A Travellerspoint blog

A perfect day in ruins.

Our spectacular visit to glorious Machu Picchu

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As the Machu Picchu ¨Backpacker Train¨- full to the brim with the usual enthusiastic, international rowdies - screeched into the Aguas Calientes station, Kelsey and I felt the excitement tickle our tummies. We were in the ugly, overpriced, exploitative little pueblo at the foot of Machu Picchu ruins mountain ridge...and we couldn´t be happier. We found a suprisingly reasonable place to stay and set the alarm clock for 4:21 a.m. We were going to be the first people into the ruins the next morning, by darn. With my mind filled with the Inca, I hardly slept a winka.

Arriving at the bus station a bit bleary-eyed but oh-so-excited, we were perturbed to find hoardes of similarly-minded early risers already in line. Like many backpackers, I prefer to think I´m the only good backpacker. Luckily, no one can really be cranky when headed to Machu Picchu...and the first bus was really five in a row. We boarded and began the steep ascent to the ruins.

Blinded by Machu Picchu ambition, we blew through the ticket gate and up the first staircase...supposedly a path to the famous postcard vista. Panting from too little sleep, too little oxygen and an overdose of adrenaline, we came upon our first sight of Machu Picchu with complete and total heart-pounding anticipation. Breaking through the morning clouds like a green and brown mirage, the ruins were more beautiful than any of our expectations.

Perched precariously on the top of a lush, gorgeous mountain - and surrounded by innumerable other, equally lush, gorgeous mountains - the Machu Picchu ruins are simply too magnificent for postcards, or pictures, or insignificant blog entries. We stood there, rendered speechless and altogether emotional by the mere reality of standing in front of one of the world´s most incredible, iconic sights. It was only 6 in the morning; a young, intensely yellow sun bathed the expansive ruins in the promising glow of a truly beautiful day. Morning fog still swirled around the mountains, its mystic fingers slowly withdrawing to the sky. It was as if we´d left the world behind: not a soul - not one single, enthusiastic rowdy international soul clambered about the site. ¨Can you believe this?! Can you believe where we are!?¨ Kelsey and I simply stared, reverant and awestruck, for a full Machu Picchu millenium.

Also known as the ¨Lost City of the Incas¨, Machu Picchu was built sometime around the year 1450, and abandoned only 100 years thereafter with the arrival of havoc-wreaking Europeans. American historian Hiram Bingham sauntered along in 1911, ´discovering´ the sight with guidance from long-forgotten locals. In the many decades to follow, innumerable scholars have hypothesized the purpose of beautiful Machu Picchu; remarkably remote, some contend the site was a prison for perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes, or perhaps, a citadel of extraordinary military defensive capabilities. Given the breathtaking natural beauty of the sight - and its inherently spiritual aura - others contend it was indubitably the birthplace of Inca deities, and therefore a spiritual center of the Empire. Most modern archaeologists, however, seem to agree that the city was likely an estate of the Inca emperor, Pachacuti. Regardless of their true intent and purposes, the 140 constructions of Machu Picchu are an extraordinary example of virtually unmatched Inca stone masonry. In recognition of this, the ruins were deemed World Heritage Site in 1983.

Kelsey and I explored the complex with all the eagerness of Christmas morning -ooohing, ahhhing, and slowly drawing our fingers over the flawless stonework walls. We were particularly awestruck to discover the truly astounding ingenuity of the craftmanship; the Inca had no metal tools and did not use the wheel. Even more remarkably, as Peru is a hotbed of seismic activity, the Inca took brilliant architectural measures to prevent the earthquake eradication of their city: trapezoidal windows, rounded corners, and slightly inwardly-tilted walls of often mortarless construction. To think, such enormous stones, expertly cut, drawn up an gigantic mountain, and levered into advanced architectural configurations without the help of even the most basic ´necessities.´

We spent over 7 hours marveling at Machu Picchu - at first examining every nook and cranny, later lounging on the agricultural terraces, drinking in the scene and daydreaming of Inca grandeur. We simmered in the sun, listening to floating snatches of tour guide monologues, as well as the gratingly unmistakeable midwestern twang of a middle aged, fanny packed American...walking up a set of stairs at least 100 yards away, the woman declared: ¨this is just like a StairMaster!¨Oh, a little slice of home in heaven. Luckily, no one can be annoyed when visiting Machu Picchu.

Even better, a countrywide strike had halted most of the tourist infrastructure - almost completely stemming the flow of admirers to the site. By noon, the entire complex felt utterly, blissfully, empty. We grinned at our lucky maneuvering, and pretended that Machu Picchu was ours.

Finally, with sunkissed cheeks and happy hearts, we peeled ourselves off the pretty green grass and said goodbye to the Inca-redible Machu Picchu. In the course of one perfect day, the excitement in our tummies had matured to a full-on, warm reverance for some of the world´s most remarkable ruins.

