It was the boobies that attracted me to this small group of islands along the Southern coast of Peru – Isles Ballestas (aka Bird sh*t Islands). Before you let your mind slide into the gutter, I should clarify – I’m talking about the bird variety. Peruvian Boobies – not quite as colorful as their blue-footed counterparts, but still very cool – were abundant on the islands, along with Cormorants, Inca Terns, Peruvian Pelicans, Sea Lions, Humboldt Penguins and Dolphins.
Every description I read about this region prior to my trip to Peru highlighted the bird life, but warned against the smell. This is because the islands are covered with tons (literally tons) of guano (hence our nickname – Bird sh*t Islands) which is harvested for various purposes every few years or so.
The smell was actually not that bad, just a small side-effect from the abundance of bird and sea life in the area. The islands were a great first stop for my friend Marcy and I as we embarked on our Peruvian adventure last April…
On our boat tour to the islands, we also visited a Candelabra etched into the sandy hill side. The roots of this massive carving are not known with certainty, but the lore surrounding it is similar to the famous Nazca Lines, found further South on the Peru coast. We were told there is evidence that the Candelabra has been there since 200 BC. It remains to this day thanks to the fact that this desert region never gets any rain.
Tambopata (The Amazon)
A river boat tour to the Amazon was actually my initial incentive for going to Peru. Of course I wanted to go to Machu Picchu as well someday, but I figured that would be a future trip. But after my friend Marcy decided to join me, we both decided to expand the trip to cover more of the country.
The Tambopata river is a tributary of the Amazon. When we stepped out of the plane in port city of Puerto Maldonado, I immediately felt the humidity seep into my skin. I’m not a huge fan of heat and humidity, but this is the trade off to an environment that nurtures such bio-diversity. It did not take long to forget the uncomfortableness and just soak in the surroundings.
We stayed in a little lodge along the river and were awoken in the morning by an orchestra of bird life. The huge variety of wildlife I saw cannot be listed here (partially because I don’t remember), but here are some of the highlights: Crested Owl, Poison Dart Frog, Squirrel Monkeys, Rufous Mot Mot, various species of Hummingbirds and Cabybara (the largest rodent in the world).
The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu
How do I reduce such an experience into a few paragraphs? I’ve seen many iconic images of Machu Picchu and have always wanted to visit the ancient ruins, but I had no idea what a remarkable journey the four-day trek would be.
Day one is as a relatively mild 12 km trek that passes some smaller Inca ruins and serves as a great introduction to what is to come. With a back drop of snow capped mountains, the trail winds through a valley surrounded by tall rocky hills and mountains. I was immediately taken in by the beauty of the country side. While slightly drier than the more lush environments we were heading into, the scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
When you research and prepare for the Inca trail, everything you read will warn you about day two. It’s another 12 km like day one, but the addition of a 1200 meter gain in elevation makes it much more difficult.
Day two takes hikers to the highest point of the Inca Trail at 4200 meters, Dead Woman’s Pass. It is an exhausting journey, but again, it was absolutely awe-inspiring to be surrounded be such beauty.
Much of day two is a bit of a blur, but I have a distinct memory of emerging from a canopy of trees in the morning to find myself in a lush valley just as the sun was spilling over the mountains. There were hummingbirds fluttering among the bushes in the hills side, the sun was reflecting vibrancy from the trees and this enormous valley seemed to open up right in front of me. With some of our group ‘a ways’ behind and some ‘a ways’ ahead, I was alone on the trail at this point. There was nothing distracting me from taking in the vista that lay before me. I tried hard to capture the beauty on ‘film’, but it was impossible. I will never forget that tranquility and peace I felt at that moment.
Day three is the longest distance-wise at 16 km, with a ‘mild’ assent at the beginning and the rest down hill. I didn’t think anything could match the beauty of what I saw on day two. I was wrong. Day three takes hikers into a sub-tropical cloud forest. I had already been treated to various cool bird sightings at this point, but this area of the trail seemed to have the most life. We rounded the corner at one point to find what I later discovered was a Scarlet Bellied Mountain Tanager feeding on berries right beside the trial. He waited patiently and posed nicely while I snapped a few pics.
At the end of day three, our guide congratulated up on basically finishing the journey. The reason being that day four is a ‘simple’ 6 km assent to the Sun Gate that over looks Machu Picchu. The only major challenge, we were told, is the Gringo Killer, which is a super steep rock stair case just before the Sun Gate. I’m happy to say all of us Gringos made it in one piece and were rewarded with a clear sky to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu. It was beautiful, and visiting the ruins themselves was amazing. But I have to say, the destination did not surpass the whole magnificent journey of getting there.
No blog post (or description of) the Inca Trail is complete without a tribute to the guides and porters that make the journey possible. The average Gringo could not do it without their guidance and help. Our guides were full of knowledge on virtually every aspect of the four day hike, which included a number of Inca ruins that all speak to the unique history of the region. Macchu Picchu is the most famous ruin site, but one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the Sacred Valley of Peru, and several along the comparatively small stretch of the Inca Trail.
The porters are amazing – absolutely amazing. They carry 5 kgs of gear on their backs and basically run up the mountains to reach the camp sites before the group. When you arrive for lunch or dinner, a large mess-tent has been erected and you are served a balanced meal consisting of meat, vegetables, bread and a dessert. I definitely ate better on the trail than I normally do at home. They set up your sleeping tent, blow up the air mattress, bring you cocoa leaf tea in the morning and a basin of warm water to clean, brush your teeth, etc. Occasionally, people in our group had various illnesses that slowed them down – the porters would offer to take the back-pack of any ailing hiker and add it to their own load whenever needed.
On day three, myself, Marcy and three of our group were at the back of the pack and moving a bit slow. We had been told to always have our headlights with us on the trail, just in case, but it was unlikely we would need them. On day three however, we did need our lights. Normally the group reaches the camp by sunset at the latest (around 6pm), but we came rolling in around 7:15. We walked for a good hour or so in the dark, but the porters were sent back on the trail to meet us with flash lights and help guide us safely to camp. All I have to say is ‘Thank god for the Inca Trail porters!’
I am so grateful for the experience of the Inca Trail. I am so happy that Marcy and I decided to push our physical/mental/emotional limits to do the hike. We both initially didn’t think we could do it – we were just going to take the train to Machu Picchu for the day. But we slowly started thinking, ‘well maybe we could do it? and maybe we should do it?’ and we did!
After a day of rest in Cusco, we embarked on a 7 hour drive to the south end of Peru where Lake Titicaca lays on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Sitting at just over 3800 meters (just slightly lower than the Dead Woman’s pass), it is the highest navigable lake in the world.
The lake is also home to a number of islands, each with a unique sub-set of cultures. We visited two: Taquile Island and Uros floating islands. While Taquile was interesting, seeing and visiting Uros floating islands stands out in my mind as the most memorable aspect of the massive lake.
They are a chain of small islands constructed of woven-together reeds. About 6 families lived on the little island we visited and welcomed us with good-humor and enthusiasm. Walking on the spongy ground of the reeds was an interesting sensation at first, but we all got used to it. We had the opportunity to explore the small island houses and watch the inhabitants work and interact. Rosie, the island’s youngest resident at 6 months, was particularly adorable.
I have barely scrapped the surface of what I experienced in Peru, but this blog post is already way too long. If anyone has made it to the end, I thank you for hanging in there.
You can see more images from Peru here and watch for my next post: May 2013 -The Pileated Woodpecker.