Inca Jungle Trek; Day 1

We took off for the mountains. There were eleven of us from all around the world packed into a van with 14 mountain biked stacked on the roof. All in all it was 4 French, 2 Peruvians, 3 Argentinians, and 2 Americans with an Incan guide who called himself Loco. Our first stop was about 2 hours away, high into the Andes. We climbed out of the trees, over mountain streams, and just below enormous peaks. Eventually we pulled over in a clearing and took the bikes down. After gearing up in our padded suits, we took to our bikes and began our ride.

For three hours we sped down the mountains. We passed under waterfalls, over streams, and on the edges of sheer cliffs. We were flanked by cars, trucks and busses while having to pass the the occasional group of livestock. The thrill of the ride was truly incredible. Surrounded by the enormity of the mountains, racing around the bends in the road, I felt more alive than ever. The weather changed dramatically every 20min as we drove through the clouds. There was rain, mist, and cold at the start. At the bottom of our course we were met with plenty of sunshine and some oppressively hot temps. It was the best downhill bike ride of my life (that would change 10 days later, but that’s for another blog).

After regrouping and catching our breaths, the crew hopped back in the van and ended 40min up the road to our accommodation for the evening. It was a simple family run hotel that was comfortable enough. However, we only had about an hour to relax. Soon enough we were whisked away once again. This time our busses stopped on the banks of the raging Urubamba river. It was here we were to begin our white water rafting adventure.

 

Full disclosure, I had never rafted before. I wasn’t sure that the Peruvian mountains was necessarily the setting I wanted to begin my career but I didn’t really have a choice. I was put right at the front of the boat with my buddy Sam. Luckily, growing up in the WA state and Idaho, he was a more experienced rafter. He was able to give me a few more tips than the guide was able to provide. After about 10 min of practicing the commands, our guide decided that our boat was ready. Considering there were 3 separate languages being spoken on the boat, I personally thought 10 more minutes of practice might have been nice. However, I was not in charge and we were off.

 

The rapids were class 3 which apparently isn’t that big of a deal. After ripping through the first set I decided class 3 was a great place to start. The water crashed over the front of the boat as we drove through the raging river and I was immediately in love. The excitement of it all was intoxicating. Leaning over the front of the boat and digging through the cold water with my paddle, I felt as alive as I had 4 hours earlier when I was cruising through the Andes on my bike. After about 60 minutes on the river, we all jumped off on the banks to relax. Rafting was a workout, and I happily welcomed the break.

 

When everyone was rested and hydrated we hopped back into the boat for our final 40 minutes on the river. In a deeper part of the river our guide encouraged us to jump out of the boat, hold the sides and float along with the swift current. While there weren’t too many takers, Sam and I were not going to pass up the opportunity. We jumped from the safety of the raft into the icy waters and sped along beside our comrades for the next few hundred yards.
Eventually the team pulled us back in, and we completed the last few hundred yards together. By the time the boats were packed on the jeeps, the sun had set and night was upon us. We drove back to the hotel and had a hearty chicken dinner. Then everyone was off to bed. The next day we had a 9 hour hike up the famous Inca trail. We were going to need our rest.


The City in the Clouds

The drive was a doozy. It was 15 hours overnight through steep winding passes. The bus moved swiftly and constantly jerked side to side. While the reclining seats were lovely, it was hard not to get slightly ill on the long drive to Cusco. The poor mother and son who sat across the aisle from me couldn’t hold it together and were sick at least 3 times a piece. Eventually we arrived at our destination more than 11,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes. We had made it to Cusco; the capital of the ancient Inca Kingdom.

Cusco was more beautiful than I expected. Due to its proximity to Machu Picchu and other incredible mountain treks, it sees massive amounts of tourists. The streets seemed cleaner, the food options better, and the ambiance slightly more relaxed. HOWEVER, the altitude was immediately noticeable. Walking the shortest distances would leave you with winded. The massive hills throughout the city did not help with this. The thin air was not the only thing that could leave you breathless. The architecture of the city and its Spanish style cathedrals was magnificent.

I spent my first 2 days exploring the city and adjusting to the altitude. My hostel, The Wild Rover, was quite nice and it did live up to its party reputation. I was able to watch the NE Patriots defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game which was lovely. It was even sweeter watching it with a steelers fan who brought his own ‘terrible towel’ with him from home.
When I felt my body was ready for the mountains, I decided to book one of the more popular treks in the city’ the Inca Jungle Trek. It was a 4 day excursion that would end at Machu Picchu. I signed up with a few new friends and packed my HikePro. The next morning we loaded up a van and headed up higher into the mountains…


Where the Desert Meets the Sea; Paracas

Just a few hours south of Lima is the small coastal town of Paracas. What I was expecting was a nice little resort town with decent beaches, cafes, and some pleasant scenery. To my surprise, what I found was a massive desert. Right where the sands met the sea was the village of Paracas. It had a certain charm to it with a handful of shops and restaurants. Lucky for me, my hostel was located right on the beach.

