56. Corto Maltes

56. Corto Maltes (Sept. 24-28)

sm 08 2445There are two boats out to Corto Maltes. I take the early one, and ride out toward Corto Maltes with a group of Peruvians. Ragna and Selma must be taking the later boat. I’m the only foreigner on this one.

It feels good to be on the water. It feels good to be riding up sm 08 2452 Rio Madre de Diosthe Madre de Dios River, a wide brown river with sm 08 2454 Rio Madre de Diosplenty of vegetation on each bank. There isn’t really much to see, but I keep watching with great interest.

sm 08 2460 redAfter perhaps twenty minutes we reach a landing with a small dock and a couple of other boats tied up. I think we’re going to let someone off or deliver something, but this is it. We’ve arrived. I’d known the lodge was close, but not this close.

In fact, we’ve arrived so early that I get a bit of breakfast.

The dining room is a large, screened room flanked by a small shop and a large bar with a pool table. After breakfast I talk to one of the waiters. Ragna’s birthday is Friday. Even though we are no longer a couple, I want her to have a cake. We arrange that his wife will have one decorated with Ragna’s name and a little Icelandic flag, and he will bring it out after supper Friday evening.

sm 08 2681 LuciI meet Luci, a knowledgeable young woman from the area who will be our guide during our stay.  (She does not always look quite as she does in the photo at right.)  She says we can go to Monkey Island with another group in twenty minutes or so. I agree.

sm 08 2479 Panchito the parrotAs I walk toward my cabin I shoot a picture of a green parrot in the branch of a small tree, then put out my finger for the parrot to step onto it.

It’s not as if it’s the first time I’ve had a parrot perched on my hand; but I stare at his green and yellow feathers, and at the rich browns and other colors the sunlight finds in his eyes. He makes a small noise that sounds like “uh, oh,” and when I answer it we repeat the sm 08 2488 Panchito perched on handsm 08 2489 Panchito perched on handmeaningless sounds over and over in turn, as I used to do with Ragna’s grandson Elia, who was then 4 or 5 years old, when I was first traveling to Iceland. I am growing quite attached to the bird, but as we move onto the main path, and I say “Buenos Dias” to a cleaning woman, she says something about the bird, then deftly removes him from my shoulder by placing the end of the broom handle near his claws. As he steps onto it, I ask her his name, and she tells me “Panchito.” She pinches her left forearm with the fingers of her right hand to warn me that he might claw or nip. I’m thinking he must do that only when frightened, but I’m not inclined to argue.

My cabin is a spare but delightful wooden structure. The front porch has two hammocks. I quickly fall into one.

sm 08 2674 hammocksAimlessly I push my hand against the cabin so that the hammock swings back and forth, at first fairly violently and then, like a pendulum, smaller and smaller distances. The rope groans regularly, like the heartbeat of the Great Mother, lulling me to sleep in safety. Hearing it not through the air but through the material of the hammock sm 08 2676 hammocks & cabinsagainst my ear is perhaps like hearing from the womb, and the two-beat is regular: one beat as the hammock approaches the apex of its swing to the left, then a beat of silence as it reaches that apex and begins to drop back toward the center, then the second heartbeat as it sm 08 2498 yellow red flowerapproaches its high-point on the right.

Within moments I’m asleep.  But soon I drift back to consciousness, and we leave for Monkey Island.

Isla de Monos

Luci and I arrive with Carlos and the French, or French Swiss, to whom he explains everything in French. We cross a stretch of sand, then follow a path sm 08 2625 the path in - monkey islandthrough the vegetation. It is the dry season. If it were not, Luci tells me, this path would be an inlet we would enter in a boat, or perhaps by wading. (It’s a fact of rainforest life I’ve read about: as here, a river’s height can vary ten feet or more with the seasons. In some places, a boat landing is on the edge of town in the wet months, but a mile or two away from town in the dry season.)

Luci and Carlos leave us behind near a huge tree and a feeding platform that can be lowered and raised with ropes, so that the platform, laden with inviting bananas, can be raised to a level where the monkeys feel safe but can be seen and photographed. They go on, hoping to attract the monkeys toward the feeding platform. She invites me to go with them, but I’m doubting the French or French-Swiss will appreciate that, so I pass. We stand around for a long time, occasionally hearing monkey calls almost certainly made by our guides. Eventually they return, and a monkey also appears, high in a distant tree, and begins swinging and jumping his way from there to the feeding platform, always high above the ground.

and do sight monkeys

and do spot monkeys

sm 08 2554 butterfly
we watch butterflies
sm 08 2629 forest & sky

and scan the sky

Isla de sm 08 2606 monkey on platformMonos is not terribly interesting. It is not an island the monkeys chose to populate, but rather a project to return monkeys, which had been pets in Puerto Maldonado, to their sm 08 2605 capuchin crnative environment. It started about eight years ago. The varieties of monkeys have dwindled a bit because the brown Capuchin monkeys killed most everyone else.

photographing each other

photographing each other

escaping the heat

escaping the heat

sm 08 2667 Corto Maltes 

Evening Nature Walk
Luci leads us on an evening nature walk that is a good deal more interesting than sm 08 2727 luci & treeit sounds.  Highlights include: walking trees, a tree used for dyes, and a tree used to salve women’s broken hearts. (There is another for men, but we don’t see it on this particular walk.) She tells us a lot that is very interesting but will disappear from my feeble brain before I get around to writing this.  However, I do recall a tree used as a love potion (for lovelorn women – men use a different plant), another that provides a natural dye, and a third that actually walks, albeit slowly.

sm 08 2876 big moth or butterflysm 08 2841 forest flower - red

Night Ride

After supper we go upriver a ways in the boat, with flashlights and headlamps. sm 08 2802 caimanThere’s a searchlight mounted on the boat. Along with Luci and the boatman, we scan the shore for cayman. We do spot a few. It’s fun. Photographing them is a challenge.

We also see capybaras, comically awkward creatures who look at us in surprise. They look like refugees from Winnie-the-Pooh’s world.

sm 08 2784 giant rodentsm 08 2796 giant rodent

Later, I drink a couple of pisco sours and shoot some pool in the bar with one of the guides. At 11, when the generator goes off for the night and there’s no electricity, I wend my way back to my cabin, feeling good.

Life at Corto Maltes
It is a peaceful and isolated place. The wood cabins are comfortable and romantic. The guides are knowledgeable.  The bar is relaxing, lively enough to enjoy but not loud.  There’s a swimming pool, welcome in the heat here.

Our group also includes a couple from South Africa and a retired schoolteacher from Toronto, accompanied by his two daughters. The Canadians, having just finished the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, are particularly delighted by the pool.  There are also other groups, keeping different schedules and often speaking different languages, and we usually see them only at meals.

sm 08 4515 cabin at Corto MaltesThe cabins are well-appointed and simple. Dominated by wood and nature, it’s a place one might easily wish to enjoy with a lover. Oddly, that thought comes to sm 08 4524 cabin - interiorme not as a sour-grapes lament that Ragna and I didn’t make it so far, but as it might if I’d come alone, seen the obvious romantic nature of the place, and pictured no particular woman joining me.

sm 08 4026 parrot and friendWe all like the hammocks very much. One morning I pass the Canadian school-teacher lying in his, with one daughter in the other, and the green parrot sleeping with him in his. Or, in the Rilke-Wright formulation, “guarding his solitude.”

Ragna and Selma lie often in their hammock, chatting and laughing. Dozing in mine, I hear them and smile. It is wonderful to hear their laughter. Ragna has been so much in Iceland, and with me in San Francisco or Mexico or Peru, and Selma so much in Sweden then Milan, that they have not spent much time together. Now they lie for hours in the hammocks laughing. I do not hear what they are talking about, or care; but their laughter rings like two clear bells, or two more creatures from the forest: whatever it is or means, it sounds good; and I am happy for Ragna, at the same time wondering why we so seldom made each other laugh like that, when each of us loves to laugh and makes others around us laugh.

Mother and daughter.
their laughter as filled with life
as the wild bird-calls
that awaken us at dawn.
knowing neither tongue, i smile.
 
  Our domestic arrangements are a little like a bad soap opera for the entertainment of at least some of the workers here. I have asked Ricardo to arrange a birthday cake for Ragna, but also advised him that she and I have separated. The first day when Ragna and Selma are about to arrive, I go in for lunch, and one of the waiters asks, “Aren’t you waiting for two more people?” It’s easier to delay lunch than dispute the point, and so we eat together. Ragna is not pleased, and when I ask if I should tell the waiters we’ll need separate tables from now on, she says I should. I do. They set me a place at a table alone. But later, as we approach the area for supper, Ragna says, “You can eat with us if you want,” and I ask Ricardo to move the single setting from a distant table to the one where Ragna and Selma are sitting. For the rest of the stay, we sit together at meals. Sometimes we all talk amicably. More often, Ragna and Selma talk amicably with each other in Swedish.

Luci is always asking me whether things are better. At one point she and the other female guide enthusiastically insist that things between me and Ragna seem to be going better. “You’re such romantics,” I tell them.  I can tell that sm 08 2754 bird - bluesm 08 4008 toucanthey, as well as Ricardo and perhaps others, like both of us and would like to see what they figure would be a happy ending. I can feel them rooting for it, and feel sorry to disappoint them, but Ragna and I know that we are not getting back together.

sm 08 4015 toucansm 08 2742 bird - blue

sm 08 3427 macaw at Corto Msm 08 4489 macaw in pool lounger

Most afternoons, just before supper, I’m in the pool. The Canadians are always there too, and often the South Africans. Colorful birds often visit us at pool-side. One bird even discovers the loose toenail on my big toe and kindly pulls it off for me with his beak.

sm 08 4447 girl and macaw

and get more closely acquainted

sm 08 4486 Canadians and macaw at pool

The Canadians chat with a macaw

sm 08 3954 the bar in late afternoonAfter supper I’m often in the bar.  The pool table is often in use, sometimes by me.  There’s also chess, backgammon, and the like, although I don’t mangage to find a chess game.  The bar’s not crowded, and Jean-Paul’s pisco sours are effective.  It’s fun.

Night falls early in the jungle.

dusk is not silent.
birds, cicadas, men all rush
to sing before night
descends like death’s sceptre on
the Mother of God River.
 
By 11 they’ve turned off the generator, and there’s no electricity back in the room. Corto Maltes is quiet; but the jungle is never silent, and at an astonishingly early hour there’s a cacophany of strange sounds, the oddest of which is some bird’s call that I will wish I could have recorded, to add the sound to this blog. It is very loud, and sounds almost mechanical – yet a little like a drop of water landing in a barrel and echoing, if that sound were magnified thousands of times. Each morning I lie awake, listening in awe, long before it’s time to get up.

The security whistles that all through Peru have sounded a little like they might be birds are finally birds, some sounding as if they might be security whistles.

