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.
Recipe for Seco de Pollo Peruano as prepared by my Peruvian abuela.
Cilantro, red wine and potatoes make this a gourmet, home-cooked meal.
I came to Lima to visit my adopted Peruvian grandma, Alex, who owns a home in the outskirts of the city called Rimac (where she’ll be visiting for a little over a month), in addition to her Manhattan home. To clarify, she worked for my mother’s family as a maid/nanny, and has therefore became part of the family, showing up for every holiday and birth. I call her “mi abuela” and she calls me her “nieta.” She is family in everything but blood. Growing up, I’d always get so excited to see her at our front door step, just in time for Rosh Hashana or Christmas (mom’s Jewish, dad is Catholic). Every time she came to our house, she’d cook something amazing out of nothing. I’d come downstairs to find her in the kitchen, using long-forgotten ingredients that she’d find in our pantry or fridge or freezer to create something rich smelling that would make my mouth water and my stomach grumble. She’d find left over roast chicken and left over french fries and somehow combine that with vegetables and spices that I’d never dream of using and cans of tomato paste and wine (who even drinks wine in my house?), and call it a Peruvian delicacy. And then there’s the rice, always her flavorful rice with corn or peas and a hint of garlic. I’d eat it in spades as a kid.
As an adult, I hover over her shoulder whenever I get the honor of watching her cook, asking questions and taking notes and tasting her concoctions every five minutes, smearing sauce from the cooking spoon over bits of bread. I’m a picker. Last week, I stood in her tiny, tiled kitchen in the duplex she shares with her daughter when she comes to Lima, and marveled once again at the patient way Alex washed a chicken or peeled a potato. As the smells of the seco, a recipe that changes from Peruvian household to household, city to city, wafted up my nostrils, I began my ritual note-taking. Below you’ll find the recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Seco de Pollo
1 bunch of cilantro
1 red onion, rough chopped
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine
4-5 yellow potatoes
1 whole chicken, cut up
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp minced hot pepper
pinch salt, pepper, cumin
1 cup peas, or carrots, spinach (whatever veggie you like- Abuela used peas, but I used carrots when I made this for my host family)
-Add cilantro, onion, oil and about 1/3 cup of water to a food processor. Blend ingredients.
– Heat oil in a large saucepan and add garlic, hot pepper and blended mixture. Under high heat, bring the mixture to a boil as you add the salt, peppers and cumin. Cover and let boil until the mixture is reduced by a third, mixing occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the pan. This should take about 10-15 minutes.
– When it is reduced, add the peas and stir, then move the mixture to one side of the pan with a spoon, clearing a space to place the chicken pieces on the bottom of the pan. Continue this until all the chicken is nestled flat on the bottom of the pan, covering the tops of the pieces with the sauce as you arrange the meat.
– Pour the wine evenly over the meat, reduce heat to a simmer, and cover.
– While the chicken simmers, peel the potatoes and cut each in half. I like to do this when the chicken is on the stove, not before, because the time it takes to prep the potatoes is the time you need to cook the chicken a bit before you throw the potatoes in.
-Arrange the potatoes around the pan, then add about a half cup of water to the pan, reduce heat to low and cover again. Let sit for another 40 minutes or so, occasionally moving the chicken around and adding water if it looks too dry.
-When finished, leave uncovered for 10 minutes to let it settle.
A visual guide to the dynamic city in the mountains- Quito, Ecuador.
You may remember from my post about my first day in Quito that my iPad connector kit for my really good camera didn’t work. Well, I found a computer and finally got a look at those pictures. They’re just too beautiful to keep to myself. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them!
Life is good when you volunteer at Donkey Den Guesthouse on the small beach of Santa Marianita in Ecuador.
Kitesurfing and watching the waves crash are two of the main activities on this laid back beach outside of Manta.
