End of Trip

All good things, even indefinite things, come to an end. A combination of eventual work obligations and the inability to advance any further overland (Venezuela changed their visa policies for US citizens since we began our trip, a la Bolivia, thus hindering our [re:my] ability to enter the country) effectively brought the South American chapter of our travels to a close. While we did make it to Panama and will do some hoping around Europe & to/for international weddings over the next few months as we continue to abscond from reality and other associated obligations, the departure from the southern continent means our 161-day Patagonia-Bogota adventure has come to a termination point. The Bogota-Cayenne (French Guiana) route remains for a future trip, while much of Brazil is also in play. Nonetheless for the time being, I can stop pretending to speak Spanish.

The entire trip has been amazing, but top ten highlights would include:

  1. Failing at biking in Middle Chile
  2. Hiking the W loop in Patagonia at the last possible minute before the season ended
  3. Walking on a glacier during a torrential rain storm in Argentina
  4. Marveling at the widest(?) waterfalls in the world at Iguazu, on both the Argentine & Brazilian side
  5. Visiting German Mennonite oases in the Chaco, aka the ‘Green Hell’ (with the bug bites to prove it!)
  6. Petting a tapir, discovering what a vicuña is, and eating a llama
  7. Partaking in the requisite photo shoot at Uyuni salt flats
  8. Not just Machu Picchu, but touring other sites in the Sacred Valley
  9. Stumbling onto Pisac’s annual Virgen del Carmen festival
  10. Weeklong, seasick-inducing cruise in the Galapagos to swim with turtles, step over sea lions, and nearly poke iguanas in the eye.
  11. Not going to an office for 161 days and counting!

In addition, even over the course of 5.5. months, we couldn’t cover it all. A few things that remain to be accomplished:

  • Taking a last-minute cruise from Ushuaia to Antarctica
  • Searching for chocolate eggs amongst the large heads on Easter Island
  • Waddling amongst one of the largest penguin colony in the world at Peninsula Valdes in Argentina (the insolent little creatures had rudely already left for the season by the time we arrived there in late April).
  • The Tiwanaku ruins outside La Paz (one day the transport we waited for three hours never showed up, the next was pouring rain)
  • Taking the soon-to-be-finished 15-minute cable car to the Incan city of Choquequirao (similar in size to Machu Picchu), rather than the grueling five-day hike we bypassed.
  • Hitting up Caral, the oldest town in the Americas at more than 4,000 years (unfortunately we discovered this after we had left the region).
  • Visiting the Peruvian pre-Columbian city of Kuélap, potentially also soon to be a cable car ride away, easing the pressure on our legs to continue functioning beyond the age of 35.
  • Finishing up the northern part of the continent whenever adequate Venezuelan paperwork can be obtained, taking at least two months to cross from Bogota to Cayenne

All of that is a long way of saying we’ll be back!

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The Culinary Tour Continues – Spotlight on Peru

Peruvian food is simply divine, from ceviche to Peruvian chicken to cuy (guinea pig). Cheap and diverse, there is a reason why you see so many Peruvian restaurants (and consequently not as much Burkina Faso-ian restaurants). We tried to eat it all in our 24 days there, which we unlikely accomplished – but we did consume the following:

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Our fish dish in Peru was a winner right off the bat. Recoto relleno (stuffed pepper) and cheesy-lasanga type potatoes. Alas we didn’t find it again on the trip, which would’ve been extremely sad if not for . . .

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Ceviche! Its unbelievable, but I had never had ceviche before coming to Peru. The $20/plate price tag likely scared me off, in addition to 26 years of seafood-free living. Those were both silly decisions, as I would eat it everyday if I could (and nearly did in Peru). Various fish marinated but not cooked (trout was the best), usually  comes with some tubers, onions, & popped corn. Other countries do ceviche as well, but not like Peru.

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Apparently coca is good for many things other than tea and cocaine. Unfortunately cookies are not one of them.

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Cheese & corn on the cob combo – a satisfying combo snack.

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Cuy, or guinea pig, is a regional specialty. It sounds gross and doesn’t look any less appealing as often cooked whole, but really doesn’t taste bad.

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Llama in burger form – for our 3rd time consuming the animal. Unfortunately this sounded & looked better than it tasted, but I can now say I’ve eaten a llama burger and be honest, rather than the lies I’ve spurted the past 31 years (unbeknownst to many, that was my first complete sentence at the age of two).

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A delightful little plate of chicken necks. I’ll prolly never write that again.

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Some sort of soup – I am not a fan of soup(es), but such sentiments have not been incorporated by Christine, who insists on eating soup at an ungodly rate of approximately once every eight days.

