26 August 2011

Manu adventure: days three and four

It was another early start as we needed to leave the lodge by 5am to board our boat and head down river for about ten minutes to a parrot clay lick called “Collpa” on the river banks. Here, many species of parrots, such as the blue headed parrot and the white-eyed parakeet, feed for mineral and salt supplements to their diet of seeds and fruits.

It was another boat ride in the dark, then a stumble along the river bank using our flashlights, then we sat in a small shelter on the opposite side of the river to the clay lick and waited. And waited. More tourists arrived and we all waited. As the sky gradually lightened, we could hear the parrots flying overhead – hundreds of them. And we waited. Eventually it was light enough to see large flocks of parrots flying back and forth, and settling in the trees growing on top of the river banks. And we waited. Abraham used the telescope to show us various brightly coloured parrots but they were too far away to take photos. And we waited.

Unfortunately the parrots didn’t come down and settle on the clay cliffs that morning, probably because of the presence of a falcon sitting on top of a tall dead tree. At 7.30, we abandoned our wait and headed back to the lodge. There was one compensation – as luck would have it, during our boat ride Abraham spotted a family of red howler monkeys high up in a tall tree on the river bank so we pulled in to the shore, where we used the telescope to get a closer look at mum, dad and junior snoozing and scratching and checking each other out for ticks.

Breakfast tasted particularly good after our long wait, and we needed the energy boost as, an hour after breakfast, we set off on a 3-hour hike into the hills above the lodge. The Sago de Oro Lodge is located in a transition zone between high and low jungle, so encompasses several different habitats, which explains the high diversity of wildlife found around the lodge. Abraham pointed out particular birds, insects, medicinal plants, and trees, and described the various reptiles and mammals that live in the area. He poked a thin stick down a tarantula hole but the beastie wasn’t home. He showed us the small burrows where armadillos slept at night. He pointed out the tracks of a peccary – a type of wild pig – and, after touching the tracks with his hand, told us the creature had walked along the track at 9.15 that morning. He was a funny guy!

Abraham doing his Tarzan act

Where a tarantula lives

It was hot and humid and we sweated copiously. Lunch and long cold drinks never tasted better than when we got back to the lodge. That afternoon was for relaxation – a siesta on the bench overlooking the river, an hour spent trying to get a good photo of a humming bird, but the little critters zap about so quickly that it was almost impossible, some time photographing more birds and butterflies, and another hour or so chewing the fat with Abraham and my fellow travellers.

There's a humming bird in there somewhere

Late afternoon we went fishing. It was the job of us women to catch the little tiddlers that the men then used to try to catch the much larger catfish. I was useless, Martine caught one, but Marja, the vegetarian who had never fished in her life, caught five or six. It was good fun, and so beautiful on the riverbank as the dusk fell. And we do have a great story of the huge catfish that got away – it pulled the line, and the piece of wood it was attached to, right out of the side of the boat.

After another delicious candle-lit dinner and more good conversation, we all retired to bed, as we were to get up early again the following morning for another try at seeing the parrots on the clay lick. This time we were lucky. I still couldn’t get good photos but through the telescope the vibrant colours of the various species of parrots as they perched precariously on the cliffs were awesome.

We breakfasted while we waited for the birds because at 7am we began the long bumpy ride back to Cusco. I was weary and snoozed on and off. We made good time and got back to the city about 4pm. We had one last stop to make – at Abraham’s office to select our free tshirt. I chose one that has the pictures and names of the animals we weren’t lucky enough to see during our trip – the jaguar, the spectacled beer, the giant otters … I certainly wasn’t disappointed though, as we had seen an incredible variety of wildlife, and I’m already planning another jungle adventure.

24 August 2011

Manu jungle: day two

Blue-crowned trogon
Breakfast on day two was at 6.30am – positively late! – but the cold shower had shocked me awake. Our first lodge had electricity but no hot water, whereas our second lodge had hot water but no electricity – this was the jungle after all!

