Peru’s Sacred Valley: Go for a day, stay for a week. We did

The woman in the enormous white stovepipe hat wedged herself between me and the three men in the back seat of the collectivo bound for Urubamba, angling her considerable hips and shoulders to gain purchase on the well-worn cloth seat.

Her entry into the crowded van brought the headcount to 17 – pretty standard for the 30-minute run these inexpensive transport vehicles make from town to town throughout Peru’s Sacred Valley. Later on, I saw a collectivo packed with kids and their parents, the top loaded with wares for the market, and more than 22 people poured out when the vehicle rolled to a stop.

Our group was nearly all locals. Elderly people in down parkas, working men in rough jackets, children in colorful traditional garb and a scattering of older women sporting aprons and tall hats completed the roster for our run from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba. Oh, and two slightly bemused gringos who sat in fascination as the van blasted along, its interior redolent of acrid smoke, cooked food and body odor.

The view down the barrel of Sacred Valley from the Incan terraces of Pisac.

The view down the barrel of Sacred Valley from the Incan terraces of Pisac.

It’s a bit rough, not terribly comfortable, and at two nuevo sol each (about 75 cents) absurdly inexpensive.

Which would explain why people use the collectivos to get to school, to work, to market, to visit family and friends, bypassing the hopelessly expensive option to own a car. Another option is to flag down one of the many super modified tuk tuks – they look like crosses between mini-long haul trucks and race cars – to spirit their way around town for $2 or less. Then there are the commercial buses; antiquated, fume-belching monsters that lurch from town to town, often comingling animalia with homo sapiens.
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The magic of Machu Picchu (and how we travelled there in style)

The day was already perfect by 9:30 in the morning. At that point, we’d already had a glass of champagne, watched Peruvian entertainers perform colourful dances on the platform and been seated in an elegant berth at a linen-clad table for two, decorated with a fresh red rose, sparkling wine glasses and a leather-bound brunch menu.

As our train pulled out from the station, the landscape slowly changed from lush fields dotted with sheep, donkeys and goats to the jagged purple mountains of the Andes. A slight mist hung over the tracks as we stood in the rear observation car, sipped a cappuccino and listened to a Peruvian band play songs from the Beatles and Clapton, intermingled with international melodies designed to appeal to the multicultural passengers.

Thursday morning aboard the Hiram Bingham express. IMG_7520

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skip and I had decided to splurge on this unique experience as it sounded like an incredible way to experience a trip to Machu Picchu. We were right.

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The Amazon jungle: More eyes than leaves

The meter-long caiman stared at us from its hiding place among the tangle of roots that stretched into the shore of Lago Cuyabeno, its orange eyes reflected in the beams of our flashlights. As we coasted closer in our canoe, with a single flick of its tail it dove beneath the boat and made for safer waters.

Pausing to measure the distance, the Squirrel Monkey squatted and then launched its tiny body into the air, floating in the sultry Amazon heat as it fell 15 feet or so and landed expertly on a tree branch on the other side of the river.

Rising to the surface, the pink river dolphin exhaled through its blowhole, arched its silvery back and then plunged into the murky waters to resume feeding.

It’s just another day in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where life shimmers, glows, flies, swims, crawls and slithers all around you in a constant ballet of nature’s dance. The sights, sounds and colors conspire to create an overwhelming sense that everything everywhere around you is either hunting, eating, breeding, or sleeping – or in quest of one of the above.

Rough and ready - unshaven and sweaty on the river with captain Hector at the helm.

Rough and ready – unshaven and sweaty on the river with captain Hector at the helm.

For the best experience, enter this place with eyes wide open, camera and binoculars in hand, and with a cautious step. A qualified, experienced guide is also an essential, for there are things here that harm or kill the careless or unaware.
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Galapagos: Where people come last

“Grandpa, what is it like in the Galapagos Islands?” my grandson Lasky will ask me, in a conversation I expect we will have some years from now. He’s still less than a month old, but already I am looking forward to talks like these.

“It is like nowhere else, my boy. It is pure wind, wave, sun and sand. It is nature at its finest – where the universe has brought all of the elements together in perfect harmony.

“It is where humans have found the wisdom to preserve nature so we can enjoy it in its most natural state. But it is place where people come last.”

“But what does that mean, Grandpa? What does that look like? Sound like? Smell like?”