(view out the back of the hostel)

I had a nice time my first 2 days meeting a group of fellow travelers at the hostel and exploring the town. We enjoyed Lomo Saltado (stir fried beef) and checked out the shops and stretches of beach. Its always great to meet and interact with people from all over the world. My small group in Paracas consisted of people from Ireland, Denmark, England, Scotland, and Norway. While beautiful scenery, new cities, and delicious cuisines are all highlights of traveling, this is what truly makes it a great experience. You get to interact with people with different ideas, perspectives, and stories. In the end, it’s the people who make these trips memorable.

On my 3rd day, I was off to explore what makes Paracas a unique destination in Peru; Islas Ballestas. These islands off the coast of Paracas are considered to be the ‘Poor man’s Galapagos’ due to the diverse wildlife that calls the island home. After a big night out, it was a little rough crawling out of bed and making it to the marina. Luckily, me and my Danish friend made our boat on time and were quickly steaming out into the Pacific. On the way to the islands we passed the north face of the Paracas Peninsula which was adorned with a massive prehistoric geoglyph. Dating back to 200 BCE, the 595 ft design looks like a giant candelabra and can be seen from nearly 12 miles offshore. No one knows the true purpose of the ancient symbol carved into the side of the sea cliff.

 

Our boat pushed on, and after 25min we arrived at the islands. Before we got to close you could hear and smell that the rock formations were buzzing with life. Overhead were hundreds of blue-footed booby, a bird unique for its hunting style. They will fly anywhere between 30-100ft searching for schools of fish. When they spot their prey they drop into a straight dive and hit the water at upwards of 60mph. This allows them to capture a fish almost 80ft under the water. It was pretty amazing to see them in action. When we approached the island we saw a wide variety of animals. There were pelicans, humboldt penguins, sea lions, fur seals, starfish, and more. The sea lions were amazing to see up close in their natural habitat. Some of the males were absolutely enormous.

 

Overall, Paracas was a fun little stop on my trip towards Cusco. For only 10$ I was able to see the unique wildlife of the Ballestas, a true ‘Poor man’s’ experience. But after a few days on the beach and enjoying the sun, I was heading out of the desert and into the mountains!


Landing in Lima

As soon as I landed in Lima, I was aware I had a slight problem. I had taken 7 years of French. Quick tip for anyone visiting; they don’t speak French in Peru. I’d been completely spoiled in Asia. English was spoken and written just about everywhere. In the big cities and small villages alike, it was fairly easy to communicate and the locals were willing to work with you. Looking back, I wish I had done a little language prep for this trip. That’s my mistake and I’ll own it. But what better way to learn a new language than to be thrown into the fire, right? Or at least I hope that’s true…

Anyways, I stayed in the Miraflores District of Lima, which is an upscale area right on the coastal cliffs. The location was beautiful, and the prices unfortunately reflected that. As per tradition, I overpaid for the first few days. My lack of Spanish was a factor but I always overpay when I arrive in a new country. It’s a tradition, like my own personal right of passage and one of my many flaws. I think I spent 70$ the first few days I landed in Bangkok which is borderline impossible. But I learn quick and I’m sure it’ll be no different in South America.

Lima was a big and vibrant city. There was Latin music playing from the restaurants on every corner and people seemed to be enjoying the warm summer weather. I spent my two days wandering through the streets and strolling through Parque del Amor. The park sits high upon the coastal cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Situated in the middle of the park is the Iconic statue, El Beso (the Kiss), depicting two lovers entangled in a passionate kiss. Even though I was exploring the park without a romantic partner per usual, it was a nice place to spend a few hours.

A few miles down sits La Marina Lighthouse. The 72ft tower is the most visited lighthouse in peru and casts its beam 18 nautical miles out into the Pacific. The walk along the cliffs was an awesome way to watch the locals and just hang out. You can stay entertained by viewing the surfers 100 feet below trying their luck against the cold ocean swells. In the evening I enjoyed my first Pisco Sour and watched the sun go down. The national drink of Peru is a combination of Peruvian pisco, lemon or lime juice, syrup, ice, bitters, and an egg white. Perhaps its an acquired taste, but I’m not sure if they’re for me. I switched to cervezas quickly.