After breakfast we had a short walk to spot more birds and to listen to worms chewing a log of wood – I kid you not! Apparently these worms are a delicacy the locals like to eat. Our van then picked us up for a 30-minute ride towards the port of Atalaya.

On the way we passed a burnt-out house and Abraham explained how it had happened. Two local men had raped two girls, aged 12 and 15, and murdered one of the girls. Six police came from the city, but they were unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prevent the mob justice that followed. The mother of one of the girls poured petrol over one man and set him alight. He died of his burns two days later. The other man somehow managed to escape the same fate and is now in jail. The villagers also torched the offenders’ house to purge the village of their evil.

As we travelled on, we had frequent views of the Madre de Dios river through the trees, but before we reached the river port we stopped at an orchid sanctuary. A local man who is passionate about orchids has collected more than a thousand local species and proudly gave us a tour of his jungle garden. The flowers were magnificent, as was the small troop of saddle-back tamarind monkeys who scampered through the treetops above us.

One of his beautiful specimens
The orchid man

Abraham and I on the riverboat
At Atalaya we boarded our covered outboard motor boat and headed down the Madre de Dios River for approximately 30 minutes towards the Sago de Oro Lodge where we were to spend the next two nights. It was lovely being on the water and we spotted a red deer on the river bank as we puttered past.

While we settled in to our rather primitive but comfortable lodgings, Isidor prepared another delicious lunch. After eating we relaxed around the lodge for a couple of hours, exploring the grounds, delighting in the humming birds sipping nectar from the many flowering bushes, enjoying the view from the seat above the river bank, listening to the leaves fall.

A thunderstorm rumbled overhead but the rain that fell was refreshing and didn’t prevent us from heading out mid-afternoon to explore. Wearing rain jackets and ‘plastic’ boots, we boarded our boat and headed down river for about ten minutes, then walked for another 30 minutes or so along a jungle trail. Once again, Abraham spotted birds for us to view, sometimes close by, sometimes far off through the powerful telescope he always carried. He also told us about the special plants we passed, explaining their medicinal properties or use as food for the local Indian people.

Machu Wasi Lake


Eventually we arrived at Machu Wasi Lake, where we climbed aboard a small wooden raft and, with Abraham acting as our gondolier, we sailed slowly and silently around the lake. Once again we were treated to sightings of many birds.

My favourite was the particularly weird Hoatzin, many of which were roosting on trees around the lake. These are primitive creatures: they ruminate like cows, make evil hissing noises when approached, emit bad smells to scare away their enemies, and have prehistoric-looking claws on their wings to help them scramble among the branches. We also saw a capybara, a large semi-aquatic rodent, though only at a distance.

We climbed to a platform high above the lake as dusk fell, searching for the elusive mountain toucan. Abraham had identified one calling and tried to lure it closer by playing a recording of its call, but it wasn’t playing ball. But then as we headed back towards the river, we were treated to a brief sighting in the tree tops nearby. We were also lucky enough to spot a small group of dusky titi monkeys before it got so dark that we had to turn on our flashlights.

Social flycatcher

And as we neared the river, we stopped at a small lagoon where we spotted the gleaming eye of a small caiman almost hidden amongst the reeds. When we turned off our flashlights so as not to scare it away, we found we were surrounded by fireflies twinkling amongst the trees. It was magical!

The trip back up river in the dark was exciting as we had to navigate several sets of rapids. Obviously our boatman had done this several times before as we arrived safely back at the lodge to enjoy a splendid candle-lit dinner, good conversation and lots of laughs. By 8.30 we were all exhausted and headed off to bed. It had been another incredible day!

23 August 2011

Manu jungle: day one

At my briefing the tour guide, Abraham (Huaman of Amazon Trails Peru -- highly recommended!), reassuringly said he carries anti-venom, but then less reassuringly asked whether I had travel insurance in case I need to be helicoptered out! He also warned me to be sure to shake my clothes and shoes before I put them on in case of scorpions! And I had to buy a flashlight as we would be going out at night looking for caiman. So, there was a chance I was going to be bitten, stung and eaten!

