the Carlos Pince de Prado Prize for Conservation in 2014 and international recognition as an Ashoka Fellow, a social entrepreneur who provides innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change societal patterns.
Victor found that by planting trees closer together, they were able to grow faster because they would compete for sunlight. Within the first ten years, he was able to grow 1,000 trees per year. Now, his beautiful land along the brown Tambopata is home to 20,000 trees, made up of 120 different species. 60 percent are native trees and 40 percent are tropical, and similarly 60 percent are fruit trees and 40 percent are medicinal. He donates half of whatever produce his lands create, like lemons, peppers or flowers, and sells the other half locally.
“The flowers are not separated from the trees. They grow in harmony with the trees. I’ve demonstrated that it is possible to regrow giving nature the opportunity to help itself,” said Victor, who included that it is his dream to fill the land with animal life, both native and farm.
The reserve is named after his daughter, one of five children, who, now 18, showed the most interest in his work. Victor recalled with clear love in his eyes how, as a girl, K’erenda Homet would accompany him on his tours around the grounds and tug his pant leg and whisper up to him if he forgot to mention something like this plant or that flower.
“She will take on the responsibility of the fundo,” said Victor, exclaiming that he wants to be able to leave this world knowing that someone is continuing the struggle to protect the land.
Another such struggle is making sure the Interoceanic Highway is built with the environment in mind. The project, that is meant to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Brazil and Peru, has been talked about since the 1960’s. The Brazilian and Peruvian governments finally reached an agreement to begin the highway that would cross the Andes and the Amazon in 2004, citing a potential 1.5 percent increase in GDP per year that the highway would create. The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) backed the highway due to its desire to improve communication and reduce poverty in South America, seeing nature as a barrier to the unification of the Latin countries. Victor and other conservationists at first promoted the highway, thrilled with the prospect of being connected more easily to Puno and Cusco (MAP). He and others whose lives revolve around conservation and development thought, idealistically, that the forest around the highway would surely become government-protected land, and that the project would be done in line with the Law of National System of Public Inversion, which dictates the cost-benefit analysis of any public works project after conducting a comprehensive study of the methods, execution and potential consequences.
Victor lamented that then Peruvian President Toledo more or less ignored the regulations when he embarked on the project. The $84 million budget, that was created in 2004 for the highway that started in Brazil, was spent in its entirety within 100 kilometers of cleared forest. The new budget for the project is estimated to be around $1.6 billion, backed by CAF, the Latin American bank for development created in 1970.
“They started the project without a full study and calculation of the effects, despite the warnings of conservationists and scientists,” said Victor.
Now, as it is clear that there is a serious lack of enforcement in the Madre de Dios region, Victor worries that the Interoceanic Highway will only make it easier for illegal miners to transfer their booty and lead to untouched land more easily accessed for plunder.
Victor claims that he is a farmer at heart, and says that we need to ask the land for help when it comes to the conservation of natural resources.
Walking around Victor’s land full of natural resources, it is not hard to see why he fights so hard to protect the forest. As he glided past the plants, tapping big leaves like blankets or pulling weeds out of the ground, he explained that he sees the plants as his children. He began pointing out different plants, fruits, trees, barks and roots and describing which heals what ailment and how to take the medicine. There’s santa maria for inflammation of bug bites, limoncillo for stomach aches, caña caña for general pain, para para for male stamina, pan de arbol sap for broken bones, cilantro to help pregnant women dilate while in labor, uña de gato trees (of which he has 4,000) for immediate relief of inflamed prostate, duerme duerme which shrinks when you touch it and helps children sleep. We passed a tree with slashes in the bark, and I asked if someone had been measuring the height of their children. He shook his head and informed me that this is the Sangre de Grado tree and its sap is used as antibacterial cream on fresh wounds. The list goes on and on. Victor even collected leaves of ishanga, marañon, cocona, limoncillo and guyaba for me when he noticed me rubbing my sore throat and instructed me to make a tea and drink it three times. I did as I was told and was healed the next day.
We passed by the sacred ayahuasca tree, and Victor spoke gravely about its use as a medicine. If you are not sick, however, the plant, when prepared properly by a shaman and administered during a mystic ceremony, will clean the organism of negative charges. It also cleans out your digestive system of all bad bacteria, but leaves the good. Ayahuasca, Victor says, aligns the neurons in the brain that become disorganized due to traumatic events.
