Monthly Archives: September 2007

One of the Family

September 4-7, 2007
Days 706-709

It took another whole day on two different buses to reach Cuenca. At least I was back on paved roads so the trip was more pleasant.

I decided to try some Couchsurfing in Ecuador and stayed with a guy named Roy. He's a computer programmer and is currently working on a Spanish website written in Flash, which is very cool technology. He's done a lot of traveling all over South America and wants to go to Spain soon.

Roy also lived with his sister, nieces, nephew, and a couple roommates. There were a lot of people in the house, but I was made to feel like one of the family. We had some great conversations and I learned a lot about Ecuador.

Roy and I went out for a beer when I first arrived in Cuenca on a Tuesday night. He couldn't figure out why so many people were out at that time of the week, but then he remembered. Ecuador's greatest sports hero happened to be from Cuenca and had just returned home after having competed in the latest international games. There was a big homecoming celebration for him because he was returning to Cuenca as the world champion of fast walking! That's right, nobody on Earth could walk faster than this guy. Why not just run instead, you ask? Apparently walking requires the athlete to pace himself more. Hmm, I guess I understand, but it still sounds like a lame sport to me. I think Ecuador needs a new sports hero.

Cuenca seemed like a nice city, but I didn't get to see much of it because I spent most of my time preparing for my upcoming trip to the Galapagos Islands. I now have my plane ticket and lots of information about the islands, and I'm planning to meet an old friend there. I've already decided that I need to return to Cuenca and the nearby national park after getting back to the Ecuadorian mainland, so Roy will be getting another visit from me in the near future.

Stereotypical Juxtapositions

September 3, 2007
Day 705

I needed some time to relax today without being thrown around in the back of a station wagon with ten of my best friends, so I sat outside a cafe and worked on reading my book. I was just to the part where Amir and Baba were attempting to escape from the Ruskies when a fifty-something Englishman approached and began talking to me. The conversation started off simply enough: He said he was a birdwatcher who wanted to travel for the rest of his life. He said he was proud of the thousands of different birds he had seen, and showed me a picture of the elusive species he was currently searching for, of which only six were left in the wild. I thought the man was a nice, docile creature.

Next, the guy started telling me about his previous travels. He lived in India and Afghanistan back in the 60's, then he traveled all through South America in the 70's. The continent was a lot different back then, when brutal dictatorships ruled most of the countries, and the local people tended to be afraid to say anything to the tourists out of fear that they were part of the CIA. I originally thought the old guy was a stereotypical rich, eccentric Englishman going out of his way to see some birds, but now I figured he was more of an old hippie living out his days in cheap countries on his small life savings. Wrong on both accounts.

Out of nowhere, the guy started severely criticizing the British and US governments. I guess that would be pretty normal nowadays, but he went so far as to say that he hadn't paid his taxes in years because his government didn't deserve his money, but he'd never get thrown in jail because he was never going to back to England anyway. He added fuel to the fire by saying that he'd bomb his own country if he got the chance because they wanted to control the whole world. But then he contradicted his own logic by bashing gays, hippies, capitalists, and just about anyone different from him, saying we lived in a decadent society. He was a juxtaposition of several stereotypes in one man.

It was about that time that he mentioned that after splitting up with his wife, he began drinking heavily and smoking over seventy joints per day. That's really why he took off to go look at birds. He'd like to find somewhere to live for awhile so he can father one more child, though. I asked him why he'd possibly want another kid when he was nearly sixty years old and already had four children. He of course told me that he wanted someone to leave his inheritance to because he wasn't very happy with the kids he had. The thing was, he already told me earlier that he barley had enough money to make it through the last fifteen years that he predicted he'd live, and that was assuming that he always lived on a tight budget in the Third World.

Just when the conversation was starting to get really weird, he said he had to go and I never saw him again. I successively thought he was a rich retiree, a lifelong hippie, a terrorist, a drug addict, and a Casanova. But by the time he walked away, I realized that the only real possibility was that one of us must have been nuts, and I had serious doubts that it was the one who was just trying to relax and read a book at a cafe.