We left Cusco early on Sunday morning – and I do mean early: my pickup was at 5am! – and headed southeast past Oropesa, where I work, then turned inland to start climbing up and over the huge hills that are everywhere in the Andean foothills. The road was steep and narrow, with a sheer drop of several hundred metres at one side, but for this first part of the journey it was at least tarmaced. Later the roads would turn to gravel, dirt and mud, with frequent huge potholes. These were what the Cambodians call ‘dancing roads’; I think Peruvians just think they’re normal.

Breakfast was a cold omelette, sweet bread and tea at 6.30 in a sleepy little town that was just waking up for its busy weekly market. A couple of hours later we visited the interesting pre-Inca tombs of Ninamarca, commonly known as Chullpas. These were the tombs of the aristocrats of the Lupaca people, who lived about a thousand years ago, mummified their dead and then entombed them in a seated foetal position. From there we continued on to Paucartambo, a picturesque Spanish colonial town, where we stretched our legs with a short walk around the village square and into the ornately decorated church. 

More winding roads followed as we wound our way up to the Acjanacu pass, which marks the beginning of the Cultural Zone of Manu Biosphere Reserve. Manu National Park, located in southeastern Peru, is one of the largest parks in South America. Manu protects over 4.5 million acres (2 million hectares) of territory rich in flora and fauna species in a variety of habitats, including the high Andes, cloud forests, and lowland tropical rain forests. In 1977 UNESCO designated Manu a biosphere reserve because it contains the world’s best example of biodiversity in protected areas of rain forest and cloud forest.

Misty mountains above the cloud forest
As Manu has remained intact and untouched by civilization, it is possible to observe a variety of animals in their natural habitats, including giant otters, black caiman, the majestic jaguar, the strange spectacled bear, the tapir, the ocelot, 13 species of primates, and an estimated one thousand species of birds including seven species of Macaws. Manu also contains 10% of the world’s vascular plant species, including several species of figs and palms, as well as countless species of medicinal plants which scientists are currently cataloguing.

Every hour or so we would leave the van and walk for a kilometer or so, looking for birds, animals, etc. It was fun, and a great relief from the bumpy travelling, and we saw many interesting creatures – luckily the one snake we encountered – a coral snake – was dead! We enjoyed a delicious picnic lunch by the roadside, thanks to our wonderful cook Isidor.

In Manu a thick cloak of clouds provides perpetual humidity and makes an ideal habitat for epiphytic plants such as bromeliads. This varied and fascinating world is also home to the Cock of the Rock, Peru’s national bird, which we stopped to observe mid afternoon. The male birds are a vibrant reddish orange and come together for an exhibition of a ritual mating dance. They display their crest, showing off and posturing for the females. The females, fewer in number, watch to select the most suitable males.

We continued down the narrow road for another two hours or so, between waterfalls and canyons toward the town of Pilcopata. A highlight was a troop of brown capuchin monkeys Abraham spotted by the roadside, which came over to eat the bananas and apples we threw them – very entertaining and photogenic! Abraham proved to be an expert bird and animal spotter, partly due to his 20-year’s experience and living up to his surname of Huaman, which means hawk! We also saw a woolly monkey asleep in a tall tree on the other side of the river.

We finally arrived at the Bambu Lodge, our accommodation for the night, just as the sun was setting. After another delicious meal, we ventured out with our flashlights on a night walk. There were lots of creepy crawlies: huge spiders, grasshoppers and crickets, cockroaches, and a big fat toadthe stuff of nightmares though, in fact, I slept very well in my cute little hut.

06 August 2011

Border run to Bolivia: day four

The last day of July dawned bright and clear in Copacabana and, after breakfast at our hotel, we headed out again on to glistening Lake Titicaca. We only had the morning to sightsee so, instead of taking one of the regular full-day tourist tours, we had our own private motor boat and guide. The boat was small and there was a bit of a swell running, so we bounced and splashed our way out to Isla del Sol, the legendary island of the sun.