“It is the soft whisper of a pelican’s wings as it soars over your head so close you can see the dense thatch of feathers upon its breast. It is the neat “V” of a flock of Boobies on its way to hunt for a school of fish that soon will become breakfast, their brilliant blue feet neatly tucked into their pure white breast feathers.

“It is the spellbinding sight of Boobies diving by the hundreds into schools of fish that flee from their expert fishing talents, their bodies knifing into the water from on high, one after another and another, only to bob to the surface seconds later with breakfast in their beaks.

“It is the sound of wind through palm fronds, a soft rustle that sounds a bit like rain. It is the gentle “whoosh” of soft, white sand between your toes as you walk along the miles of beach. It is the endless pounding of surf upon shore that creates a gentle, unending roar you can hear wherever you go on the island.

“It is nature so confident in itself that animals do not fear humans, so they come close and linger. So you get to see sides of nature you can’t see anywhere else.

“It is the brilliant red patches on a male marine iguana’s black body; nature’s painting of a dinosaur to make it more attractive to a potential mate so it can continue its centuries-long life in the Galapagos. It is the dents, scratches and breaks on a giant tortoise’s shell as big as a bath tub that show the effects of a life in the wild.
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In awe of nature at the edge of an inferno

I’m standing on the edge of the Sierra Negra volcano on Isla Isabela in the Galapagos Islands, feeling as small and insignificant as I’ve ever felt.

With its crater of 10 kilometers across, the sheer power, potential and enormity of this beast – one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, left me silenced in awe of nature’s absolute authority. At an estimated 535,000 years old, it is one of the mothers of the Galapagos Islands, a quirky conflicting source of both birth and destruction.

On the lava fields.

On the lava fields.

The highlight of the volcano is the caldera – which is the massive circular indentation left by the collapse of the earth caused by the volcanic eruption.

To put this beast into perspective, the circumference of the caldera’s ridge is 30 kilometers. That’s over 19 miles, the better part of a marathon, if one were to be so foolish as to attempt to run or walk around the thing. Our guide, Javier, has never done it, but he said a couple of his friends make the trek over the course of a very full day.To put this beast into perspective, the circumference of the caldera’s ridge is 30 kilometers. That’s over 19 miles, the better part of a marathon, if one were to be so foolish as to attempt to run or walk around the thing.

A panorama of Sierra Negra's caldera.

A panorama of Sierra Negra’s caldera.

Our guide, Javier, has never done it, but he said a couple of his friends make the trek over the course of a very full day.We embarked on a five-hour trek from the base of the volcano along its southern ridge, to the edge of the caldera to the north, and down its east side to Volcane Chico – so named due to its role as one of the offsprings of Sierra Negra. We continued through the rugged lava fields left from the massive lava floes from Sierra Negra’s last eruption in October of 2005, laboring over small rises and craggy valleys along the mountainside and back.

It’s only a vertical climb of several hundred meters to the volcano’s caldera and a mere 8,000 total meters of hiking (roughly five miles), but it felt like a lot more.
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Drunk Boy’s antics earn a hangover hiatus

Drunk Boy was allowed to get away with his intermittent screams of “Yeah! Baby!”, even when he began to punctuate his outbursts by slamming a palm against the Rip Tide’s well-worn bar.

He was roundly chastised but permitted yet another shot of whiskey when he set a $20 on fire, at once violating the bar’s “no smoking” policy while breaching federal law by burning US currency.

But the oscillating wheels of Drunk Boy’s fun night out came to an abrupt halt when he challenged a fellow imbiber to a fistfight. He labeled the barmaid a “bitch” when she intervened and then dropped the N-word on the target of his venom – who happened to be black – as he struggled to plot his next move, in the process earning an early eviction despite a $40 unpaid bar tab.

Just another night at the Rip Tide Lounge, Marblehead’s resilient dive bar that for years has served cold, inexpensive beers, mixed drinks that are heavy on the booze and light on the mixers, and the cheapest burger in town ($2). Catering to a working class crowd in a town peppered with one percenters promises a certain edginess, and this would explain the shenanigans my buddy Steve and I witnessed when we bellied up to the bar Sunday night to watch the Patriots manhandle the Bengals.

We’d just finished dinner at the upscale sushi bar next door, so catching the Pats on one of the bar’s flat screen TVs seemed a convenient end to the evening. Thinking about it now, grabbing a beer at the Rip Tide after sushi at Junjii is like heading to the Monster Truck show after dinner at The Palm. But we’re guys who love a bit of contrast, so off we went, arriving just in time for the start of the game – and the unscheduled entertainment.
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Ecuadorian observations

Observations of interesting facets of life in this beautiful, fascinating little country.