My Newest Job as a Highly Paid English Teacher

September 2, 2007
Day 704

Once again, I thought I'd get to Vilcabamba today. This time I was right, but only barely.

I got up early and waited for a taxi to take me to the border. Namballe was so small, only about one vehicle passed me per hour, so haling a cab took a long time. While waiting at the side of the road, the town drunk approached and started harassing me, much to the delight of the local villagers who were also sitting along the same road. The drunk's speech was so slurred I couldn't understand his Spanish, but eventually I figured out that he was saying regalamelo (give it to me as a gift), pointing to the book I was reading. It would have made a better gift than a beer, but a book written in English probably wouldn't have been of much use to a drunken man who barely even knew Spanish. I passed and told him to harass someone else. I couldn't believe it, but he actually left me alone and walked to the other side of the road where some kids were sitting, instantly driving them away from their bench.

Eventually a taxi showed up and I got a ride to the border. I got my passport stamped out, walked across the border, then got stamped into Ecuador. The crossing was much safer and easier than the other Peru-Ecuador border crossing at Huaquillas where robbing tourists is the number one industry, followed closely by buying gas in Ecuador ($1.50/gallon) and selling it in Peru ($4.00/gallon).

I found out from a money changer/drink vendor that the only bus of the day would be at 12:30, still over two hours away. I started reading my book while waiting, when suddenly a customs official came up to me and started asking me lots of questions in broken English. At first I thought he was bored and decided to bother the only tourist of the day to cross the border, but then he started telling me that he was taking English classes and needed help with his assignment. I still had some time to kill, so I went to his desk and had a look at his workbook. I gave him a lesson for over an hour, and in return I accepted one cup of yogurt, one banana, and one apple for my pay. The apple was especially valuable because it had to be imported all the way from the temperate climate of Chile. So I ended up passing the time quickly, making a new friend, and even leaving with a full stomach to boot. The people I met so far in Ecuador didn't have tails or look like monkeys as a Peruvian predicted they would, either.

The bus to Zumba left at 12:30, and from there it only took one more bus to get to Vilcabamba. On the way I realized how monotonous the scenery was because it only consisted of one color: green. I finally made it to Vilcabamba at 10:00 tonight. The journey from Chachapoyas ended up taking two full days, but at least I'm pretty sure I'll be back on paved roads for awhile as I continue to head toward home.

Making a Run for the Border

September 1, 2007
Day 703

I looked at my map and figured I'd easily make it to Vilcabamba, Ecuador today. How wrong I turned out to be.

Early in the morning I easily found a colectivo to Bagua Grande, which only took a few hours, but it was a slow trip on the unpaved road. I took a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi to the bus station, then caught another colectivo to Jaen, the next town on the map. After that, I took another moto-taxi to the to the bus station and finally got to ride in a van with a little more legroom to San Ignacio. After yet another moto-taxi ride, I took my last ride of the day in another colectivo. This car was way overloaded with eleven passengers, 1 mattress, about twenty two-liter water bottles, my backpack, and a few other smaller bags packed into one small station wagon designed for five passengers. You've gotta love a South American's ability to get the greatest gas mileage per passenger possible.

I ended my day in Nanballe, which I was happy to learn was only fifteen minutes from the border with Ecuador. I barely did any physical activity today, yet after riding in seven vehicles for over ten hours to cover a distance of all of 200 KM, I was exhausted. Ecuador will have to wait until tomorrow.

The Third Biggest Controversy in the World

August 31, 2007
Day 702

Picture of me.

Me at the Gokta viewpoint.

The article I read yesterday about Gokta Falls made it sound like an adventure only suitable for Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, or possibly Craig Martin. It talked about Gokta being the "third highest" in the world, and only having been "discovered" a year ago. In reality, it has been known about for centuries, but the local people didn't view it as being particularly important, and by some measurements, it doesn't even make it in the top ten list of highest waterfalls in the world. Still, some local people I talked to in Chachapoyas thought I'd be crazy not to visit it, considering that I was already in the area.