In case you were wondering what I’ve been up to for the past two weeks, the answer is, not much. I’ve been straight kickin’ it working as a volunteer for Donkey Den Bed and Breakfast in Santa Marianita, Ecuador, an isolated beach outside of Manta where the sun waits for the weekend to shine. I found the gig at Donkey Den through HelpX. The hotel boasts three pretty sick apartment-style suites, four more private rooms, and a dorm room with five beds. The kitchen and common areas are all outside, because why not? The weather is always warm and there’s a roof to protect against uncommon rain. Most people, staff, visitors, pets and guests alike, congregate around the long rectangular dining table. In fact, sometimes, it looks like the Last Supper, with everyone on one side facing the ocean, looking out for whales or kite surfers or just simply watching the waves crash. I rest my elbows on the beautiful tapestry that serves as a table cloth as I cradle my second cup of coffee in the morning, watching the ocean change colors. Sometimes one of the ten cats tries to test its luck sitting on the table, and he or she is promptly denied via a squirt of water to the face. Sometimes Yahtzee dice spill over the surface of the table as the volunteers and I play our boss Cheryl, who adds up the dice for all of us sleepy heads. Sometimes I lead the girls in some early morning yoga on the beach, the constant sound of the waves hitting the sand as soothing as saying “Ommmeeee.” I wonder sometimes why that sound hasn’t started to piss me off, like other constant, unending sounds are prone to do. The worst it’s done is give me weird dreams, but I’m not alone in that. Something about this beach keeps almost everyone here from having a decent, and dream free, night’s sleep.
During these two weeks of bliss, I haven’t even bothered to groom properly. I can’t remember the last time I put on makeup, or shaved my legs, or properly and consistently washed my hair. Hawt, right? But I give zero fucks because my sick tan has hidden the bags under my eyes, the sun has bleached my leg hair blond, and the ocean cleans my hair every day anyway and gives it that beachy style that bitches be jealous of. As the wise Beyonce once said, “I woke up like this, I woke up like this.”
Then there’s the sand. It’s everywhere, even after a shower, a constant reminder that you are living on a fucking beach. It latches on to your ankles, finds a home between your shoulder blades. It coats your underwear line and the crease behind your ears. You scratch your scalp and find sand under your fingernails. You sleep with it at night, despite a vain, half-ass attempt to brush your feet together and remove some before resting your legs on your already sandy sheets. It is a friend, a companion, by no means a burden. The sand is an accepted part of your daily journey, and I bring it with me on my walk to Ocean Freaks, onto the hammock where I’ll read a book, and to my few hours of pretty chill work per day, which starts with wiping the sand and cat/dog hair from the furniture in the morning.
Work also consists of cleaning the rooms when guests check out, taking the few breakfast orders, cutting fruit, walking the dogs down the beach at night, and any other odd jobs that Cheryl comes up for us. I can proudly say that I helped paint a fence, varnished a bunch of bamboo, and gave the garden a haircut.
Truly, there is not much to do here except kite surfing (it took me a week to give in and take lessons and another week to fall in love), perfecting the art of chilling out, and getting to know the people around you. There’s Cheryl, who retired to Ecuador from Canada and has been running the Donkey Den for a little under a year for the owner Linda, a 70 year old Floridian princess. Annette and Juliet are best friends and my fellow volunteers from the Netherlands who have been traveling together through Central and South America and learning to kite surf along the way. Laura, another volunteer from Dublin, has just arrived and already we are making plans to meet up in Cuzco in a few weeks. Jooast and Lillian are basically part of the family, too. They live in a bright yellow Volkswagen that they bought in Chile and have been driving around South America, also kitesurfing, but they take showers and cook meals at the Donkey Den. There’s Sam, the kite surfing artist from Canada who lives in Dominican Republic. There were the Uno Nazis, a German couple who are really, really serious about Uno (Clarification: I called them Nazis because they are strict card players. Their German-ness only made it more funny). We have 10 cats and 3 dogs, all rescues. The cats are Tiger, Tigger, Tommy, Kiwi, Shortie, Fido, Mozzarella, Joe, Rodriguez, and Bubba. Shortie has a temper, Fido is an asshole, Mozzarella is cuddly and Rodriguez is a prince. The dogs are Barney, Bailey, Pepe. Barney is a lady, Pepe is a gentleman, and Bailey runs really fast. Maira and Fernanda are sisters and Santa Marianita locals who come to work every morning. Fernanda sees to the general cleaning of the property, while Maira prepares the delicious breakfast, sometimes just for the volunteers if there are no paying customers. We, as volunteers, are entitled to a free breakfast every morning, which I milk profusely, cutting myself a bowl of fruit before I order the Scramble and a side of stuffed french toast.
