Equatorial Jaunt

Quito

For the first time in a while, I managed to reach Quito, the capital of Ecuador without losing a single possession. Huzzah! Arriving in the city at 5:30am was rather inconveient, but I found a little corner of the lovely, modern bus terminal to relax for a while until the sun came up. I eschewed the touristy La Mariscal region of the city and chose instead to stay in the colonial center where my odds of being pickpocketed were slightly lower. I first stopped at a place called the Secret Garden, highly recommended in the guide book, but there was no one around to talk to so I stole some wi-fi and checked to see if there was any other options nearby. I settled on a place called Hostel Revolution, only five blocks further down the road. I got to the front door at 7:15 and then found a sign saying that they don’t answer the door until 8. Lovely. Quito is pretty cold in the morning owing to its elevation and I had no desire to continue wandering the streets so I hunkered down on the doorstep like a well-dressed vargrant to wait it out. When I was finally admitted to the building, I found out the place was full, but someone would be checking out at noon. I curled up with my backpack and some pillows in the TV room and stole a much-needed nap.

IMG_6056
Fun graffiti, ten points if you can figure out the reference

 

The hostel was worth the wait, finding that fine balance of being really social and fun without nightly drunken assholes ruining your sleep. The place was owned by a Croatian lady who had lived in Toronto for the past 20 years- she had just purchased the business from an Australian guy and was in the process of updating the place with more plugins and better stairs. Because of this, I was informed that I would have to check out by September 25; it was only the 22nd so I figured I would be fine. Some aimless wandering finished up the day followed by a proper sleep in an actual bed. Ah the simple pleasures.

Cool mural
Bullfighting mural at Equator park

On September 23, the equinox, I attempted to leave the hostel early but the combination of sleeping in and crowded transit meant that I didn’t start out toward the equator until after 10am. The actual site of the equator is only 25km from Quito but I had to take a combination of metro and bus so it took a while to get there, especially after my bus broke down.

Mitad del Mundo!
Mitad del Mundo!

 

The Ecuadorians have built a bit of a tourist park around the monument marking the equator, as measured  by the French Academy of Sciences in 1736. So while the spot is impressive, the equator is actually slightly off from that location. Sadly, my camera battery died before I got to take some shots of the official equator, but the sun was still directly over my head at noon, and that was just damn cool. Fun fact, “Ecuador” just means “equator” in Spanish… not a terribly creative country name, in the end.

IMG_6039

In the afternoon I caught the wrong bus back to town and ended up completely lost, but I was too stubborn to catch a taxi so I walked for about 3 hours to make it back to my hostel. I think the pollution got to me and I spent 2 very unexciting days being sick. With nothing to occupy my time, I mostly surfed the internet and after a bit of googling I decided, “what the hell, why not go to the Galapagos?” and bought a ticket leaving September 26. I occasionally have a problem with impulsiveness. Of course I was supposed to leave the hostel by the 25th so I made a plan to sleep in the airport the night before my flight. When I told this to the hostel owner, she took pity on me and let me sleep there one more night for free. This is why I love travel culture. Next stop Galapagos Islands!

IMG_6035

Coastal Rambling and Too Much Whiskey

Lima in the sunlight
Lima in the sunlight

Arriving in Lima, I was still mourning the loss of my beloved travel pants- stain resistant, quick dry, and they made my bum look good, goddamn magical pants! Sigh. On the bright side, at least the sun was making a rare appearance in the perennially foggy city (weather pun!). I stayed at a place called the Red Psycho Llama Hostel in Miraflores, on the recommendation of my Aussie friend Lucy; treating myself to a private room, blissfully bedbug free. I spent a full day and night in Lima, checking out a few corners I missed in my previous visit. The colonial center of the city is really quite beautiful, but my most lingering memory of the day was the group of nuns I came across while wandering near the main plaza. They had set up an impromptu concert on a street corner, complete with guitars and amps, to raise money for a Namibian charity. Those ladies could rock!

Rock and Roll nuns
Rock and Roll nuns
100 year old cafe near the main government building
100 year old cafe near the main government building

Against my better judgement I caught a night bus to Trujillo, with the intention of checking out the surfing suburb of Huanchaco; another night bus, another lost item. This time it was my mom’s IPod I had borrowed with all the podcasts I had been saving for rainy days. All those Radiolab episodes gone to some bus cleaner who won’t even be able to appreciate them because they’re in English. Not to mention it was my mom’s IPod (sorry Mom!!!). I was never built to function immediately upon becoming conscious. I have made a new rule that I will no longer take night buses unless absolutely necessary as I am quickly running out of possessions.