Normally I don't like to go on tours, especially when I just want to go to a waterfall, which needs no explanation from a guide. However, in this case the only way to go to the waterfall on my own would have been to get up at 3:30 AM to take the bus, then walk four extra hours along a road that the public buses don't traverse. For all that extra effort, I would only save about $6,e so I figured I'd rather just get up at 8:00 and look for a tour.

After a bit of asking at the tour agencies spread around the main plaza of Chachapoyas, I was hooked up with some other people who were already going to Gokta. Coming along with me were Jeff and Lycia, an American couple who were still crazy enough to call New Orleans home, even two years after Katrina. Jeff spent his younger years riding trains around the US, and I don't mean Amtrak. Now he's abandoned that carefree lifestyle and gotten himself a respectable job as an online professional poker player. Lycia, clearly the responsible half of the couple, used to manage a construction company, but quit to go on this trip.

After taking a taxi for one hour through some more amazing terrain that was a mixture of Ands and Amazon, we arrived in the little village of San Pablo where we were hooked up with a guide. Most of the road wasn't paved, but on the other hand, it also wasn't "chiropractic," as the article claimed. In fact, Jeff and I were so busy talking about poker that we barely even noticed the occasional pothole in the road.

When we got to San Pablo, we were given a local guide, a nice lady who had lived there her whole life. We found out that the town has a rotating guide system, so everyone gets a fair chance at earning some money from the tourists. When I first saw our guide's rubber goulash boots, I was a bit nervous about the trail being impossibly muddy. My worries turned out to be unfounded; it was dry season, after all.

The trail was a pleasant, steady uphill climb. We made the "steep scramble" to the viewpoint and got an impressive first look at Gokta Falls. I barely clung to life climbing that horrible side trail back to the main one. Within a couple hours, we made it to the waterfall. It was amazing to look at, but the "shrieking blow of mist" only got me a little bit wet. The article may have been ridiculous, but the waterfall still was definitely worth a visit.

I did grow to love the Chachapoyas region in my few short days there. There were world-class ruins, ancient artifacts, and natural wonders within a day's trip of the main town, and almost no tourists to cramp my style. Now I can say with confidence that I've seen the "third highest" waterfall in the world. The only problem is that I'll have to use a lot of air quotes whenever describing it to someone.

The photo album for this entry is here.

A Deep Canyon Viewpoint

August 30, 2007
Day 701

Picture of canyon.

The canyon from the lookout point.

Today I took a colectivo up a large hill outsisde of Chachapoyas to a little village called Huanca. From the plaza in the center, it was about a ten minute walk to a lighthouse-looking building that served as a lookout point to a massive canyon. It was yet another incredible natural setting in this region, but after seeing various other sites over the last few days, I kept having to remind myself how amazing this canyon was.

I was going to leave Chachapoyas tomorrow, but out of nowhere I got an email from Kris, a Polish-Canadian-American guy I met on the Amazon last year. He sent me an article about Gokta, the third highest waterfall in the world, which was only discovered last year. The article talked about how remote Chachapoyas was, yet I was reading it on a new computer while sitting next to a bunch of kids playing Half Life 2 and talking on their cell phones. Even though the description seemed highly exaggerated, I still figured it would be worth taking one extra day to check it out, as long as I was in the area, so I'll head there tomorrow.

The photo album for this entry is here.

A Huge Bloody Fortress

August 29, 2007
Day 700

Picture of house.

A house at Kuelap.

This morning I walked with the Americans from Tingo up to the ruins of Kuelap. The path covered 10 KM horizontally and climbed 1200 meters, but it wasn't too hard and only took about 2.5 hours to make it to the top.

