Since you can’t drink tap water, you frequently have to buy bottled water, which can be cheap to not so cheap depending on where you buy it. I felt like I was constantly rationing my water because I didn’t want to run out or not be able to safely brush my teeth or take medication. The only free water was hot water for tea with meals, so every continental breakfast, every buffet lunch, anytime free tea was offered, I was gulping it down trying to hydrate myself for free (because I hate the idea of paying to drink water). Plus, most people in Peru drink coca tea from the leaves of the coca tree and it supposedly helps with altitude sickness and gives you a nice little energy boost which I never noticed but kept hoping for.
That afternoon, we made the short flight to the smallish, poor, jungley town of Puerto Maldonado where the warmer, more humid weather was a welcome treat. We were picked up at the small airport by 3 young Peruvian tour guides. One of them, with broken English, told us he would be our guide and his name was Edds. The other two were Carlo and William. We were transported by van to the company’s office where they told us since it was already almost 5 pm, we had just a few minutes to repack anything we would need in the next two days into a provided duffle bag. Panic set in. Everything I brought with me was crammed into a huge backpack; additionally I had a small backpack with my laptop and nice camera in it, and then a shoulder bag with my money, passport, and immediate necessities. So we had just a few minutes to dig clothes, shoes, bug spray, shampoo, etc. out of our huge bags and throw it into these duffle bags. I couldn’t part with my laptop; I didn’t trust leaving it at their office for two days, so I had to carry my backpack and shoulder bag but they would carry our duffle bags for us. Then they told us to pick out a size of rubber boots from their pile that fit us. Before we knew it we were whisked by van through the poor town of Puerto Maldonado to the port and climbed on a long motorized canoe. We put on life jackets and the boys gave us baskets with a meal in them which was delicious tofu fried rice wrapped in a big leaf. It was fabulous. They told us about the caiman alligators and the piranhas that fill this Madre de Dios River and laughed. I briefly imagined being eaten alive if our boat capsized and quickly dismissed the thought, telling myself this was a vacation not the movie Anaconda. As we cruised down the murky brown river, wind in our hair, excitement about the unknown, I started to feel like this was what it was all about. The adventure. The fear. The anticipation. The feeling of experiencing a world only a fortunate few get to know and become familiar with.
With the sun starting to set, it was starting to get a bit chilly. I was starting to have anxiety about what the rest of the trek into the Amazon would hold. The itinerary mentioned a boat ride, a long walk, and then another canoe ride. I couldn’t imagine how there would be daylight left to accomplish this. Well, there wasn’t. It was near dark as soon as we reached a steep hillside along the murky brown river where the boat pulled up. We carefully climbed up the hillside and when we reached the top, I quickly realized why the rubber boots were a necessity. The trail that led into the jungle was a literal pathway of mud. Like 6 to 8 inches of mud. The kind you get suctioned into and lose your boots with each step. Edds got us both a set of walking sticks. We each had our backpacks on, plus I had my shoulder bag slung around my neck across my body so it wouldn’t slip off. After 20 minutes or so of blindly trekking through the dark in the jungle we reached a small rickety wood building where a lady recorded our passport information and we were instructed to douse ourselves in mosquito repellent and get our flashlights out. The flashlight that I had read was a recommended item, I decided I didn’t need to bring. What a dumbass. I figured I could use my phone or my mom would bring one. My mom brought one, but she couldn’t find it in her bag and figured she’d left it in her big backpack when we repacked. She found one of those tiny key chain flashlights and looped it around her finger. Again, we set out with no concept of what was to come. The next 3 kilometers felt like it went on for hours. And I think it did. With the light of Edds’s flashlight ahead of me and my mom’s key chain flashlight bobbing behind me, I followed them through the mud, jungle branches smacking us as we went, nothing but the sound of nocturnal-god-knows-whats up in the trees above us and our boots slopping through the muck. To avoid the deepest mud, the guys would lead us on tiny little dense trails or steep slippery banks along the path, where I essentially felt like I was walking blindly in the dark hoping I didn’t trip. My hands hurt from gripping my walking sticks so tightly, I felt like I was going to die of shoulder blade pain from my shoulder bag hanging off me and my heavy backpack and I silently begged to know how much longer I had to go on. I’d only had time to put on short little socks so I had a painful blister wearing into the side of my ankle from the stiff rubber boots. As we hiked, Carlo kept telling me what a strong woman I was. If he only knew the internal dialogue I was having, ha.
They assured us we were almost there. Eventually, with the little bit of light present, I could tell the path opened up to an eerily calm body of water. There was an emptiness in front of me, maybe an echo. William disappeared into the jungle near the water. We stood in the pitch black and waited at the water’s edge until William appeared paddling a canoe. We climbed aboard the muddy wet canoe and they maneuvered it through a narrow canal of murky stagnant water and Tarzan vines. After a few minutes we emerged into Sandoval Lake. We couldn’t see how big it was, only that there were no longer plants around us. When anyone turned on a flashlight, you could see hundreds of mosquitoes and bugs swarming around us. There was only the sound of the wooden canoe paddles dipping in and out of the water. Eventually Carlo dipped his fingers in the lake and splashed around a bit calling to the caiman alligators, “We have some nice tourists for you!”