“During the Ayahuasca ceremony, you are forced to face your fears, and after you have no fear.”
Victor has partaken in the ceremony five times in his life, most recently when his Shaman friend alerted him to the negative forces around him. He feared for his life due to the enemies he’s made of the dangerous illegal miners, and said the ceremony helped him survive.
He will continue to do his part, taking care of his expanse of forest and fighting for Pacha Mama’s rights, finding the beauty in the land where so many others are only seeing economic potential.
“Everything carries the mark of our hands,” he said.
*Please note that all quotes are translations.
Below are some photos of the reserve that also hosts people who want to help tend to the grounds or just stay and enjoy the beauty of the jungle. Make bookings here.
Photos of my time on the beautiful Tambopata River in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
As I sit in the chilly, dry mountain air of Cusco, I marvel at how different a few hours west can make to a landscape. Just last week, I was sweating and enjoying looking out at the beautiful Tambopata River and Playa Cayman as my backyard and getting to know the loving Woods-Lena-Castillo family.
Enjoying a tour in the jungle outside of Puerto Maldonado, Peru with Yakari Eco Lodge.
Ziplining, kayaking on the Madre de Dios River, and Monkey’s Island.
I spent my last day in Puerto Maldonado enjoying a jungle tour with Yakari Eco Lodge. For 95 soles, I partook in ziplining, a canopy walk, a log walk, kayaking on the Madre de Dios River, and playing with monkeys on la Isla de Monos. Not much to say. It was a visual day. See it through my eyes…
Traveling from Cusco in the middle of the night to exhaust ourselves climbing Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, a truly incredible experience.
There are a number of ways to see Machu Picchu. You can book a tour of the Inca Trail, or other such extended, slightly expensive treks for the experience of walking through the Sacred Valley all the way up to village atop the green, round mountain. You can stay the night in the town before Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, and arise with the sun for an early morning, two hour hike up to the city and surrounding mountains. Or you can do what Laura and I did, which has its pros and cons.
Some other travelers assured me as I bought my ticket for Machu Picchu online and a week in advance (good idea to do this because Machu Picchu and her sister/his brother? Huayna Picchu only allow a certain amount of tourists per day to walk their even steps and stones. Something about preserving the site….) that Machu Picchu takes all day, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a train back to Cusco that night, and should plan to sleep in Aguas. So we decided, like so many others, to leave Cusco very early in the morning and arrive in Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning to begin our ascension then.
Rather than take the train straight from Cusco to Aguas, which would have cost around $75 each way, we booked a couple of round trip tickets from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. The red-lipsticked PeruRail associate suggested that it would be cheaper to take a $3 colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, which leave regularly beginning at 2 am, and take the train from there, all together around $55. So we saved like $40. Woop!
Our alarm clocks went off around 3 am, and we gathered our things silently in the dark, already dressed in what we’d wear for the next 20 hours. We booked a 5:20 train out of “Olla-whatever,” as I had been calling it, so we knew we’d need to be on a collective mini van by 4 am to make the hour long journey.
After a short cab ride to the colectivo meeting point, we were immediately accosted at our taxi window by at least ten men and one woman, all beseeching us to join their van. I picked the guy with the most honest face, and struggled to follow him to his van, the woman blocking my path in a sad attempt to change my mind. Unfortunately, we were the first two in this particular mini van, and we watched, mostly horrified, slightly amused, and incredibly impatient, as our driver sprinted with the herd to other new taxis pulling up to stake their claim into the latest tourist.
The road through the Sacred Valley was bumpy and winding and filled with the most annoying, loud, upbeat Peruvian music it has ever been my displeasure to listen to for an extended period of time. Not even my earplugs combined with light humming to myself could drown it out. We got to the picturesque town of Olla-whatever, that most tourists (including us) overlook, just in time to make our train. We spent another two hours rocking steadily along the Urubamba River and under earthy, brown mountains that appeared wise and judgmental as the full clouds hugged them. The PeruRail trains are covered in skylights (that would prove to be my undoing on the way back due to a migraine and an odd musical fashion show), and the rising sun shone through beautifully while we were served muffins and coca tea and a recording of a perky white woman happily informed us passengers that, “Families living in the community grow corn, potatoes and various vegetables.” It felt like a ride at Epcot.