September is firmly in the shoulder season for surfing in Peru so Huanchaco was practically deserted. I had already had some time to mellow out in Lima so I continued north after only a single night, in search of a little more excitement. On the local bus to the main station in Trujillo traffic got pretty heavy and as we pulled up to a light, a second bus came swerving into our lane and seriously sideswiped us. I was sitting on the side of the impact and glass shattered out of the back window immediately behind me. I shouted and dived rather dramatically into the main aisle. Nobody else on the bus even blinked an eye- I guess this is a fairly normal occurrence for the locals? I sheepishly climbed back into my chair and stuck my head out of one of the broken windows to survey the damage. Other than some broken glass and a new dent to go along with the bus’s previous collection, the mechanicals seemed no worse for wear. The bus pulled over to the curb and everyone silently filed off. Unnerved by the calmness of my fellow passengers, I quickly flagged down a taxi and rode the rest of the way to the terminal taking deep breaths, trying to calm my pulse a little. Well I said I wanted some excitement, didn’t I? I boarded my bus to Mancora without further incident, but it took a while for me to relax after that.

Quiet Huanchaco
Quiet Huanchaco

IMG_5951

Loki Hostel is a chain of budget accommodations found in various locations throughout South America. Last time I was in La Paz, I stayed at a similar place called Wild Rovers. This is not the type of place you go to have a meaningful cultural experience. At 31, I feel like I am on the ragged edge of the target demographic, so I figured, now or never. I arrived in Mancora, a fishing village turned beach destination with a decent surf break and more beach bars than you can count. Unlike the Mexican Riviera, this place still has a bit of a casual, unforced feel to it. There are still some locals who actually fish for a living and though there are the persistent touts hassling you when you get off the bus, it doesn’t have that desperate, frantic tone you may find in more developed beach spots. This might just be the laid back, Peruvian mentality, though. The hostel is what can only be described as a backpacker resort. There is a central pool and hammocks and a huge bar with attached restaurant, and of course everything you buy can be put on your tab. I even ran into my friend James, who I hadn’t seen since Cuzco. He was working behind the bar in exchange for room and board. My first night involved blue curaco slushies, whiskey and beer pong. There may also have been a round of strip Jenga? Luckily I’m very good at Jenga.

Chillin' by the pool
Chillin’ by the pool
James serving me drinks slightly stronger than officially authorized
James serving me drinks slightly stronger than officially authorized

The next day I was feeling every day of my 31 years, while the 20-year-old Argentinians were doing laps of the pool. I promised to do Karaoke with James that night, but he was forced to rock out to Hotel California all by himself, poor sod. The day-long hangover convinced me that I might actually be to old for this shit (or maybe I just shouldn’t mix whiskey and blue booze slushies…). If you are not partying, there is not really much to do in Mancora so I pulled up stakes after three nights of torturing my liver. My secondary motivation was that I had this crazy idea that I might try to make it to the equator in Ecuador for the equinox. Nerdy as it sounds, I thought it might be cool to have one foot in spring and one foot in autumn. This would mean a marathon run through the country, skipping much of the highlands to get to Quito in time. After five weeks in Peru, I decided I had seen enough highlands to suit me for a while, so I said goodbye to Peru and crossed the border that day.

Letting the Bed Bugs Bite in Huacachina

Desert Oasis
Desert Oasis

Finally pulling out of Arequipa, I headed to Ica on a night bus (and it had wi-fi! Are you listening Greyhound?). From Ica I then flagged down a taxi and reached my final destination of Huacachina, a literal oasis in the desert. There is a little lagoon and palm trees and sand dunes and everything I felt like I was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. At any moment Yosemite Sam was going to come strolling up the street with his six-shooters. I chose a hostel that was fairly cheap but had a busy cafe out front serving proper bacon, which was what sold me in the end. Never judge a hostel by its bacon. My room was full of teenage Brits on their gap year- nice enough blokes, but not exactly my peer group. The one guy kept complaining he couldn’t fit his new purchases in his bag because he had brought too many condoms. Poor little fella- though I guess you have to appreciate the optimism.

