Back at LPAC. Part I: Reptiles.

The sense of familiarity I expected to wash over me as I stepped out of the plane on Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport was silenced by the strangely cold air that hit my face. I had not anticipated a friaje, a front of frosty polar currents that often hits South America in the winter months. Combine this with jet lag and a long car ride into the forest and the result is a very tired traveller. My first afternoon back in the most wonderful place on the face of the earth was therefore spent in bed. I can confidently say, however, that in the following two months I completely made up for this bit of ‘wasted’ time. I think my campmates would agree with me.

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I found this gorgeous Liophis reginae (yellow-bellied swamp snake) on the first day; quite a good start.

Being surrounded by other people with cameras, it would be selfish not to bring back interesting subjects to share with everyone. As long as a snake, lizard or frog fits in a bag (and is not dangerously venomous), it’s coming back to camp. Unfortunately, they don’t always fit.
When the friaje cleared up, I knew that this was the time to go out. Cold-blooded animals had been deprived of warmth for a week and had to come out to bask in the few patches of sun that the rainforest has to offer. I hiked to the edge of our land to search in an aguajal (a swamp with a special kind of palm tree) for any big-bodied snakes. I hoped that the animal I still want to see the most, the green anaconda, would make an appearance there. But after scouting around the algae-covered swamp for thirty minutes, I was ready to give up. I glanced to my left one more time and did a sudden double take. On a fallen tree, stretched out perfectly, was a three-meter long Boa constrictor, fatter than my upper leg. I felt a mix of emotions taking over. Somewhere down in the primal parts of my brain, there was a dim fear for this creature; have we not been naturally selected to have an inherited fear of serpents? But mostly, I felt respect and awe for this wonder of evolution. With my trembling hands I was barely able to grab my camera. As I walked closer to inspect the marvellous animal, I realized there was no way I would be able to catch this behemoth. Its head was almost invisible in the thick undergrowth, and my futile attempt to lift up the back of its body only resulted in the boa casually slithering out of reach.
Despite seeing a giant armadillo and a giant anteater in the following months, this has been my favourite wildlife sighting.

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This massive Boa constrictor was very close to farmland, a habitat where it often comes into conflict with humans and livestock.

The longest night walk I’ve ever taken also turned out to be the best. I started off at 17:30 with a packed dinner and only returned at half past midnight. After eating my rice and eggs on a log next to a rather frightened collared tree runner, I finally found a species of boa I had somehow not seen before. A young Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) was hunting in a small shrub at eye-level. Finding this beautiful serpent only leaves me with two boas yet to find in the Amazon basin: the green anaconda (or ‘water boa’) and the very rare emerald tree boa. After bagging the young snake I continued my 12 km nocturnal loop while growing more and more tired. After 11 PM, I did not think I would see anything more as my exhausted stumbling would surely scare everything off. Imagine my surprise when I came eye to eye with a foraging giant armadillo. It’s hard to describe just how big this animal looks when it stands a mere two meters away from you. Seemingly oblivious of me, it sniffed the ground in search of insect nests to raid, before calmly walking off into the night. This encounter still had my heart pounding when I walked back into camp and made my way towards the kitchen. Next to one of the galletas (wooden stepping stones) I saw the unmistakable pitch black body of a mussurana (Clelia clelia). This snake was most likely interested in making a meal out of a sleeping lizard when I caught him in the act. After safely containing the serpent, I plunged into a deep well-deserved sleep.

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Since the animals are getting more used to our precense, they start coming into camp. Rats and mouse opossums already steal from the kitchen, which means that opportunistic snakes such as the mussurana (Clelia clelia) will come to hunt them. I predict that soon tiger rat snakes (Spilotes pullatus) will find their way to camp as well. Hopefully the fer-de-lances will stay away…
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The Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) takes many forms throughout its life. They may be completely red or yellow, or have a banded pattern like this individual.
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Because tree boas are primarily arboreal, they can perform impressive feats of flexibility and strength, coiling themselves into beautiful positions.
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Mussuranas look very different when they’re young, like this example here. When they become adult, they lose their red and white colours on the dorsum and turn completely black with a white belly.