We arrived at the lovely tourist town of Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning and walked uphill along a river to our hostel, SuperTramp, which I wouldn’t recommend (slow wifi, dirty bathrooms, no hot water, no kitchen, bitchy cook). By the time we got settled and caffeinated, it was 9:30, and we didn’t want to waste time climbing the mountain up to Machu, which would have taken two hours. Also, lezzbehonest, we were pretty pooped from waking up at 3 am. The bus up cost about $10 and took 30 minutes, and soon we were being accosted by more Peruvians, this time tour guides exclaiming that it would be impossible to visit the site without a guide. I very much doubted this because I had read a book on Machu Picchu prior, but my friend Laura was keen to learn, and I agreed to translate the tour for her, an offer I regretted five minutes in, my tired mind struggling to grasp Spanish so early.
Our guide, a small, flat woman with nice skin, explained that when people today talk about Inca culture, they don’t know that they are technically referring to the fourteen trend setting kings who are the only true Incas, the most well known being Tupac Amaru, the last Inca who died fighting for independence from the Spanish conquistadores, and Pachacutec, the ninth Inca king who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into an empire and was the architect for Machu Picchu. Apparently, the village in the clouds was the only part of the Inca Empire that escaped destruction by the Spanish conquistadores, who tried to follow the Inca soldiers who fled up the mountains from Cusco by following the Urubamba River, and therefore missed Machu Picchu, which was abandoned only 100 years after its creation.
As many people know, American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu and published his findings in 1911, and now the city is an UNESCO world heritage site.
While on our tour, we also learned about things like the length of the Inca Empire (1438-1533 when the Spanish invaded) and how those who lived in the city created even step-like spaces in the mountain so they could domesticate potatoes, plantains, and chocolate.
I mostly just wandered and took pictures and wished I didn’t bother spending 20 soles to translate things I already knew, but alas, the sun was shining and the views were spectacular.
After the tour, we snacked on some nuts and warm cheese sandwiches that we made the night before and hustled over to Huayna Picchu (Waynu Picchu? one is Quechua and one is Spanish….IDK), innocently unaware of the challenge that awaited us. Once Laura caught wind of other exhausted tourists just ending their climb up the mountain, she gave me a look like, “Fuck off.” I knew then that I needed to be the wind beneath her wings, although I’m sure a big part of her wanted me to tell her to wait it out at the bottom.
The hardest part of the ascent, in my opinion, was the stairs. The hour and 15 minute climb seemed much longer with every steep step. We zigzagged up the mountain, stopping at every corner for a breather and a sip of water, which we ran out of halfway up. Climbers on their descent squeezed by us on the narrow trails, trying not to tumble while they assured us that it was worth the trouble once we made it to the top. I believed them, especially after climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, which was more difficult because the altitude was much higher. This just felt like a perpetual stair master.
The view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding green mountains, and the glittering Urubamba River below were absolutely breathtaking. I was happy for the challenge of the climb, especially when the payoff was so magnificent.
The way down was possibly more exhausting than the way up. We were out of water, the sun was high in the sky, and our legs felt like jello. Parts of the climb were so steep that we had to actually sit on the steps and “bum-shuffle,” as Laura called it, down.
By the time we made it to the bottom, we were so depleted and dehydrated, the only thing that could rouse us from sitting breaks was a constant reminder to each other that we needed water. A breeze felt like the sweetest kiss.
“I feel like any children I bear will feel the effects of that,” said Laura. We laughed spastically, our diaphragms unable to support the oxygen intake for a proper giggle.
After chugging the most expensive water I’ve ever bought in my life, we decided to rest our weary legs and take the bus back into town rather than climb down Machu. Some people may call us lazy for not climbing the mountain up or down. They would be right.
My perceptions of the small city by the Peruvian Amazon, Puerto Maldonado.
The city before the jungle, the biodiversity capital of the world, civilization outside the rainforest. The town is always moving, but it moves slowly, constantly conserving its energy in the heavy heat that coats the town and makes you sweat while you sip on your morning coffee (instant Nescafé with canned milk). A town where you can get drunk and eat street meat at 2 am on a Monday. A town that doesn’t get shut down by the terrifying torrential storms. Where motorcycles and motocars fill the air with the sound of small beeps. Where crosswalk doesn’t mean cars will let you walk. Where it’s normal to blow red lights and stop signs. Where eye contact and the slight fluttering of your fingers where they rest near your thigh is enough to call the attention of a motorcyclist in a yellow vest who will take you to wherever you need to go in town for a sole. Where women on corners offer choclo con queso, in sing-songy voices. Where refrescos are cold and papayas grow on the city streets and restaurants make fusions with yuca and ginger and plantains. Where the homeless and the drunk take afternoon refuge in bushes. Where you you learn not to flinch when an insect lands on you or your table. Where the street art makes beautiful the suffering of the natives under the hands of the Spanish conquistadores. Where you can hop on a motorboat on the Madre de Dios River and sail to Cusco…
Awesome tour of the Madre de Dios region in Peru, Lake Sandoval and the Tambopata National Reserve.