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Every now and then we splurge (more then for me, more now if Christine had her way). These alpaca kabobs broke our daily food budget, but were so worth it. If you’re ever in Cuzco, check out the restaurant Uchu and you will not be disappointed (a rare uncommissioned restaurant recommendation from me)!

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Cheese ice cream –less pure cheese and more like a sweet ricotta or cottage cheese, topped with cinnamon. No less delicious, but its an Arequipa specialty, and we unfortunately did not find it on a regular basis outside the southern Peruvian city (those this was a rare find in Cuzco). Maybe it was for the best, as I’d be pushing 230 right now if we had more regular access.

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Peru has all sorts of grains, potatoes, and corns you’ve never heard of. This lady sells so many types of popped corn that I had to stop counting because it was more than I could do on one hand (my typical limit).

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Case in point – Ponche, a warm drink made of some sort of grain you and I have both never heard of.

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Chicha of a sort, made from purple corn. Also known in some circles as purple drank.

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Did I mention how happy sublimes make me?

The Culinary Tour Continues – Andean Edition

One thing I’ve noticed everywhere I’ve traveled, is that everyone eats food. It’s kind of crazy, but trust me it’s true. The Andean countries were no exception, as demonstrated below. Peru itself is an exception, in that its cuisine is rather exceptional, and thus deserves a separate upcoming post, fulfilling the Argentina role of the Andean nations.

Bolivia

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Anticuchos or beef hearts. Served with a portion of potatoes, they taste much better than they sound in fact. I think most cows would agree with me. Accompanied with fideos de aji (spicy noodles).

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Meat on a stick. It works in all countries (and makes for the perfect birthday meal!)

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This is where papa rellenos were introduced as a near daily item in our travel diet. Basically fried mashed potatoes stuffed with various items, I’m surprised this hasn’t taken off in America (imagine cheese & turkey bacon papa rellenos?? Apples and brie? Or for a healthy yuppie option, with kale with more kale?)

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Peach pit juice – for those who think the drinks in America just never had enough pits in them.

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Root beer cream(sicle) – heavy on the cream, really heavy on the cream.

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Normally eating up a llama would never cross my mind, but normally llamas do not cross my mind that often. This place served not only grilled to savory perfection llama steaks, but also llama chorizos. Part of a Sunday market eating tour, we were stuffed by the time we found this place at the end of the market, but the option of a whole plate full of variously prepared llama meats for $4 was too tantalizing to pass up (with no regrets – one of best meat dishes of the trip!).

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Deserts are king – chocolate covered strawberries and ubiquitous slices of moist birthday cake abound. The cake in particular became an internal hit, to the point where I began shaking most days around 5pm without it.

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The best afternoons were ones where I accomplished the Trifecta – the consumption of cake, jello, and sublime (a surprisingly delicious chocolate bar) in quick succession. I’d like to say those afternoons were rare, so I will (just know that I am lying). While the feeling of accomplishment immediately post-Trifecta was rewarding, how I felt 20 minutes afterwards is a different story . . .

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Albondigas plate, or meatballs with a bunch of side stuff, including tubers and purple corn. Typical dish, also seen with chorizo.

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Juices, juices, and more juices. Of all kinds, with milk or water. Not pictured here, but I had a peanut with milk one that went over pretty well with myself.

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Salteñas – a take on your typical empanada but with juice inside and a sweeter taste. They will explode hot liquid all over you if you are unaware of their contents, as we learned the hard way (thus going to a place with a plate & utensils for this one). Pretty decent, but prefer the less sweet ones.

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Charky is Bolivian beef jerky made from llama? Served with cheese here, it is delicious but incredibly salty, which is saying something coming from me. We were unable to finish this plate, which normally may be a decent thing as well-preserved as it may be. In this case it was not.

Ecuador

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A fried banana filled with cheese! A snack fit for the gods but made by a human – how could it be so? I am not one to question, so I’ll stop and just order another.

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Street meat is eat(en) meat. A combo platter for $4.

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The reign of papas rellenos continue, with a heavy focus on rice on the inside. These ones even come with an ever-handy spork.

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Shrimp ceviche, or more like shrimp soup. Sounds amazing, but we all know how I feel about soup (apparently me and Malfalda a like). Good attempt by Ecuador, but will take its southern neighbor’s version over it any day of the week (including the odd leap year Tuesday).

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Cheese tortillas! Anything with cheese wins, every time.

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I honestly don’t remember what this was. I was hoping you could tell me.

Colombia

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Papa rellenos for life!

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Completely artificial slushy, as I tried my best in Colombia to recreate the trifecta given less frequent jello sightings, inferior cake, and non-existent sublimes. Try as Colombia might, the deserts just don’t live up, but they do serve as a forceful way to detox back to a normal and healthy level of sugar.

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What Colombia lacks in the desert department, it does make up however in the fried chicken with artificial honey department. Likely just as insalubrious, the combo of fried chicken skin and chemically induced/factory produced honey is a winner in my book of food winners (2015 edition).