Some weeks, I would find at least one snake every single day, either at night or during the day. Other weeks I would find nothing. I wonder what drives these strange clusterings of snake sightings; is it the weather, or am I simply better at searching during certain weeks? Why do I sometimes have five snakeless days in a row, and then a night with both a rainbow boa and a rare coral mud snake (which unfortunately got away, as neither my pal Sean nor I knew what it was).

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Don’t let this picture fool you: this rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) was not enjoying being wrapped around this thick liana.
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Rainbow boa’s have one of the most beautiful patterns of all snakes in the region. Blotches like these are called eye-spots and are a form of mimicry. They either fool a potential predator or draw away attention from more vulnerable parts of an animal’s body. Perhaps these eye-spots are useful to young rainbow boa’s, when they’re still too small to defend themselves.
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When using a flash on a rainbow boa, the reason for its common name becomes quite apparent.
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Superficially, the tawny forest racer (Dendrophidion dendrophis) bears a strong resemblance to the venomous fer-de-lance. Its round pupils give away that this is in fact a Colubrid (harmless snake). However, it didn’t feel that harmless when it sunk its teeth into my hand and refused to let go.

 

 

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The black-skinned parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla) is one of the most photogenic snakes in the world. It very easily goes into this threatening pose, but won’t actually strike. This individual has a beautiful turquoise coloration around its mouth, something I’ve not ever seen before.
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The green-striped vine snake (Oxybelis vulgidus) is one of the most common snakes in Madre de Dios. It’s often found at night, sleeping at eyelevel. But because it tucks its head under its slender body and doesn’t show any eyeshine, it’s not as easily spotted as one would expect.
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This snake’s primary defence is striking at its attacker. If that doesn’t work, it musks (read: poops) all over the unlucky predator or interested human.
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The yellow-tailed cribo (Drymarchon corais) is one of the most badass snakes I found. Reaching up to 3 metres in length, this non-venomous snake eats just about anything it can find; including other (venomous) snakes. Notorious for its aggresiveness, it will often strike at faces when disturbed. This 2 metre individual however was extremely docile and could be handled without too much constraint.

Snakes are not the only reptiles I found while searching for subjects in the rainforest. In streams and small lakes, caiman predate on anything they can take. When you’re in the forest for long enough and you’re surrounded by other crazy people, catching caiman becomes a fun nighttime activity. The forest harbours many beautiful lizards, tortoises and turtles as well, like an Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) that fell on someone’s helmet as they were climbing a tree.
Finding reptiles can sometimes feel like playing Pokémon. You want to catch them all, but this becomes harder and harder as you find more species. The common species become familiar to you (e.g. rainbow boa’s, yellow-footed tortoises and collared tree runners) while you crave more for the rare or hard to find ones; I think of anacondas, matamatas and emerald tree boas. Fortunately, you level up as you find more species. You learn where to look, how to catch them and to safely handle your subjects. It can be overwhelming to look up the incredible biodiversity that exists within the class of Reptilia (finding out about dwarf boas was interesting) and think of all the species that are still hiding out there, waiting to be found and classified within our strange and ever-evolving taxonomic system.

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Haseman’s gecko (Gonatodes hasemani) is a beautiful species of dwarf gecko. Its pattern is absolutely stunning for such a small reptile.
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Looking right into the camera. To me, this picture is evidence that not only warm-blooded animals can be cute!
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This yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata) is always a strange sight to behold. For some reason, I never expect to see a tortoise on the leaf-littered forest floor.
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This turnip-tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) likes to hang out around human settlements, such as the small house where we store boat equipment and extra mattresses (and sometimes hold parties).
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A true master of camouflage. Its common name stems from the fact that when this gecko drops its tail (autotomy), it grows back as a big turnip like bulb.
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The Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) is one of more illusive species I’ve seen at LPAC. Being a canopy dweller, it rarely shows itself to humans walking on the ground.
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Bonus picture: a highly venomous Eastern ribbon coral snake (Micrurus lemniscatus) eating a blind snake. For some reason, the small oxbow lake where I found this individual is full of this species. Without failure, I’ve found them there every single night. This was my first ever sighting of a coral snake, and also a very special one.
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Rupsenliefde