Then of course there are the Gringos, the ex-pats, the Golden Girls. The motley crew of Canadian and American retirees who congregate around their ring leader, Linda, to drink coffee and booze at our table, buy breakfast on Gringo Sunday, and share information about how to survive in a third world country with zero knowledge of the language spoken there, a big bank account, and a trusted contractor. A true talent indeed when all the locals are out to get you…she said sarcastically.
Now that I’m gone and embarking slowly on another adventure, I truly miss my life there. I miss searching for friends on the water by looking for their kites. I miss Cheryl telling me that I’m going to make some man an excellent wife every time I cooked her dinner. I miss Annette’s girlish laugh and Juliet telling me to enjoy my meal as I sat down with any plate in front of me. I miss Laura singing showtunes and leaving me in stitches with her quick wit. I miss being barefoot all the time and watching the sky change. I miss the rare nights when the clouds weren’t hiding the stars and I could look up and see thousands of them. I miss the donkeys walking up to our garbage for a snack. I miss the man who does drive bys in his truck, blasting over a loudspeaker that he’ll sell you “pina, mandarinas, verduras, cebollas…etc.” I miss burning my feet on the hot sand and dodging rocks on my walk to the kite school. I miss feeling the strong undercurrent of the ocean pull at my ankles. I miss waking up with sore muscles. And I miss kitesurfing. I always thought that I couldn’t stay in one place for more than two weeks while traveling, but now I wish I could go back and carry on the life that I started for myself there.
Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be back. But until then, onto the next adventure.
Feature profile on Samantha Chilvers, kiteboarder and artist.
This young pro kite surfer and talented artist is living her life to the fullest!
The first time I walked into Ocean Freaks, the main kite school in Santa Mariantia, I was greeted by a petite white girl who immediately and enthusiastically asked me, “Are you here to kite?” I told her I hadn’t started my lessons yet, and she expressed her excitement that another girl would be joining her on the water. She even offered to teach me, “To see if I can even teach,” she said. “It would be a new challenge for me.” She said her name was Sam, and that she is a semi pro kite surfer who lives in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. She came to this beach for Fly Fest, a kite surfing competition that Ocean Freaks hosted a few weeks ago. Her sponsors, Star Kite, sent her, their only sponsored female, along with 10-15 other riders to compete.
“I don’t get a salary or anything, but they pay for my gear and my flights, so that’s pretty cool,” she said with a smile.
Using lots of big hand movements and in a loud, excited voice, she told me that she is also an artist who traded a painting with “this dude Pepe who’s kind of a babe” for the use of his house on the beach. Sam said that living there has been a good marketing promotion because people who follow her art are thrilled with the romantic idea of this young artist shacking up on a beach in Ecuador to paint and kite surf.
Sam’s art supports her kiting, and her kiting supports her art.
“Let’s be honest. There’s no money in this industry,” she said, looking at me through big black sunglasses as we sat among the hammock chairs at Donkey Den. “My surfing promotes and motivates a more organized professional life. I’ll sell a painting to cover a kite trip.”