For more information on Machu Picchu:
http://www.machupicchu.perucultural.org.pe/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_picchu#cite_note-unesco-3

http://whc.unesco.org/pg.cfm?cid=31&id_site=274

Posted by MegMc2003 13:33 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The Cold and the Beautiful

Our time in pretty Arequipa...and painful Rio Chili

¨Better safe than sorry,¨we said, plunking down a steep $30 bus fare to Arequipa, Peru. To our mild horror, we´d learned that the bus route between Paracas and our destination of choice was plagued by frequent hijackings and highway robberies. By splurging for the non-stop, super fancy autobus - we were (hopefully) minimizing our risk. Luckily, we arrived in colonial Arequipa - the ´White City´- with all belongings in hand. In fact, neither of us really remember anything in particular about the overnight journey...which, in the ranks of our many bus rides, is a very good sign. I do, however, remember waking early in the morning to an oddly lunar landscape - graceful, dusty mountains pocked with enormous, out-of-place white stones - the rising sun drenched the countryside in watercolor pinks. The pretty city Arequipa, through my sleep-heavy eyes, seemed to rise like an oasis in the middle of a seemingly uninhabitable wilderness. As we rolled into the station and the sun continued its climb into the Peruvian sky, Kelsey and I were in thoroughly happy spirits.

We found the city to be extraordinarily clean, friendly, and completely gorgeous. The Plaza de Armas, the heartbeat of the city, was a sweeping, green patch of happiness surrounded by stately, collonaded colonial buildings. Palm trees, birds, blooming flowers, a lively fountain and hundreds of Peruvians set a most magnificent scene. Kelsey and I passed several hours in the Plaza, simply watching the world go by: vendors hawked juices, ice cream, artwork and shoeshines; kids in sun hats charged the flocks of hungry pigeons; entire families promenaded with pride; young lovers wooed, old men snoozed. It was like the world´s most entertaining, relaxing lecture of Arequipeño culture.

Our three days in Arequipa were beautiful in their simplicity and relaxation. Aside from our time in the sunny center of the city, we wandered the cobblestone streets, haggled for handicrafts and frequented a local cafe run by an NGO for underprivileged children. In honor of American Independence - we celebrated with a Peruvian-style, cheese and mustard-covered hot dog and a rented American film (Family Guy, the movie). It was strange, to celebrate 4th of July with an extremely inappropriate adult cartoon, viewed in a stunningly colonial, stain-glassed Peruvian hostal. Kelsey and I both decided we missed fireworks very much.

We fell asleep shamefully early that evening (around 8 pm) - the exhaustion from our non-stop travel finally overcoming us. However, we were simply resting up for the next day...we were headed to a nearby river for a little Peruvian white water rafting. The excursion, as expected, was phenomenal. Our guide was a hilarious, hairy, 22 year old Arequipeño named Alvarro who deftly helped us to maneuver through class II - IV+ rapids...freezing cold, crystal clear, roaring Rio Chili rapids. Our raft tipped us into to river once, (thanks for that, Alvarro...he laughed), and flipped us completely over once again. With each plunge it felt as though my lungs were instantly crystallized and icy little needles pricked each of my pores...we were all sent into wide-eyed fits of gasping and whimpering and crazed excitement - with rocks and water and the world crashing down around us. By the end of it all, we could scarcely walk, nor peel off the wetsuits - our little fingers and toes were nothing more than uncooperative, immobile, throbbing nubs. In spite of the completely bone-shaking cold, it was also breathtaking in the most positive of ways: the mountain scenery was stunning enough to shame an idealistic Kincaid. After a full three hours, we hobbled back to our van. ¨It´s over already!?¨said Kelsey, ¨let´s do it again!¨

We spent the rest of the evening thawing out, and preparing for our next-day departure to Machu Picchu. While we could scarcely contain our excitement for the Inca city, we´d been wholly happy with our Arequipa experience and were a bit sad to say goodbye. Boarding yet another wonderful night bus, we were filled with visions of picturesque plazas, Arequipa architecture and wild white-water. Ciao for now, Arequipa!

Posted by MegMc2003 13:30 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Off to the Amazon!

Don´t worry too much, we´ll be back soon.

Hello everyone! I just wanted to let you know that Kelsey and I are flying to the Amazon today, and we won´t have internet access for about five days. So, don´t worry...we weren´t traded for alpacas, we didn´t die from dengae and we decided against smuggling cocaine. While you eagerly await our return, I´d like to give you a brief preview of the super-exciting upcoming blog entries:

- A ´chilling´ tale of our fr-fr-fr-freeeeezing Arequipa whitewater rafting experience
- An account of our adventure at Machu Picchu
- A plunge into lovely Lake Titicaca and the Island of the Sun
- A haunting story of the La Paz Witch´s Market
- An account of the coca plant controversy...past, present and future.

Excited? You should be!

Ciao for now, amigos!

Posted by MegMc2003 07:26 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

From Earthquakes to Islands

Our time in Pisco and Paracas

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´Are you sure you want to go to Pisco? Paracas is much better. ´ As usual, our taxi driver was of the mildly skeevy persuasion; I simply assumed he was pulling for a bigger fare – I´m not such a sucker!, I thought. We were pulling off the PanAmerican after two full days of travel, headed to the coastal town of Pisco, Peru. We were lured by the promise of unparalleled, inexpensive wildlife viewing at the nearby Islas Ballestas – yet another national park dubbed ¨Poor Man´s Galapagos.¨ Unfortunately, in all my enthusiasm for sea lions, I´d failed to fully understand the gravity of the tragedy gripping the little town: an August earthquake of 8.0 magnitude had claimed the lives of some 510 Peruvians and 58,000 homes. In hindsight, my optimism regarding the situation was not only inappropriate – surely after 10 months reconstruction will be well underway, I´d thought – but wholly ignorant and tainted by self-interest. ¨It can´t be that bad, and maybe we can help!¨ The usual humanitarian fantasies were floating around my head.