Parakeet Lick
We get up early to walk to parakeet lick. We sit in a blind, waiting quietly. Parakeets do come, at a distance too great for good photography. Then another animal scares them away, and it is all over.
 
Isla De Monos – Take 2
On the way to Lago Sandoval, we stop again at the Monkey Island. This time we do not see any monkeys at all. We walk in further with the guides, and see a cage where the monkeys sometimes hang out, but we do not see any monkeys. Luci confirms that the monkeys here were at one time domesticated, then freed to live on the island.
 
Lago Sandoval
We go on up river from Isla de Monos to Lago Sandoval. The lake is a good place to see animals, I’ve read – but one has to get there at dawn. (There’s a place to stay at the lake. If you’re interested particularly in the animals at Lago Sandoval, stay there.)
sm 08 2960 Selma and Ragna leaving boatsm 08 2993 Ragna near top of stepssm 08 2977 igret

It’s a fair hike into the jungle to where we will take a couple of canoes. I walk briskly ahead of everyone in hopes of shooting photographs of small animals, or macro shots of butterflies, before everything is stampeded by the general herd, which includes our group and a larger group of French folks. In fact, there ain’t much wildlife to photograph anyway.

sm 08 3003 flowersm 08 3011sm 08 3022 someone photographing couple near treesm 08 3115 flower

sm 08 2998 black bird w red beaksm 08 3009 red flower in forest

sm 08 2963 butterflysm 08 3171 butterflysm 08 3018 butterfly on leaf

One stretch of the path is dominated by processions of leaf-cutting ants.  It’s not clear to me where they begin and where they end, but I’m flopped down on my belly a while trying to photograph them.

sm 08 3032 leaf-cutter antssm 08 3030 leaf-cutter ants

sm 08 3210 guias relaxing

three guides relaxing

sm 08 3139 boats at Lake Sandoval

Lake Sandoval

We eat packed lunches at picnic tables near the lake. A couple of the French people and I lose our clothes long enough for a short swim in the lake.

sm 08 3227 tiger igret

tiger egret

Then we canoe around for awhile. It’s a pleasant day, but most of what we see in the way of wild-life is too far away to enjoy very much.  For example, we see a sudden disturbance of water and Luci sm 08 3268 giant otterspoints out the otters one often sees at sm 08 3250Lago Sandoval — but at the distance they could be Olympic swimmers  in training. 

 sm 08 3334 monkeysm 08 3325 monkey

By the time we’ve hiked back to the river, it’s become a long day.  It’s been good exercise.

Canopy

Friday we are going to a canopy, where we can walk above the forest.  We walk in from a place which has a sort of zoo of local animals. We lunch among a raft of impossibly slender volunteers. (Decades younger, I’d undoubtedly have been in love with one of them, but now they might as well belong to some other species.) We see various [captive] animals, including monkeys and a jaguar.

sm 08 3518 Collin & friend

caged!

Soon after we leave, two birds start following closely behind us, barking at us as if they were dogs. They follow us a long way. 

sm 08 3701 canopy walkway - looking up

looking up from mid-point

sm 08 3669 canopy

a view from the top

The canopy is impressive. It is said to be 45 meters high, and 90 long. When sm 08 3783 sign re Canopy Walkwaywe arrive, the first step is to climb several stories of a green wooden structure, from the top of which a long suspension bridge extends upward across the valley toward a spot high in the arms of a huge ______ tree.

The bridge is safe enough, but it sways over open air and the tops of much smaller trees, and where lengths of its flooring meet each other they make a cracking sort of sound unnervingly like the sound of something cracking and breaking under sustained weight. Travelers who are convinced that nothing in Peru is built right must feel their complaints turning into nightmares here.

sm 08 3619 Selma crossingsm 08 3618 Selma on canopyEven I felt a bit disquieted at times walking up the suspension bridge to the treehouse. (Although I’m far from impervious to fears, including physical fears, I have since childhood tended to respond by confronting sm 08 3639 Ragna and Selma at topthem, and when younger I did a fair amount of wandering sm 08 3632 Ragna crossingaround at great heights under questionable circumstances. Still, the canopy is imposing.) Ragna, who is normally quite frightened of heights, courageously walks on up without hesitation.

Walking up, I get a bit impatient with the woman in front of me. She stops to shoot what seem to me pointless photographs, then I have to stop too, then Ragna gets impatient because she is behind me and wants to keep moving, presumably to get up the thing all the sooner; and I begin to share that urge. I know the bridge is quite secure; but it’s a bit of a rush.

We stay up there awhile, marveling at the view. Like being a kid in a treenhouse. A very high treehouse.

sm 08 3674 canopysm 08 3683 the top 

sm 08 3651 canopyI start back first, hoping the others will stay a while longer. I want to stay on the middle.  Having felt a touch nervous on the way up, I want to hang out and eradicate that feeling.

Starting down early allows me to take my time, shoot photographs of the bridge and the sights and the folks still up above, and in the process to feel sm 08 3714 canopymore and more completely comfortable on the bridge itself. I keep stopping, turning, taking photographs from awkward positions, etc., feeling not the least urgency to move along. (A fantasy pops into my head: wouldn’t it be superb to make love with a woman on this bridge, swaying 45 meters above the earth?! This is my new secret ambition.)

I feel so comfortable that I don’t want to go back down to the ground, but eventually the others start down, and I must. 

sm 08 3753 David on walkwaysm 08 3763 Ragna on the walkwaysm 08 3740 walkway

sm 08 3823 butterfly crsm 08 3876 caiman cr

Ragna’s Birthday  

Friday evening is Ragna’s birthday.   We are without the South African couple. They are planning to drink ayahuasca tonight.  Their guide, or shaman, is named Antonio — and he’s the man who constructed the canopy we walked today.
 
We eat supper.  Afterward, they bring the cake — and, as instructed, also give her a bracelet I had bought as a birthday present in Cusco, before it became so clear that we were parting.
Ragna seems pleased.  I try to disown responsibility, suggesting that the Corto Maltes people had seen everyone’s passport information, but of course that doesn’t work.  But Ragna is not angry, anyway.

Then some of the guys are in the dining room, telling us there is some sort of fire on the river, and that we should all come out and have a look. We sit on the wooden steps leading to the dock and watch a bunch of colored lights – red, blue, green, and yellow – float gently across the blackness out there, from left to right. Although I jokingly ask whether this too is for Ragna’s birthday, and the guys from the hotel play along, the truth is that they have no idea what the occasion is. Someone in Puerto Maldonado has released these to celebrate the anniversary of something, but they have no idea what.

So we sit above the river, watching the lights. About a dozen of them float by in a group, and as they pass toward our right, still in view, a lone red one appears from the left, a straggler. We imagine him chirping “Hey, wait for me, guys!” In the profusion of sound and color that is a city, we’d never have noticed them. In the darkness of the wide Mother-of-God River and the uninhabited and unelectrified jungle beyond, they are like silent fireworks. But mostly they are just one more small mystery we will never solve. 

One night colored lights
secured in bottles float past
on the black river
from unknown celebration
they drift to unknown waters. 

Afterward I have a drink in the bar with Selma, shoot one game of pool with Jean-Paul the bartender, and gab for quite awhile with Marco, the new manager, who had been talking with Selma while Jean-Paul and I shot pool.  A rambling, interesting, late-night conversation that touches on deaths of parents, birthdays, Noam Chomsky, and my opinion of Peruvian girls.  (As to the latter, I tell him I have none, pointing out that I’ve had no chance to experiment.)  He’s from Lima, just recently assigned here as manager, and still getting used to being so far from the city.

I sit in the near darkness of my front porch, not quite ready to sleep. It is quiet and fairly cool. The horse is grazing around somewhere. I learn that the watch Ragna gave me has a luminous dial: it is 10:40. After I sit for five minutes or so, thinking of nothing in particular, the small lights that line the paths go out, and whatever lights were on in the main building.  I sit awhile in darkness, then retire.

Too soon, the bird whose call sounds like water dropping in a gigantic barrel awakens me, as always, well before dawn.

Antonio 

We see our South African friends again at breakfast. They’ve been up all night.  Ayahuasca. They are still sitting with Antonio, and he is still talking earnestly. They look fine. David stops by our table, and gives a one- or two-word report on the evening: “All great” or “Marvelous!” Then they are gone, taking an early boat to Puerto Maldonado to catch a plane.

Antonio is still sitting there, so I take my coffee and join him. He is a strong, solid man. He confirms that he built the canopy, and apparently worked studying eagles for awhile. He asks what sort of camera I use and says he used to use a good camera, a Nikon, until it and a 400 mm. lens came undone and fell to the ground as he was starting to climb down from a high eagle-watching platform. He works in conservation and in cultural regeneration, and with healing. In the former capacity, he saw that people from elsewhere “would come in saying what we need, without understanding how things are here,” and so he started a foundation that relies on “people from here.” He speaks slowly, deliberately, but is not a slow man. His dark brown eyes stay on you while he speaks. He is a serious man.

Los Indios

Later that morning we visit with an indigenous tribesman and his family. They are far down river from their native village, making plenty of money talking to folks like us about their lives and culture, showing us how they drink and shoot, and selling us things they’ve made. For an hour or so, the “Chief,” Gregorio, sm 08 4097 Gregoriosm 08 4086 Gregoriospeaks to us in his language, which is translated as necessary. Sometimes we get to participate, as when he’s showing us a native foul-tasting alchoholic beverage we get to drink, or a dance, or how to drink the juice from an unusual fruit sm 08 4107 Gregorio gives Selma a drinkwe haven’t seen before. He also shoots a couple of sm 08 4091 Gregorioarrows for us.
He says he has five wives. He mentions that several times, either because previous visitors have found it remarkable or shocking or because he thinks we should.
sm 08 4122 Gregoriosm 08 4127 Gregorio drinkingsm 08 4125 Gregorio
 
sm 08 4232 boy playing fluteHe’s a bit of a self-promoter, but a charming one.  He’s charismatic, and everyone enjoys the hour we spend with him.    His son plays the flute
sm 08 4130 Gregoriosm 08 4149 Gregorio
sm 08 4281sm 08 4302 tree, vines, climberThe Farm
Later that morning we visit a farm.  High points include a new fruit, fresh from the tree, and a tree with vines up which Carlos can climb like Tarzan. I’m the only one from our lot dumb enough to try it, and it’s fun for awhile, but I can’t get very far and make the usual fool of myself in the process.
 

Travel Notes

Lodging

I found the cabins delightful: well-appointed but simple and tasteful. They sit on stilts and are basically wood and screens, with reeds or leaves in the roofs. A sizeable front porch accommodates a small table with a couple of chairs, perfect for an evening glass of wine or for writing or playing cards, as well as two hammocks.   There’s electricity — sometimes.   We were told we’d have electricity for only an hour or two a day, but in fact it seemed to be on much of the day.