Lima has a lot to offer. Unfortunately I was on tighter schedule and was in and out of the city in about 48 hours. I’d love to explore more! Many people use the capital as a jumping point to the bigger attractions of Peru and I unfortunately made the same mistake. Lesson learned.


Welcome Eric! – Vivir es aventurarse … divertirse Eric!

I want to give a warm welcome to Ericwho has just joined the Traveller’s Playground team. Over the next few weeks his experiences and images will start appearing from his trip through Asia… his next destination, South America! He also writes at Taggart In Asia Here is his transition post… let the travel’s begin!

We’ve gone WAY beyond

It’s been awesome that you’ve followed my travels, and I will continue to awe you with stories of passion, danger, and grand adventure. Most of you probably know that I left Asia and headed back home for the cold and snow. It didn’t last very long. Spending the holiday season with friends and family was a much needed and served as a lovely respite from Thai cuisine. Yet I felt as though I wasn’t quite done out in the world.

I decided that instead of returning to the cubical farm to graze upon spreadsheets and cold calls, I would continue this trip for a little bit longer. So I booked myself a one way ticket to Lima, Peru and intend to spend the next few months exploring a new continent!

So yes, we’ve gone beyond Bangkok. We’ve gone beyond Asia. This will be a new chapter in my backpacking life and hopefully it will bring the noise. I’ll be covering diverse terrain, going from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and then turning south to Patagonia. I’m in exceptionally medium shape, so hopefully I can handle it.


Bali

Bali is in right now. It’s hip. It’s cool. You can’t scroll through a travel feed on Instagram without seeing ten shots of Bali. I can understand the hype. It’s a tropical paradise in a foreign land with a unique culture and absolutely stunning beaches. But I have a hot take; I didn’t love it there. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time, but I didn’t love it. I spent about ten days total on the Island, and I’ll sum up the good and the bad for you.

The Good:

Ubud- This hub in the center of the island is actually awesome. Tucked away in a lush jungle, Ubud has a lot to offer. From a bustling modern downtown to a community of wild monkeys, there’s something for everyone in Ubud. One highlight is the Sacred Monkey Forest. This ecological reserve is home to more than 600 long tail macaques. It’s not a huge space so the animals are extremely interactive with the guests. They will jump on you and they will absolutely try to steal your things. I found one little guy elbow deep in my pocket at one point trying to rob me blind. It’s not uncommon for Abu and his pals to run off with someones sun glasses or water bottle.

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Mt Batur- Another awesome part of Bali (and Ubud especially) is it’s plethora of outdoor adventures. One of the highlights of my time on the island was the sunrise trek up the volcano, Mr Batur. After a 2am breakfast I caught a jeep ride to the base of the mountain. From here I was led by my 17 year old local guide up the steep mountain path. I arrived at the summit after about 2 hours of trekking, the last 30min of which is spent trudging up a steep grade of volcanic sands. The reward at the top was worth the early wake up. After enjoying a beautiful sunrise the group trekked back down, avoiding some thieving monkeys along the way. We stopped off at the famous Tegalalang rice fields on the way back to the hostel. The green terraced hillsides really are strikingly beautiful. The trip ended at a local coffee plantation where we were given some much needed samples. The most famous coffee is the Luwak java. The beans are digested by these little animals and then are plucked from the stool. It sounds and looks gross, but the coffee is an island specialty and extremely expensive. Overall Bali is filled with beauty. From hidden waterfalls, to secret beaches, to the green rice terraces, you’re sure to find something to please the eye.

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The bad:

It’s not really an issue of Bali being ‘bad’. It just happens to be very westernized. Bali is an extremely popular vacation destination for Australians, Europeans, and Americans alike who are looking for a unique experience. There’s been rapid growth, which is good for the people of Bali and its economy. I just wonder if that growth has been great for the identity of the island. The areas of Kuta and Seminyak feature plenty of pubs, clubs, and outlet malls. There are beach clubs and resorts that rival those in the Caribbean. The western tourists are certainly catered to, and it wasn’t something I loved. That doesn’t mean Bali didn’t have plenty to offer. Its the only predominantly Hindu island in the Muslim dominant Indonesia. The locals are extremely spiritual and this energy can be felt almost everywhere. Before hiking Batur the guides will fall to their knees to light incense and pray to their gods. They’re also extremely friendly and welcoming. I guess what I didn’t like about Bali was that it felt too close to home. It was as though people are bringing Western culture to the island more and more rather than experiencing the beauty of what is already is there. It’s a personal preference for me. I had a nice time, but the next 2 islands I visited in Indonesia had a larger impact on me…