As soon as I reached Kuelap, I was greeted by Carlos, a local guide who would be at home in an Italian pizza joint. He was leading a group of French Canadians, who had also hired a French-Spanish translator. Before entering Kuelap proper, we were shown a typical house of the people that lived there. The houses were round, which supported the theory that everything was equal in Chachapoyan society. We were also shown a model of the site, which included hundreds of similar houses. Kuelap is the largest stone structure in South America, larger even than Machu Picchu.

I stuck with the Canadian tour group as we walked along the outer wall of Kuekap past the ubiquitous grazing llamas. We learned that Kuelap was actually a fortress with outer and inner walls so the people could have two chances to defend themselves in an invasion. Eventually we reached the entrance, which was wide at first, but narrowed as we walked further inward, to the point that it was only a meter across. This was to slow down any potential invaders. The walls around the entrance were high to make it easy for the Chachapoyans to throw rocks down on their enemies.

The next thing we saw confused me. Carlos showed us the remnants of a stone structure and explained that it was Incan in origin because of its square shape. I had read that the fortress was never invaded, and that by the time the Incas arrived, it had been long since abandoned. Carlos claimed that the Incas had to fight a bloody war against the Chachapoyans to conquer the site, and he had a point. If the Incas came to an abandoned Kuelap, why would they bother building their own houses instead of moving into the ones that already existed? Maybe the books were wrong and Luigi, err, Carlos was right.

Next we walked to the other side of the fortress, where we had a great view of the area. Kuelap could have been built on a higher hill, but this location was chosen instead because it was between two valleys and had lookout points in which all of the little villages in the area could be seen simultaneously.

Picture of me.

I meet one of the Chachapoyans.

Our last stop was to what remained of several of the houses in Kuelap. The markings on the outside of the houses indicated the importance of the families that lived there: The more concentric diamonds in each pattern, the more important the family. Most of the houses contained rocks for processing grains and a long, hollow line of stones which served as a cage for the family's guinea pigs. Carlos then revealed to us that he used to be the director of tourism for the entire Amazonas department of Peru, and that he personally was responsible for the reconstruction of one of the houses in Kuelap. The bottom floor was original, the top floor was redone, and the roof pointed upward at a steep angle so that it would last longer. Whereas a flat roof would last no longer than a few months, a steep one could last fifty years, which even tops today's standards.

A lot of excavation work was being done on the ruins, but they still had a very original feel. Other than the group I was with, there were only a few Peruvian tourists visiting the site. Much like Choquequirao, it was amazing to walk around such an important site without having to deal with hordes of other tourists. And Carlos, with his wealth of knowledge and constant jokes, was the perfect guide for a place like Kuelap.

Ben, Liz, and I all made the long walk back to Tingo at the end of the day. After a bit of waiting around, we managed to get separate rides in colectivos (taxis that act like buses) the rest of the way to Chachapoyas. I was tired after the long day of walking, but I still had a few days left in the area to, as my trekking book put it, "fascinate my inner-Indiana Jones."

The photo album for this entry is here.

I See Dead People!

August 28, 2007
Day 699

Picture of mummy.

A screaming mummy.

I went to the main departure point for trucks going to Chachapoyas early this morning. When I got there, I met Ben and Liz, an American couple who beat me there, but had yet to get lucky and find a ride out. They have been traveling over a year in Peru and Ecuador, mainly working and volunteering. For awhile, they were getting free room and board for riding their mountain bikes around Huaraz with the tourists, a pretty sweet deal. But now they're making their way to Argentina for some more mountain biking during the Patagonian summer.

Trucks kept driving around the plaza we were waiting at, but they never quite worked up the energy to take the road out of town. A few taxi drivers sat on the other side of the plaza and watched/mocked us as we waited. We asked them about rides to Tingo, a town a few hours short of Chachapoyas that has access to the Kuelap ruins, but they all wanted way too much money. I started to question my sanity, as well as my map. The map I had of the region showed two roads of equal importance going to Chachapoyas, one that made a huge circle to the coast and back, and one that appeared to go directly there. I chose the direct road without asking about its condition. Now Ben and Liz were telling me that someone they knew had given this road the deplorable title of "Worst Road in South America." Suddenly I wished I had a guidebook that listed this kind of information like every other tourist.