There are also dorm rooms, I believe.

There’s pretty much nothing else around but jungle and river. 

Food

The only restaurant is the dining hall, and the menu is what it is at any given meal.  The food is reasonably good, although Ragna and Selma noted that every evening it was some form of chicken and rice. (I eat no meat, and the kitchen workers cheerfully produced a variety of non-meat dishes for me each lunch and supper.)  It’s a simple, pleasant place to be.  Staff are cordial and considerate.

Guides distributed water bottles whenever we went anywhere, and brought along fruit or lunches when we would be away from camp during a meal.

Other Points

The key question is, would Corto Maltes be the right jungle experience for you?

sm 08 2918 Corto MaltesThat depends on what you’re looking for; and you should take my comments with a couple of grains of salt.  First of all, I’m one who, as you know if you’ve read earlier posts, is accustomed to independence and solitude, which won’t be part of most jungle experiences here and certainly weren’t in Corto Maltes.  Secondly, I was there in the drier season, when water and mosquito populations are both down, but the place is probably also not so teeming with visible wildlife as in the rainy season.   And of course jungle tours come in all shapes, sizes, and budgets, depending on your age, condition, tastes, and mood.

I’d have rather gone to Manú.  Ragna’s preference for comfort and Selma’s schedule made Corto Maltes the best available option under all the circumstances.  When Ragna and I broke up, I tried to change my plans, but it wasn’t workable.   However, I enjoyed Corto Maltes.  I liked the place and the people; and if it’s the type of experience you are looking for, it’s a good (and economical) option.   Personally, I’d likely prefer something a little rougher and exciting;  but I liked Corto Maltes.

Having said that, I can offer some observations and can pass on comments I heard from others. Some of the others we met there had recently finished trekking the Inka Trail to Macchu Picchu, and were flying home to Canada or South Africa from Puerto Maldonado.  They found it precisely the sort of relaxing but somewhat interesting “wind-down” they sought. They enjoyed the flora and fauna we did see, and I saw them at the pool late every afternoon. They got what they wanted, and were basically pleased.

Corto Maltes is a very pleasant experience. Though there are others there, you don’t feel crowded, and it’s small enough to enable you to get to know most staff-members and some of your fellow guests, but sufficiently well-appointed to be quite comfortable.

The activities were a mixed bag. Monkey Island seemed a waste of time, and seemed as if it would be pretty much a waste of time even if more monkeys had shown up more often on cue. No variety, distance, artificiality, former pets.The canopy was a delight, although not what I’d expected. I’d expected a structure on which one would walk some distance at roughly eye-level with the forest canopy, so as to get a look at life at that level. Instead it climbed into the arms of one very splendid tree, with a fine but distant view of the forest below. It would not be for everyone, because not everyone’s gut will permit him or her to climb a swaying (and flimsy-looking, at first) bridge that high above the ground and so apparently flimsy. In fact, it seems to have been well-constructed and maintained, and appears not to be dangerous; but for some, the visceral fear would trump that knowledge. Other than the canopy, the walk itself was somewhat dull; but in a different season it might be quite a bit more interesting.

Luci’s introductory nature walk was more interesting than it sounds. She knows a lot, from having grown up here but obviously also from studying the subject, and presented what she told and showed us in a reasonably interesting way.  Luci, as well as the other guides I got to know, could not have been more pleasant, knowledgeable, real, and competent. 

Our encounter with the representatives of the T – T (los indios – I forget the actual name of the tribe) was more interesting than it sounds as if it might be, but limited.

The visit to the farm didn’t do much for me, except that I liked trying to play Tarzan on the vines, and the star-fruit tasted delightful fresh from the tree. Again, a different season might have made that a more interesting experience.

The Sandoval Lake outing was worth doing, but: reading and common sense both suggest that if you want really to see animals in a place like that, camp there or stay in a nearby lodge and get up in the early morning, or perhaps get settled in a blind or observation tower before sunset. Mid-day is warm and pleasant for swimming, but nap-time for a lot of animals. Too, two big canoes full of people cruising the same landscape at the same time means that one will scare away most everything worthwhile that it sees close-up.

On balance: Corto Maltes is an extremely tasteful, pleasant, and comfortable place to be. The simple lodgings are enjoyable without being opulent. The guides are knowledgeable and personable, and the kitchen and bar staff are pleasant and helpful. However, I think my own preference would be a slightly more rigorous experience. Alone, I’d have been inclined to arrange for a slightly more adventurous program that involved camping out but carried the promise of more beautiful and unusual sights. I regret that Selma’s schedule didn’t permit us to go to Manú. An acquaintance, a U.S. citizen living in Arequipa, has called it the single most wonderful experience in his several years in Perú. I strongly recommend Corto Maltes, though, in the sense that what it does, it does well.

Meaningfully assessing Corto Maltes is also difficult because I didn’t experience its competitors and alternatives, and because readers will have such varied desires, tastes, and explanations; and at least part of my assessment might be very different if we’d gone during a different season.

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55. Puerto Maldonado II

55. Puerto Maldonado II  

I breakfast alone, enjoying the morning light and visiting with the green parrot who hangs around on the front terrace. Then I head for the Wasai to rent a room for the night. While I’m up at that end of town, I rent a motor scooter too. The shift system is wholly unlike what I’m used to from decades of motorcycle-riding, and seems idiotic; and I’m pretty idiotic too: I drive a block, feeling very unsafe and edgy, before I realize that something’s missing. There’s no rear-view mirror, and my uncertainty about what’s going on behind me is far from comfortable. I drive around the block, turn the scooter in, and get one with a mirror. It has two mirrors, but also a right foot-peg and rear-brake mashed too close to each other from some previous accident. Finally I’m off, back to the Don Carlos to pick up my stuff and take it to the Wasai.

My other errand besides changing hotels is to find the SUNARP office. When I bought the car in Lima, I put it in my name and Ragna’s, thinking I might be called back to the U.S. to work on a case and she’d be using or selling the car in my absence.  Now I have to have her sign it back over to me alone, so that I won’t run into excessive red tape trying to sell it. Unfortunately I have no luck finding the SUNARP office.

At the Wasi, my new room has a nice view of the river. I lunch on the deck. I chat a bit with some Polish-Canadian folks on an organized tour, then read awhile and feel sleepy. The food takes forever to arrive, but tastes okay once it does. There are birds to watch, and river sounds to listen to.

I return to the room and fall asleep within minutes. A while later I awaken enough to realize I feel extraordinarily hot, but can barely make myself awaken fully, let alone move.

When I finally manage to get out of bed, I go first for an ice cream. I take a table near the window, to shoot more shots of families on motorcycles.

Then I ride the motor scooter down to the docks, determined to cross the river and see where the road goes from Triunfo.

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the car safely aboard,

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a motorcycle backs onto the ferry

 

 

 

 

 

I ride the scooter up a wooden plank onto the vehicle ferry. Of course my foreignness amuses everyone. As we approach the opposite bank, I ask the kid in the black T-shirt how much to pay, and he tells me to ask the older man who’s putting the pole in the ground to tie up to. It seems unlikely that he doesn’t know the answer, and I wonder whether he merely doesn’t know whether his boss wants to jack up the price because I’m a foreigner with a

nearly across

nearly across

camera. However, after confirming that it’s just the bike and me, no passenger, the man says S./ 2.50. Both his manner and the modest price convince me that’s the normal charge. It certainly seems reasonable.

The wooden plank rests somewhat sideways on a long concrete ramp that runs up the bank at a fairly steep angle. I will need to drive down the wooden plank, then quickly turn right to drive up the steep hill. I cross the plank successfully, but in trying to slow down and turn right I manage to take a small spill. The camera’s fine, though, and the boy in the black T-shirt is there to assist me before I even stand up. I thank him, turn the bike, and head up the hill, guessing the episode probably added a little to everyone’s amusement. Hope so.

I follow the main road. It’s a hard and bumpy dirt road. I pass a few homes and businesses and a grifo, then pasture and jungle and occasional glimpses of the river.  It’s a long, dull, dirt road through the jungle, quite wide and quite flat; but for the little motor scooter, it’s treacherous and difficult. It’s hard and bumpy – then soft and gravelly, as if I’m back in New Mexico riding a dirt bike, except that this thing is a beat-up scooter. Keeping vertical takes more concentration than I might have wished. Often I think I’m going down, but manage not to. Sometimes a larger vehicle passes me, and I breathe dirt (which I don’t mind) and drive nearly blind for awhile (which makes staying upright even more of a challenge).

After awhile I spot the river off to my left, and pause to shoot a couple of mediocre pictures. I can also hear a small boat’s engine, and spot the boat progressing on the river from Puerto Maldonado. I walk a few dozen yards along a path toward the river. A pack of small dogs challenges me, barking furiously, obviously defending a small home against intruders while the family is off working or visiting. They aren’t a real danger, though, so I continue far enough to get the photograph I want, then head back to the scooter.

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There’s also a spot where they’ve cut down a couple of huge trees and are sawing them up. I don’t know what kind of tree it is; but the smell as I drive past is almost like that of a slaughterhouse. The human figures, who look like ants as they scurry around attending to the huge fallen tree, and the isolation and the heat and the smell combine to leave me grateful I don’t have to spend my day working there.

sm-08-2390-sunset-rio-madre-de-diosI go what seems a long way because of the conditions, but isn’t, then return in time to enjoy a jungle sunset and check on where I’m meant to be when in the morning, to leave for Corto Maltes.

The Corto Maltes office is just across the street from my new hotel. They tell me I can take a morning boat or one that leaves about noon-time. Of course I choose the former, figuring I’d like to get out of the town and into the jungle as quickly as possible.

Travel Notes:

Lodging:

Two quite reasonable hotels are the Don Carlos and the Wasai Lodge.  The former is at the far [South] end of  the main street (Velarde) from the Plaza de Armas.   The latter is on Billinghurst, the single street between the Plaza de Armas and the hill overlooking the Madre de Dios River.  (Who, I wonder, was Billinghurst?  Curiosity about that leads me to a photograph of the new bridge that doesn’t yet exist [see previous post] but which is described as El Nuevo Puente Billinghurst at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/2039979, although the green river in the picture doesn’t look much like the brown Madre de Dios.   So I guess Billinghurst was sufficiently prominent to get the bridge named after him.   Wikipedia calls it the President Guillermo Billinghurst Bridge.  Further research suggests that he was elected to the presidency in August 1912, succeeding Augusto B. Leguia, and served until 1919, when Augusto B. Leguia succeeded him and served until 1930.  Wikipedia adds that Guillermo Ernesto Billinghurst was born in 1851 in Arica — and that he served only until 1914.   Congress wasn’t ready for his “advanced social legislation” and a military coup deposed him in 1914, when he was sent into exile to die in Iquique.  He’s also described as a millionaire businessman, populist, and “reform-minded mayor of Lima” prior to his brief and turbulent presidency.  “When Congress opened impeachment hearings against him he threatened to arm the workers and forcibly dissolve Congress.”  It’s interesting that he’s remembered so long afterward.   But Colonel Oscar Benavides, who headed the successful coup, has a main street in Miraflores named after him, while I had to get all the way to Puerto Maldonado to hear about Billinghurst. )

Probably the Don Carlos is the “better” of the two, but I liked the feel of the Wasai.   It’s also closer to the Plaza de Armas, if that matters.   The Don Carlos is far from everything, but if there isn’t a moto-taxi lingering outside, the folks at the desk will have one there pretty quickly for you.