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Caldo de pollo, or basically chicken soup. Aghast, Christine is eating a meal with another brown man (while I film)! Notice that is also our last food photo . . . interpret as you will.

The Galapagos!

The Galapagos. Everyone knows about them, even people in Iowa (I assume, I would never go there myself – though might make for an interesting side blog post trip write up). At any rate, when we began our trip our goal was to make it to Macchu Pichu at a very minimum (i.e. meaning that since we started in Chile/Patagonia, a worthy goal of at least three months on the road). Funny thing is, once you get closer and closer to achieving your goals, you begin to reset them to things further and further away. Thus once we brushed past Machu Picchu and the resplendent Sacred Valley in early July, we set our sights on a new venture: (you guessed it!) The Galapagos.

For those who don’t know and have been too lazy to go to Wikipedia thus far, the Galapagos are a collection of islands well off the coast of Ecuador, filled with evolutionary discrepancies. In fact, the islands are often cited as a key instigator behind Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, though as our surly tour guide was frequent to point out, the British scientist actually only spent five total weeks visiting a few of the islands, and got so seasick on his journey to South America that he almost turned back home well before arriving off the Ecuadorian coast. Regardless he taxidermy-ied a slew of random island creatures, brought them back to England, and decades later used them as evidence behind his “theory” of evolution.

In this sense, the anomalies of Galapagos-ian creatures, such as iguanas that swim or a general lack of fear of humans due to millions of years growing up without natural predators, clearly inspired Darwin at some level. I was half expecting my own Darwin-eqsue sort of revelation that would shock the world to its very core, or at least get me labeled as a heretic by some random European churches. Needless to say, that did not quite transpire. So instead of filling up this space with a newfangled but scientifically laking theory about something or other, I’ll instead use the power of photos to show you what is there (much better than listening to me talk about it)!

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Our sea-sick inducing route

We undertook an eight-day cruise focused on some of the more far-flung Western areas of the Galapagos. We also picked the smallest boat we could, with a capacity of 16 passengers, but with only seven on board during our week (note: small boats typically do not undertake such long itineraries, because they are slower and rock more, which equals more sea-sick inducing travel time). The lack of an underwater camera also prevents demonstration of our daily snorkeling ventures, where the water got colder and colder the further west we went, and thus shorter and shorter in duration. But I do have photos (and video) of some of our land forays . . .

Day 1: Arrival & Santa Cruz Island (Bachus beach)

Not too much as we fly in from Quito this day, but did see a sea lion right off the bat. We spent the afternoon on a beach with small preview snippets of what was to come . . .

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Day 2: North Seymour Island & Bartolomé Island (Sullivan Bay)

Day two the action really started, with a sea lion who tried to force his way onto our tour. Blue footed booby sightings abounded, along with puffed up frigates trailing our boat, land-based cactus-loving iguanas, and many an obstructionist sea lions.

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Day 3: Bartolomé Island (James Bay & Buccaneer’s Cover)

Day three got us some pretty scenery and a penguin sighting! We also got up close and personal with a baby sea lion, and finally found some swimming sea iguanas, which promptly blew my mind. I also lot my Local H hat at sea. I assume some penguin is that much cooler for wearing it now.

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mind blown

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Day 4: Isabela Island (Tagus Cover) and Fernandina Island (Espinoza Point)

Day four we hiked up to a point – finally venturing to the interior of an island. The crabs were not impressed.

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Day 5: Isabela Island (Elizabeth Bay & Moreno Point)

On day five, the iguanas took over. This island had it all though, including dueling crabs, sea lions, birds of a sort, and even a beached tortoise. An afternoon visit to a lava field and am venture in the mangroves revealed sting rays, more turtles, flamingoes, and even a reclusive, camera-shy shark.

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Day 6: Isabela Island (Puerto Villamil & Sierra Negra Volcano)

Day six involved a long navigation southeast along Isabela Island, but also a land venture to the even more reclusive and camera shy Sierra Negra volcano (which was completely obscured by clouds during our visit – it was “perfect” the day before, helpful advice from a park ranger).

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There is supposed to be a volcano behind us . . .

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Day 7: Santa Cruz Island (Dragon Hill & Punta Carrion)

The last real day of action involved a turtle breeding center and time in Puerto Ayora, one of the towns in the Galapagos that felt surprisingly like a normal beach town. A morning sunrise hike on Dragon Hill provided picturesque photos, while a seal stole Christine’s spot on a bench.

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Day 8: Santa Cruz Island & Return to Quito

On day eight we returned to the airport after a quick jaunt to the Charles Darwin station and a drive across Santa Cruz island, finally leaving boat life for good. At the airport, I also heeded local advice and specifically did not recycle my teddy bear.

