Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Isla Del Sol

Feeling great about eschewing tour boats. Hiked 17km from Copacobana to Yumpupata on a beautiful road (after the bit right out of town with the pigs foraging in a river of refuse). Met an odd Peruvian on the trail who I walked the rest of the way with. He turned out to be a marathon runner from the other side of Lake Titicaca. I was slightly concerned he was going to rob me as he kept looking up and down the trail. In the end we had a pleasant enough conversation in Spanish for 2 hours and I was happy for the company.

At the port we had a strange haggling experience - not only did they want B70 to start with (I had offered B20), they refused to let me join a boat with a french couple that was just leaving (I thought at first the explanation was that the boat was too small, but then found out they expected each 'party' that arrived to hire a different boat). Fortunately when another Brit arrived we were eventually able to have them row us over to the Isla Del Sol for B15 each, and once the oarsman got puffed out he offered to switch on the motor for another B5.

The views from Isla are stunning, with the deep blue lake surrounding it and snow-capped mountains in the distance and sleepy little coves with a solitary rowboat waiting for a fisherman to come along. I stayed in a cozy hotel on the south end of the island watching the sunset and in the morning hiked to the north end of the island where I missed the last ferry so I had to stay another night and take an early ferry back the next morning.

All in all, a vastly more relaxing and rewarding experience than the islands on the Peruvian side of the lake.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Enough with the tours already

Lake Titicaca. The standard island tour takes you to the famous floating reed islands followed by an overnight stay on Amanti island with a local family where they dress you up in local garb and force you to folkdance with them to awful music at 13500' until you think you'll either pass out or start coughing up blood, and finally a brief walk and lunch on Taquile island the next day where you learn how to identify single men and women by the color of their floppy hats.

I planned on going out to the islands by myself on the ferry but in the end I was offered such a good price by a tour operator that it didnt seem like I would be gaining anything going solo. In truth, some of the information provided by the guide is interesting, and it's nice not to have to worry about finding out which boat you're supposed to be on next. However, it irks me to be wandering around with a big herd of other travelers, and the whole experience (however impressive) feels canned.

No sooner had I renounced the tour companies when I find that to get to Copacabana (Bolivia) from Puno all the buses seem to leave at 7:30am and there´s a tour shuttle that also leaves then for the same price that supposedly makes things easier at the border and it picks you up at your hostel. Oh, ok then. So, we´re at the border and the bus stops next to a money exchange so we can convert our Soles into Bolivianos. Thinking this money exchange was 'recommended' by the tour company and not seeing the usual pack of money changers on the street and being a little slow with the arithmetic because at the last minute I threw in some extra Soles in change that I had in my pocket, I didn't protest soon enough when the sum of Bolivianos I got back was quite a bit lower than I had expected. Turned out the rate was more than 10% under the offical rate, so I lost about $8 more than I should have, and I'm sure the driver gets a kickback.

Now $8 may not seem like that big a deal, but when you consider that there are kids starving on the street outside and a three course meal sets you back $2 and my hotel room with a killer lake view is costing me $1.25 tonight it puts it in perspective.

So enough with the ´convenience' of tour companies. They´re bad travel karma.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hiking to Machu Picchu

I did the 5-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu since the classic Inka Trail requires booking months ahead of time. On the first day we rode a bus to the starting point and then hiked up a steep valley towards the towering Salkantay peak and camped just below the terminal morraine of its receeded glacier at about 3800m.

The first night it was about -5 degrees C outside and windy so we got pretty cold in our dinner tent but I was fine once I tucked myself into my sleeping bag. After our morning tea (delivered to our tents) and pancakes for breakfast we warmed up quickly on the climb to the pass at 4800m (15800'). I was happy to find I had no problems with the altitude although we had a few people in the group with very bad headaches.

On the other side of the pass we had a long, rocky hike down. The third and fourth day were spent between 2000-3000m in the high jungle which meant warm temperatures during the day and sand-flys. We finished up with a short, slow train ride into the town of Aguas Calientes where we giddily had warm showers and bought clean underware and slept in real beds.

Unfortunately, my night of rest was disrupted by several trips to the bathroom and tummy trouble (it turned out 5 people in our group had the same problem) and I spent the next morning grimly following the group around the ruins of Machu Picchu before giving up on the tour and curling up to sleep on one of the shady, 500 year old terraces before catching the bus down.