 

Food:

 At least for a fellow who doesn’t eat meat, Puerto Maldonado was not a delight — yet I got a couple of good fish suppers, one at each of the hotels.   There’s a pizza place on the Plaza, and also a nice restaurant-bar on the north side of the Plaza that seemed appealing and tasteful but had no fish on the menu.   I should note that I didn’t try the inviting-looking ceviche place on Velarde that I photographed every time I passed it, and that I heard tales of a couple of good restaurants not near the Plaza.   Somehow evenings in Puerto Maldonado I felt too lazy to explore beyond the pizza joint.

Other:

54. Puerto Maldonado

54. Puerto Maldonado

in which I arrive in Puerto Maldonado, walk about town, take a wooden ferry boat across the Madre de Dios river and back, and get marooned for awhile on top of a wall.
Unnecessarily, but conveniently, the folks from the travel agency pick us up at the hotel, drive us to the airport, and make sure we get checked in properly. Cusco’s airport is a convenient one – plenty of coffee and other stuff on each side of the security gate, and a bookstore in which I buy the Inca Commentaries, by Garcilaso Inka de Vaca.

Unfortunately, I don’t get through the metal detector unscathed. The guy starts checking me with the metal-detecting wand, and in my right pants-pocket – oops! – is the Swiss army knife that has lain there, unnoticed except when needed, for six months.  Gone.  Then the lady checking my bulging backpack discovers my second Swiss army knife, stashed conveniently in a small compartment and forgotten, since I haven’t lost or misplaced the one in my pocket. Two Swiss army knives gone in a moment – just when I’m going where they might be useful!

When I board the plane, there’s a family of three in the row where I’m meant to have the window seat. Too bad. But I wait patiently and do get a seat. I start reading Garcilaso. 

It’s interesting reading.   I recommend it.  Garcilaso writes of the Incas from a unique viewpoint: his father was one of the conquistadores with Pizarro, his mother was an Inca princess, and her family taught him much about the old culture that the Spaniards did not know.   He grew up in Cusco, very soon after the Conquest. Of course, being a Christian, and having moved to Spain before he was 20, he wrote with some interest in making the Inca appear no more savage than necessary to European eyes.   He’s not unbiased.    But his account is interesting, knowledgeable, and believed to be generally accurate.  (He’s also significant as the first important Latin American writer.)

The Inca mode of conquest seems to have been to march up to the edge of your territory with a force sufficient to destroy you, then parlay.  They sent in emissaries to explain why their religion, engineering, customs, and social organization were superior to anyone else’s, and point out that it would be in your interest to join the Inca empire rather than resist it.   Obviously this argument was buttressed by the fact that they had brought a force sufficient to kick your ass.   Still, they parlayed fairly patiently, and often conquered new territory without the need for violence.  When violence did ensue, they were up to it, and ultimately prevailed; but even then they were relatively forgiving.  They took your leaders to Cusco to learn to be good Inca administrators, then sent them back as such.   (Even if Garcilaso exaggerates a bit, this seems to be basically accurate.)

There was one exception, which I mention not to make anyone uncomfortable but because I think it’s worth knowing, particularly among those who have questions concerning Peru’s reputation for what is now called “homophobia.”   The exception: occasionally the Inca conquered a region in which homosexuality was widely practiced — or was believed to be.  In this case they killed every homosexual; and the wife and children of any homosexual, if he had any; and all of his livestock; and burned his home and crops.  

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From the moment we land, and as we ride the noisy moto-taxi in from the airport, Puerto Maldonado is just as I imagined it – no, knew it – to be, from some haphazard collection of dreams, filmic images, and mental visions formed while reading.

sm-08-1744-coca-cola-standsm-08-1750What flies past us on the way into town is not beautiful: a lot of motorcycles and moto-taxis, few cars, several grifos, sm-08-1763-trafficthe sloppy greenery of the jungle, simple buildings sm-08-1753-kr-colaand houses, most of wood and some on stilts, and occasional food stores surrounded by motorcycles.

It feels different, not merely because of the lower altitude or the humidity.   (The air is warmer and heavier.)  This is an engaging and unpretentious place.   It is quite distant, of course, from Peru’s major cities, let alone the more famous cities elsewhere.  More, it feels influenced by the jungle and the climate.   sm-08-1785-funeraria-muebles-san-joseNone of the buildings is beautiful or elegant or complex, perhaps because one feels here that the jungle will reclaim everything soon enough.   No one is dressed elegantly or drives a fine car.  The muggy weather,  the intermittent rain, and the mud would sabotage finery, and probably rusts cars.   It seems a place not at all of indolence, but where the heat and humidity and mud and sm-08-1789-sign-alfabetizacion-es-justicia-socialjungle are too dominant to permit pretentions.   The finest clothes would be stained by mud and sweat here, and the finest cars crippled by the roads and rust.

We check in at Don Carlos’s, which overlooks the Rio Tambopata.  Its most impressive feature is a green parrot who hangs around on the terrace while you are drinking coffee.   It is perhaps the best hotel in town.

sm-08-1792-restaurantAlmost immediately I set out to walk to the Plaza de Armas.  It is a long walk on a fairly warm Sunday.   Domingo.  I am alone.   Almost all stores are closed.   Still, I feel energized, curious about my new sm-08-1804-discoteck-mythologysm-08-1816-sign-for-low-pricessurroundings.  Too, my mood is odd: the domestic tension and uncertainty make it somber, but  fresh solitude in a new place lends it a certain excitement.    Traveling alone is always different from traveling in a sm-08-1819group or couple: one is freer to follow chance encounters sm-08-1795-grupo-musicalwhere they lead, and able to munch on and digest one’s impressions before conversation dilutes them.

sm-08-1797-little-girl-and-motor-scooterIt’s a pleasant and solitary walk.   Even with most businesses closed, the walk to the Plaza de Armas is marked by colorfully painted sm-08-1808-delicias-de-la-selvasm-08-1810-internet-and-bookstorebuildings and lively music.   Children are out playing.   Moto-taxis ply their trade.  Toward the end of the walk, a tall statue of Mary watches over the Plaza. 

sm-08-1801-estampados-o1sm-08-1802-sign-painters-brush

 

sm-08-1800-sign-painter

sm-08-1827-mary-statueI find a pleasant ice cream shop, and sit near a window eating chocolate ice cream and taking occasional pictures, mostly of whole families on motorcycles.  This is nothing new (decades ago in Taiwan it was like that, and I was guilty of it too, carrying both my girl friend and a tall friend of ours on a little 125 cc. bike), but seems even more extreme here.   Soon I also realize that a lot of the motorcyclists I see stopping for friends are actually motorcycle-taxis.  The passenger climbs on the back of the bike, sans helmet, and pays a few soles for a ride. 

sm-08-1841-moto-shots-two-heavysm-08-1842-moto-shots-family-of-three 

 

 

 

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I also spot a place to rent scooters, and resolve to do so the next day.

Around the corner from the scooter-rental shops, a pleasant-looking hotel overlooks the other river, the Madre de Dios.   It’s the Hotel Wasi.  I arrange to move there the following day, thus complying with Ragna’s desire to have me stay in some other hotel.  The Wasi overlooks the other river, the Madre de Dios, not far from where the sm-08-1900-seguir-la-escaleraferry boats dock.  I walk down there, past the sign for the local shaman.  

 

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sm-08-1911-ayahuasca-y-mesclasResisting the lure of the maestro’s sign, I walk a few steps further and see an appealing sm-08-1919-toma-coca-colacomposition: a shop wall painted bright red as a Coca Cola ad, with a few children, a bicycle, and a dog approaching it. I pause, waiting for them to reach the sign, and notice the shop to my right, with very different advertisement painted on it.  sm-08-1920-painted-shop-wallsm-08-1921-wall-painting

 

 

 

 

It’s a visually interesting spot, just a few meters from the entrance to the  Madre de Dios ferry. I shoot a couple of shots of the kids and the Coke sign, realizing that part of its appeal is its contrasting associations for me: it’s half some Norman Rockwell picture of kids by a barn with a painted coke sign three-quarters of a century ago, and half this frontier river town in the jungle.   Another motorcycle family passes them and sm-08-1925-moto-shots-family-of-fivedecides to stop and be part of the picture. It’s such a magical spot that the next motorcycle to pass actually has a family of five on it, trumping anything I shot at the Plaza.

sm-08-1949-dock-madre-de-dios-passenger-ferryWhen I reach the long stairway down to the ferry, I learn that it costs half a sole to cross.  I walk up the wooden plank from the mud, to general amusement: I’m the only foreigner; in fact, I’m the only foreigner I see on any of the ferry boats I ride or see in Puerto Maldonado, except for one minibus-ful of French-Swiss people traveling with a guide.   

sm-08-2039-car-ferry-rambo-rio-madre-de-diosNote Rambo’s universal appeal. Decades ago, now, I was walking past Lhasa’s magnificent Potala Almost no one in Tibet spoke any English then, and few even spoke much Chinese. web-87-90-02-potala-ramboNevertheless, among the shops and restaurants and chang spots along the street at the base of the Potala, one establishment was proudly labeled “Ranbo Bar.”  The misspelling added to the effect.

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I’m in the mood to shoot everything I see. The boats tied up to the dock, the boats approaching from across the river, the ferryman, my fellow passengers. I’m like a child, looking at everything with wonder, and my fellow passengers seem to know that – or they’re unaccustomed to an old gringo wandering onto a passenger ferry alone. Is this another place where the tourists are all clumped together in minivans, riding the larger ferry and grouped around a guide? In any case, the men on the ferry boat greet me, grin, remark on the camera. I confess to taking a great many photographs, and as they see how true that is some of them laugh.

sm-08-1970-support-for-bridge-over-rio-madre-de-diosSoon after we push off, I spot a huge concrete structure – at least, it looks pretty huge from a small boat on the river – that must be a support for a planned bridge over the river. I ask the boatman, who confirms that it’s for a bridge. The bridge may change his life. It must be for the Trans-_____ Highway that’ll make the drive to here, and the drive from here to Brazil, a whole lot easier. Undoubted progress I hope won’t happen too soon. I imagine sm-08-1964-ferryman-rio-madre-de-diosthe boatman hopes it won’t, either. It’ll probably destroy his livelihood.   Intermittently I wonder how it feels to work as you’ve worked for decades, in the shadow of a concrete reminder that you will soon be obsolete. 