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All in all despite the endless, rocky navigations, the cold water, and the expenses involved in visiting the Galapagos, it was a magical sort of experience to see the islands and get up close & personal with the wildlife. I fully expect the experience to pay dividends in the future as Darwin had a multi-decade gap between his visit and the theory of evolution – so I still have time to formulate my own world-changing thoughts. Get ready, because they are coming soon-ish to a blog near you!

Ruins, Ruins, and More Ruins!

Note: We’ve (or really I’ve) fallen quite behind in the blogging aspect of life recently, but will attempt to make up for it with a veritable modern-day literary blitzkrieg over the next few days. Stay tuned (or if I was you, don’t)!

At the start of this trip, I knew very little of pre-Columbia societies (as they are often referred to). We learn about the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas in grade school, and also occasionally in the news when one of their calendars runs out, thereby inadvertently fulfilling many a doomsday prophecies. That’s about it though, the rest of the lands & history prior to 1492 is a large blank space deemed not worthy of fourth-grade American history textbooks.

Given this limited educational background, we did not expect to see too many ruins outside of the vaunted Machu Picchu. Part of the fun of traveling though, is to finding out what things 4th grade history books teach in other countries (the other part being to avoid the reality of a daily commute to an office-based environment as long as possible). (oh, and the other part is the food – as made clear here and here). (actually, there are probably other parts as well, such as discovering new dinosaurs, but I can’t name them all right now).

Rightly or wrongly, past civilizations are immortalized in the ruins of the structures they build, especially for societies that did not develop a writing system to record their history (even doubly so for those that did not have ability to edit their own Wikipedia pages). Thus we did not focus as much on pre-Columbian societies in the southern cone, simply because there did not exist much of anything to look at (we are that shallow). But by the time we rounded Bolivia and entered Peru, that completely changed. Peru in particular serves as a veritable cradle of civilization on the level of Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, future Mars, and the like – just about every city has ruins in the vicinity that would otherwise be considered legendary if Machu Picchu did not exist, stemming from all sorts of different societies from all sorts of different time periods, extending back thousands of years.

The diversity of structures is staggering, even in societies located just kilometers from each other, ostensibly operating under the same environmental influences and limitations. Such was the case in the northern Peruvian deserts around Trujillo, where the Moches built two large pyramid structures or worship, while the Chan Chan just a few kilometers away (so close its just a 30 minute drive these days) constructed the largest adobe city known to man (or platypuses for that matter as well).

The crazy part is that so much is still being uncovered! Chooquequirao is a five-day treacherous hike that serves as an intrepid-man’s alternative to Machu Picchu – something we considered before wussing out once we heard that it will be a 15-minute cable car ride away within a few years time. The prospect of future discovery is so high that we met an Italian student who specifically came to Peru to pursue his Master’s degree in archaeology, given the high likelihood that he might be able to completely discover or study new aspects of the myriad of ancient civilizations that flourished here. A sort of archaeological wild west prospecting scene, if you will (please do).

Anyways, we were surprised by the abundance and quickly realized we couldn’t visit them all. A few of the more stunning non-Incan ones we were able to hit on the Bolivia to Colombia route, with the majority located in Peru, include:

The Moches

  • These northern Peruvians had such friendly decorated paintings (in addition to two large pyramids) that I’ve already inquired about copyrighting a new “Meet the Moches” sitcom, which will debut on ESPN 14.5 in the year 2023.
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decorated walls of one of the pyramids

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Meet the Moches!

Wari

  • Did you know the Incan Empire only lasted 100 years until the Spanish obliterated it with their Manchego cheese and siesta time? Kind of amazing that so much was built from Middle Chile all the way up to southern Colombia in such short a time span, but clearly the Incans also evolved from the success of others. The Waris were one of those, preceding the Incans in around 1100AD. The Incan Empire drew from Wari knowledge and building techniques, allowing the Wari to enjoy the unfortunate reality of being a mere footnote to the Incans in even the best of history books.
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Wari lands

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Chan Chan

  • These guys loved mud so much that they built an entire city out of it! Just a few kilometers down from the Moches, they Chan Chan are sure to have a recurring cameo in the ‘Meet the Moches’ sitcom.
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The quirky neighbor next door perhaps?

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Titicaca

  • On the highest lake in the world shared between Peru & Bolivia, many a cultures lived. The Incas were everywhere, including there and built some stuff on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun).

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Huaca Pucllana

  • These people built a pyramid right in downtown Lima! Or rather, other people built a city right around the ruins of the Huaca Pucllana pyramid, dating back1,500 years ago.
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downtown Lima, just as the Haucas predicted it would be

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San Agustin

  • One of the more “fun” civilizations (I keep a detailed ranking list, with the Mongols being both simultaneously at the very bottom and top), these mysterious guys built tons of statues scattered around the verdant hills of southern Colombia in early AD’s and even BC’s. More tomb guardians are still being discovered, although no one really knows what happened to the people who made them – not even this bird man guy would talk.