Then, out of nowhere, came a ray of hope in the form of a Japanese couple. They were looking to go along the same route as us, and with five people to split the bill, hiring a taxi for the day didn't seem like such an insane idea. With a little more bargaining, we were able to talk one of the drivers down to $100 for the ride to Tingo, a fair price considering the journey on which we were about to embark. The others even graciously let me take the front seat, which was much more comfortable than being squished in the back.

As soon as we left town, we were given a thrilling glimpse of what the day had in store for us. We could see the road ahead as it zigzagged way down from the mountainous region of Celendin to the fertile village of Balsas. At the bottom of the valley, suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by trees growing mangoes, papayas, oranges, and coconuts. For the whole day, we went up over passes and down through river valleys in an incredible mixture of Andean and Amazonian scenery. The road was unpaved but wasn't anywhere nearly as bad as I had prepared myself to endure. Besides, the lack of pavement can be a good thing because it forces drivers to slow down when swinging around hairpin corners with thousand-foot drops and no guardrails for protection. Our only major pauses throughout the day were when we stopped to eat and to let the cattle pass us.

Picture of road.

The road to Tingo.

Late in the day we made it to Leymebamba, a small town that guarded a secret gem. Since I had been traveling without a guidebook, I hadn't even heard of the mummy museum, but the Japanese couple insisted that we stop there. I couldn't make sense of their guidebook to get more info, probably because it was written in Japanese, so I figured we should just see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.

The museum didn't have electricity, so we were kind of in a hurry to see everything before it got too dark. It was too bad because in my haste to see the mummies, I barely stopped to look at the amazingly well preserved pieces of textiles and other relics like quipus, which were used to register everything in a town from animal possession to tax payments. There were also sarcaphagi, and even giant ancient headbands to look at. It was an amazing collection of artifacts from the Chachapoyan culture, and we hadn't even gotten to the main exhibit yet.

Picture of mummy.

One of hundreds of mummies at the museum.

Finally we were led into the mummy room. I learned that the creation of mummies was strictly an artwork of the Incas, yet these mummies were wrapped in sacks depicting the art of the Chachapoyan culture, so the two must have merged before the Spaniards arrived. We saw a few mummies with their arms wrapped around their faces, supposedly in a futile attempt to keep their mouths closed. We also saw some wrapped up bones, and even a mummified cat and rat. Then we were led into the real mummy room, which was almost pitch dark when we first entered. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that I was surrounded by hundreds of mummies, ranging from fetuses and babies to adults. They were put in the cool, dark, and dry room after being removed from the caverns above the nearby Laguna de los Condores in order to preserve them, but the setting freaked me out a bit. No matter where I walked, it felt like these people were staring at me with permanent looks of terror glued to their faces. I had to get out after a few minutes.

When we all piled back into the car, all we could talk about was how amazing that museum was. A few hours later, after completing our nine-hour road trip, we made it to Tingo. The added bonus of taking this route, besides the mummy museum, was that we could stop at the bottom of the ruins rather than having to go all the way to Chachapoyas first. We'll all get up early to make the long walk up to Kuelap in the morning.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Tonight I'm a Rock 'N Roll Star

August 27, 2007
Day 698

The next place I wanted to go to was Chachapoyas, a small city in a remote part of Northern Peru that several people have recommended. The problem was that the first few people I asked how to get there told me to go Chiclayo first. That city's on the coast, so I'd have to make a huge detour by going that route. My rudimentary map of the area clearly showed a road going straight from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas, and I figured there must be a way for me to take it. When I asked my hostel owner how to get to Chachapoyas, he suggested going to Celendin first, then worrying about going the rest of the way. I examined my map again and, sure enough, Celendin was right in the middle of that direct road. Finally some sane advice, or so I thought.