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The future looms over the bow of the ferry

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Car Ferry - Rio Madre de Dios

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passenger ferries waiting at Triunfo

sm-08-2004-moto-shots-family-of-foursm-08-1985-eating-a-papaya-waiting-for-a-rideThere is nothing special to see at the ferry-landing on the opposite bank.  Just more ferry boats, more steps, a few food vendors sm-08-1993-logging-truck-behindand what looks like a bar, and a huge logging truck.  And a dirt road heading off toward wherever.  Still, I walk sm-08-2009-waiting-for-a-rideabout, looking and listening.  Then I buy a Sprite from one of the vendors — actually from a young boy spelling his mother at her stand — and sit on a rough wooden bench beside the stand.

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waiting

Sitting on a little unpainted wooden bench is good. My legs are old, and it gives them a rest; and it’s a kind of camouflage, allowing me to watch and listen in a lazy way, and shoot the occasional photograph; and closer around me, I have a briefly view into the lives of the vendors. The boy says nothing, but I can feel that, alternately standing and sitting behind me, he’s curious. In the next sm-08-2002-snack-vendors-child-triunfostall a child with oddly light hair – reminding me of a Mayan girl I photographed one morning in the jungle near Bonampak – stares at me. When I photograph her, her mother watches, amused. When I approach to show the little girl her image, asking “Quien es?” in my sweetest, cajoling tone, she cries. Her mother looks at the image in the camera viewer and invites the girl to look again, but she isn’t having any, and eyes me with distrust as long as I sit there. When I turn around, the boy, whose mother has come back to the stall, is doing puzzles or something from a book. His mother leans over to help him with one, and I realize it’s a schoolbook, which he confirms when I ask. Then I notice that the dictionary is a bilingual one. He’s studying English. So I ask him sm-08-2016-climbing-up-to-triunfo1about that, but he must be just beginning – or his lessons are almost purely from the printed page, and he’s had no experience actually conversing in the language yet — because even “What’s your name?” and “How are you?” draw blank stares from him.

It’s Sunday.  Domingo.   I sip my soda and enjoy life.  When I finish it, now with no good reason to hang round, I descend to a ferry, and after awhile we’re headed back to Puerto Maldonado.

Now the logging truck I photographed up on the bluff is driving onto a larger car ferry, to cross the river toward wherever the logs will become boards. More consumption of rainforest trees, vital to our survival. Above, the truck full of logs was just a big thing to photograph, the biggest thing around up there, dwarfing the little houses and the motorcycles and the food stalls. On the river, it strikes me as one small part of humanity’s rape sm-08-2043-logging-truck-on-ferry-rio-madre-de-diosof the rainforest. Innocuous, unnoticed, quiet, unremarkable. But part of something larger and sad.  At the same time, the truck looks almost respendent for a moment in bright sunlight, carried across the river like some huge king.

As with certain witnesses and friends I’ve dealt with, nothing is every quite black or quite white in the rainforest.  

 

almost home

almost home

I take a moto-taxi from the ferry area to the hotel. From the hotel I hear music, as if from some festival or perhaps a sporting event. The girl behind the desk explains that it’s a football game, a few blocks away. Having no pressing engagement, I start toward the noise.

Walking the dirt street toward the stadium, the visual surroundings are unfamiliar, but the sound and feel in the air are of a Saturday afternoon high school football game in the beautiful countryside along the Hudson River four decades ago. I am walking down uneven dirt sm-08-2086-front-yard-sunday-afternoonlanes with occasional sheep, and women gossiping in front of houses with slogans written on them, rather than the proud suburban homes of small-town North America; and the kids in short pants sm-08-2098-football-pick-up-gameplaying pick-up soccer against the wall of the stadium are not playing “one-a-cat” with a baseball sm-08-2100-football-pick-upand a bat against the brick walls of Pierre Van Cortlandt Elementary School. But the energy in the air, the band music, the cheering and jeering of the crowd, are as I heard them striding toward the high school field for that different kind of football.

When I turn onto the street along the stadium walls, though, I am sm-08-2094-spectators-at-a-football-game-puero-maldonadoclearly in Peru. The walls are the exceptionally tall walls Peruvians favor. But through holes, perhaps scraped into the wall for just this purpose, youths watch the distant game, as kids watched through knot-holes the major-league baseball games from Shoeless Joe Jackson’s time. And atop the high walls sit groups of men and boys, and a few women. Some have climbed, using the ridges at some levels of the wall and its natural decay. Beneath others stand wooden ladders, just high enough so that from the top rung one can pull oneself up onto the top of the all, as in a comic-strip indication of a burglary.

I walk along, photographing the folks on the walls, and turn right to see more of them, as well as a huge delivery truck parked on the street with three men standing on top of it to watch. There are nearly as many people on top of the wall, or watching through holes or breaks in the walls, as in the stadium.

sm-08-2114-spectatorsI’m an outlaw myself. I photograph one family up there, then ask if I may move their ladder slightly to the side of them and use it to join them. Of course I may. The spectacle of a middle-aged foreigner [or shall I simply say “old” ?] climbing the wall with his camera and fisherman’s vest amuses everyone in the area. My legs are not limber, and there are four rebar rods sticking up out of the wall just where I’d like to swing my legs over to let them dangle on the football-field side, but I manage.

The game is not right below us. Several meters within this brick wall is a chain-sm-08-2123-football-match-puno-v-puerto-maldonado-save-crlink fence – also high, and with wire to discourage anyone from climbing over it.  Inside the smaller enclosure, a team in red is playing a team in green. Legitimate “stands” are on the side of the field to my left, and sm-08-2129-football-match-puno-v-puerto-maldonado-crin the far corner, to the right of the field, there appears to be another small grandstand. There really do seem to be a lot more people on the fence than inside it, and snack-vendors working the sm-08-2152-spectatorsgame periodically walk around the perimeter to offer their wares to the spectators on the wall. (Is a seat inside costly? Or do a lot of these folks just feel that an illicit view of the game is a whole lot more pleasurable?)

At some point I ask the girl next to me whether one team is from here and another from elsewhere, or whether these are two teams from Puerto Maldonado. “Los Rojos,” she says, are from Puno. It is a long way. The players from Puno must have flown here.

As I start shooting photographs, something brushes my left shoulder lightly. It is a man who has moved the ladder a few inches from where I left it, and climbed up to sit just the other side of the protruding rebar.

I immerse myself in shooting. The game is too far away Still, it amuses me. It is what I do.   Around me the game continues, with kicks and headers and penalties, but no goals; the crowd jeers at one foul, and people toss a few things off the wall onto the grass between us and the soccer field.  

At some point I grow a little tired of sitting up there watching. Although I am naturally rooting for the boys in green, I can’t pretend to care very much who wins. (I do not witness a goal and do not ask whether or not any were scored before I arrived.) I haven’t played the game for years and can’t see very well from here anyway.

I glance down for the ladder, which of course is gone. Again I think of a comic-strip burglar dangling from a second- or third-story windowsill by his fingertips, a house-painter having borrowed  his ladder. There are now eight or ten more people sitting to my left on this wall, and the ladder is beneath one of them. It’s a good ways from me, there’s no possibility of standing up on this wall and trying to step over people, and it’s not clear that anyone could pass it over to us without climbing down to the ground.

Of course, as soon as I see that I can’t feasibly leave, I desire even more to get away. I am a stupid old man sitting on a wall.

To my right, the young woman also gets curious about the location of the ladder. She can’t see it, doesn’t dare lean back far enough to see how far it’s traveled, and asks her boyfriend or husband or older brother. (He’s holding the child, so I’m guessing they’re parents together.)  Someone on the ground manages to recover the ladder and return it to where we are, and I gratefully descend.

sm-08-2145-blue-shirted-spectator-on-blue-moto-taxiI walk back the way I came. There are even more illegal spectators than before, including a fellow who’s pulled his moto-taxi close to the wall to stand on its roof, and others who at first glance look as if they’re hanging by their crossed arms on top of the wall. The pick-up football game has six or eight players now, instead of three.

I have had a full, odd, useless day. 

My room is appealing: large, and with a writing desk near the window, and a bit of a view of the river; but quickly I realize that some large population of dogs occupies the yard just below my window. The dogs aren’t happy, and are continuously barking their complaints to the world at large, and as I am unlikely to manage to solve their problems, I ask for another room. Unfortunately, the only inner room available is right next door to the ladies. I have no choice, if I hope to sleep tonight; but it is odd to hear their voices and laughter through the wall.

I eat alone in the dining room, reading Garcilaso. The meal is quite good. The television offers what will be the last major league baseball game ever played at Yankee Stadium. As a child, I hated the Yankees and was thrilled by the Dodgers’ upset win in the 1955 World Series. In my youth, I took delinquent kids to ball-games there, and drove cabs in the shadow of the stadium. Tonight it seems odd to be watching U.S. baseball, but I can’t resist doing so – at least Ragna and Selma come in. Then I retire to my room to write.

Travel Notes:
  
 
Hotels:
Hotel Don Carlos (S./ 120)

not bad; adequate rooms with desk and chairs and shelf space for clothes and other stuff; new wing appears to have rooms in some ways less charming but better-appointed than those in the old wing; and they have a view over a set of old houses or huts. Unfortunately, those houses or huts come accompanied by dogs, whose loud barking sent me begging for a new room by mid-evening.  Nice folks. Friendly parrot. Quite good food. Modest view of the Rio Tambopata from some rooms and the front terrace.

For better or for worse, somewhat isolated. It’s a good hike to the Plaza de Armas, fun the first time but not something I’d want to have to do when I was in a hurry or carrying a large pack, or in the heat of a sunny day. However, there are usually mototaxis hanging around out front, and if there aren’t any the staff will send a young man to find one.

Restaurants:
I was intrigued by the sign for a Thai restaurant at some hotel out by the airport, but didn’t go check it out.

Hotel Don Carlos serves good suppers.

The Wasai Lodge is another reasonable hotel choice.  I moved to it the next morning, to ensure domestic tranquility. 

Other Points:

There are few cabs, but plenty of moto-taxis, and some motorcycles that function as cabs.  The moto-taxis are fine, except perhaps in a sudden downpour.

Motor scooters can be rented fairly cheaply near the Plaza de Armas.  There are four or five shops on one block.   Be careful to make sure the one you get has rear-view mirrors and all!  The first one I rented didn’t, and I didn’t notice it — and driving a motor scooter with no rear-view mirror and an unfamiliar gearshift system can be unnerving.