Het is weer zover: de temperatuur schiet over de 25 graden heen en Nederland begeeft zich en masse naar het strand. Onderweg naar zand en zee zal het veel mensen zijn opgevallen dat er zich weerzinwekkende taferelen voordoen in sommige bomen. Zoals ieder jaar zijn enkele ongelukkige planten helemaal kaalgevreten en ingepakt met dikke witte draden. Tussen die weefsels krioelt het van de rupsen, die bij overmaat van ramp ook nog eens in je haar gaan zitten. Snel doorfietsen dus, op het strand kunnen ze je niet te grazen nemen.

Maar wat zijn het nou eigenlijk voor beestjes? De rupsen zijn larven van 7 verschillende soorten stippelmotten, geslacht Yponomeuta, die hele bomen inspinnen om zich te beschermen tegen roofdieren. De eitjes zitten bijna een jaar lang in de planten voordat ze in mei allemaal tegelijk uitkomen. In tegenstelling tot wat ik dacht, lijden de bomen er niet of nauwelijks onder. De blaadjes komen snel weer terug als de rupsen hun metamorfose tot motten hebben ondergaan. Toch blijven veel mensen het een vies gezicht vinden.

‘Gadverdamme’ hoor ik dus een paar keer van langslopende wandelaars. Daarna valt hun blik pas op die debiel die er met zijn camera naartoe is gegaan om close-ups te maken van de smerige insecten. Ik vind het daarentegen een prachtig gezicht. Het is een spookachtig schouwspel, zo’n witte boom, alsof er een reusachtige spin zijn web in heeft gemaakt. De diertjes zijn hartstikke onschuldig, ook als mot doen ze niemand kwaad: het idee dat alle motten kleren eten is een mythe. Het lijkt alsof ze allemaal samenwerken om zo efficiënt mogelijk een schild te bouwen tegen de loerende kauwen en koolmezen.

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Peru Part IX: Surrounded by giants

The Colca Canyon and Arequipa


I am dreading another bus ride, this time from Puno to Chivay. But this trip turns out to be a lot better. Not just because I downloaded the entire season of Dirk Gently on my phone, but the landscape is even more beautiful than last time. We drive past wide lakes that seem pink from the thousands of flamingos feeding on shrimp. We make a stop in the National Park of Salidas and Aguada Blanca, where wild vicuñas roam freely like flocks of long-necked deer; how life can exist in this seemingly barren desert is beyond me. Great rock formations and ancient masses of green moss surround the road leading up to the mountains. After passing the highest point of our journey at 4900 meters we start descending into the valley. The Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but its walls are not nearly as steep. The snow that covered the side of the road disappears and after half a day we arrive in the small town of Chivay. We sleep just a few kilometers away in a guest house looking out at the Misti Volcano.

Later that day, I go out for a run. It’s not easy finding a level route to jog. I start on the pre-Inca terraces that are relatively flat, but the thorny bushes painfully scratch against my legs. I follow a trail downhill and end up on the quiet main road, which is partly covered with sheep. On my way back, I notice that I’d been only running downhill the entire time; I struggle upwards while barely getting enough oxygen. As I turn around a curve, I see a group of manic Peruvians standing and shouting around a fallen boulder, which is keeping their car from continuing. We combine forces and manage to push the heavy rock over to the side. After celebrating our herculean achievement, we all laugh and go our separate ways. I think to myself as I run up the hill, that there would most likely be a national outrage if something like this occurred in The Netherlands.