IMG_5856

IMG_5865

I wandered around the oasis for a while, a full lap of the place took all of 15 minutes and then went in search of my friend Marylin who I had met in Arequipa. I found her easily in the small settlement and she told me she was going on a dune buggy tour the next day which included sandboarding down the giant dunes. While it did sound like fun, my board and hill skills were limited to an ill-advised attempt to learn snowboarding over 10 years ago. I promised her I would think about it and after a long phone call to my bank where I once again had to explain to them that I was in fact actually in Peru and not being defrauded of my life savings, I made an early night of it and headed to bed. The room was surprisingly cool considering the heat outside, thanks to a small open skylight in the vaulted ceiling. It was because of this that I did’t really think anything of it when I woke several times throughout the night to serious itching; I thought there must have been mosquitos invading through the hole above. Nope.  I woke up to dozens of bites all over my upper body and bed bugs visibly fat with my blood crawling in the sheets. Ew ew ew ew ew.

I immediately went to the front desk and asked to get the money back I had paid upfront for my second night; the desk clerk was initially reluctant to give me money back, saying they didn’t do refunds. I then presented several of the insect invaders from my bed to her on a business card and then she immediately gave me a refund for both nights. Another woman who worked there walked up and had the temerity to suggest that I might have brought the beasties in with me. I chose not to immediately smack her and simply left the place and walked across to where Marylin was staying. Needing something to distract me from the itching, I decided to go on the dune buggy  tour after all and that afternoon we headed out to the endless dunescape on these monstrous multipassanger dune buggies that looked rather insectoid themselves.

Having been warned that some of the drivers could be a little crazy, I was confident that my quading and motorcycle background would give me a strong stomach for the adventure- I definitely underestimated the cojones on these guys. Barreling long at breakneck speed, we would approach the downward slope of a dune at such an angle that you couldn’t see the bottom before going over the edge. Our buggy got to hear a few of my most choice swearwords on the way down, to be sure. When it came to the sandboarding, I made no attempt to use the foot straps on the board they provided and instead went down my first dune toboggan-style, after explaining to a few people from Europe what a toboggan was. Most people who tried to go down the hill standing on the board fell down almost immediately and eventually switched over to my style. On the second dune the guide convinced me to try it head-first, since I had somehow become the ringleader in our little motley crew. More swear words, but damn was it fun once I realized I wasn’t facing imminent death.

IMG_5900

IMG_5889

We cruised back to Huacachina as the sun set among the dunes and I had yet another early night, since I had promised Marylin to go with her on her 3am(!) bus back to Lima. While packing I managed to leave behind one of my only two pairs of pants and a sleeping bag liner. My bag gets lighter by the day. I then almost missed the bus because I couldn’t find my passport when I got to the ticket counter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- I am NOT a morning person.

IMG_5920

Indecision in Canyon Country

I arrived in Arequipa with every intention of doing another solo hike (because I didn’t learn my lesson the first time, I suppose). There is a rather spectacular trek through the Colca Canyon, second or third deepest in the world depending on the metric you use. The standard tour runs between two and three days and stays primarily in the central part of the canyon. I mapped out an alternative route that brought me further west in the less touristy areas but this also doubled the elevation gain and added a day, making it a slightly more challenging trek than the last one I completed, but with the bonus that I would be able to stay in local villages along the way so I would not need to carry a tent nor any meals with me.

Saw this old beast while touring around Arequipa- didn't know International made more than tractors.
Saw this old beast while touring around Arequipa- didn’t know International made more than tractors.

IMG_5619

Arequipa with one of it's three neighboring volcanoes in the background (I think this one is Misti? Or maybe Chachani?)
Arequipa with one of it’s three neighboring volcanoes in the background (I think this one is Misti? Or maybe Chachani?)

After a couple days of planning and about 70 soles spent on maps, I eventually wussed out and took a one day bus tour instead. My feet were still not back to normal and I just couldn’t mentally commit to more solitude. I am not on some pilgramage or walk-about to find myself; I know myself pretty well by now, thank you very much. For once I decided that I didn’t have to do something the hard way, and I got to hang out with some fun people on my bus in the process. The bits of Colca Canyon I did see were absolutely gorgeous and when we stopped at a lookout, a huge condor flew mere feet from my head. The bus did end up with a flat tire, but that just meant we got to stroll around the town of Chivay for the afternoon. Not a bad way to spend a couple hours. And in the end my feet were much happier with me.