53. Cusco II

53. Cusco II — between Macchu Picchu and the rainforest

We have a few more days in Cusco before going on to Puerto Maldonado. Mostly we go our own ways, but once or twice we have supper together. I also try to buy for Ragna’s birthday a bracelet Selma has described to me. Ragna’s birthday will come round while we are in Corto Maltes, and birthdays [it will seem sexist to say, perhaps] mean rather more to women than to men, generally. Ragna’s has sometimes meant a lot to both of us.

Hostal Q’orichaska is a pleasant place to hang around, mornings, working a bit on this blog or just gabbing with other travelers. I also explore Cusco a bit on my own. One afternoon, I spot a sign that advertises a van to Macchu Picchu for S./ 70. Back at the Q’orichaska, some Israeli acquaintances get very curious about that, since we’ve all heard only the train was feasible.

The next morning (September 20), both for the Israelis and from my own curiosity, I go into the shop where a sign advertised a van to Macchu Picchu for S./ 70. It turns out to be an “alternative travel” outfit that indeed takes 10-11 passengers to very near Aqua Caliente. They drive through the sacred valley, making few stops, and continue on North of Aqua Caliente and Macchu Picchu, then drop down to Santa Teresa – the little town the Dutch kid had suggested as a risky but promising investment. Halfway between Santa T and A.C., there’s a hydroelectric plant where the passengers then take the train for about half an hour to A.C. The drive is about six hours, with just a few quick stops to shoot
it's the shop with this hole out front!

it's the shop with this hole out front!

pictures at major sites. (See contact info under Travel Notes / Other Points below.) I ask whether I could drive there in a private car, or even on to Aqua Caliente. He says I could. (I neglect to ask why his vans do not go  there, so folks don’t have to ride the train at all. Perhaps the road is unappealing.)

In search of a new Peruvian cell-phone, I walk down Calle El Sol a few blocks, and get everything I need: new phone and phone number, TUN rates, and a card for international calls. How much more comfortable I feel at this moment than I did in Lima, half a year ago, buying my first Peruvian cell-phone! Too, I make the clerk laugh a few times.

A man stands beside me, and pushes a small wicker bowl onto the table between the clerk and me. Instantly the clerk has money out and is putting a coin or two in the bowl, with the same alacrity I saw in Thai shopkeepers rushing to donate food to wandering monks in their orange robes. This man is old, with long, greyish-white hair and a beard, and bright eyes gleaming from a face of dark, wrinkled skin. When I add a coin or two, he smiles at me. There is a reason to give money to this man. He has the air of a holy man, simple and unassuming. I do not know, in words, why the kid behind the desk is giving coins so quickly to this man, when the street is full of beggars the kids working here would probably ignore or shoo away. But I know.

Perhaps I say something to the man like “buena suerte” or perhaps I just smile back, but he looks into my eyes very closely, then places a hand on the top of my head and gives me a blessing. I do not follow it all, but it begins with good luck or good health or good fortune for me for the rest of the day, and continues to cover the same for the rest of the year, and continues for several more sentences, none of them comprehensible to me. Then he puts his hand near mine to shake. I tell him I did not understand it all but I thank him, then shake his hand. He is not asking for more money, as he might reasonably have done once he spotted my camera. The blessing is kindly meant and quite welcome.  I do not question it or wonder about it, although I am not religious.

I don’t even think about it until later, but I haven’t a clue why he paused for so long to bless me. My business transaction in the Claro shop halts, like a freeze-frame in a flick, while he stands there with his hand on my head. I do not wonder why. He felt like I needed it, I suppose; and quite probably I do. I wished to take a portrait photo of him, but did not ask. After he leaves I ask the Claro kid if the man comes in there every day, and he shakes his head “No.” Then we finish our transaction.

As I walk back toward the plaza, a woman greets me. I recognize her, and quickly recall from where: Pisac, just this past Sunday, before we went to Macchu Picchu. We chat about my photographs and Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley and a healer she knows and trusts in Puerto Maldonado should I wish to try the ayahuasca. When I tell her I might drive out to Santa Teresa when we return, and about the folks with the van, she says there’s a new bridge there. That explains why my map showed the road stopping at Santa Theresa. She also says there ain’t much out there, but that as it’s a little lower you can grow more different things.

Bradley

Bradley

Back in the Plaza, shooting a couple of pictures, I’m greeted by a tall, slender fellow with bare feet, sitting on a park bench with his open notebook. We talk briefly. He lectures on finance, professionally, but is often here. He’s working on a book – for children, possibly in comic-book style – on investing, and specifically on arranging your investments to match up somewhat with your convictions. It’s an unlikely and interesting concept. He turns out to be from a small and interesting town in British Columbia. Here some years ago, he first tried the ayahuasca – and it changed his life. I told him I’d just been chatting with a woman about that.

“I don’t know if she said this, but it’s marvelous. I took it, and it completely opened my mind, my heart. It’s the one thing I know that I wish everyone I know would experience it.” He plans to do some again in a few days, and I find myself regretting that I won’t yet be back from Puerto Maldonado.

sm-08-1607-two-little-girls-cusco-plaza-de-armasAs we discuss drugs and healing, the gulf between finance / law / banking /litigation and where we sit now, and how we feel about the world around us, two little girls pester us to buy the omnipresent little cloth bracelets for one sole. We decline. One girl keeps telling Bradley he has a sole for her. I point out, “El no tiene zapatas!” She grins, but finds his sandals and holds one up. The two girls are so sweet that I can’t resist a photo, for which I’m to pay them a sole each. I offer a two-sole piece, but the numeral on the front is slightly obscured, and they tell me it’s counterfeit. (Folks are like that here: this morning the travel agent taking our money for the Madre de Dios sm-08-1612-ecu-two-little-girlsouting rejected a U.S. $20 bill that had a minuscule bite out of one corner.) I have a sole and a half-sole coin, and the questionable S./ 2, and invite them to choose: the purported S./2 or the certain S./ 1.50, but they happily manage to take both the S./ 2 coin and the S./ 1 coin.

sm-08-1683-bradleyI shoot a photo of Bradley, telling him he can use it as the author-photo on his book – showing him at work, barefoot in Cusco on a park bench.

I’m thinking about drugs.  Their uses and abuses, their power.   The way in which, years ago, the occasional peyote trip seemed a beautiful and therapuetic aspect of life.  How long it’s been.

birds, real and otherwise, . . .

birds, real and otherwise, . . .

. . . enjoy the fountain.

. . . enjoy the fountain.

 

 

 

 

 

sm-08-1700-cusco-plaza-de-armasI also feel good. Casual jokes with the young man who sold me the phone, perhaps the blessing, a chance meeting with an acquaintance, and this pleasant conversation with a stranger . . . the day is taking a somehow welcoming shape to it.  A fine, warm afternoon on the Plaza de Armas.   There is no urgency to anything.  The warm sun ripens the melancholy of separation into a rediscovery of my solitude.

I wander into the Catedral – or, more precisely, into the small church on the left of this cathedral complex, of which the Catedral in the center forms the largest, oldest, and most significant building. (It’s flanked by the _________ on the left and by the Iglesia de Triunfo on the right.)

The Catedral de Cusco quickly fascinates me. I am not religious; and the feelings it inspires in me are not religious, exactly. I’m fascinated with the history, the art, and the odd wrinkles in this unique collaboration of cultures. The audio guide they give me as I start turns out to be quite precise and well-organized.

As noted elsewhere, most of my visits to ruins and historical places occur outdoors. Indoors I have a short attention span. Put another way, if I can’t ride a motorcycle through it or take some pictures, it may not capture my attention.

I mention this to emphasize how much I liked the Catedral. Perhaps my sombre mood contributed; at the ends of relationships we are often both in pain and rather excited by the change in our lives; certainly our experiences are often more vivid than at less turbulent emotional moments. At any rate, I thoroughly enjoy wandering through the Catedral.

It always amazes me to contemplate the vastness of early Spanish colonial churches. This one took a century of work, which naturally involved changes of architects; and, being in Cusco, the building suffered fairly extensive earthquake damage during construction, and had to be repaired.  All of this, of course, was a long way from “home” for the Spanish participants.

I enter, and rent a small cassette-player containing a recorded tour that will tell me about something, then advise me of the next spot it wants to tell me about, so that I go there, press a button, listen to what it has to say, and then move at myour own pace to the next spot it likes, though also stopping at spots that appeal to me but apparently aren’t of interest to the recorded voice.

I quickly decide to buy a CD with the recording on it, to supplement memory when I write this post – but by the time I’m back in Oakland getting around to that, I find that the CD doesn’t work.  Then once it works it has lots of intormation about Cusco, but not the specifics that so interested me walking through the Catedral.  My notes are worthless:

San Antonio de Padua . . . Celeque and the Virgin de _______ . . . The choir; the seats, the “mercies” the organs, built more or less when the church was, and silent at some point for a century. . . . El Negro

El Negro was a black saint who saved Cusco. From earthquakes, I think.

“The Last Supper” displays a table replete with cuy [guinea pig] and fruits from Peru – the cuy unmistakable. Well, it was a special occasion – and cuy was eaten on special occasions in the Inca times, as well as today. As the tour-voice suggested in connection with some of the paintings showing female Catholic saints in dress familiar to the Inkas, part of the point was to make all this strange mythology familiar and accessible to the locals.

It is all quite splendid; and it is interesting. It was all being built so ornately so far from anywhere so long ago!  What a turbulent mixture of thoughts and emotions must have flowed through the minds of the local artists, Inkas yet (perhaps) Catholic converts. I’m always fascinated  by the mix of conquerors and conquered in the blood and hearts of the people, then and later.

I stop for awhile by a statue: a Spanish gallant, sword raised, riding a white horse with a distinctly human and unhappy face, and a small fellow with a goatee kneeling beneath and holding horse and rider in the air. The audio guide is silent about this sight. It’s visually interesting, but I’m wholly ignorant about it.

I pause, wondering what she's pouring

I pause, wondering what she's

into her motorcycle, and why . . .

pouring into her motorcycle.

The night before we leave for Puerto Maldonado, Ragna cannot remove a contact lens from her eye, and we experience a bit of Peruvian medical care.

The hotel folks call a doctor. She soon arrives, examines Ragna, and takes us to a clinic. The clinic is far away through unfamiliar streets, and when we arrive it is very quiet. It is modest, but clean and well-appointed. The doctor efficiently takes care of Ragna’s eye. We pay a relatively small amount. Then they call a cab for us, but the cab doesn’t come, and in the end they kindly drive us back to the hostal in an ambulance, declining my offer to pay for the service.

Travel Notes
Lodging:

The Hostal Q’orichaska worked for me. See initial Cusco post for address, description, and contact information.

Food: [to be inserted]

Other:

Do spend an hour or two wandering around in the Catedral doing the self-guided tour.

Do spend a sunny hour or two wandering around the Plaza de Armas, soaking up the feel of the place.

Do walk the narrow old streets.