We rolled into town with all the enthusiasm we could muster - pointedly ignoring an extraordinarily filthy beachfront and the floating stench of a nearby fish factory. In spite of our good intentions, we could not shake a creeping sense of silent horror: dusty, dilapidated Pisco was still destroyed. Major streets were wholly unnavigable and most buildings looked utterly assaulted, with only one level standing amidst the skeletons of a former glory. Scores of inhabitants were reduced to living in shoddily constructed temporary buidlings, roofless ruins, or tents in the street. The scarce bit of new construction constrasted glaringly with the surrounding devastation, emphasizing the tragedy of it all. The air of desperation was so potent, I could not ignore the chills tingling down my spine. I felt uncomfortable, unsafe, utterly conspicuous, and totally powerless in aiding the situation.

Our taxi driver, still emphasizing the superiority of Paracas, dropped us off at a cheap, lonely planet-recommended hostal. ´We´ll only be here for one night,´I assured Kelsey. She looked a bit uneasy. The hotel was well (re)constructed, clean, and astronomically beyond our means. ´But that´s not the price advertised in the book!´I said, pointing to a lonely planet recommendation posted nearby. The response was swift, brief, and patient: ´There are only a couple of hotels still standing in Pisco. There was a disaster, the prices from last year are no longer relevent...we need to pay for reconstruction.´ I flushed, embarassed by my indignation. I led Kelsey back to the street, with my bruised pride bringing up the rear.

We stood on the street, looking lost and terrified, and decided against tracking down the remaining hotels. Instead, we hailed another taxi and drove the ten minutes to Paracas, mentally apologizing to our first well-meaning driver. I felt tremendously defeated - after hearing about the earthquake, I´d been optimistic about our time in and contributions to the little town. Faced with the reality, we fled. I´m not terribly proud myself, nor of the flooding relief I felt upon arrival in pleasant Paracas.

We settled into our comfy $5 hotel, chatted with the friendly resident youths and made a brief return to poor Pisco. I was out of cash and without an ATM. Awesome, I thought, I was going back to ground zero to withdraw a generous chunk of money. I felt a new wave of guilt wash over me as taxi driver number three pointed out the ruins of the town cathedral: a half-intact belfry lay sideways on a sky-high mess of rock and rubble. Pisco residents of all persuasions - even an abuela or two - worked to excavate the heap. ´Four hundred people died here,´said the driver, ´They found three more bodies a couple days ago...a ten year old boy, clining to two adults.´My response of ´how tragic, how sad,´seemed painfully inadequate. Uncomfortable as spectators of such a macabre sight, we headed back to Paracas.

We shook off our discomfort with frightening ease, spending the rest of our evening with our new Paracas friends. Like a bad summer movie, we sat around a bonfire on the beach with too-big beers and lots of laughs. When the fire burned itself into the sand, we were drawn into a furiously fabulous impromptu salsa lesson. Our instructor, none other than the pudgy, middle-aged owner of our hotel, barked ´1-2-3!!....5-6-7!!!´ as he demonstrated the intended steps on any nearby unsuspecting gringa. For such a stocky, masculine man, he sprinted around the dance floor with all the finesse of the world´s finest dancer. Every woman swept into his fury - Kelsey and I included - responded with a curiously mixed expression of terror and glee...none of us could explain the suddenly coordinated behavior of our flurried feet. After our instructor demonstrated the midnight finale move on his favorite estudiante - (me, of course!) - we all stumbled off to bed in a dance-induced daze.

We awoke the next morning ripe and ready for some wildlife. Joining the herds of equally enthused foreigners, we jumped into a little white boat, donned our big orange life vests and set off for the Islas Ballestas. The islands are a rocky collection of staggering cliffs dropping dramatically into deeply turquoise water. Fantastic rivulets, bridges and caverns have been carved by billions of sea currents, and the whole place looked to be plucked from a pirate´s imagination. Of course, the high wildlife concentration had graced the area with the strong scent of guano and unidentifiable animal urine - (a fact easily overlooked with our first sea lion sighting).

Perched on the rocks like great brown sacks of potatoes, the sea lions indubitably reigned supreme by imperiously thrusting their noses into the air. With the occasional grunt or yelp, wobble or nod, the creatures stretched out under the sun, wholly unimpressed by the hoardes of admirers. It was truly incredible to see such fantastic (and adorable!) animals in the wild - babies, bellies, and barks of communication rendered a truly fascinating scene.

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No less interesting, we were also privileged to see a number of waddling Humboldt penguins - a sight I´d never thought I´d see beyond a zoo. Though certainly smaller than those of my Antarctic expedition fantasies, the penguins were just as adorable as one would expect. I felt quite sorry for the other resident birds - including a number of Peruvian boobies - for being so much less exciting. (okay, I´m a little biased.)

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By the time our boat turned back toward Paracas, we were completely and totally content with the results of our seafari. We finished off our day with an absolutely phenomenal seafood lunch (I had the entirety of the ocean swimming on my plate), and breathed our last breaths of Peruvian coastal air. After two days of all kinds of excitement, we were off to Arequipa.