Hiking and canoeing through the reserve to spectate the gorgeous nature and wildlife.
Ellen, Robin and I told ourselves that it was a good day to go further into the jungle on a tour of Lake Sandoval, despite the torrential downpour. Better a cool, rainy day than a hot, sunny one. Besides, we reasoned, the trees would surely create a canopy over our heads and block most of the rain. Nevertheless, by the time we made it down the Madre de Dios river, which joins with the Tambopata River and also runs all the way to Cuzco, I was very grateful to the tour agency for supplying me with rubber rain boots. For an hour and a half, our guide, Dagger, a Manu National Park native, led us through the muddy trail of the Tambopata National Reserve to get to Maloka Lodge. In front of me was a blanket of green trees and a thick, brown path, with the occasional scatter of bright color. A blue butterfly here, a red parrot’s beak flower there.
You could hear life all around you, the sounds of crickets and cicadas and bird calls filling your peripherals, yet everything seemed quite still. A rustling palm frond made us all look up. It took a while for me to spot it, but I saw a monkey! A real, live, wild monkey. It was a squirrel monkey, I was told, and it looked a mixture between a human and cat. Soon I was watching for more moving leaves and branches, for more monkeys, climbing the palm trees to get to the dates at the top. Some of them had little baby monkeys on their backs. It was freaking adorable. Dagger hurried to guide my steps and catch me when I stumbled as I clumsily tried to follow them off the trail and snap pictures, not looking where I was stepping. I stopped short of walking through a spider web, thank god. We continued our walk in the sucking mud, steadily getting more and more wet even as the rain let up. Our guide spoke in a quiet voice and was able to identify every animal sound, smell, track and dropping.
Finally, we arrived at a dock, a row of wide canoes bobbing gently under the canopy of jungle, and we climbed aboard one and made our way through the swamp and trees. The scene before me called to mind pictures I had seen of riverboat cruises in New Orleans.
Eventually, the narrow canal opened up to a vast body of water, Lake Sandoval. It felt like the rain stopped just for us, like the universe wanted us to take in the wide expanse of the lake without precipitation. Tall white palm trees stood like sentries around the perimeter, guarding the jungle beyond. Ours was the only boat on the still, metallic water, rich silt skimming the surface. We were gliding peacefully in a concert arena for the sounds of the jungle. Birds whistled and cawed and squawked, some even sounded like pigs. Water clunked along the side of the boat, cicadas hissed, bees buzzed, squirrel monkeys made whistling sounds and howler monkeys made throaty sounds that made it seem like the jungle’s stomach was rumbling.
Mine was rumbling, too, and I was relieved when we docked the boat and walked to the lodge for lunch. The meal that awaited us on a nicely dressed table in the elegant hut of a dining room was a sort of rice and chicken tamale cooked in banana leaves. It was delicious, and I ate too much.
After lunch and a nap, we set off again to the lake to watch the sun set and wait for black cayman, people-eating rainforest alligators. We rode around looking at the trees, using Dagger’s binoculars to spot howler monkeys or herons soaring through the air. We watched as yet more monkeys began rustling the branches and leaves. There was a horde of maybe 50 squirrel monkeys, soaring from one branch to another, making their way to a resting place to sleep for the night.
At dusk, a cayman appeared next to our boat while we were looking out at the water. It just floated there and soon a few more popped up in the distance, coming from nowhere and doing mostly nothing. Bats were flying around our head in the limited gray light, adding to the start of jungle nightlife. Dagger took out a high-powered flashlight and instructed me to scan the lake slowly with it, looking out for flashes of red eyes belonging to a cayman on the dark water. Whenever we spotted one, we slowly rowed over to get a look at the carnivorous predator, floating there staring at us, and occasionally making moves to get behind our boat and take us by surprise.