Sam sells about a painting a week, which can range in price from $300 to $1000. She gets a lot of inspiration from the sport, and much of her work is based on her experiences on the water and images from her GoPro camera. Watching her on the water, it’s easy to understand how her actions translate to her beautiful, colorful paintings. You see her kite before you see her, a bright orange and green 9 meter Star Kite that she shares with Frainin (my instructor and Sam’s teammate). One second it’s at a slight angle, the next it descends sharply. There’s no denying that Sam is in control of the kite’s movements, doing tricks and dips, one hand ripping through the water as the other steers the kite.
Chilvers is a unique beach babe. You’ll find her walking back from the water, expertly pulling her kite with one hand and supporting her board with the other. Her brown hair with the hint of an hombre dye is constantly windswept, and her freckled cheeks are streaked pink with zinc to protect her from the sun. The dry clothes that she changes into usually consist of short jean shorts and colorful, tribal patterned sweaters and leggings. While she’s an obvious hottie (she’s even sponsored by Salt Water swimwear, a company that trades her bikinis for photos of her doing cool stuff in said bikinis), she expressed frustration with female riders who highlight their looks over their talent. It makes it more difficult for more serious female riders, like herself, to be taken seriously.
“At the end of the day, we do get the short end of the stick, but we only have ourselves to blame,” she said. “Girls tell themselves that they can’t ride like the boys, so they don’t try, or they’re scared of getting hurt. I want it to get to the point where guys and girls are all throwing tricks together.”
Sam said most people are really stoked to see a female rider, and would like to see more. She was one of the only girls to compete in Fly Fest, and since there wasn’t a category for females, she had to go up against the boys.
“I feel like I won for just showing up,” she said.
Most competitions don’t have a female rider category, so she’ll have to get used to competing with the big boys to fulfill her contract with Star Kite, who promised to send her to two to five PKRA (Professional Kiteboard Riders Association) events in the 2015 season, beginning with Panama and Morocco. But hey, maybe she’ll meet the love of her life. Sam has said that she doesn’t think she could be with someone who isn’t as obsessed with kite boarding as she is.
“He can be butt ugly, but if he can throw a handle pass…” she said, erupting in a girlish cackle. It doesn’t take much to make her laugh. “All I want is to date another pro-rider who can teach me tricks and bring my kite back when I crash.”
Of course, that’s not all she wants. Above all, she wants to progress as a rider, consistently landing all tricks in any conditions. Sam has stayed in Santa Marianita so long after Fly Fest because the riding conditions, like the wind and the current, are the exact opposite to those of in Cabarete. She often finds herself going back and practicing smaller tricks because the wind here forces her to challenge her weaker side. She feels that training in opposite conditions, versus Cabarete where the conditions are ideal for tricks, is essential to help prepare her for competitions in other countries where she is not familiar with the wind.
One trick that she’s dying to land is called an F16 Handle Pass. She described it, staring off into space as if she were picturing herself doing it not watching someone do it, as unhooking from the kite, then going into a back roll kite loop, and throwing a handle pass before you land. Sounds like cake.
But Sam is confident in her abilities to tackle new tricks, despite her slow start to learn the sport three years ago. She had originally moved to DR to work on a series of art and took lessons because it was the thing to do.
“I sucked. I was the worst student ever. The kids on the beach were 100% confident that I would never stand up,” she said laughing at the memory. “I had never seen the ocean before, never been on a plane, and never heard of kiteboarding.”
Chilvers admits that she actually lied to her instructor at Dare 2 Fly about having nose problems when she had to put her face in the water because the foreign salt water was so brutal to her as a girl from the Ontario, Canada suburbs.
The murder of her dog, which she found with his neck broken in her front yard, was the catalyst for her deciding to truly learn the sport. In her depression, she turned to kitesurfing, physically and mentally exhausting herself to take her mind off her loss. Within a month, she was doing tricks, which she said came naturally to her because she would snowboard as a kid. When she started going out every day, and not just once or twice a week when the conditions were perfect, she progressed incredibly fast.
“I’m a very aggressive rider. I don’t have many physical fears in life,” she said.