The street art in Cuenca is second to none, and I mean that. Gorgeous, elaborate paintings and drawings are everywhere, often amusing and with historical references. Jaw-dropping quality that brings fun and surprises to every walk along just about every street.
art
Where else in the world do jugglers jump into traffic stopped at a red light, bow and proceed to entertain before jogging between vehicles and asking for donations? We’ve seen acrobatics, ball and club jugglers and clown acts working the busier intersections of Cuenca.

juggle

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This has to be one of the most outgoing cultures we’ve encountered. Everyone offers respectful greetings – buenas dias, buenas tardes, etc. – to perfect strangers. Good manners seems deeply woven into the culture, which is why it’s all the more embarrassing to witness, as I did, a crabby American belly up to the coffee bar and make demands on the staff that were rude, insensitive and stupid. Get a clue, travelers and relocated expats!

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Love seeing the traditional garb of Ecuadorian women all over the streets and markets. Frilled skirts with brocade trimmings, woolen sweaters and shawls  tossed over their shoulders, braided hair and felt fedoras for everyone! Nice to see a place with a strong cultural identity that hasn’t completely caved to the power of Levi’s marketing.

dress

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Ecuadorians commitment to security knows no limits. One day we saw an armed security guard outside a KFC franchise attached to the mall. Guess there’ll be no heist attempts on 20-piece buckets, at least at that location.


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Dear AT&T Wireless….

Dear AT&T Wireless:

As a recent customer who had a fascinating experience with your products, franchise team members and customer service staff, I am writing to congratulate you on providing me with the second most ludicrous experience I have had with worldwide mobile phone service providers.

I’ll get to the story about the Big Winner  of the Mobile Telephone Service Incompetence Sweepstakes in a moment, but first I’d like to share my thoughts on my “customer service experience” with AT&T Wireless.

Essentially, there was none. But the devil is indeed in the details, so I’d like to pass along the painstaking elements of an experience that probably would have made a Christian out of Beelzebub himself.

Here’s what happened.

I bought a prepaid AT&T Wireless SIM card from a store on Pleasant Street in Northampton, Mass., which is a town in western Mass. populated by college students, aging hippies and fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Anne Lamott. Northampton is definitely not a Stephen King kind of town, which is why it baffles me that my nightmare with AT&T Wireless should have begun there.

I paid cash – I know, I know, silly me for my old school behavior – for a $50 phone and data plan that your very helpful, competent and friendly team member assured me would adequately cover my needs for the month I planned to be in the US. He helped me load the card, tested the phone number by exercising a technical maneuver he referred to as “calling me,” and walked us to the door after a nice, personal chat while we waited for someone to run to the bagel store next door to get change for my $100 bill.
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Understated bike directions, a stoner’s lunch, and my kind of bus rides

I’m catching on that the uber-casual Ecuadorians have a penchant for understatement.

“The road from Banos to Rio Verde is mostly downhill,” said the guide in the bike shop where I rented a mountain bike and took off on a solo 15k “waterfall route” tour. I’d ride through the verdant mountains along a pulsing river and would see a dozen or so stunning waterfalls, he said. I’d have a chance to navigate the “cyclo vias” – narrow, cobblestoned routes carved into the side of the mountains that bypassed a series of motorized vehicles-only tunnels and get some views that motorists don’t see.

What he didn’t bother telling me, however, was that the first waterfall at Chamana was up an impressive incline that only halfway up forced me off my bike and to my feet, pushing my steed up the last half kilometer. Fellow bikers will understand what I mean when I say I was tapped out in my granny gear, wheezing in the thin Ecuadoran atmosphere and bonking, big time.

Translation: I couldn’t turn the pedals, the road was so steep, and I was out of gas, physically. So I walked, huffing and puffing up the hill.

It was worth all the grunting and struggling in the thin Andean air.

Surrounded by lush green vegetation that rises a couple thousand feet to the mountain’s crest, the Chamana falls first appear well down the mountainside and plunge several hundred feet into a series of deep pools. I stood on a small bridge over a large pool; the only one in sight, an occasional barking dog the only audible interruption to the soothing sounds of the gurgling waters.
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