Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ecuador


Short but sweet, a tiny country with a whole lot to offer. I flew to Quito (yet again, in the middle of the night) and sat through the hour-long car ride to my hostel. 30 bucks a night for a private room with a big comfy bed? I could get used to it. That kind of quality location somewhere like NYC or Tokyo would have cost closer to 200 a night.
            I took a walking tour in the morning, guided by the enthusiastic hotel worker and cultural food critic Ovidio. I’m typically against organized tour, but they certainly have their place. I learned a lot more about the city than I could have hoped to on my own. And damn right I was going on the food lover tour later in the week.
            I met a European traveler named Philippe and toured around the city with him. We visited the colossal Basilica del Voto Nacional and made the haul all the way up to the top of the highest steeple (an unthinkable idea in the states) where we were greeted with a staggering view of the city.
            It turns out that he had similar plans for the next day. The next morning, we were on an early bus to Mindo accompanied by two other Swiss girls that Philippe had met the night before.  There’s nothing like a little landslide to hold you up for a few hours, but once we got through and entered the beginnings of the rainforest, intricate beauty filled our eyes. Lush, vibrant mountains greeted us as we arrived. A fantastic little tree house style hotel found us. Unbelievably cheap and beautifully original.
            The next day we went on a hike through the jungle. A (very) sketchy cable car (this thing would have failed the most lax of rigging inspections) sailed us through the jungle over a vibrant gorge to the beginning of the trek. About 45 minutes into the hike, we found the two stunning waterfalls we were looking for. The water was chilling and refreshing. And then, we all learned what they meant by “rain forest.”
            A torrential downpour came out of nowhere and ruined our lives. Or at least it tried. In reality, it was invigorating and humbling. The cable car and truck ride back pushed images of more primitive times; one of those moments where you feel truly alive.
            There just so happened to be a chocolate farm and restaurant right next door to our rooms. The chocolate tour was awesomely informative (and of course, delicious). A young entrepreneur from Hawaii had moved there with his Ecuadorian wife to make innovative chocolate development his passion and life’s work. You can tell right away when somebody has that passion about them. Kind of makes you question what you’re doing with your own life.
            Ecuador was fantastic until the last few hours when someone tried to steal my camera in a scam. You want to visit these places and enjoy and learn about their culture and way of life. And then someone blatantly disrespects you as an individual. It messes with your head a bit, but you always must get back up and continue on. The bad comes with the good, and it’s all part of seeing and enjoying this crazy world we all live in. My camera and I are still together and in tact, so I push on. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Peru


It always seems like it’s the middle of the night when you arrive in a new country from a long flight. But that never matters to the taxi driver mafia, always preying on any new tired soul that just wants a bed. It’s always a good idea to do your research before flying to a new place. Figure out the taxi scams well before you arrive and have a plan. It’s just part of being a safe, responsible traveler.

Man did we jam a lot of stuff into this one.  Lima, Nazca, Arequipa, Puno, Cuzco,  Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu. I typically don’t plan out a trip so thoroughly, but sometimes you can see a lot more if you do. Especially when you have a limited time frame. I had heard a lot of bad accounts from friends about Lima, but to be honest, I quite liked it. We found a nice place to stay in Barranco and enjoyed wandering the streets and gawking at the beautiful homes. Lima was also a fantastic first dive into Peruvian food. Ceviche and Alpaca steaks until you explode, and Coca Sour’s to ease any headache imaginable.  We explored nearby Miraflores and found a nice park and a great little tea shop. Now I’m not naive here, I know that Lima’s reputation for poverty, wealth divide, and danger is founded and widely spread. But I found a certain charm in the city that I was not expecting given my word of mouth preconceptions.

                We went on to Nazca where we took an exhilarating (and probably excessively dangerous) dune buggy ride through the desert with a very excited and not quite worried enough driver. We visited the aqueducts and Cahuachi, an unexpectedly massive ceremonial ruin left over from the Nazca peoples in the early Common Era. We also got to do a little sandboarding on the dunes. I failed miserably.

                The next day Ben arrived and we headed to the airport. We hopped on a little 6-seater airplane to do a flyover tour of the Nazca lines. The lines are massive geoglyphic designs hand made on the desert floor. They depict images such as spiders, trees, monkeys, birds, fish, etc. A truly impressive site if you can get over the vomit inducing stomach churn of the airplane. I’ve been in several small planes and never had a problem. This time, I was sweating bullets and holding my stomach down for the entirety of the trip. Others aboard weren’t so lucky.

                We took the bus to Arequipa and found a fantastic hotel with the biggest bedrooms that I’ve ever seen. The effects of the high altitude started to set in as we wandered the streets in search of souvenirs for the family. This is where we tried Cuy (or roasted guinea pig) for the first time. Ok, but not super impressive. There’s hardly any meat on it! Arequipa was a really beautiful city; I wish we had had longer there.

                It was a long bus ride to Puno, but it was worth every second. We headed straight to a handmade floating reed island on Lake Titicaca to stay with a family for a night. This was probably the best part of the trip for me. What a lovely experience. It’s excellent to see such fantastic craftsmanship from such dedicated people. It’s amazing to be around someone that can literally build anything that they need to survive. A wholesome, escaping, calm experience, a great way to really get away. Wow.

                And then the long road to Machu Picchu. From Cuzco, we took a nice train ride for several hours to the little tourist town of Aguas Calientes. It’s a stunning little town set on the side of the mountains. Really beautiful. No roads go to it; it’s only accessible by train. And unfortunately, it has the worst food out of any city I’ve ever been to. Really really pathetic, it’s hard to believe that nobody in a place so nice has any pride in their food.

                What do you expect anyone to say about Machu Picchu?? Did you expect some kind of review? Some kind of eloquently written stream of thought about how perfect, amazing, awe-inspiring it is?? Maybe you should just go. See it for yourself. There’s a reason so many people do. Peru, excellent destination.