When we wake up the next day, 2016 has transformed into 2017 without a noise. In the distance, Misti is coughing out gray clouds of ash, as she does many times a day. Using a crudely drawn map from Herbert, a tour guide who is also staying in the hotel, we start a hike along the sides of the old terraces. I can’t believe my eyes when the open tombs that Herbert described turn out to be real. Bones from Inca times and even before lie piled up in big carved holes in the mountainside. I feel like Indiana Jones when I spot the elongated skulls that reveal the age and historical importance of these remains. Small pieces of cloth can even be distinguished between the skulls and ribcages. But these burial places are not a secret: scattered Soles proof that locals still visit these tombs regularly. How these graves have not yet been robbed or their contents put in a museum is a mystery to me.

We continue along the slope until we reach Uyo Uyo, the ruins of another pre-Inca religious metropole. When we hike down towards the Colca river, a stray dog that was sleeping near an old temple decides to tag along. He doesn’t leave our side when we cross the vertigo-inducing bridge to the town of Yanque, but he’s gone after we have lunch in a small cafe. While my dad, plagued by altitude sickness, takes a taxi to our hotel, my mom and I decide to finish the hike. Even though we’re walking on plain asphalt, the white peaks of the mountains around us make for a stunning walk. Meanwhile, dark clouds are rolling in and the sound of thunder in the distance grows louder. A bolt of lightning cuts through the sky and surprises us with a shower of rain. My mom, a notorious astrophobe, quickly increases her pace. I annoyingly start playing AC/DC on my phone before we safely make it back to the hotel. After all too many bus and boat rides, this active day outside was very welcome.

The next day is once again an early one. Along with our guide Olivia and charismatic driver Coco, we ride to the most famous spot of the canyon: el Cruz del Condor, the best place to spot the bird with the biggest wingspan in the world. You might ask, why do they gather around this area? Well, only because Peruvians leave all their dead cattle near this spot to attract the massive condors. Once again, we’re extremely lucky. No less than seven condors decided to put on a show today. And the Patagona gigas, the largest species of hummingbird in the world, shows up as well. We spent much time admiring the humungous birds before taking a detour back to the car. The second half of the day, we spent driving much of the same route as before. We get to Arequipa in the late afternoon, our last stop before going home. Before going out for dinner, I destroy both my parents in table tennis and foosball.

Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is arguably more beautiful than Cusco’s. Its palm trees, large fountain and grand colonial houses make for an impressive sight. The city lies in a valley circled by volcanoes and is frequently disturbed by strong earthquakes. It’s home to Guanita, one of the best preserved Andean mummies in the world (she unfortunately was on holiday to the US). From her remains found high on the mountain sides, we have learned much about sacrificial Inca rituals. It is believed that these were voluntary; it was a great honor to be sacrificed to the gods of nature. Another one of Arequipa’s main attractions is the trade of camelid fashion. Mundo Alpaca sells baby Alpaca sweaters, meaning the high quality wool of an alpaca’s first shearing. If you wish to buy a cape made from vicuña hair, prepare to pay at least a couple thousand dollars. Mundo Alpaca is a great place to finally learn the difference between llamas and alpacas, as both are on display in an outside section of the store. Don’t anger the llama as I did, unless you want to find out what llama spit smells like.

We start our visit of the Santa Catalina monastery just before the fall of the evening. I am not in a great mood; the prospect of returning to freezing Holland in the most depressing month of the year does not excite me. But my bad state of mind is immediately reversed by the simplistic splendor of the monastery: the contrast between the red and blue walls is the perfect backdrop for photography. The light begins to change and the sun is setting as we climb the stairs to the top of a small church within the complex. The clouds have disappeared and we can suddenly see the looming mountains that surround us everywhere. I feel a strong understanding of why the Incas considered the volcanoes to be powerful and divine beings. For just a moment the setting sun paints the peaks with orange, before the clouds come back and conceal them once again. Then, it is time to go.