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Of course, there are plenty of other seemingly amazing sights from hitherto unknown civilizations that we couldn’t visit – such as Ciudad Perida in Colombia and Kuelap in Peru (for some reason Ecuador was left off the non-Inca ruins-building surge found in its neighbors – but hey, that’s why they get the Galapagos). Always something for next time!

Leopold in the Jungle

A guest post by one Christine Ribeiro

As part of our South American adventure, the Amazon was always expected to be one of the highlights. Though we were not visiting Brazil, we had heard from a friend that Ecuador was the best of the other countries, as the rivers that flow through the jungle are narrower, thus allowing for more animal sightings. While other travelers we met along the way regaled us with tales of their Amazon adventures in Peru and Bolivia, we kept the mantra and were fully committed to Ecuador. Amidst a range of options, we decided to stay at an Eco lodge in the Cuyabeno Reserve, in the northeast of the country. To get there you had to take a 2 hour flight from Quito to Lago Agrio, followed by a two hour bus ride to the river, and then a two hour boat ride to the lodge. It was out there. We arrived to our basic but comfortable lodge, after seeing various monkeys, birds and even a sloth along the way.

Cruising down the Rio Cuyabeno

Cruising down the Rio Cuyabeno

Though the lodge was in the middle of the jungle and had only partial walls, in your mind there was a separation. The animals are out there and we are in here. This bubble was initially burst when we arrived back from our night tour on the river to see people staring at the entrance of the dining cabin. There seemed to be something of interest, so we headed over only to find a large tarantula in the entrance way. Not what you want to see before you head to your cabin at night for the first time. The guides tried to assure us that they only lived in the dining cabin and rarely went to the room. Not so reassuring.

Unwelcome visitor

Unwelcome visitor

We went to bed our first night, checking all of the sheets and blankets first to make sure the coast was clear. We then sequestered ourselves inside of our mosquito net and were seemingly safe. In the middle of the night, however, Omar had to go to the bathroom. After using the bathroom (attached to our room) with his headlamp on, he went to wash his hands, only to find a frog sitting right in our sink. A bit of a shock when you are groggy in the middle of the night. He told me about it the next morning, but when we went in, the frog was nowhere to be found.

Later the second day, after a hike through the muddy forest, we were hanging up our clothes to dry around the cabin. Omar wanted to hang his hat, but there were limited hooks in the room. He saw a hook just outside our room where he went to hang his hat, only to realize that this hook was actually a frog looking out of a hole in the wood!

Not a hook at all

Not a hook at all

We later learned that our frog friend, which we quickly named Leopold, would spend his days in the hole. As it got darker, you would see him start to move further out of the hole and, inevitably while we were at dinner or out of the room, he would make his way to the bathroom. One night, we invited the others people on our tour to meet Leopold and he posed on the sink for them.

Leopold in the shower

Leopold in the shower

Now expecting Leopold to be in sink, it made things much less scary when you found him there. The last night, however, he decided to switch it up and waited on the door, exactly where you put your hand to push it open. He got Omar again when he went to the bathroom. His final joke, which I am sure he will be laughing about for days after.

Waiting for the sink to be turned on

Waiting for the sink to be turned on

We saw a lot of interesting plant and animals during our trip and were glad we waited for Ecuador. We are also glad that Leopold was the only to enter our room, as far as we know.

Leopold waving good-bye

Leopold waving good-bye

Chasing Rebels in Southern Peru

Ayacucho is a place most travelers to Peru don’t wind up visiting. It served as the epicenter of Peru’s battle with domestic terrorism in the 1980s and 90s, and the home of the Shinning Path. It is also reportedly one of Peru’s poorest and more indigenous regions, an oft-cited incubator for the insurgency. It was for these reasons that despite the looming prospect of a 16-hour non-direct, decrepit night bus along windy mountain roads, I insisted we make our way to the town in between the journey from Cusco to Lima. I wasn’t sure what we’d find or even what I was looking for, perhaps I was just curious to set foot in a place I had remembered from childhood time spent watching the news (Saudi Arabia often lacked for viable young-people entertainment in the early 90s – or maybe I was just a dork. Both perhaps?).

Upon arrival, the city itself did not appear to us to be struggling, but rather sufficiently recovered from whatever transpired 20-30 years ago. A few decades can make a huge difference, I surmised, while some public works projects were active. In fact, the vertigo-inducing 16-hour journey to get there from Cusco was actually an improvement, as a new road and repaired bridges last year cut down the travel time from 28 hours. In addition, the roads of the entire town were under construction, part of a project to provide better drainage during rainy periods. Perhaps just part of Peru’s larger road-specific development aspirations – or perhaps more due to a special focus on this region to deter support for Shinning Path remnants now largely involved in the cocaine trade along the Brazilian border? Who’s to say (well someone probably, but not me nor anyone I met during our 72-hours in the town).