I made my way to the bus terminal and bought a ticket for Celendin. I gave the bus attendant my backpack to put underneath the bus and started to ask him if I was going to get a ticket for my backpack, but before I could finish my sentence, I heard mooing. I poked my head in the luggage compartment, and sure enough, there was a cow looking back at me. The same bus was being used to transport chickens and guinea pigs, but they were no big deal. This was my first cow bus. I just made sure my backpack was stored as far away from any potential cow pies as possible and got on board.

It was a long ride on a bumpy unpaved road. I tried reading, but my book was getting jostled around too much for me to focus on it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez isn't exactly light reading anyway. But soon I figured out a much better form of entertainment. A duffel bag had become half dislodged from the overhead compartment a few seats in front of me and was about to fall on some guy's head. Every time we went over a large bump, I watched it slide out a little further. A few people got on and off the bus, but none of them ruined the game by warning the guy of the bag's presence. Even the chickens seemed to be clucking in anticipation as the bag hung impossibly far over the edge. After an hour of wishful thinking, we hit a particularly large pothole and then BAM! Orgasmic laughter erupted throughout the bus as the guy clutched his skull, cursed his luck, and placed the bag right back into its original position.

We arrived in Celendin early in the evening, and right away, I set out to find the bus to Chachapoyas. Too bad everyone had the same answer: Buses only left town on Sundays and Thursdays. Today was a Monday, so I'd have to wait three days in this dusty little town with nothing to do. But there still was one other possibility to get out of here earlier. Apparently, trucks leave every morning from a certain location in town, so maybe I'll be able to ride in the back of one tomorrow. I'll start searching early in the morning. It'll be an adventure as usual.

I was a bit bored tonight so I took a walk around town. It was bigger than I had imagined, considering that the only other towns within a day of here are themselves isolated places. Still, I think more people stared at me in Celendin than anywhere I had been in the last six months. Everyone was very friendly and said "hi" to me on the streets, but they acted like they'd never seen a 6'3", 160 pound white man before. The attention made me feel like a rock 'n roll star.

How I Came Down With a Bad Case of Pareidolia

August 26, 2007
Day 697

Picture of rocks.

Cumbe Mayo's natural rock formations.

Today I signed up for a tour to Cumbe Mayo, the main pre-Inca settlement in the area. The ruins were far above the city, and on the bus ride to the top, our guide told lots of fantastic stories. For example, he said that before the Europeans arrived, the natives loved to work and always sang while working. They had such large food stores that they were able to throw huge parties for several weeks every year. There was no concept of ownership so people never fought over land and possessions. The people were clean to the point of changing outfits five times per day and never wearing the same outfit twice, choosing to burn their clothes instead.

Then the Spaniards came and ruined everything. The native people cried when they had to work. They died of European diseases. They fought over their possessions. And in this very region, Atahualpa, the leader of the Incas at the time of Pizarro's arrival, was killed despite the famous payment to the Spaniards of a room filled once with gold and twice with silver. I'm not sure if everything our guide said was true, but he sure was a great storyteller.

The main man-made object at Cumbe Mayo was the aqueduct, which we were explained was the oldest canal in South America. It was built thousands of years ago by people much older than the Incas. The aqueduct's straightness was impressive, but sometimes it became jagged seemingly for no reason. Our guide explained that this was probably a representation of the stairway to heaven. So even the ancient Cajamarcans liked Zeppelin.

The real highlights of Cumbe Mayo, however, were the hundreds of rock formations that were spread throughout the site. Besides providing a beautiful natural landscape, often they looked like people (an eye and large nose) and animals (an elephant). We spent hours interpreting the rocks like kids looking at clouds. There were also balancing rocks and caves to keep us entertained. Cumbe Mayo wasn't a huge city like Machu Pichu or Choquequirao, but it was yet another interesting ancient Peruvian settlement to visit.

The photo album for this entry is here.