What could I write about the return trip? It’s awful, except for one thing. When I get back to The Netherlands, the strangest thing happens to me; I’m mystified by all the cycling people. It is as if they’re floating in the cold air while gracefully gliding forward.

In the next weeks, I make arroz a la Cubana, vegetarian llomo saltado and chicha morada to try and bring a part of Peru in my home, but it’s simply not the same. The days are cold, the trees are bare and the animals are hibernating. I want to somehow relive the best moments in the jungle and the mountains. So I start writing.

THE END

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A llama looks out over one of the many highland lakes. The small pinkish dots are flamingos.
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The Colca Canyon is still mostly used for agricultural purposes.
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Misti’s first eruption of the day. We were freaking out upon seeing this, but the hotel owners shrugged it off as completely normal. The volcano erupted at least four more times that day.
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Herbert’s amazingly drawn map.
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This skull looks like an artifact from Area 51, but it is actually the product of head binding, a popular practice among ancient Andean cultures.
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Yes, these bones are just lying out in the open. Some Soles have been put in a broken skull in the background.
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The church on the main square of Yanque.
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The age of a condor can be recognized by its color. This brown youngster will later turn black.
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A remarkable flower growing near Cruz del Condor.
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This lady in traditional attire is showing of her weaving skills at Mundo Alpaca in Arequipa.
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The red part of the monastery of Santa Catalina was reserved for more experienced nuns, while the new sisters resided in the blue part.
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The contrast between these colors is amazing.

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Peru Part VIII: From Picchu to Puno

Visiting Macchu Picchu and the city of Puno

I figure we are out of luck when we arrive at Macchu Picchu’s cloud gate. Typical for the wet season, a thick mist covers most of the ancient city. But when we descend and step through the sun gate, the fog dissipates before our eyes. We watch the ruins of the Inca empire’s last stronghold with a sense of awe and respect; to see this, we’ve been climbing slippery steps for the last three days. We get only a few moments of clear view before the dense clouds hide the secretive jungle city once more. Walking further down, we are greeted by the first hordes of day tourists coming to see this wonder of the world. The mystical sense of ancient times is somewhat spoiled when we arrive at the foot of the city by a long que to visit the first clean bathroom since we left Ollantaytambo. After refueling with some caffeine and going through security, David leads us around the site. Even though the place is bustling with people, the strong connection with the sacred town returns. It is not hard to imagine what life in Macchu Picchu must have been like right before the ruthless conquistadores arrived. The most special place for me is the Temple of the Condor, where the Incas have moved and carved tonnes of granite to display an abstract symbol of a giant condor. The temple makes clever use of the illusion of depth to create an image that automatically silences the beholder of this divine bird. Important dead people would be buried under this condor’s wings, or in its ‘stomach’, so the messenger of the gods would carry them up to the sun. If visiting Macchu Picchu is not yet on your bucket list, you should definitely consider changing that. Although I am a person that will often reject religion as being useless and ridiculous, I think the spiritual connection that the Inca’s had with the sun, the mountains and the plants and animals around them is a beautiful way of thinking. It was essentially a religion that placed sustainability and the circle of life in the center, something that religion-inspired societies of today fail to do. The Inca’s fall came from the Spaniards, but we might be creating our own spiral to collapse.

I can’t get enough of the ambiance that is radiated by the meticulously carved stones, but we eventually take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, a small town that has profited greatly from Inca tourism. Together with other trail finishers we recognize from before, we have our final lunch with David before we part ways. A beautiful train ride takes us back to Ollantaytambo and by car we ride to Cusco. A long night’s sleep has to wait until later, since the next morning is an early one. After four days of being outside for hours on end, I now have to suffer through a ten hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno. The occasional stops at historic sites are overshadowed by the feeling of being trapped in a bus for eternity. The things that make me survive the trip are the beautiful landscape, Hiram Bingham’s Inca Lands and watching Scott Pilgrim v.s. the World twice on Netflix. When we finally arrive in Puno, the surprise of another early rise is not a welcome one…