People feel save enough to put on seemingly daily parades, as everywhere in Peru!

People feel safe enough to put on seemingly daily parades, as everywhere in Peru!

Roads under repair

Roads under repair

Nonetheless, we did notice some evidence of gloomier times. We came across a large poster advertising a new political party by the name of Movadef, a coalition grouping which may or may not be linked to the Shinning Path’s continuing political arm. The Peruvian Government has previously rejected the party’s registration, ostensibly for that reason, but volunteers were still there collecting signatures for another attempt. An old man approached us and explained, “the United States thinks we’re a bunch of terrorists, but we just want our rights – people are working 10-hour days and still not making any money.” A seemingly legitimate demand, we bid him good luck and made on our way. One of our next stops was the Museo de la Memoria, or a memorial museum set up by the family members of some of the victims of the violence, both those killed by the Shinning Path and the government. The museum, small but brimming with information, served as the most vivid reminder of what used to transpire in Ayacucho and the surrounding region. The lady running the show there explained to us that the new political party “is somehow linked to the Shining Path’s ideas but different,” without delving further specifics before essentially shutting that conversation down. Perhaps some things are still best left for a more discrete conversation.

Victims of the violence from both sides

Victims of the violence from both sides

From the museum, it’s just a short walk to the Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga (UNSCH). It was here where the Shinning Path had its origins, stemming from the teachings of philosophy professor turned guerilla leader, Abimael Guzmán. A normal looking university, we walked through its grounds surrounded by hoards of fashionable young students occasionally looking up from their smart-phone technology to register a non-Internet related thought. I was curious to ask to see the philosophy department specifically, but we (re: Christine) decided against it.

the thiriving students of San Cristobal University

the thiriving students of San Cristobal University

The story of the struggle is not confined to Ayacucho despite the Shinning Path’s urban beginnings, as significant activity occurred in the surrounding countryside. Thus, we took a day trip to visit some nearby ruins and a small town. Along the way one woman complained that “nothing is changing here despite what the President is saying about malnutrition rates and education – maybe in the cities it is getting better, but not here in the rural areas,” a reaction that perhaps answers a bit of the question regarding how the rest of the province has fared since the culmination of violence in the 1990s.

Sevetny-two hours in an area, especially one in which I only had a cursory background in, is not sufficient to make any sweeping conclusions, but that won’t stop me. I don’t know what Ayacucho was like before, but I do know it would’ve been near impossible to visit this region twenty to thirty years ago for foreigners concerned about long-term survival. It is perhaps in this that I took away the greatest lesson from the short detour off our otherwise obliviously happy trip. Given that the vast majority of my professional focus revolves around areas currently ravaged by the sort of terrorism and conflict that used to afflict Ayacucho, it’s more than a little encouraging to visit a place that has been able to reduce such concerns to history. It’s an optimistic reminder that despite the seemingly intractable violence in locations such as northern Nigeria or south-central Somalia today, this can be a blip on a longer-term time horizon, as Ayacucho, albeit under extremely different circumstances, has demonstrated. That optimistic lesson in itself is enough of a reason to make the 16-hour journey, vertigo and all!

Translation:

Translation of a message on a wall right outside the university’s gates: “The secret to peace is in the respect for human rights”

Memorial to the victims of the battle with the Shining Path in Lima

Memorial to the victims of the war in Lima

Festival Season in the Sacred Valley

Whilst in the sacred valley location of southern Peru, Machu Picchu is obviously the star attraction, and not without merit. Nonetheless, other towns in the region host a number of smaller ruins, that if not overshadowed by Machu Picchu’s grandeur, would be stunning enough sites to tour in their own right. It was for this reason we decided to visit Pisac, a small town overlooked by a sprawling collection of former Incan buildings atop a hill.  It was for a completely different reason, however, that we almost wound up never leaving.

On the afternoon of July 15th, when we arrived in Pisac and couldn’t locate our hostel, we wandered to the main square to get a better sense of direction. Instead we saw a man on a horse holding a chicken, while trying vigorously in vain to grab a box tied to a string hovering above him. Considering we had just arrived in town, I took the bold assumption that everyday in Pisac unfolds as this one. Instantly, I was hooked.

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

so close!

so close!