According to our guide, this rocky hilly island was the birthplace of Inca civilisation. The sun and the moon were born in this lake, and the first Inca, Manco Capac, emerged from a sacred rock on this island. Our guide also told us a myth which included a 40-day downpour resulting in a flood that killed off almost everything, except a man and a woman, who went on to beget the Inca nation. Now where have I heard that story before?

On reaching the island, we visited the ruins of the Pilcocaina Inca Palace, or Temple of the Sun. It is a simple building, with several interconnecting rooms. Our guide showed us one room where, at sunrise on the day of the mid-summer solstice, the sun’s rays shine exactly in one window in the front wall and straight through the window in the wall behind – proof, he said, of the astronomical knowledge of the Incas. He also explained that the three-stepped window frames represented heaven, earth and hell – in Inca symbology, the condor is used to represent heaven, the puma earth and the snake hell. The three-stepped concept also features in the Inca version of the ten commandments: their three are: you should not lie, you should not steal, and you should not be lazy!

From the Inca temple, we climbed up a ragged path, and hiked two kilometres along a ridge-top track – part of the original Inca Trail – then down again to the tiny village of Yumani. The views were awesome – across the sparkling lake to the snow-capped mountains of the Royal Range of the Andes. At Yumani we tasted the crystal clear waters of the sacred spring before boarding our motor boat for the thwacking ride back to Copacabana.

We had time for a quick bite of lunch at the Hotel Rosario del Lago, before boarding our bus back to Puno. The border crossing back in to Peru was trouble-free and I now have another 90 days to enjoy this colourful country. We had about 4½ hours to kill in Puno, so caught a taxi to the Plaza de Armas (every town and city in Latin America has one!) and wandered the streets. We shopped a little – I got another t-shirt and Kiri found an alpaca overnight bag in the colours she’d been seeking – then hung out in a warm café, listening to and watching music videos from the 70s and 80s – real music!

Upstairs at the front on Tour Peru's double-decker, and the church in the Plaza de Armas, Puno
Our overnight bus to Cusco departed at 8.30pm and was more comfortable than I had expected. The semi-cama seats reclined further back than an (economy class) airplane seat and I was soon asleep, dreaming sweet dreams of my superb weekend.

Border run to Bolivia: day three

Saturday 30 July, and another early start. The lovely man from Allways Travel (highly recommended!) arrived at our hotel at 7.00am, took us to the bus station, showed us where to pay our departure tax and put us on the right bus … to Bolivia.

It was a double-decker bus so we had a good view as we travelled round Lake Titicaca, then inland towards the border. We passed a big cattle fair in one town, and then went through ‘blue toilet’ country – for some unknown reason every house had an outdoor toilet painted bright blue!

At the border we had to get stamped out of Peru by both the Police and Immigration, then we walked a few hundred metres across the border to get stamped in to Bolivia. The formalities went smoothly enough and we were soon back on the bus for the 10-minute ride to Copacabana. This is apparently the original Copacabana – the famous beach in Rio was named after it.

We had a room booked at Hotel Gloria, which turned out to be a very short walk up the road from the bus stop. And it was glorious – we had a twin room, with a large double bed each and a glorious view out over the lake. It was noon when we arrived, so once we got settled, we walked back to the main street and found a restaurant for some lunch.

Copacabana is a relaxed little town, like a resort but a little bit shabby and a little bit hippy – full of the backpacker type of traveller, not the rich tourists. It’s comfortable, and slow, and laid-back. After a leisurely lunch, we cruised slowly down the main street to the beach – you’ve gotta love a main street where the tarmac eventually turns into sand! – then back up again, checking out the shops. I got a Bolivian t-shirt and Kiri bought some bits of jewellery.

As we were walking around we noticed many of the cars had been decorated, with paper decorations and flowers and feathers amongst other things. The numbers of these cars increased as we approached the main square, and there we discovered what was happening – this was the Benedicion de Movildades, the blessing of automobiles. Apparently, this is a twice-daily occurrence, where priests bestow a ritual blessing on the vehicles and a ritual offering of alcohol is also poured over them, consecrating them for the journey home.