Puno is built on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a huge body of water that crosses the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is the home of Telmatobius culeus, a very interesting species of frog commonly named the scrotum frog, due to its many skin flaps. It needs this extra skin to absorb enough oxygen out of the high altitude water of Lake Titicaca. Unfortunately, its numbers have drastically lowered in the past years; 10.000 dead frogs were found in October 2016. Pollution is most likely the cause of this great dying of the extremely cute amphibians. A successful breeding program was initiated near Puno, but we weren’t able to visit. Other famous inhabitants of the lake are the Ouros people, the biggest tourist attraction in Puno. For more than a thousand years, they have built their homes on floating islands made out of reed. They discovered the touristic appeal not long ago and have been milking that udder extensively. Nevertheless, it is still an amazing look into these people’s cultural heritage to walk around on one of these islands. To create such a home for some twenty people, they first cut blocks of living reed roots that are stuck together with wooden poles. The roots grow together to form a strong base on which many layers of reed are placed to make a comfortable and dry floor to build on. Ten heavy stones are used as an anchor to prevent the island from floating away. After 30 years, the reed base is not safe to use anymore and a new one needs to be built. But the Ouros do not only use the plants for construction, they also eat it. Supposedly it has very high nutritional value. Although that might be true, I found that the flavor resembles what you imagine a wet heap of compost tastes like.

After spending some time on the small island of Tequile, the boat takes us back to Puno’s harbor. As my mom and I have some unused energy, but running outside on the streets of Puno does not feel safe, we end up in a greasy place called Gymnasio Buffalo. Well, imagine what you would think the average gym owner looks like. Now take the complete opposite of that. Gymnasio Buffalo is owned by a Sunday suit wearing elderly couple with the physiques of heroin addicts. Only a faded picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us that we are in fact in an actual gym. After some language difficulties, we both get to pick a machine. I take off on a treadmill and am quickly joined by my mother when she finds out the elliptical is in fact not plugged in. On multiple occasions I am strongly urged by one of the owners to turn down the speed of the treadmill, and after half an hour I absolutely have to stop running for reasons unknown (we are the only costumers at the moment). I decide to give the spinning bike a go, but discover that there is no way to set the bike to a higher gear. I am frantically pedaling to keep up with the out of control fitness machine before I’m saved by the grumpy old owner. After a few more minutes on a frictionless elliptical, we decide to call it a day.

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Pukara is an ancient city on the way from Cusco to Puno. Not much is left, but a nearby museum gives an interesting insight into the live of the frog-worshipping pre-Inca culture that lived here.
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A colorfully dressed Ouros woman in a traditional reed canoe on Lake Titicaca.
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As you can see, it will be long before the Ouros run out of construction material.