In reality, once a year Pisac puts on a spectacle – a town-wide celebration dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen. As of about a week ago that meant nothing to me, and likely still means nothing to you, but it just so happened that we randomly arrived the very day this annual festival kicked off, a recent rare bout of inadvertent but perfect timing. We stood in awe at this half parade, half horse race, half grab-the-box contest, and all street party. I didn’t care if we ever found our hostel at this point, I was ready to live here. Cooler heads (i.e. Christine’s) prevailed, and after about two hours and with dark rapidly approaching, we managed to pull our eyes away from the main square to go drop our bags off. But that’s all I was prepared to do, for as soon as we located our abode for the night, I was jetting back to the main square.

Luckily, as we found out via our helpful hostel hosts, today was just the first of a four-day fiesta (anything less than that really doesn’t even qualify as a ‘fiesta’ per say). There would be plenty of fun to be had, with non-stop music and action until the Virgen del Carmen herself had enough and limped back to church. Returning to the main square, the horse racing part had ended, but the plaza had descended into an open-air party, with a multitude of street food options. Opting for chicken necks, a chicken sandwich, beef hearts, and three rounds of a local drink made from the fava bean (ponche), we got our fill for a total of $4. But that’s was not even really the exciting part – the entire time in the corner we had seen people constructing these weird looking structures, which they kept stacking on top of each other. There were three separate groups more or less, and the structures kept getting bigger and bigger. It was like a team of engineers were competing the build the weirdest looking possible useless wooden robot. Still perplexed, while walking by Christine noticed what she thought was “dynamite” attached to one of them. They were going to blow these things up!

soon to be on fire!

soon to be on fire!

And blow them up they did. Without warning a few hours later, one of them light up next to the unassuming crowd, forcing many to take a few steps back as the next few minutes descended into a dizzying array of lights, smoke, fireworks, and other spinning things (take a look for yourself).

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The spectacle of these three firework buildings, for lack of a better term, effectively brought a close to the first day of festivities. I couldn’t believe there were going to be three more days of such action! The next three days, of which we witnessed two, largely consisted of music and dancing. Usually not my cup of tea, but then again usually the people don’t look like this:


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Divided into 18 associations, the townsfolk of Pisac dressed up in various costumes that included intricate masks, and performed a number of cultural routines that evoked common historical traditions and themes such as Spanish people are horrible, Chile is an aggressive land-stealing nation, big noses and monkeys are funny, and that the job stability brought on by indentured servitude doesn’t fully mask its negative consequences. Ostensibly a contest, the 18 associations each had a party headquarters scattered throughout town, while at any given point two or three would be parading about. It could perhaps be described as a more tame, less sexy, poor man’s version of Rio’s Carnaval. Or perhaps not, since that doesn’t make much sense. But you get the idea (maybe).

Profile of some of the associations

Profile of some of the associations

The third day was an official contest, with each association getting about half an hour to show their best. Some were rowdier than others, replete with the occasional danger-inducing but somehow never injury-filled firework into the crowd. In addition, the dances often included whips, interactive crowd measures such as child stealing, candy/fruit tossing, drink spraying, and even silly string. People of all ages partook in each association’s dance routines, including unhappy but ostensibly voluntary child labor.

some good ol' fashioned child-stealing

some good ol’ fashioned child-stealing

silly string battle!

silly string battle!

(un)happy child labor

(un)happy child labor

Given a previous scheduling conflict, we were unable to stay for the fourth and ultimate day of the festival. Perhaps for the best, as our hostel host informed us that in the early afternoon the associations would go around and steal everything they could from anyone they found on the street, only to then return to the plaza and set up a makeshift market where they sell you your items back. But it’s ‘funny,’ she said. Despite moseying on before the finale, we considered ourselves fortunate to have participated in 75% of Pisac’s locally famous Virgen del Carmen festival, all the more remarkable given that we had arrived in town for a completely different reason. The next time we make it to Pisac, however, won’t be under such oblivious circumstances, but rather to begin an annual tradition of partaking in the madness – and everyone is invited!

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16 Reasons Bolivia is More Interesting Than Streaming Another Cat Video

There are a few guaranteed facts in this world. The Internet is a passing fad, a koala will never pay you back in full, and Bolivia is a darn interesting country. Not convinced and want further proof (at least on the last point)? Well I thought you’d never ask.

Number one: There is a lot of salt, and salt is delicious. It also apparently makes for great photos shoots.

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Numero dos: Coca leaves are everywhere, and even the Pope is all about them.

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Three: It is one of the few countries that views butterflies and guns as equals before the law, and thankfully prohibits both to ensure a just, fair society.

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Cuatro: There is always some sort of something, like a parade or festival, happening nearby you. Always.

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Sweet number five: Many women retain a unique style of traditional dress, replete with fancy hats that vary by region.

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They also apparently wrestle.

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Six: You can keep ñandú in your yard, or better yet two.