When it was time for dinner, we docked our boat as another group was beginning their search of the caymans. While we walked back from the boat, Dagger spoke in that quiet, monotone voice of his, rattling off a list of the jungle pharmacy’s roots and barks and medicinal plants used for ailments from asthma to Parkinson’s to ring worm. I marveled at the knowledge growing up in Manu, the conserved biosphere on the Madre de Dios river, had bestowed upon him. What did I know about my land? Maybe that’s why I can’t stay in one place for too long; my ties aren’t strong enough. I am not a part of the land I came from and it isn’t a part of me, at least not in the way that Dagger and his land are one. I realized that he probably spoke so softly because he was used to respecting the quiet wildlife in the jungle. Yet he always made himself heard, drawing our attention magnetically to where he was pointing, spotting parrots or snakes or monkeys, a tree or a plant with some significance.
After a dinner of chicken, rice and potatoes, Dagger told us that we’d be meeting back at the dining room at 4:30. “In the morning?” I asked, uncomprehending. He nodded his assent. I nearly laughed in his face. “So, what, are we going to watch a sunrise or something?” I asked, remembering the time I had to wake up that early to climb the Masada in Israel and watch the sun rise. He told me that we’d be going to a place called the Clay Lick to watch the macaws feed. Birds? Is he serious? I had already seen my monkeys and alligators, and I’m supposed to be excited about getting up at some ungodly hour to watch birds lick clay out of a tree from a distance? Looking at the New Zealanders’ eager faces, I shut my mouth and resigned myself to my fate, making sure to ask if there would be coffee that early in the morning. There would be. Fine.
So at 4:20, I got up and dressed quickly in the dark; the lodge had turned off the power at around 9 last night and I’m sure wouldn’t turn it on until later that afternoon. Frugal Peruvians. We drank shitty black instant coffee in the dining hall, also in the dark, and set off back to our boat onto the lake. It was worth waking up to see the change the early morning light makes on the water and the trees. So far I had seen the lake at midday, at sunset and at night. Now I was seeing it in the light of dawn, gray and still, almost as if the lake were covered in dew, the sun slowly rising behind the palms, turning the sky pink and the water to honey.
We took the familiar muddy trail back into the national park and then down a small side trail to find the macaws. It was light by then, and we stood at a distance of 75 meters or so away from a dead palm tree with around 20 red-bellied macaws latched on, picking apart the bark to get at the minerals inside the heart of the tree. We watched for about ten minutes. I was over it in about thirty seconds, leaning against a tree and going through my camera to delete poorly taken photographs until Dagger, thankfully, told us we could go. I was too tired to feel cranky that I had been woken up for this, too tired to hate the carpenter bee with a personal vendetta against me, buzzing circles around my head like a halo on the boat ride back across Lake Sandoval to the lodge.
After breakfast and some time to rest, we trekked back out for our last excursion of the day, to look at the giant, sturdy Capirona Trees, which Dagger referred to as “Save a Tree,” due to their threat of extinction by illegal loggers who covet the thick, durable wood for profit. The bark of the tree has also served natives as an anti-fungal and wound-healer. It seems that whenever the jungle produces an ailment, it also produces a cure.
So, back on the boat and onto Lake Sandoval.
We docked the boat across the lake at the beginning of a trail and set to walking, the rubber boots more of a hindrance on this sunny, hot day, threatening to give my calves a heat rash. We took a three hour loop through the hiking trail, Dagger dubiously pointing out things along the way, like walking trees that grow new legs that look like teepees to move on the rainforest floor, or a termite hill that size of a bush, or a hole that he coaxed a tarantula out of, making bile rise in my throat due to my illogical arachnophobia.
At one point the air was filled with a sweet smell, and Dagger identified it as the smell of dates and looked up to search for dining monkeys. He whistled a low whistle, once, twice, three times, and soon monkeys, capuchin and squirrel, were jumping from branch to low branch right over our heads. We stood in awe. I giggled like a maniac at the proximity to these amazing creatures who looked and moved so much like us. I watched, amused, as one capuchin monkey, and then a few more, slammed coconuts against trees to get to the juice inside, and I wondered if humans only knew how to get inside fruit by watching monkeys and other animals do it first.