Peru Part VII: In the Inca’s footsteps

Four days to Macchu Picchu

Christmas morning arrives without any presents, trees or snow. Instead it brings me something much better: our guide David, with a bus to take us to the start of the Inca Trail. As we step into the car, I’m shocked by the amount of porters we’re bringing with us. Eight men sit in the back to carry our tents, our food and cooking gear. Are my parents really that lazy and colonial, to make eight people carry their stuff for them? Not exactly. The Peruvian government has actually made it mandatory for tourists to have so many porters, thus creating more jobs for Peruvian people in the Andes. They also set a limit to the amount of tourists entering the trail on one day, thereby conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the route. Back in the day, David explains, there were practically no rules. Porters carried up to 40 kg on their backs, people camped between the ancient ruins and littered without giving it a second thought. Things are better now. A porter can carry a maximum of 25 kg and his bag is weighed multiple times throughout the trail. My parents let their bags with clothes and sleeping bags be carried by these Peruvian heroes; I refuse to let go of my burden.
The start of the trail is pure chaos. In a small overshadowed spot, hundreds of people crowd together to make their final preparations: applying sunscreen, changing clothes, spraying bug repellent. Some groups have even set up a long folding table, where they’re having a festive breakfast. Funnily enough, a little order is created by the shirts the porters are wearing. Every team has their own colour, and ‘our’ men are easily recognized by their orange outfit. Coincidence? Nope, the company is owned by a Dutch couple. We finish our final preparations and take a picture in front of the famous ‘KM 82′ sign that marks the official beginning of the trail. David’s incredible negotiation allows us to skip right to the front of the line for the control point… and off we go.
On the first day, the pace is slow, with many stops that I deem unnecessary. When we pause for lunch, I realize why the porters have such a weight on their backs: together with tables, chairs and a dozen sets of cutlery they take out an entire extra tent for eating and even a table cloth. Everything is set up in a designated spot and the chef (whose name is also David) starts cooking. He’s in a hurry; usually, tourists arrive a long time after the porters. Sorry, but not these tourists.
I don’t know how David achieves culinary excellence in a tent at 3000 meters, but he makes it happen. After an extensive lunch and a small siesta, we continue to our first base camp: a small field in a local family’s garden. We have this spot reserved just for us, so the only noise comes from the family’s Christmas lights that play a continuous loop of the 8-bit rendition of ‘Feliz Navidad’. It seems that soccer breaks all language barriers, as minutes later I’m fanatically kicking away with my dad and three young kids. As night falls, the temperature drops and we retreat back in our tents.

Alex, the youngest of the porters, wakes me up at 5:30 with a hot cup of tea. That’s a very welcome luxury: the second day is famous for being the toughest. After a hearty breakfast and a mouth full of coca we begin our 1100 meter ascend. I’m the first to arrive at our meeting point, having passed tourists and porters alike. The view is amazing: the snow-capped peak of mount Veronica rises 5800 meters high, while the steps I use to climb are surrounded by a lush green environment. Spanish moss and bromeliads dominate the plant life around me. Llama’s and alpaca’s graze in the distance. However, it’s nowhere near quiet at this midway plateau. Hordes of hikers gather to buy supplies from the last shop on the trail. Porters and guides enjoy a glass of chicha, low-alcoholic corn beer that’s traditionally made by chewing the corn and mixing it with saliva. When we’re all gathered, we begin our final ascend of the day: the Dead Woman’s Pass. Although this sounds very intimidating, it’s simply named after the shape of the mountain ridge, which indeed resembles a female figure lying on her back. 45 minutes later, I’m standing at the Inca Trail’s highest point: 4215 meters. As I’m waiting for my parents, the phenomenal panorama is sporadically obscured my thick clouds. I’m cold from the strong wind when they arrive for a much needed picture moment.
From here to the basecamp, it’s only downwards. Quickly walking down the slippery slopes is difficult to master, although I see porters literally running down the mountain. The cloud forest down below encourages me to pick up the pace. The vegetation has returned when I arrive at the large base camp at 3800 meters. To my surprise, no one from our party has made it there yet. When the porters arrive, they’re quite astonished to find me already sitting in the grass. When my parents and David come down, I’ve helped with setting up the tents and already started organizing my own. After lunch, we won’t be hiking any further. I decide to explore the base camp and its surrounding a bit. The place is booming with activity. Many people are arriving just now, or have given up and are being escorted back to the trail’s beginning. The few squatting toilets present are not the best; taking it to the bushes seems like a better idea. I notice the different levels of comfort in which people make their journey. Apparently, we’re on the low tier. I see special toilet tents with chemical disposals underneath -imagine being the porter that has to carry that- and gigantic dining places and sleeping tents. The most ridiculous thing I find are groups that brought a masseuse with them, including a special massaging tent. I stroll around the site and take a few pictures of the plants and streams. After dinner, we call it an early night and wrap up in our sleeping bags.