The blessing occurs in front of Copacabana’s Basilica de Virgen de la Candelaria, a gleaming white church, with Moorish-style domes and colourful ceramic tiles. The Virgen de la Candelaria is a short wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which was sculpted by Inca craftsmen in 1576. It is believed to work miracles and is the most important pilgrimage destination in Bolivia. We had a quick look at the beautiful interior of the church and I couldn’t help but admire it’s striking architecture.

More cruising around the streets, a beer in the sun at a café in the main street, a stroll along the beachfront promenade licking a delicious ice-cream, and later a scrumptious dinner … all in all a wonderful way to chill out in charming Copacabana.

05 August 2011

Border run to Bolivia: day two

We had an early start on Friday 29 July for our full-day tour on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on earth. It’s a huge lake – 165 kilometres long, 60 kilometres wide, with an average water temperature of 9°C and it is 3809 metres above sea level.

A tour bus collected us from our hotel just after 7.00am and by 7:30 we had clambered over the bows of 6 other small boats and were settled in our seats ready to depart. Some brave souls sat on top of the boat but it was freezing, so we stuck to the cabin.

The slow chug out to Uros, the artificial floating reed islands, took about 30 minutes. It was a fascinating, if touristy, place. Walking on the islands was bizarre – there are about 40 islands, all built of layer upon layer of reeds, so the surface was spongy, sort of like walking on a trampoline. Assisted by our island’s headman, our tour guide gave us an explanation and demonstration of how the islands are constructed. The reeds (called totora, just like the New Zealand native tree) are also used to make almost everything else on the islands – the simple huts the islanders live in, small watchtowers originally used for defensive purposes, and their boats. (The people of Uros helped Thor Heyerdahl build the famous boat Kon-Tiki, which he sailed on his expedition from Peru to Polynesia.)

We were invited by the island women to visit their hut homes – our lovely woman was called something like Aelyn. The hut was incredibly simple – a blanket lay on the floor, a few clothes hung from hooks on the wall and that was about it. Aelyn then led us to a display of goods she had made and I was, of course, persuaded to buy a small embroidered rug. It is bright and colourful, apparently took her one month to make, and I am totally enchanted by the textiles in this country.

We spent some time exploring the island then, for a small extra fee, were paddled to another island on one of the reed boats. The island women performed a short action song to farewell us – and finished it with ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ – so funny! It was peaceful and quiet, and so nice to be on the water – something I miss here in land-locked Cusco.

After a short visit to the other floating island, we reboarded our motor boat and began the 2½ hour voyage out to the island of Taquile. A snooze was in order for almost all the passengers, including us! Our boat dropped us off at the northern dock of the island and we hiked for an hour to the main village. Taquile, and the incredibly blue waters of Lake Titicaca that surround it, reminded me of the Mediterranean. It was so beautiful!

We enjoyed a delicious lunch of lake trout at a family restaurant in the village and then listened to our guide tell us some interesting facts about the island – for example: textiles also play a large part in the economy of this island but here the women weave and the men knit. And the knitted hats the men wear each have a meaning: those with all-over patterns are worn by married men, those that are half white and half patterned are worn by single men, and those that have multi-coloured patterns and ear flaps are worn by the headmen. The islanders are all vegetarian, use only natural herbal medicines and are incredibly long-lived – most survive into their nineties and many make it over 100. There are no cars (or dogs) on the island, so all the transportation of supplies, farm produce, etc is either done by donkeys or peoplepower.

After lunch, we visited the main square where we were treated to a colourful dancing display – it was a saint’s day so everyone was celebrating! The square was surrounded by markets stalls but, with difficulty, I managed to resist the temptation to shop – though the wonderfully knitted hats were a great temptation. We then walked down the hill to where our boat was waiting, and set off on the long slow chug back to Puno – though I tried to stay awake to enjoy the sparkling water views, I eventually nodded off for an hour or so.