We passed a few of the gargantuan Capirona trees, each one seeming bigger and more twisted than the last. When we reached one that was particulary large, we stuck around and listened to Dagger tell us that hunters pay tribute to these trees that he called the King of the Forest before a hunt, and that people would bury their loved ones under them, or else use them for shelter. I could see why. I stood in its monstrous shadow, pressing my palm flat against the straight, smooth bark of the tree. This particular tree had been alive for 420 years, Dagger said. I took it as a good omen and began to climb its sturdy trunk, imagining a world where I could build a house around the tree and live in it and under it and with it. I asked why the bark was so smooth, and Dagger replied in his hushed tones that it sheds its bark once or twice a year.
While we were walking back to the boat, distracted by this plant or that butterfly, Dagger suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, listened, and then took off at nearly a run, urging us to follow quickly. We reached the spot where we had docked our boat, and he motioned for us to be quiet and look in the direction he was pointing. About three river otters were feeding and playing right near us. We observed them quietly, amazed at our good timing; they only fed about once a day. Dagger told us that he heard the sound of a baby otter cry and knew that they were feeding, and that this was our chance to spot them. I could see my look of childish glee reflected on Ellen and Robin’s faces, which only doubled when the otters came right up to our boat to check us out and huff air loudly at us. They swam away from us playfully, one diving under the water just as another broke the surface.
It was a beautiful way to end our tour, and I slept peacefully on the motorboat down the Madre de Dios river back to the Tambopata.
A quick talley of animals seen in just 2 days: squirrel monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, tayra, giant otter, tarantula, parrots, macaws, snake, black caymans, herons, 100 species of butterflies, dragonflies, so many flies, so many insects, lizards, frogs, toads, fire ants, termites, bats….I think that’s everything.
Find out what it’s like to rough it in the Peruvian jungle outside of Puerto Maldonado.
Despite the sticky heat, power outages and general lack of hygiene, my two weeks volunteering with a family in the jungle were the highlight of my time in Peru.
All I can hear is the sound of my borrowed moped’s engine revving, of pebbles clinking off the exhaust. In front of me, the meager bike light barely illuminates a narrow dirt road, flanked on each side by lush jungle. Behind me is pure darkness, above me, the solar system. I had long since been out-biked by my companions on their actual motorcycle, the light on the back of their bike slowly extending beyond my field of vision. I was alone, save for whatever else skulked in the night, lurking behind palm trees and around obscure bends. Was I afraid? Hell, yes. But I told myself to be cool, that this is the only road back to the house I’ve been staying at Playa Cayman outside of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, and that I couldn’t very well pass it because my fellow volunteers would undoubtedly be waiting outside for me to make sure I arrived safely. So I looked up at that gorgeous sky, I sang to myself, I experimented with gears, and I kept my eyes open for landmarks like that little wooden bridge or the km 6 sign. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the fantastical feeling, albeit slight, that I was about to be ambushed, either by a roam of natives who wanted to sacrifice me to their sun god or perhaps a hoard of snakes that would fall out of one of the trees to inject me with their venom. I scared myself, hearing things in the hiss of the jungle and making up scenarios like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, magically real. The worst that jumped out at me was a frog and a few mangy dogs.
How is it that I found myself alone on a moped in the middle of the dark Peruvian jungle? It all started out fairly mundane. We needed to go into town to use wifi, outlets and showers. Our jungle cottage had been out of power, and therefore running water, for nearly every day that I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for a week and a half. The house where I’m volunteering in Puerto Maldonado is owned by a California-native, Kristen, her Peruvian husband, Luis, and their adorable three-year-old daughter, Mar. Five years ago, they bought land on the outskirts of the city along Tambopata River, a little under a hectare of jungle, and have been slowly creating a self-sustainable home here. The couple have employed volunteers from helpx for the past eight months or so, like myself and my moto companions, Ellen and Robin, a traveling couple from New Zealand with whom I share a damp room on the top floor of the small wooden house.
This day had been particularly hot. It was Sunday, so we used it as an excuse to move slowly and not work on the house. I think I really would have passed out if they asked me to do some of the heavy yard labor that we’d been doing (only after I had given a gift to Pacha Mama/ Mother Earth to assurre her that I would do good for her land), such as digging a drainage ditch so they don’t lose their house to flood (again) during the rainy season, hacking up trees that fell after storms for kindling, collecting river water, and gardening.