I have no idea how they found it in the dark, but after about 40 minutes of canoeing, we arrived at a dock on the edge of the jungle where we unloaded and followed them up a long wooden plank walkway up a hill in the dense jungle until we saw lights and Sandoval Lake Lodge emerged. It was about 8:30 at night. We checked into our room (which upon flicking on the lights, cockroaches scurried about), mom cleaned some mud off her, and we hurried to the dining area to join the rest of the lodge guests for a late dinner. There were about 30 guests at the lodge and everyone followed the same schedule depending on what activities that had already taken part in. We sat at a small table and Edds came and joined us. I wasn’t sure if this was normal that our guide was eating with us, but it turned out he joined us for every meal and we were happy for the company. After an impressive dinner with numerous courses (and a lot of carbohydrates), we went back to our room. There was electricity on from 5-6am, 1-4pm, and 5-10pm basically for meal times. Since I still had some electricity and hence hot water, I took a shower, which was surprisingly pleasant. After wrapping my hair in a towel and putting my pajamas on, I was walking around when I felt strand of hair brush across my forehead, except upon glancing in the mirror, I realized that it wasn’t my hair, it was a large cockroach crawling across my forehead. I freaked out, of course, swatting it off and screaming. My mom and I looked all over the floor for it but couldn’t find it. I had her inspect my back to make sure it wasn’t clinging to me. “Are you sure it was a cockroach?” She asked. “I saw the little fucker crawling across my forehead in the mirror!” I shrieked.
Between panicking about bugs, the sound of a rodent of unusual size crawling in the rafters above us, and the open air connected rooms allowing us to hear the guy next door snoring, we didn’t get much sleep. The next day I felt like shit but had to get up and go on a 5am canoe ride around the lake for like 2 hours with Edds and William. Then after breakfast we had a scheduled “nature walk” in the afternoon. Edds taught us all about Brazil nuts and different types of medicinal trees and what they’re used for and we saw some cool animals, insects, and plants. Before dinner that night we cruised around the lake again and watched little squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree chasing each other. We returned to the dining hall for our second and final dinner in the Amazon.
The next morning we had an early breakfast and left with a larger group. In the daylight and after a couple days of drying out, the mud hike was pretty fun. Edds and Carlo took us to the airport in Puerto Maldonado and we hugged them goodbye.
The next day we began with our typical tea and carbohydrate-laden hotel breakfast, and then we departed Cuzco with a group of about 15 people on a large bus. We stopped and visited llamas and alpacas, we watched local women weave traditional tapestries, we went to the Pisac Market in the Sacred Valley where we shopped for local products and tried empanadas straight out of this giant ancient oven. I passed on choosing my own guinea pig from the “guinea pig castle’” to cook up.
We continued on to our beautiful, scenic lunch destination and then some Incan Ruins. The mind-blowing part about seeing these ruins is they were ubiquitous at one time. The Incans built about 50,000 kilometers worth of roads and apparently every 30 kilometers or so, they built a “rest stop” of some sort called tambos. Of course there is little left of many of them because the Spanish destroyed them when they conquered the Incas in the 1500’s. The ingenious architectural technique of the Incas was equally impressive. The way they hauled massive rocks from distant quarries by sliding them on pebbles and then sanding them down to have a tongue and groove interlocking system so they fit perfectly together with no mortar, was so advanced. They would build their structures in a trapezoidal configuration so as to withstand earthquakes. And despite the Spanish destroying much of their work and their history, the World Heritage site of Machu Picchu somehow escaped that fate.
The next day was finally the day I’d been waiting for. I’ve dreamed of viewing Machu Picchu with my own eyes for years since I first saw it in a picture and subsequently added it to “my list.” Machu Picchu and had been somewhere in the top 5 for me for the past few years. Plus, going to South America put me at visiting 6 out of the 7 continents.
The next day we had an early departure with our same group of people on another nice big bus. We were heading to the city of Puno. We were on the bus for probably at least 8 hours making multiple stops along the way. We stopped at some ruins with a really cool little market where I bought a ceramic pitcher and plate (the plate broke on the way home). We reached a high point in our drive of about 14,500 feet. At another pre-Incan site we crawled through a completely dark tunnel underground then visited a museum and a church. We arrived that afternoon to the quaint city of Puno on the sloping banks of Lake Titicaca, which borders Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America with the highest elevation for any navigable lake in the world. We checked into our hotel, again on an adorable cobblestone street right near the main shopping and tourist area. We walked to a nearby restaurant where nearly everything on the menu was now trout. Trout this, trout that. I passed on the trout and had alpaca steak and potatoes for dinner. The altitude in Puno was even more extreme than Cuzco at 12,500 feet. I found myself lying in bed at night trying not to think about my breathing otherwise I started feeling like I was gasping for air. It sometimes almost gave me a panic attack.
The next day was basically the last day of scheduled tours on our trip. We had an early pickup and transfer to the pier on Lake Titicaca. We boarded a boat with a few of the same people from the tours of the last 3-4 days. We rode the boat for a while until we reached the Uros floating islands. These are a group of floating islands made from reeds where a small number of people live. They look like islands covered in straw. We were dropped off on one of these islands and sat on rolled up reed benches in a circle while a local did a small scale demonstration of how the reed islands are built as a little boy chased a kitten in the background. The islands felt sturdy, but when a passing boat went by, you could feel and see an ever so slight wave motion. A long time ago people lived self sufficiently on these islands, and the original purpose was defensive. Now, they are not completely self sufficient, but rather dependent on the economics of tourism and occasional trips to the mainland for resources. However, as our tour guide greatly emphasized, they are not there as a staged show for tourists. They really do make their lives there. We saw children hurrying off in uniforms with their backpacks to the school on floating reeds. And apparently one side of the island is used as their “bathroom.” After the demonstration, the few women on the island each took a couple of us into their reed hut and proceeded to start putting their traditional clothing on us. I couldn’t exactly object, for language barrier reasons as well as politeness. When my mom and I exited the reed hut in Uros Island Wear, the three older ladies we’d been touring with for the past few days also came out of the next door hut in similar attire, laughing hysterically. After removing the clothes, we bought a handicraft to contribute to their local economy then they transported us by this incredible reed catamaran to the neighboring island where we caught the main tourist boat.
Well, hello there!
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