I chose not to hike down this. Looking down from the top was enough.
I chose not to hike down this. Looking down from the top was enough.
Condor country
Condor country

 

Cactus flower
Cactus flower

Also while in Arequipa I ran into my friend Lucy, who I had met in Cusco along with her friend Emmy- we went out drinking and dancing though their stamina outlasted mine and I called it quits at only 3am. Clubbing at altitude is hard work! Suffice to say I have no photographic evidence of the evening, probably for the best. We parted ways, with them heading south to Boliva and me heading north back toward Lima and eventually Ecuador. Such is the nature of backpacking friendships, alas. Next stop, Huacachina!

Logistics and Floating Islands

After the climax of Machu Picchu, I felt a liittle deflated when I returned to Cusco. I had just done something I had wanted to do for years, and had a feeling of “now what? There was still almost three months left in my trip and I was feeling a little directionless. First thing  first, I decided to divest myself of the rest of my camping gear, having vowed to pay for a tour if I wanted to go tramping in the wilderness again, if only to save my poor feet from further vandalism. After talking to the lovely lady at the South American Explorers’ Club (of which I was now a member), I took her recommendation and went around to a couple of outdoor equipment shops and offered to sell my tent and sleeping mat. In the end I got about $80 for the set, which I was pretty happy with. I decided to hold on to the trekking pole for future hiking and as a potential weapon against robbers and over-enthusiastic touts.

Rather than take a night bus to Puno and Lake Titikaka, I booked a tour bus that stopped at several interesting spots along the 6 hour drive. There was a big Baroque cathedral, some pre-inca ruins, and a museum or two. Pretty underwhelming, but after Machu Picchu, it would be a junior high band playing a concert where Beyonce had opened for them.

Beta Incan ruins
Beta Incan ruins
There is ALWAYS a souvenir stand
There is ALWAYS a souvenir stand
High pass on our way to Puno
High pass on our way to Puno

I arrived in Puno by suppertime and checked in to a place called “Lucky Your House”. Don’t ask me where the name came from; I have a feeling the owner had a bad run-in with the Google translator. I was sharing my room with two gals from New York I had met on my tour bus. They were nice enough but kept lapsing into Chinese which made me feel a bit lonely in the room as they chatted away to each other. The next morning they were gone on a tour and I got to sleep in until 9am! Madness!

Near the market in Puno
Near the market in Puno

The reason I was in Puno was to check out the floating islands of Lake Titikaka, built by a people trying to escape the conquest of the Inca way back before the Spanish showed up. The lake is a dead-end basin, meaning no water ever actually flows out and the water level is maintained by mountain stream run-off and evaporation This also mean that it has a high level of vegetation. The people of the floating islands gather the reeds that grow in abundance and have constructed not only the floating islands, but also huts, boats, watchtowers, and it’s even food. I tried one and the inside kind of tastes like cucumber.

At 3800m, Lake Titikaka is the highest navigable lake in the world, and also pretty damn big, so there are actually hundreds of these islands on it, in both Peru and Bolivia. Since I chose to sleep in, I was limited to taking a ferry out to only the closest of the island groups, Uros. The boat dropped us off at a small group of huts where a local man explained about their daily life and the challenges of living on a big bed of wet grass. He showed me his hut where he had a solar panel rigged up to allow for a tv and stereo and offered to let me try on some of his wife’s traditional clothing. I politely declined, feeling a little weird about the whole thing.

IMG_5589
Orlando, explaining about the wonders of lake reeds.
Yummy reeds
Yummy reeds
The floating islands of Uros
The floating islands of Uros
Intrepid adventurer :p
Intrepid adventurer :p

Later we took a ride on one of the traditional reed boats to another island that hosted a couple restaurants and the post office, as well as the obligatory souvenir stands. With a little more time I could have booked a room and stayed overnight further afield on one of the more remote islands, but the day trip was enough for me. I always feel a bit awkward intruding into other peoples lives as a tourist, even if I am paying for the privilege.

I imagine you would want to be very careful about cookfires on a floating island made of grass
I imagine you would want to be very careful about cookfires on a floating island made of grass
Old boat
Old boat
New boat
New boat

By the time the ferry drove me back to the mainland, I had a nice deep burn on my nose (the sun at 3800m is a cruel mistress), and a big storm was rolling. I stopped at the bus station to grab a ticket to Arequipa and headed back to my room. Despite the fact my stomach was still not 100%, I was sick of bread and water so I went to a fancy restaurant on the square and had some amazing grilled lake trout and veggies in wine sauce. I regret this decision now, but at least the food was tasty enough before the cramps kicked it.