A good thing about Cusco: it’s about the best place in Peru to replace lost camera equipment or get a broken lens repaired.

52. Macchu Picchu II; Agua Caliente back to Cusco

52. Macchu Picchu, then from Agua Caliente back to Cusco 18 Sept.

I awaken early again, and find better weather and a longer line awaiting me outside.    I’m alone this time: neither Ragna nor Selma felt like getting up early this morning; and as I left the room, Ragna  and I quarreled.   So I’m very alone.

Again I drink a coffee in line, this time making casual conversation with strangers. 

Again the bus winds up the switchbacks, under the gaze of those extraordinary mountains shrouded in mist. 

Again too it’s a rush through the beautiful grounds to the line for Huayna Picchu. As we enter, and I pass the sharp, uphill left that would take me to where I spent so much of yesterday, the place tugs at my heart.  I’d like to see how things look from there so early on a fine morning; and it would be quieter, contemplative. Still, I rush along with the others.  Walking fast, but shooting too, sometimes without quite stopping.

The line today is much longer than the previous day’s line.   I feel foolish, standing in it.   It looks like the start of the Boston Marathon.  I may wait in line, wasting the best early-morning photographic light, only to make a sweaty climb with hundreds of people around me — a great view of some other hiker’s fat ass above me, and 25-year-olds racing past me like deer, as I once ran up and down the trails in Nepal.   I am not even sure there aren’t 400 people in front of me already.   I may not even get in!   When a young couple standing with me gets talking about this, and he remarks that they were on the 22nd bus, I do the math: for just this reason, I counted the seats on the bus: 29, 28 of them occupied on my particular bus.  Multiply 22 by 28 or 29, and . . . I’m outta there!

I feel lighter the moment I leave the line, realizing I just want to wander back up to the wonderful place I spent the previous afternoon, and see how Macchu Picchu looks from there in the morning light. 

I work my way back up there, enjoying plenty of other fine views on the way.

Macchu Picchu is indeed beautiful from there, in the morning light.

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I walk back a bit and into a nearby field and find myself alone with several llamas.  They are grazing, and chewing some kind of berries or leaves off the trees, and seem perfectly content for me to stand among them.  One works his way along the berries until he is nearly chewing on my elbow.

Photographically, it may or may not turn out; but it feels extraordinary to be standing among these llamas, in this place, at dawn.  I feel privileged.  I feel as if I’ve been holding my breath the whole time, so as not to disturb anything.   Everything else — the morning quarrel with Ragna — pales. 

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People come.  One woman steps into the middle of this tableau, apparently unaware of the llama, and stands there hollering “Gordo!”   Even her, the llamas don’t mind.  She bellows, “Gordo!”  a few more times, and eventually goes away. 

I go back where I was, and sit awhile.  Mostly my mind is blank.  Meditative.  When thoughts of problems sidle into my mind, the spellbinding view banishes them.

I leave.  I do not want to; and yet, I’m ready to.  The moment has been so fine that I am sated, and ready to return to “the real world.”  Perhaps I have a sense already that I will need what this moment has given me.

sm-08-1488-top-of-wayman-picchuWhat I have not said, but must, is that when Ragna came to bed last night she was angry with me.   When I awakened early to return to Macchu Picchu, she was angry with me.  I wanted to get back out here, and didn’t pay much attention to her, and spoke sharply to her in return.   We are two people who have loved each other but have often made each other miserable — despite my best efforts and probably hers too — and are wearing out.   We have had these sorts of quarrels — over what, I often don’t know – too many times over too many years.   She’s a wonderful, charming, charismatic woman, but each of us has long wondered how much longer we can stay together.

sm-08-1490-llamasWhen I leave, I start down a set of stone steps and glance up, and see that I have a new view of two grazing llamas.  They’re grazing on a grassy platform at about eye level, so I have a worm’s eye view of them, just as the morning sun burns through the sm-08-1504-llamasclouds.   

 

 

 

 

 

When sm-08-1515-hut-and-peak1I leave, I walk quickly, still enjoying my solitude and the splendid surroundings.

 

 

 

 

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Return to Cusco:

I run into Ragna and Selma in a cafe as I enter Agua Caliente.   Ragna is not speaking to me any more than necessary.   We rush to make the next train to Ollatatambo.   On it, Ragna and Selma sit far away from me.  

We recover the car, and drive back to Cusco a different and quicker way, making no stops.   It’s pretty country, but grey and rainy.  The mood in the car is darker.  Back in Cusco, we again get a double room and a single: but this time Ragna and Selma are in the double, somewhat to the confusion of the folks working at the hotel.

Travel Notes:

Lodging
We stayed at the Hotel Bromeliad in Agua Caliente.  It’s one of the cheaper options.  It’s basic, but clean.
In Cusco, we’re again at the Q’orichaska.   I recommend it.  (See first Cusco post for more details, and the hostal’s address and phone number.)

 Food:

Other Points:

1. Obviously for photography, or simply for enjoying or studying the place, the tours that get you to Macchu Picchu for a couple of hours in the middle of the day just don’t cut it. Flattest light, most people wandering around, fewest llamas, very little time, etc. Agua Caliente boasts a range of places to stay, though they’re over-priced by Peru standards generally.
2. If you want to go up Huayna Picchu, line up early – or perhaps try the afternoon, hoping the ranks of climbers will have thinned out by then.
3. Although guidebooks and a sign at the entrance tell you that you can’t take your backpack in, or carry walking sticks in, I saw no semblance of an effort to enforce either rule, or the prohibition against food and drink.
4. Making a sharp left and climbing as soon as you can after entering the place [or following the signs for the Inca Bridge for awhile] will take you up to the observation point I describe in the text and much enjoyed. For photographers, going up there first might be rewarding. [Note that the trail to the Inca Bridge was closed when we were there, which meant you couldn’t go too far by following that trail.]
5. Consider taking a good sun hat as well as sunblock, insect repellent, and bottled water. Simple raingear may also be needed.

51. Macchu Picchu I

51. Macchu Picchu   17 Sept.+

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We awaken in darkness and dress. It sounds almost like rain outside. When we get to the front door, it is raining. A steady rain that doesn’t keep us from crossing the Plaza and walking the short distance to where the buses leave from – only to find what could be a couple of hundred people already on line. We join the line, at probably about 5:15 or 5:20 a.m. There are no restaurants open, but several women ply the line with doughnuts and coffee and tea, and a store sells water-bottles and snacks. I drink a coffee.

Just as the first buses open their doors and the line starts to move, I realize we need another ticket – we have our entry tickets for Macchu Picchu, but those don’t include this bus – and rush across to buy three, then dash back.

The ride up is a lovely one. What early light there is shows us tall, steep peaks hugged by clouds, and we make our way up the side of one of them, on a dirt road with many switchbacks and dramatic views, though the light doesn’t invite photography.

Once there, with everyone else we rush through toward Huayna Picchu. I try to ask Ragna and Selma whether that is in fact what they want to do, but Ragna’s a bit annoyed with me, so I don’t try. We end up in a line to enter Huayna Picchu, which only 400 people may do at a time. When I’m finally able to explain that this line is just for that – for a climb Ragna isn’t likely to want to attempt anyway – we get out of line and wander back through the ruins.

Without a guide, we aren’t always certain exactly what we’re seeing, but we wander through the ruins anyway. Mist and frequent rain hamper our exploration and our photography, but even in the rain – perhaps somehow particularly in the rain – it’s an impressive place. Haunting. We are mostly alone, sometimes unable to see much of the view, wandering among structures built half a millennium ago with huge stones on a perch that would be dramatic even without the structures.  Mists cloak the sharp peaks, and linger in the valleys.

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I am thinking again about the abilities of early cultures to find extraordinary spots and build there. Ganden comes to mind, in Tibet.

But we are also damp, and a bit cold.

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By afternoon, we make it to a wonderful spot. To reach it, one turns left [uphill] very soon after entering the ruins. Passing a hut on a prominent spot, continue upward and to the right of the hut, and out along the face of the hillside, overlooking the main part of the ruins. (It is the first part of the way to the Inka Bridge, the trail to which is closed for repairs during our visit. I can hear a couple of guys working in there somewhere, and occasionally confused hikers show up and ask me how to get to the Inka Bridge, and I have to explain that they can’t.)

We reach it only after wandering a while to the left of the hut and visiting with a bunch of llamas hanging out in the mist.

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Once we are there, though, it is an exceptional place. The weather is drier now, but not sunny. We sit for a long time looking down at Macchu Picchu, then go for lunch, which is available just outside the entrance. After lunch Ragna and Selma go back to the village to rest, saying they’ll probably come back later, and I tell them I’ll likely be either down here getting coffee or up at the spot we’d sat in for awhile.

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I return alone. At first no one else is sm-08-0457-atsuko1up there except one pretty young Japanese woman. I walk past her and out to the end, and find the same comfortable perch on a big rock, and settle in. I feel a strange lassitude: I am where I want to be, with a marvelous view in front of me. I do not feel like moving.

I watch the clouds drift in and out of the splendor of Macchu Picchu. I meditate a little. I write a little. I shoot an occasional photograph, without moving from my perch.

Others come and go. Three or four llamas have come out along the narrow terraces just below me, grazing quietly, oblivious to both the man-made and the natural beauty across the valley.

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sm-08-0316-atsukosm-08-0426-atsukoThrough it all the Japanese girl in the green sweatshirt sits, watching.  I feel a certain kinship with her.   Though young, she simply sits, watching (as I do), and does not shoot photographs, or join friends in some other part of the ruins, or go for coffee, she just sits, watching. Perhaps she finds the place beautiful, perhaps she is thinking about a love affair gone wrong, but the stillness in her impresses me. It impresses me all sm-08-0530-japanese-girls-photographing-macchu-picchusm-08-0546-japanese-girls-photographing-themselvesthe more when, having moved from my perch to the grass to nap a bit, I am awakened by a Japanese tour group with a Japanese-speaking guide, and watch with amusement as a couple of young girls in the group photograph each other, sm-08-0538-japanese-girls-jumping-macchu-picchujump high in the air while someone else photographs them, and otherwise bounce around.  The quiet one –Atsuko — still does not move.  

 

 

 

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I photograph her. I photograph a French youth visiting with the llamas then sitting with a friend over near Atsuko. I gab briefly with a family from Holland we’d met here during the morning, who’ve now worked their way back up here. 

Mostly, though, I just sit watching. When Ragna and Selma return, they are laughing because they’d been so sure they’d find me still here.  I’m amazed that I haven’t moved for so many hours.