Instead, I hopped on the back of Kristen’s moped to head to town where we bought supplies for a barbeque such as two kilos of pork, some coca cola, and ice that I held, dripping and numbing my crotch and Kristen’s back, on the way home. We spent the day moving only enough to pour a cold piscola (peruvian liquor called pisco mixed with rum…try a pisco sour, too!) and keep the bonfire going to heat the grill. Some friends of Kristen and Luis’s came by with haunches of beef and some yummy, spicy Brazilian nut sauce, and took over the sweaty job of working the grill. I was thankful to the guests for cooking because I could barely cut a tomato for the salad, I was so hot.
The heat here has been nothing like I’ve experienced before, and I toured around the Israeli desert for 10 days on a sweaty bus with 40 other kvetching, hot Jews. I’ve spent hours incapacitated by this weather, lying in a pool of my own sweat on a mattress that smelled like other volunteers had done the same thing as me, melting slowly while trying to lie as stationary as a statue. I’d wait and pray for a gust of wind, please, just one blessed bit of wind to move the still air, thick like flannel on my skin and wet like the bayou in my lungs. I’d have turned on a fan, but, alas, the power has been out. It takes energy just to wipe the sweat out of my eyes. It’s inescapable. No taking cold showers for me, or sticking my head in the fridge for a second’s respite. The only solution is to go to the river, which we had done the day before, forsaking our machetes and shovels for beer and chips on the beach.
The beach is located about 100 to 200 meters away from the house, along the treacherous, muddy banks of the Tambopata. As we walked through the mud rich with minerals, we spotted cayman tracks, the local, human-hating alligator. Kristen told us not to worry about them now because they only come out at night, but I was too hot to be deterred from sinking into that cool water.
Turns out the water is not so cool, and it is very shallow, only going up to your thigh at its deepest. But the current was semi-strong, so we anchored in the mud and opened up some beers and passed around cigarettes while we weren’t playing with Mar. When the sun felt too hot, we rubbed the rich mud on our skin to protect us from the harsh rays and annoying mosquitos. When we ran out of beer we yelled up to our neighbors who apparently have a small store to deliver us some warm ones and bags of chips. It was a blissful way to spend the afternoon and bathe, and afterwards, I cooked my new family seco de pollo by candlelight.
On the day of the barbeque, however, a hot river bath just wouldn’t do the trick, and I could see by Ellen and Robin’s exhausted, sweaty faces that they agreed with me. We left the locals accustomed to this swamp to enjoy the river with their kids. Rather than hitch into town and then pay 1 sole to one of the many motorcycle taxis in distinctive yellow vests to take us across town, we borrowed Kristen and Luis’s bikes and enjoyed the freedom of riding towards a deliciously cold shower at Tambopata Hostel. I actually giggled aloud as the clean water washed away the dirt and bugs and sweat that I had been living with for four days. So worth the 5 soles. Afterwards we stopped at our local haunt, the best restaurant in the Plaza, El Asadazo, for refrescos (half juice, half water, served cold) of apple and pineapple before we set back off down the dirt path.
I am staying now at Tambopata Hostel until I leave for Cuzco on Wednesday, a place with one fan in each room, real coffee, a few hammocks, a lush garden at its center, and gloriously clean water. I was starting to get cranky with jungle life. I could have handled the lack of power and water I suppose, but you don’t realize how much you take for granted the ability to simply flip the faucet up and watch clear water come out. I could have dealt with the fact that no linen ever dried, ever, and that my light colored clothes took on the dirty brown hue of the local water. I could have ignored the bugs that tried to make a home in my hair and skin. I mean, the land was just so beautiful, the Tambopata river and Playa Cayman were my backyard, and I fell in love with the family, with Kristen’s laid back humor and high energy, with Luis’s good vibes and funny stories in Spanish, with Mar’s smile and cute voice asking for leche or to look at pictures of my perrito on my phone. I just couldn’t get over those damn roosters, waking me from my slumber at 2 am with their crowing and leaving me awake on my uncomfortable bed, seething and fantasizing about how I would kill them and feed them to the family. I can make the best out of many situations, but you fuck with my sleep, and I’m out. I also wanted to get to dry land before one of the many jungle ailments that the others had been subjected to came to get me. These include, but are not limited to, Asango/chiggers (little bugs that burrow into your skin and make you itch and burn), mosquito bites, skin and nail fungus, heat rash, parasites, botfly, diarrhea, and bronchitis. I already had migraines from the heat, possibly dehydration, a few hornet stings and some surprisingly painful fire ant bites.
Now I’ll spend some time recuperating and getting to know this bustling little city of Puerto Maldonado.