Posted by MegMc2003 19:01 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It was too much damn time on public transportation!

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The lifestyle of a shoestring adventurer has its many advantages: frequent, deeply meaningful interactions with the local culture, thrilling gastronomic gambles, and the addictive freedom of unbridled itineraries. However, penny pinching also attracts the less attractive – shoestringers are intimately acquainted with various degrees of filth, absurdity and inconvenience…(which may or may not detract from the overall experience). In our own South American adventure, Kelsey and I have overcome explosive digestive issues in bathrooms without toilet seats, toilet paper or soap. At least, we said to ourselves, it´s better than a hole in the ground! Plus, urine is pretty much sterile right? We have faced the freezing cold Andean nights with layers of clothing and frozen toes. At least we have these seven wooly blankets, we said to ourselves. Plus, the cold and the altitude are good for the lungs, right? We have survived impossibly incorrect directions. At least we said to ourselves, we´ve had a nice long walk through town. Plus, it´s the journey not the destination that matters, right?

But more frequently than all the abovementioned excitements, we´ve endured the infamous long-distance South American bus ride many, many, many times over. An enormous (dis)advantage of independent cheapskate travel is the unparalleled experience of local overland transportation. The bus – in all its inherent filth, absurdity and inconvenience – has been an unending source of remarkable adventure throughout our travels in South America. Our experiences have been among the best and worst of our entire trip, though the polarities are at times rather interchangeable.

Our rides range from the very short to the very long - we spent no less than forty or fifty hours on a bus in the first three weeks alone. We´ve experienced the extraordinarily crowded (Kelsey´s shoulder almost unfailingly serves as a cheek-rest in such situations) to the blissfully bare. Our fellow passengers have been backpackers, babies, trussed-up chickens and disgusting drunks. Each and every boleto ensures a wholly unique experience...an utterly sensory overload of mindboggling proportions. We are regularly inundated by the bright, extraoridnary colors of indigenous textiles; the painful pixelage and intense volume of terrible movies; the unshakeable stench of unwashed human, unpleasant bodily functions and unappetizing bus snacks; the oddly organized chaos of bus terminals and seat-side shopping opportunities; the impossibly gymnastic operation of using an on-board bathroom; the stagnant, steaming midday air sinking into freezing nighttime temperatures; and, as always, the nauseating twists and turns of mountain-hugging highways. And thus, given the predictably unpredictable process of point A to point B, our long journey to Peru was certainly no exception.

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Amidst the chaos of Guayaquil´s terminal monstrosity, we were swept into the care of an enthusiastic man apparently associated with our chosen bus company. He rather merrily shuffled us from the ticket window to the elevator, from the elevator to the platform and from the platform to the bus – happily herding the overwhelmed group of gringos with a winning toothless smile. I was immediately suspicious of his efforts – few are quite so helpful in a bus terminal – but I sided with my optimistic inclinations. As we were rolling towards Cuenca, our jolly toothless friend took center stage, commanding the attention of a helplessly trapped passenger audience. His booming monologue regarding the necessity of happiness, smiling and laughter (even in the event of death) evoked the exchange of curious glances between all present gringos - ´okay, does this guy actually work on this bus?´

From my happy little front row aisle seat, I was in the fortunate position to have an extraordinarily clear view of his gaping, naked gum holes – juicy with the enthusiasm of his impassioned speech. As the show continued, I was treated to frequent showers of mystery moisture, no doubt a nauseating combination of unhindered saliva, sweat dripping from his long unwashed locks, and perhaps pure droplets of happiness oozing from his overexcited pores. Our star conducted a brief trivia contest – rewarding correct answers with dubiously ´American´ candies; questions ranged from animal facts to odd jokes about Michael Jackson – (for instance, ´what is black and white and likes children?´). At the end of the gameshow, he distributed ´gifts´ of cookies, waited for the suckers to start chowing down and then collected forty cents for each ´gift´ consumed. With a whirl of melodrama and a pocketful of change, the world´s most theatrical autobus entrepreneur sashayed off stage. We were left speechless, with our brows thoroughly furrowed by floating thoughts of Michael Jackson and dental hygiene. The rest of our trip was (un)fortunately uneventful, aside from yet another excellent American film export about an immoral midget named ´Littleman.´ At least, we said to ourselves, there is such great entertainment in the absurdity of it all.

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After finishing off our time in Cuenca, we began our horribly long pilgrimage to Lima, Peru. Due to no apparent reason, (aside from frequent bus driver pee-pee pull-overs), our four hour bus ride to Loja became six. Arriving at nearly midnight, we were lucky to find a soon-departing bus for the Peruvian border town, Piura. We stashed our bags with the usual suspicion and found our seats for the next eight hours – crossing our fingers for snooze-conducive conditions.

Of course, an absurdly loud dubbed American movie jerked us to attention almost immediately - ´Anaconda´ (which is not the best film to see just before going to the jungle) – involved a remarkable amount of slaughter-provoked screaming. We stuffed earplugs in our ears just to make the volume nearly tolerable. I lost consciousness somewhere between battling with my seat lever and pondering the processes of snake digestion.