Sam attributes her success rate with trying new tricks not only to her badass attitude, but also to her small physical stature and to yoga, which she says has changed her riding. When she started doing yoga, every morning at 8:15, she found that she got less riding injuries, and that she was able to build strength and flexibility while releasing muscle tension. Yoga is the perfect conditioning outside of actually practicing to kite surf because it isn’t too physically demanding and doesn’t leave her too tired to put her all into the sport.
Her dedication to progression is what allowed her to throw the trick that defines you as a professional. Sam said that 80% of riders, male and female, cannot throw a handle pass, which is when you pass the bar behind your back. Sam boasts that she is the only female rider in her part of the world to be able to have landed that trick, which is probably why Star Kite went for her.
She began her contract with the team on October 1 by going to Fly Fest and using Star Kite equipment. She chose them out of other big names because of the personal attention she received from them during their courtship.
Since Sam is Star Kite’s only female rider, she hopes that she will be able to be more of a public figure in the Ocean Community. Her advice to new riders?
“Just practice. Take your time on the water and challenge yourself with little tricks. Every day you’ll progress a little more.”
Chilvers admits that there’s a slow learning curve at first, and a lot of people simply don’t have the time or the patience to learn. But you’ve got to crawl before you can walk.
I have fallen in love, and his name is kite surfing.
Once you stand up on that board, there is no going back.
I feel like I’ve just fallen in love with the boy of my dreams, and I have to leave him. Yesterday, after a week of waiting for my kiting instructor to give me the OK, I took a board out on the water, and I stood up! Now that I’ve finally felt the true potential of this sport, I can think of nothing else but where and how I can be reunited with my love again. In a panic last night, I scoured the internet for good kite surfing locations in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia. Anywhere. I am addicted, and will cut back on other expenses just so I can pay for a few hours here and there of lessons, and maybe pick up some gear along the way. I’m even researching flights to the Domincan Republic because my new pro friend Sam has offered me the use of her Star Kite-sponsored gear and her place to crash in.
After breakfast yesterday, I looked out at the shining sun and the kites starting to decorate the sky, and I thought, If I don’t make it on a board today, I’m giving up. I strolled over to the kite school to see if I could maybe get a lesson, not truly caring anymore and starting to think that maybe me and kite surfing weren’t meant to be. My instructor looked over the schedule. “Are you free right now?” he asked.
I ran back to Donkey Den to change, excitingly telling everyone there that I would actually have a lesson today. I threw on a sports bra and shorts and bounded out of the gate as guests and staff alike wished me well. They had all heard me bitch endlessly about how bad I wanted to stand up on the board before I left. I half ran, half skipped back to the kite school, rubbing sunscreen on my face and shoulders on the way.
Frainin and I did the usual stuff, setting up the kite and walking upwind with it. He had me body drag down the beach two times before he deemed me ready to get on the board. Actually, he said, I should have body dragged one more time, but I annoyed him so much that, thankfully, he decided to skip the third. He took hold of the kite and I held the board as we walked downwind for the third time that day. Even though I was wearing a helmet and a life jacket, I felt pretty cool as I passed other newbs in helmets still learning how to hold the kite or body drag. I was walking with an actual board with the actual intention of riding the fucker. On the way I passed other kiting friends and acquaintances. Jooast, a Dutch instructor who cooks meals at Donkey Den with his girlfriend Lillian, gave me a high five. His pupil, a guy from Switzerland who drinks beer at our table sometimes, wished me good luck. I saw Doc, AKA Javier, another instructor at the school, and he, too, wished me well. Annette and Juliet, my fellow volunteers, were handling their kite and shouted out, “You go girl!” I nearly moon walked the whole strip of the beach.