But we were lucky enough to see the sunrise on a sunny morning.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Paragliding over the Sacred Valley

I arrived in Cusco after a torturous overnight bus ride that heaved us from side to side as it snaked its way up through the mountains, tires squealing on each corner. Anyone who fell asleep risked being thrown into the aisles.

The hostel I ended up in Cusco has the best beds (long, thick mattresses and warm duvets) and reliable hot showers - features not to be underestimated. However, it is also populated by a fairly committed party crowd who trickle back to the dorm after a night out at irregular intervals between 1am and 6am. This means there's no competition for the showers in the morning, but it was hard to get a good nights sleep when you wanted one.

It sits half way up a hill over the town and the bar has a fantastic view of the city. I am winded every time I walk up the hill.

Cusco is an attractive enough town. It's clearly catering entirely to the tourist trade, and it seems hard to find everyday items for sale in shops (for example, the only socks you can buy are alpaca wools socks, which of course none of the locals are wearing).

While I was waiting 3 days to get used to the altitude, I signed up to go paragliding in the Sacred Valley.

It was a tandem jump and my instructor Jose expertly swung us around in the thermals rising up the valley to gain altitude. There were two paragliders in the air at a time so we had fun competing for altitude. After circling for a while along the ridge we glided out over the valley and spiralled down to land in a potato field.

Here's a little video (500kB) of the launch of one of my fellow paragliders.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Waking up in San Francisco, going to sleep in Lima

It was strange to wake up in San Francisco and to be settling down to sleep in a hostel in Lima, Peru by the end of the day.

I had some reluctance about leaving the cozy cocoon of convenience and security that I had adjusted to again being back in the States, but now that I am here and traveling again, I remember the buzz.

Barely stopping for a breath in Lima I jumped on a bus to Nasca and walked across the street from the bus station at 11pm to the nearest hostal and shook the night watchman awake to get a room. The next day I flew over the famous Nasca lines that have lain more or less unnoticed for 1500 years until pilots started venturing in these parts in the 1930s. In fact, the PanAmerican highway piles right through the drawings. They are pretty unfathomable. My pictures through the window of the plane barely recorded the figures in the sand, but here is one closeup.

We were flying in the same little Cessnas I fly back in Oakland, and I have to say that I was not impressed by our pilot (it´s a hard thing to sit in the right seat as a passenger and watch someone trying to land the plane who you realize is a less competant pilot than you are. I don´t know how flight instructors can stomach it).

At the hostel, I was pounced upon by a local who was enthusiastic to practice his english and get some help translating a list of english expressions. However, it became apparent that he was almost entirely self-taught from browsing the web, and mostly porn sites from what I could tell. This led to a rather limited but colorful vocabulary: 'content no longer exists', 'bubble butt', 'download', 'shemale', etc. It was quite a stretch for my Spanish.

The next day while I was waiting for the bus to Cusco, I visited the mummies in Chauchilla. This is 2000 year old cemetery where the graves have been opened and plundered (nothing unusual about that) but the mummified bodies were left strewn around the desert and have remained remarkably preserved (for decades) by the completely arid environment. In the last few years the bodies have been returned to a few selected graves that are somewhat protected from the elements.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Flying floats in Alaska

Alaska has been very wet. The last week has been solid overcast with drizzle every day. As a result, I am part of the 80% of Alaskan visitors who are not able to see the peak of Mt. Denali due to weather. However, I did still manage to do a flightseeing tour in the Alaskan Range around Denali which included a glacier landing.

The flight began in the town of Talkeetna which has a busy little airport right in the midde of town and the economy of the entire town seems to revolve around it.

The highlight of the trip has been getting my floatplane rating in Moose Pass which has been an absolute blast - skimming over the treetops following a river down a narrow valley, whizzing by icebergs in the sea and touching down in any of the little lakes nestled amongst the mountains.

Here is a 512KB movie (Windows movie format) of a low pass over the icebergs at the exit of Bear Glacier.

Tomorrow I am going white water rafting on Six Mile Creek which is class IV to V for a final shot of adrenalin before heading south to Peru.