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Siete: Llamas are pretty revered, but not so much that you can’t cut them up, light up a grill, and put them on a plate. (In addition, the burial of their foetuses, openly sold in certain shops, make for handy ritual offerings).

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Nueve menos uno: You can try your hands in the mines, if you’re trip budget is exhausted and you need a few extra bucks.

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Nueve: Chocolate covered strawberries on a stick cost 44 cents. A slice of cake is even less, meaning you can get diabetes for pennies on the dollar.

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Number ten: Occasionally you might have trouble pooping, but there are remedies for that. On more frequent occasions, you will have the exact opposite (with no viable remedy in sight!).

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Numero once: June 23rd is San Juan Day, supposedly the coldest and shortest night of the year – and also when everyone gets together to specifically eat hot dogs. Apparently sometimes there is so much lingering smoke from the public bonfires the next day, that is it “impossible to go outside.”

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Twelve: Zebras have been tasked with regulating traffic, a job they perform dutifully.

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Unlucky thirteen: Apparently the high altitude turns Christine into an air hockey maven.

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Catorce: Cable cars are a normal means of daily transportation.

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Quince: Bolivian mannequins have personalities, and are often cooler than you or I.

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El Ultimo: Dinosaurs are everywhere – need I say more!

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A Culinary Tour of the Southern Cone – Part II (Argentina Awakens)

Regardless of what the Argentines can and cannot figure out, they got the food game down. Centolla, or spider crabs, a speciality from Ushuaia, alllll the way down south. This was cooked in a parmesan cheese sauce, and thus was delicious by default. 06-photo 1 We lived off of Choripans for a while in Argentina, a clever combination of chorizos and pan (bread). Submerged in chimichurri sauce and plied with other vegetable-related toppings, this is a ubiquitous and tasty street food item. 08-IMG_2955-001 And now we come to the most famous of all Argentine sandwiches, the Milanesa. In an attempt to rival the Chilean chacarero (but in between us falling a bit short), a thin strip of veal is breaded and then put on more bread. Milanesa can refer to a type of meat preparation as well – usually veal, but you can have chicken, pork, or even llama milanesas. Found all over Argentina, they are also typically as big as your face, but could use some sauce (i.e. aji from Chile as well! – ok fine, we just really want a chacarero instead). 09-IMG_2985 You can also get it not as a sandwich as well, for those more Atkins inclined (its still breaded and massive). 10-IMG_3018 A typical Argentina barbeque, filled with as many different types of meats as you can count, or an asado, is a blissful event. In this case, we had a combination of blood sausage, sweet breads, and intestines – nothing goes to waste. 12-IMG_3067 13-IMG_3068 Parillas (grill) restaurants grill up a lot of delicious things, but its hard to top the Chivto, basically a young goat. I could never be a vegetarian. 16-IMG_20150511_152327 15-IMG_3082 Pulpo, or octopus – homemade in this case with potatoes, pepper, and olive oil. The Chinese in Buenos Aires apparently have the best octopus, which may or may not be manufactured in a factory. 17-IMG_20150510_205126 Random places, such as a mechanical garage, will set up a Sunday BBQ outside, throwing tons of meat on the grill until they sell out. In this case, we came late but still managed to secure one of the last pieces of beef, and of course a chorizo – drenched in chimichurri as usual. 26-IMG_3935 Argentina bakeries are some of the best places on earth. Most of the cookies are alfajor based, or with dulce de leche in between two layers. These are also mainly dipped in chocolate, and thus are amazing. Trying to buy just one is simply impossible (something I attempted here, and come home with seven). 31-IMG_3986 Llama steak – we thought it was rare, but see it in Bolivia now all the time! Doesn’t make this first fancy foray into the world of llama consumption any less delicious. 33-IMG_4023 If you ever go to Argentina (or even South Carolina randomly), go to Freddo’s Ice Cream. Get any dulce de leche flavor, and then you can die a happy person. They even had an ice cream alfajor sandwich (something Christine simultaneously invented), but I’d stick to the ice cream itself. 14-dg 27-IMG_3973 In Argentina, but especially Uruguay, people carry unwieldy thermoses of hot water with them all over the place to make mate, a bitter looseleaf tea that you drink out of a open cup, often a gourd, via a metal straw with a filter on the bottom. Often a social activity shared amongst a group, mate is also highly caffeinated, and may help explains Uruguay’s recent decision to legalize certain substances as a counterbalancing effect. 11-IMG_3053 How could we go this long without talking about licuados? Take any fruit, add milk or water with a little sugar, and you’re good to go. Strawberry tends to be the most manly choice. 30-IMG_3983 Submarino, or basically make-your-own hot chocolate. You are provided hot milk and some chocolate on a stick, the rest is up to you (don’t worry, it’s hard to mess up – even if you look like a cartoon). 07-IMG_2794 Ok time to go eat!