Frainin stopped and looked out at the waves pensively. He then demonstrated in the sand how I would get on my board in the water, then had me mimic his movements. I laid on my left side, with my left hand holding the handle on the board. He told me to press down on the board with my elbow. Then I had to come upright and move the board in front of me, using my left hand only as my right was on the bar, pretending to hold up the kite. Once the board was in front of me and I had my feet in the straps, I bent my legs and scooted my butt forward, flexing my feet to bring the board up on an angle. Frainin grabbed the lines and, acting as the kite, pulled hard to bring me up to standing. As he continued to pull, I felt my body go into the familiar stance of a kite boarder trying not to fly away with the kite. I straightened my left leg, bent my right knee and leaned back, holding the bar in front of me and trusting in the strength of the pull. Frainin gave me a mischievous smile and let go of the lines, letting me fall onto my back in the sand. He explained that to get the kite to pull me up, I’d have to bring it down to 10 o’clock and quickly back up to 12, repeatedly. This would put my left foot forward and take me out to sea, similar to body dragging. 12 to 2 would put my right foot forward and take me to the shore.
Into the water again. My left arm clumsily supported the board while I held onto Frainin’s harness as he and the kite dragged us out past the waves. He attached the kite to my harness. Ah, that familiar pull in your gut. I angled the board in front of me with little grace as my instructor held onto the back of my harness. I tried to keep the kite neutral at 12 with my right hand and use my left to hold the board steady enough to slp my feet in. OK, I was in the right position. Now all I had to do was move the kite. Tentatively, slowly, carefully, I brought it down to 10 and back up to 12. “Faster,” said Frainin exasperatedly. I told myself to stop being a wuss and brought it down hard to 10 and fast back up to 12. Push the bar up on the line a bit to depower, pull it closer to you to power. Relax. Loosen your grip on the bar a little. And suddenly I was standing up. And just as suddenly I was back down and Frainin was telling me to keep the kite at 12. “OK, good. Again.” 10, 12. Depower, power. I’m up and trying to keep my body straight, but my ass keeps dipping threateningly close to the water. My legs are shaking with the strain, but my brain is starting to understand what it has to tell my body to do. After a couple more soft crashes, Frainin tells me to face the beach and do the same on the other side. Let’s just say, my right side is not my strong side. 12, 2, I’m standing up and falling immediately back down. Right, I’m supposed to switch my legs. Straighten the right leg, bend the left. I tried again and ate it hard enough to lose the board. Frainin grabs a hold of it and tells me to body drag out of the water. The waves crash behind me and on top of me, but the kite pulls me out of harm’s way and makes me feel invincible. Obviously, I make it out way before Frainin and experience a sensation of glee and freedom at holding onto the kite without an instructor around. I feel like it makes me better when I have to listen to my instincts instead of Dominican-accented Spanglish. When he made it over to me, he told me I did a good job and asked if I was happy. I answered honestly. “Sort of. I need to try again. We’re going back out, right?” He tells me that we’ve already been gone an hour and a half when I only paid for an hour, an he has another lesson to go teach. Something about the way I stomped my feet and pouted like a child must have either softened his heart or scared him because he granted me another half hour.
Out past the waves, and already my body was learning how to deal with the board in the water. I got my feet in, gave a little practice 12 to 10, and then swung the kite hard, bringing me to a standing position. I was soaring for a while, cheesing hard as I watched my board cut through the impossibly blue water. Then I looked around and realized that I was pretty far out to the ocean, and brought the kite back to 12 so I could rest and get my bearings. I looked back and saw Frainin a ways away, pointing toward the shore line. Reluctantly, I angled my board the other way, brought the kite back down to 2 and made it a few feet before I crashed and lost my board again. Clearly my success rate is pretty low on my right side. I tried for a while to have the kite drag me to the board, barely hearing Frainin yell instructions at me over the surf. I soon gave up and just body dragged out. Frainin met me at the shore and took the kite from me so he could go back in for the board. Before he headed into the water, he seemed genuinely impressed that I was able to stand up for so long. “You went at least 20 or 30 meters. It takes most students a whole day, maybe two, to stand up like that.” Maybe he was just flattering me because he knew how much it meant to me, but I was in the clouds for the rest of the day.
I’m heading to Peru today. I hear Mancora has good kite boarding….Stay tuned!