Promptly around 1 or 2 am - (in the midst of a blissfully snake-free existence) - our bus shuddered to a halt on the side of the empty road. Great. Given my many other overland transportation experiences, I had pessimistic suspicions that were soon verified by the tinkering of tools. We´ve broken down, I said to Kelsey. But at least it´s nice and quiet? We spent the next two hours lolling in and out of slumber - occasionally jolted to consciousness by curious passing busloads. Yeah, it´s cool, I thought, we´re just chilling here on the side of the road with half the engine hanging out. We looked on enviously until our 3 am rescue. Dazed, confused, and looking a bit like bleary-eyed lunatics, we were unloaded and reloaded and soon delivered to the Peruvian border formalities. ´Good morning!´said the customs official. Kelsey and I weren´t sure we agreed.

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We arrived at the eyesore of bordertown Piura with mussed hair and grumpy demeanors...not entirely thrilled about our impending 16-18 hour adventure to Lima. ´Let´s just do it, and get it over with. I´m so tired I could sleep anywhere,´Kelsey said. We splashed out for the cheapest bus we could find...dreading the possibility of peeing in roadside bushes. When we arrived to the terminal, with all expectations scraping along the Peruvian concrete, our bloodshot eyes widened in wonder. Our bus was a gloriously luxurious double decker construction simply emanating comfort and contentedness. Our bags were checked with tags and roped securely into a large luggage compartment...no hope for Peruvian ladrones today! The stewardess (there was a stewardess!!!) directed us up the stairs (there were STAIRS!) to our seats - each the size of Titicaca and cozy enough to promptly swallow our exhaustion. The leg rest - not just for the feet, mind you - stretched our aching muscles into a satisfied oblivion. The toilet had a toilet seat, the sink had soap and towels...there was even a window for fresh air relief while relieving yourself. When the stewardess brought out a piping hot dinner, our reading lights actually functioned, our seats reclined to a nearly horizontal position, and a film of respectable content and volume blinked on...we realized we were in autobus nirvana. We both fell into the best bus sleep known to the shoestringer world, and awoke to a bit of fresh breakfast. I questioned whether I had, in fact, died and gone to heaven.

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Our autobus adventures have been the best of times, the worst of times, and without a doubt some of the most remarkably, unpredictably, fabulously filthy, absurd, and inconvenient of times. We have survived the chaos and discomfort of traveling thousands of miles. At least, we say to ourselves, we are never short on adventure. Plus, it´s the journey not the destination that matters, right?

Posted by MegMc2003 10:10 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Sun, Surf and Scarlet Skin

Our time in magnificent Montañita

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Our time in coastal hippie haunt Montañita may be defined by its polarities: days full of sweet sunshine relaxation...nights full of lunar-lit, dance-crazed fiestas.

Waking one morning to the sound of crashing ocean waves, we crawled out from beneath our pastel mosquito nets and threw open the curtains. Gazing upon an enthusiastic morning sea, we were ecstatic to see a dolphin pod swimming just off the beach...it was a spectacular way to begin our day.

We scurried to embrace the breaking sun, nuzzling our bodies into the soft, white sand and sluggishly loving life. Once we were thoroughly cooked to a crisp (the Equatorial sun made swift work of us), we cruised the town for a late lunch. We settled at a street side cafe and watched the Montañita world go by - half dressed men in dreadlocks, boys on bicycles, surfboards for sale, barefoot backpackers, and ´cigarettes´ of questionable origin...a scene set to the wafting, oddly harmonious mix of competing reggae and cumbia tunes.

We eased into our seats - (´I don´t think I´ve ever sunburned this part of my bum before!` Kelsey said) and lazily sipped divinely fresh fruit juice. We swiftly drew the attention of a friendly waiter, who sat with us throughout our meal. As he became engrossed in teaching Kelsey spanish language vulgarities, I was drawn into giving a highly impromptu English lesson to one of his friends. My ´estudiante´ and I spent the greater part of an hour or two simultaneously exchanging giggly grammar instruction, while highly inappropriate language erupted on occasion from Kelsey (much to the entertainment of all Ecuadorians in the vicinity). It was an utterly random, fabulously genuine experience. Between vowels and vulgarities, it was simply the best lunch break ever.

In spite of our inarguably scarlet skin, we returned to the beach for a bit longer. However, when a heated sand futbol match threatened to overtake us, (and a nearby dog attempted to urinate on Kelsey), we decided it was time to rest before meeting our new Ecuadorian friends for happy hour and a (supposedly) friendly match of Jenga.

Our amigos proved to be extremely formidable Jenga opponents, and I´ve never before been so stressed out by a pile of wooden blocks. I lost two rounds for our team, bringing us to a debt of $8, and the overly competitive side of me consented to a final revenge match...we could erase half our debt, or bring it to a whopping $12. Scoff if you will, but I can´t properly relay the intesity of the competition - the Jenga tower more than doubled in size, pocked by more holes than architecturally possible. I was utterly dumbfounded by our amigos...I never suspected these men could remove Jenga blocks with such grace or extreme concentration - nimbly skirting around the table for optimal angle, gingerly removing each block with remarkable dexterity. If the tower trembled, we gasped collectively...our tummies fluttering with each Jenga jiggle. We competed with such Jenga ferocity as has never been seen before! Unfortunately, Kelsey soon brought all our Jenga dreams tumbling down... no doubt all those in the vicinity questioned how such a game could so thoroughly seize our attentions. I handed over the $12 and consented utter defeat. Calling a truce, we decided to go out dancing.