We got back to Puno at 5.30pm, just as the sun was going down. It had been a magical day on the magnificent Lake Titicaca.

04 August 2011

Border run to Bolivia: day one

The extra-long weekend (for Peru's Independence Day celebrations) couldn’t have come at a better time for me as my visa was about to expire and I needed to leave the country and come back in to get a new visa. The easiest way to do that from Cusco was to head to Copacabana in Bolivia via Puno and Lake Titicaca.

I’d always wanted to see Lake Titicaca anyway, so I planned an itinerary to enjoy the lake from the Peruvian side and the Bolivian side – 60% of the lake belongs to Peru and 40% to Bolivia. Our first day was the journey to Puno and rather than travel there on the overnight bus as so many border runners do, I thought it would be much nicer to see the countryside during the day. So, Kiri, a volunteer from Australia and my travelling companion for the long weekend, and I departed Cusco aboard the Inka Express to Puno at 7.30am on Thursday 28 July.

It was a 10-hour bus trip from Cusco to Puno, broken up by 5 stops along the way. The first was at the small town of Andahuaylillas, where we visited a wonderful colonial church built by the Jesuits. Inside were beautiful frescoes and paintings dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside but I got a shot of the external frescoes, currently being restored. Next to the church was a small museum, housing mummies and skulls excavated from an Incan site near the village. The skulls showed the intentional cranial deformation practised by the Incas. By enlarging the frontal, occipital and parietal bones, they forced the growth of the Roland Fissure, the primary centre of creativity in the brain, and in other skulls they enlarged just the parietal lobe, which controls the brain’s motor functions. Weird, but true!

Our second stop was at Raqchi, an archaeological site that includes the Wiracocha temple, Inca terraces, baths, and aqueducts. This wasn’t the usual Inca construction of massive fitted stones – here the stonework foundations were topped with an enormous two-storey roofed structure made of adobe. The temple measures 92 metres (302 ft) by 25.5 metres (84 ft), with the central wall reaching between 18 and 20 metres in height. To the north of the temple are living quarters for priests and local administrators, to the east are about 100 round storehouses for the grains used in Inca ceremonies, and to the west is a section of the 11,000-kilometre-long Inca Trail. We didn’t have long to explore but it was certainly a remarkable site.

The third stop of the day was for lunch, at the small town of Sicuani. We didn’t see anything of the town but the buffet lunch was generous and delicious. We both went back for seconds. Sightseeing is hungry work, y’know!

From Sicuani the route climbed steadily upwards until we reached our fourth stop, at La Raya, the highest place in the world I’ve ever been. It’s 4335 metres (14,222 ft) above sea level and set amidst the beautiful snow-covered mountains that surround the highland plateau. Of course, wherever the bus stopped, there were souvenir sellers – and this place was no exception. To mark this ‘high’ occasion I bought a beautiful, warm, multi-coloured alpaca and llama wool scarf, which was to prove most useful in the cold temperatures of Puno. Kiri and I also paid the small fee to have our photos taken with a lovely local girl and her llama. We had seen llamas grazing in the fields nearby so it seemed appropriate.

Our last stop before reaching Puno was at Pukara, another site of archaeological interest. Pukara was the first great civilization of the Andean Plateau of Lake Titicaca area and the base of a large pyramidal structure is located nearby, though we didn’t get to visit it. Pukara is also where most of the ceramic bulls that adorn the rooves of houses in the Cusco region are made (for more on that, see my previous blog). We stopped briefly at a small local museum, with some impressive Inca stone carvings, and some very vocal geese in the yard of the beautiful church across the road. They proved to be an amusing interlude in a long day.

We were late arriving in Puno due to a half-hour stop for roadworks but our travel company rep was waiting to transfer us to our hotel, the Colon Inn – I kid you not! I presume Colon in this instance means colonial – we were hoping it wasn't a portent of intestinal problems to come!