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They sit awhile with me, then want to explore, and I do too, so we wander around for what’s left of the day. sm-08-0702-selma-and-ragna-in-mpsm-08-0794-below-macchu-picchusm-08-0727-macchu-picchu

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 This time we have supper in a smaller place on the same side of the Plaza. The maitre d’ is a Dutch kid who’s lived years in Peru, including months here, and talks a lot, including advising me that nearby St. Theresa is a risky but promising investment. He speaks a lot of languages and is charming, and is there mostly to attract people to the restaurant. It’s the kind of town where each restaurant has someone out shilling for customers, and a European-looking guy speaking German or Dutch or English snags a little more attention or inspires a little more confidence, I suppose. In fact, the food kind of sucks. (And the cook, when we see him, looks like the sort of fellow a cartoonist might draw as the cook in a questionable diner.  Maybe the counterman in the old Dagwood comic strip — if that guy had grown long hair and a bushy beard.  After finding a hair in the food, we crack up when we see this guy emerge from the kitchen for a smoke.)  After supper I retire early, leaving Ragna and Selma to enjoy another drink.

Travel Notes:

Lodging:

We stayed at the Hostal Bromeliad — see previous post for discussion.

Food:

Other Points:

1. Obviously for photography, or simply for enjoying or studying the place, the tours that get you to Macchu Picchu for a couple of hours in the middle of the day just don’t cut it. Flattest light, most people wandering around, fewest llamas, very little time, etc. Agua Caliente boasts a range of places to stay, though they’re over-priced by Peru standards generally.
2. If you want to go up Wayman Picchu, line up early – or perhaps try the afternoon, in the hopes that the ranks of climbers will have thinned out by then.
3. Although guidebooks and a sign at the entrance tell you that you can’t take your backpack in, or carry walking sticks in, I saw no semblance of an effort to enforce either rule, or the prohibition against food and drink.
4. Making a sharp left and climbing as soon as you enter the place [or following the signs for the Inca Bridge for awhile] will take you up to the observation point I describe in the text and much enjoyed. For photographers, going up there first might be rewarding. [Note that the trail to the Inca Bridge was closed when we were there, which meant you couldn’t go too far by following that trail.]

5. Consider taking: a good sun hat, as well as sunblock; insect repellent; and bottled water. Simple raingear may also be needed.

50. Cusco to Aqua Caliente

50. Cusco to Agua Caliente

We drive out through the Sacred Valley to Ollatatambo. 

sm-08-9521-pigs-in-the-cocheraFirst we must walk down to the cochera and awaken the proprietor, in order to ransom El Bandito, the quatro por quatro [visible up there in the background of the photo to the left].   Selma sm-08-9523-selma-photographing-pigdoes so [in photo at right].   Eventually we pay him, then go back up to the Hostal Qorichaska to pick up Ragna. 

sm-08-9539-near-pisacsm-08-9533-near-pisacThe drive begins with the same long, slow climb up from Cusco, and the road to Pisac.    [These two pictures and the one below left show the view down toward Pisac. ]

sm-08-9537-near-pisacPisac today, a market day but not a Sunday, is somewhat different.  The market takes up a smaller proportion of the town’s streets, and in the Plaza de Armas most of the market stalls aimed solely at locals aren’t there.   sm-08-9546-pisac-mercado-vendorsm-08-9549-pisac-marketToday’s market quite obviously exists because this is one of the days on which tour-buses appear in Pisac during the morning.  It’s less crowded, and not half so interesting sm-08-9550-pisac-vendorsm-08-9553-pisac-market-food-vendorphotographically.  We stop long enough to have a quick walk around the Plaza and stop at an ATM.   The vendors look lonely.  At least one of the little old ladies is making a little money by having pictures sm-08-9555-pisac-mercado-vendorsm-08-9561-victor-and-little-old-ladytaken of her.    We drive back up into the hills toward the ruins at Pisac, which are just a few km.  up a steep mountain road. 

The ruins must command a magnificent view; but there are an obscene number of tour-buses parked by the side of the narrow road for several hundred meters.   We consider parking and walking in, and would do if the place weren’t so crowded; but instead we drive back out to the main road, knowing that among the things we don’t yet know is where we’re going to stay in Agua Caliente.

sm-08-9570-near-pisacThe Sacred Valley is a pleasant drive.   It would be pleasant to spend a few days here.   There are ruins and small villages and nice countryside.   We don’t have the time to explore it as it deserves.   

At Ollatatambo we drive down toward the train, only to learn that there is no provision for parking a private vehicle at the bottom of the hill near the train station.   The traffic cop points me to a certain driveway blocked by a big sheet of metal, and tells  me to bang on it, but no one responds.   I do find a nice-looking hotel on one side of the street, and a small restaurant and hostal on the other.   Being a budget traveler, I try the smaller one, where our request to park the car for a few days, and pay for it, is so unusual that the young lady in charge has to phone the owner.  He consents.   We park the car as far into the corner of the very small parking lot as possible, then start the hike down toward the train.  

If you need to know, it is possible to buy some food and coffee and use a clean toilet at the little train station.   The train is just two cars long, at least in this season, and very clean — and nearly empty.   Peruvian music plays during the 35-minute ride along a river at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon.  The uniformed attendants serve a snack-box, although not a very helpful one if you don’t eat meat. 

sm-08-9585sm-08-9588-view-from-trainThe view is beautiful, although photography is difficult.   The train moves at a moderate speed past river, forest, occasional farms, and a few other buildings, all dwarfed by the high peaks on both sides of us most of the way.

Suddenly we are there.  

Our exit from the train is a confused rush through a maze of market stalls from within which we haven’t a clue which direction the main part of town is in or whether we’re meant to be going uphill or downhill or sideways.    We’re also carrying a bunch of stuff.   I’m trying to glance at the Lonely Planet guide-book, call budget hostals, and walk at the same time, unable to hear because of the noise all around me.   I also don’t yet know where I’m going, so at least I stop walking for a moment and ask.   It takes several calls to locate an affordable hotel with a vacancy, and the vacancy turns out to be an extremely crowded three-bed room with its own small bathroom.   Hostal Bromeliad.

We find the place, check in, and shower, then wander out to explore Agua Caliente and get something to eat. 

Opinions vary concerning Agua Caliente.   It’s an odd place, because the main purpose of its existence is for everyone to hurry from it to somewhere else.   It’s dedicated to tourism, but because of a combination of factors — the fame and beauty of the place, the rugged mountains, and the availability both of luxury tour-buses and difficult treks — the tourists run the gamut from the very wealthy, some of whom can even afford to spend a reported $1,000 per night to stay in a hotel just outside the gate of Macchu Picchu, to the poor but determined, some of whom camp out then walk up the incredibly steep and tall mountainside to Macchu Picchu.

The evening has an odd feel to it, somewhat festive.  Maybe that is because there are so many places to eat and drink, all of them with

La Plaza

La Plaza de Armas

balconies overlooking streets or the small Plaza de Armas, and most of them with shills out front announcing that one particular restaurant has the others beat all hollow.   Maybe it is because we are excited by the imminence of our visit to Macchu Picchu.  Maybe it is because everyone is either anticipating a morning visit to Macchu Picchu or celebrating a day spent at Macchu Picchu (or the end of a trek).   Maybe it’s because at the restaurant we choose [the one to the left of the three fronting on the opposite side of the Plaza from the Bromeliad], the food is slow in coming but the Pisco sours are not.  Soon I’m on my third, feeling a general benevolence toward my companions and all the people crossing the Plaza or taking each other’s pictures by the statues there, as the local folks wander in and out of the church across the Plaza.   

Selma

Selma

Ragna & Selma

Ragna & Selma

The music is loud and the air is clean.  I laugh a lot, take ridiculous pictures of Selma and Ragna at the table, and fall silent a lot too, just thinking.

sm-08-9654-ac-plaza-de-armassm-08-9657I do wander down into the Plaza for a moment to play with the camera, long after dark.   Eventually, when the food comes, it tastes wonderful, perhaps because it is and perhaps because I am hungry and perhaps because I am working on my fourth Pisco sour.

We turn in early because the train for Macchu Picchu leaves at 5:30 in the morning, and the line starts forming about an hour before that.

Travel Notes:

Lodging:

We stayed in the Hostal Bromeliad, which was adquate and relatively inexpensive.

Agua Caliente boasts a quite varied set of accommodations in various price ranges.  Still, I’d recommend booking ahead of time, even if you usually don’t do that, because (1) it’s the sort of destination place it is, without much through-traffic for locals, values are different, and you’ll pay more for a particular sort of room here than you usually would elsewhere in Peru, and (2) arriving there in the afternoon was a real zoo.  Agua Caliente was crowded, and probably is crowded at all seasons; the lobby of the Bromeliad was a madhouse, with all sorts of folks begging for accommodations, and I was glad I’d at least managed to call from near the train station to book our room [and even so got just a three-bed room, with the right to switch to two rooms the second night]; and because it’s a small village that sees many tourists, you could find the budget places full and end up paying a lot more than you want to.   As anyone reading this blog knows, we rarely booked ahead, preferring to arrive and form our own impression of the hotels and their surroundings.   I wouldn’t try that again in Agua Caliente.

Food:

The place we supped in was good, although service was slow.  The place next door was not as good — and I’d guess some of the better restaurants aren’t on the Plaza.  There are plenty of restaurants to choose among in Agua Caliente, all within a couple of blocks.    The two we ate in faced the plaza.  Looking across the plaza from the church, the one we ate in the first night would be the one on the far left among the three or four establishments on the opposite side.

Other:

Be sure to buy your ticket for Macchu Picchu.  If you arrive in Agua Caliente without one, go immediately to the ______ and buy one, if you plan to go to Macchu Picchu early in the morning.  Note that you will also need a bus ticket, but you can purchase that early in the morning, as your partner waits in line.

I mention “early morning” often for at least three reasons: (1) Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 people, and since most folks capable of it would like to make that climb, they’re in line early, and you might miss it if you snooze; (2) since most of the early birds are headed for Huayna Picchu, the early morning is a great time for you to experience Macchu Picchu in relative solitude — and you won’t have to spend quite so long in Photoshop zapping the human forms in your pictures; and (3) as a photographer, I like the better light of early morning or very late afternoon.    In addition, since some big tours give their cattle just a couple of hours in Macchu Picchu in the middle of the day, either early morning or late afternoon means a quieter and more enjoyable experience of the place.

To maximize enjoyment of the early morning, make a sharp left turn uphill at pretty much your first opportunity, about 100 yards after passing through the gates where you show your ticket.

For the truly budget-minded, there’s a “back-packer special” train from Cusco that’s much cheaper than foreigners pay otherwise.  The authorities don’t exactly advertise it, but it’s there.

I’m not sure that if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have left the car in Cusco and taken a tour bus.  (That’s assuming you don’t hike in on the Inka Trail, which Ragna wouldn’t have considered.)  Mostly I prefer to drive.   This particular route I might have been better off riding, getting let off near the various ruins, seeing what the experts thought I should see, and not having to figure out where to park.   Maybe.   In a perfect world I’d have done that, and then returned a few days later to explore the area by car on my own.