We cruised into the bambo-fenced construction of the ´club´ - marveling at how wonderfully appropriate it seemed for Montañita. A bonfire graced the middle of a soft sand floor - furling deliciously dense woodsmoke into the open night air. An extraordinarily international crowd grooved to an offkey cover band, and it wasn´t long before the crisp evening air was stirred alive by a DJ´s booming American dance music. Fuelled by the pure energy pulsing through the crowd - and remnants of our sun-induced beach euphoria - we danced the night away.

Of course, Kelsey and I woke up the next morning feeling half-decomposed. Our exhaustion-induced misery was exacerbated as our increasingly angry full-body sunburns scraped against our backpacks. As we boarded our bus to Cuenca - far from the spectacular Ecuadorian coast - we winced our goodbyes to wild and wonderful Montañita.

Posted by MegMc2003 13:43 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Pictures posted!

Hello all!

After a ridiculous amount of effort, I´ve posted a small selection of photos right here on travellerspoint. The internet and I have been battling endlessly for hours...in the end, we reached a tenuous treaty that left most of my photos skewed in the wrong direction. Sorry. I hope you enjoy the photos!!!

http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/MegMc2003/

Posted by MegMc2003 15:46 Comments (0)

The Boobie Dance

"That´s the best kind after all."

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It took us two days of grungy grumpy travel to set foot on the gorgeous Ecuadorian coast - I swear I witnessed Kelsey´s icy blue glare melt a bit at the sight of the sun. We´d chosen the quaint little town of Puerto Lopez for its superb humpback whale watching opportunities and its proximity to the "poor man´s galapagos", Isla de La Plata. As we rolled into the bus ´station´(a glorified corner), we were quite pleased with our decision.

"See!" Kelsey exclaimed, "don´t these people just look happier in the heat?" The sun is no doubt a mood elevator, but I´m guessing the enormous $1 3-beers-in-one also had something to do with it. We shuffled down a dusty dirt road, gazing longingly at a lovely stretch of beach peppered with hammocks and picturesque blue boats. Charmingly ramshackle cafes stood opposite of sidewalk juice bars simply oozing relaxation; the whole scene was set to the music of coastal birds and floating Ecuadorian cumbia. "This town is my favorite so far," said Kelsey. She retracted her fangs. (kidding, little sis!)

The chill vibe of the town was utterly intoxicating, and we spent our first day simply meandering along the beach (Kelsey was very captivated by some sort of slimy beach sea life), watching others (those less interested in slimy beach life) meander the beach from our balcony, and introducing our (increasingly uncomfortable) tummies to the local gastronomy. Indeed, the seafood was phenomenal, but I was too preoccupied by a very poor bus stop food decision made earlier to really appreciate it. As my tummy rumbled, fourteen people fell out of their hammocks.

We awoke the next morning eager for our mammoth mammal watching. As we strode across the beach to our designated tour boat, we had the olfactory pleasure of witnessing a lively morning fish market. Men bustled around in the characteristic blue boats, bartering and buying, hacking their catches into hunks and engaging in the potent testosterone of the moment. We were no doubt conspicuously gringa - our mouths flew open at the sight of an enormous swordfish and a pile of hammerhead sharks gracing the sand. Needless to say, the smell of commerce was also ripe in the morning sun.

Our first whale watching expedition was not altogether futile, but definitely disappointing. We saw a number of promising water spouts, and a few flashes of whale flesh in the distance. Our guide assured us that there would be an additional opportunity to see the whales at their finest upon our return from the island. I was clinging to the hope of a very close encounter while actively willing a whole pod of humpbacks to nuzzle our boat. Whales are not terribly responsive to such a command.

"Silver Island" is said to be the depository of Sir Francis Drake´s cast off booty stolen from the Spanish. Given that silver is certainly less valuable than gold and was apparently weighing down the getaway boat, Francis reputedly chunked it somewhere in the vicinity of this guano-graced island. It really was a lovely place - a bit shrubby but dramatically swathed in hills, forest, and an array of interesting birds. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable of the flora and fauna, pointing out interesting sights throughout our excellent hike. One little fruit - looking a bit like a blanched grape - is apparently an extremely potent gastrointestinal...cleanser. Kelsey and I almost simultaneously declared that we needed no help in that department. Even more interestingly, we were stunned to see that the bath loofahs so valued back home are a derivative of a snaking, spiny, parasitic looking plant with enormous seed pods. The botanist in Kelsey was euphoric.

But, perhaps most interesting of all, were the resident birds. We were strangely thrilled to see blue footed boobies in very close proximity, as they have an odd habit of standing smack dab in the middle of the hiking path. These odd little birds have very blue feet (duh) and a fascinating mating ritual - the male performs a sort of flapping dance to impressive the females. Without any maturity at all, I giggled at this impressive boobie dance. An Englishman on the tour remarked, "well, that´s the best kind of all!"

We also had the pleasure of seeing puffed up red-throated male frigate birds also in full courting glory- I believe human females should expect such effort from human males! We tore ourselves away from avian chivalry and hiked back down to our boat. Exhausted but satisfied with our poor man´s galapagos experience - we rounded out the rest of our time on island snorkeling in the oddly navy-turquoise water.

Full speed in the direction of Puerto Lopez, I´d almost stopped eagle-eyeing the water when all my humpback dreams came true...well except the boat-nuzzling part. A number of whales crested quite a bit closer to our boat, and we were treated to amazing views playful whale activity - swimming, blowing water and gracefully leaping from the water. Yet another amorous male (what is in the air!??) slapped his tale on the water in an effort to impress. With each remarkable display, the whole boat gave a collective "WOW!!!" The excitement was truly palpable, each of us poised, virtually breathless, and begging for an encore appearance of these VIWs (very important whales, naturally.) Odd that humans get so wound up and geeky about such things. As our boat bounded across the ocean to Puerto Lopez, Kelsey and I sat grinning as if on a Disney World ride.

We wrapped up our night with a little beach-front seafood (that went down a bit more smoothly this time), $1 three-beers-in-one and frothy fresh fruit juice. "I am really born to live on the beach," said Kelsey. In a place like this, I thought, how could anyone want to live anywhere else?

Posted by MegMc2003 10:15 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

"If I die...

I don´t want the last thing I see to be 2 Fast 2 Furious..."

sunny

As we were standing rather awkwardly on the Pan American, we reconsidered our decision to flag down the bus to transfer town Quevedo. We´d been told several times that a bus traveling the same route - (described by Lonely Planet as "one of the roughest, least-traveled and perhaps most spectacular bus routes") - had wrecked only the night before. This deteriorating little construction snaked through the highland Andes and plunged into more tropical vegetation heading westward - I was trying desperately to reach the Coast before kelsey fully destroyed me. Given that the wreck only involved one fatality and a single hospitalization, I decided these odds were much more favorable than spending more time with a hell-bent freezing cold sister. We jogged over to the sketchy looking contraption and embarked on our potentially fatal bus ride.

As we wiggled into our seats, we were pleased to see that the bus company had provided entertainment...no doubt to distract its customers from thoughts of a very grisly death. Most ironically, the film choices were "The Fast and the Furious" (a violence and wreck-ridden car racing flick) followed closely by "2 Fast 2 Furious" (the equally terrible sequel). As I was deciding that Vin Diesel is indeed a better actor when dubbed, Kelsey furiously rubbed her good-luck jade ring, averted her eyes from the horrifying cliffs at the edge of the road, and said: "if I die, I don´t want the last thing I see to be 2 Fast 2 Furious." We laughed too loud at how horrifyinginly (in)appropriate the films were for our particular situation. As the bus hurtled over potholes, through streams and around hairpin mountain turns, we made sure to white-knuckle clutch anything we could.

The ride truly was spectacular - shrubby mountain flora seemed to transform instantly into the lush and tropical; thunderous rivers poured from the depths of the forests; staggering cliffs melted into hazy little valleys. It was a truly intoxicating diversity of sights. Even more fortunately, the extraordinarily bumpy ride had in some way disabled the VCR...instead, hypnotic Ecuadorian techno-salsa cumbia music boomed through the air, simultaneously assaulting and assuaging our death-bus anxieties. After four hours of fun, we arrived in Quevedo feeling quite shaken and stirred but very much alive. With an air of triumph and defiance, we transferred to a safer, albeit much less exciting, Ecuadorian death trap and headed toward the coast.

Posted by MegMc2003 09:46 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

Andean Adventures

Our time in the lovely Ecuadorian boondocks.

rain

Before we left for the highlands, Kels and I made one last stop in el capital: La Virgen de Quito, a large monument perched rather conspicuously on a hill overlooking the city. The monument afforded us a new panorama that dwarfed even that of the Cathedral. Quite ironically, you can also climb up inside the Virgen (insert off-color virginity remark here....) for an even better view. It was a less harrowing experience than one might expect (kelsey sighed in relief), and a very suitable final activity. Standing in the sun, overlooking the sprawling, lovely metropolis of Quito, we said our goodbyes.

Our journey to the highlands was ridden with sensory overloads: the organized chaos of the bus terminals, the screams of unhappy children, blaring bus horns, suffocating exhaust fumes, and, best of all - the nauseating stench of very unwashed human. As three wholly disgusting, intoxicated men crammed into the two seats behind us, it was all we could do to keep from gagging. I was thrilled to find an elbow resting upon my head on a number of occasions...luckily, a nearby window preserved our (olfactory) sanity. At least, I thought, there´s no chickens or evangelists this time!! (knock on wood.)

We arrived in the tiny village of Zumbahua on Friday evening, ripe and ready for the lively Saturday morning indigenous market. The setting was absolutely stunning - simple dirt roads, strolling indigenous women clad in traditional garments (skirts, a fedora-like hat with a feather, long hair bound in hand woven trim, and usually, an extremely adorable drooling baby bobbing around on their back), a variety of adorable farm animals (we´ve decided that pigs are really quite charming), and a stunning green, misty mountain backdrop to boot. We spent our evening relaxing on the terrace, chatting about anything and everything, and watching the villagers erect the market stall skeletons.

We awoke at what we believed to be an early hour, but the market was already in full swing. The sleepy little village had been instantly transformed into a bustling hub of trade and commerce - hundreds of indigenous families from the mountains had poured into Zumbahua to hawk their goods: fruit, the telltale clothing items of indigenous women, farm animals (those freshly slaughtered, and those nearly so), typical gold-pearl jewelery, housewares, crafts, rope, and a variety of foodstuffs. It was fascinating to see such an unspoiled culture thriving so completely - we wandered the stalls, snapping photos when appropriate, and admired the goings-on. For the most part, the people were extraordinarily friendly; I feel as though a huge, genuine smile is as much of the traditional female costume as the fedora hat! Trotting around with children or absolutely mind-boggling loads upon their backs, I found these women to be intensely human and beautiful, as if the entirety of the culture depends upon their obvious strength.

As things thinned out around noon, we hopped in the back of a truck headed to Laguna Quilotoa, reputedly one of the most staggering sights in Ecuador. I was absolutely thrilled to be traveling in such a way - just two awkward white girls, clinging to the back of an enormous truck, chatting with a number of indigenous fellow passengers. The ride took about 45 minutes - bumping, thumping, swerving, and curving through glorious highland countryside. We stopped and started, picked up and dropped off, deftly dodging pot holes, ravines, sheep and children. Upon our arrival to the one-road town, we decided to stay in a hostal run by a local indigenous family. The grass roof, dirt floor and adorable little piggy in the front yard promised us a fabulous time. It was extremely basic - our hosts slept in the very next room - but we (okay, I) was happy to be having such a very 'authentic' experience. We dumped our packs, chatted with the host, and then headed off to hike the Laguna.

It was indeed a staggering sight. We reached the top of a hill and peered over to a truly awe-inspiring vista: a deeply turquoise crater lake rimmed by enormous, jagged, green mountains. It was enough to inspire a sharp intake of breath for the both of us - I simply can`t properly relay the beauty of the scene with words. We´d ambitously decided to hike the permiter of the lake, but we were halted by a virtually vertical ascent about halfway around the rim. We stopped to rest, taking in the incredible scenery: bright bursts of wildflowers amidst mountain greenery, tiny indigenous grass houses, and even a number of llamas and alpacas. As we hiked back to to the village Quilotoa, our exhaustion coupled with the altitude and left us gasping for energy.

The mist of the mountains descended and we hurried back to our hostal as rain began to fall. We chowed down on potato soup, arroz con pollo and piping hot tea, and spent the rest of our evening chatting with our host family and playing cards with the two other guests - Quitenos on a weekend retreat. Old maid (abuelita), crazy eights (ocho loco), Go Fish (pescar) and 21 (veinte uno) are surprisingly international past times.

As the evening wore on, the highland temperature plummeted and my breath seemed to freeze before my face. Needless to say, warm-weather Kelsey was extremely grumpy. Between us, we layered on three pairs of pants, six shirts, two jackets, five pairs of socks, one pair of gloves (mine!), and one shawl. We`d decided to maximize our body heat by sharing a bed and piling seven blankets upon us. The cold still seemed to nip at our noses. "I`m going to get very cranky if we stay here much longer," said Kelsey, "this is my summer vacation!" Knowing full well the potential extent of Kelsey`s wrath, we decided to leave the next day (after a highland horse ride, of course).

The next morning, we emerged from our bed fully dressed for an arctic adventure. I have to admit that I see a mild appeal to simply sleeping in my clothes...Kelsey glared at me as she wrapped her shawl around her bundled little body. I´d say her morning tea was of the half-empty persuasion...

Bellies full and relatively warm, we mounted our less-than-enthusiastic horses and embarked on a 3 hour expedition to `la cueva de los Incas`. In the Ecuadorian highlands, saddles are really only saddle blankets with an unconvincing cinch, while bridles are a bit of rope manuevered around the nose and neck...I suddenly realized my riding lessons would be of very little help. Our two Quiteno friends and all the family progeny came along - one horse even had a fuzzy little foal in close pursuit. We were, no doubt, a humorous sight. The indigenous children were regularly titching (CHHH!!) at our horses for pigging out at every opportunity. My ´saddle`was making a slow but threatening descent to the ground, and each bouncy little trot brought the most impressive expressions of anguish over our faces. (we are still puzzled how our male companions survived). The ride was lovely of course - the irridescently green landscape was completely bathed in a silent, spooky mountain mist; the contrast was striking and certainly remniscent of the Scottish highlands. The soundtrack for our adventure was almost hypnotically rythmic: ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud, munch, munch, munch, "CHH!", trot, trot, trot, "OWW!", ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud....

The cave itself was really nothing spectacular, but it was a fabulous ride there and back, and it was interesting to imagine Shamans practicing their medicinal miracles in such a place. Nowadays, it´s really little more than a dripping little nitch out of the earth - home to vultures and bears. We hopped back on our horses - grumpy to be disturbed during snack time - and encouraged them to head back home.

Returning to the hostal, we dismounted without even a speck of elegance. Our bums (etc....) would be sore for days. Holding to my promise of departure, we jumped into the back of mini pickup truck headed for the Pan American. A tarp had been hurled over our heads in consideration of a new onslaught of rain. We huddled, knees to chin, with four other people and our too-big backpacks...it was as if we were being smuggled. As the minitruck careened its way to the top of the mountain, our deep-tissue bum bruises voiced their serious discontent. Waiting by the highway to flag down a bus, dripping wet and frosty, we bid the Highlands a bittersweet adieu.

Posted by MegMc2003 13:01 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

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