The longest day starts early. When I crawl out of my tent, the porters take turns in weighing my backpack. I get nods of approval from all of them. We start hiking up the next mountain pass and I look back at the Dead Woman’s Pass from yesterday. Our first stop, Runkuraqay, was once a resting place for chasquis, the running men of the Incas who used this trail to deliver important messages to and from Macchu Picchu. The clouds roll in as I arrive at the top and start making my way down the tall stony steps. I wait for David and my parents at the foot of Sayamarca, another ancient Inca settlement. The fog that obscured my view before now disappears and reveals an ocean of green beneath me: the cloud forest. The prospect of walking through the jungle again excites me. David gives us a short tour of the town and tells us about the sacrifices the Incas made to their gods. Llamas, corn and potatoes would be taken by a priest to the glacier and buried beneath the snow; almost as if they were feeding the mountain spirit. The next part of the trail is absolutely stunning. The pathway is one hundred percent original, and it takes us along steep cliffs and through humid caves. The amount of green around me increases every step and the millions of trees from the cloud forest stream from the mountain flanks. Since I’m walking alone, it is completely silent except for the wind and the birds. We have lunch at Phuyupatamarca, looking out over the still functioning fountains of the city. Even after decades of being a guide, David is still passionate about the route, especially this segment. We spend the afternoon walking down through forest that grows increasingly dense. David tells me he often spots snakes crawling over the path, but I can only find a shy lizard that quickly scurries away. Suddenly, the trees make way and reveal a stunning view of agricultural terraces and the valley below, where Aguas Calientes is split in two by the Urubamba river. We silently sit at this spot for a while, taking in the natural beauty of the scene. It’s only a short walk down to our final basecamp, where we arrive around 5 pm. This camp is even more crowded than the last one, as this is the final camp for every single group: there is no place to sleep beyond this. Tourists, porters and guides roam everywhere, and the place fills up as the evening falls. For our last dinner, David the cook prepares a feast. I don’t know how one makes a warm apple pie without an oven, but he achieves the impossible. This evening is our opportunity to say goodbye to the porters, as they will not be joining us tomorrow. I thank them all in English and David translates it, both in Spanish and Quechua. After the ceremony is over, we settle in for a very short night.

It is 3:30 when I wake up in my tent with hot tea for the last time. After a very quick breakfast and another goodbye to the porters, we walk to the line before the gate to Macchu Picchu. It’s as crowded as can be. At 5:30 exactly, the last control post opens and we rapidly pass through. The steep and slippery path is full of people, many of which try to walk as quickly as possible to be the first in Macchu Picchu. A few of them slip and make some nasty falls. Fortunately, the path is beautiful and the sky is clear as we make our way through the final stage of the journey. At last, we climb the steps to the cloud gate, and there it is: Macchu Picchu.

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The ecstasy of reaching the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass.
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Our amazingly funny and knowledgeable guide David.
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Chewing coca keeps me going.
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The orange team.
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The view can’t have been much different hundreds of years ago.
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The trail slowly descends into the cloud forest.
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Small fruit growing around our second basecamp.
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A beautiful flower at an altitude of 3200 meters.
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I could hear this stream from my tent at the second basecamp.
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Two fathers, two sons.
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The view of the Urubamba valley, coming out of the cloud forest.

Peru Part VI: The conquest of Urubamba

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Growing up as a kid, I used to watch Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove about once every week. I loved the movie for the goofy humour and the catchy music. The fact that it was set in Peru during the reign of the Inca’s only occurred to me a few months ago. Now I step out of the airplane into the city that lends the film’s animated narcissist its name: Cusco. But my first days out of the jungle are tough.  I can’t seem to get used to the cars, the hordes of people and the lack of plants and animals. I’ll have to do with pigeons and planted palms. Slowly, the new environment grows on me. Cusco’s marketplace especially amazes me. Wasted meat does not exist here, everything is sold and used. If you want the freshest and most delicious fruit juice in the world, there’s about a hundred spots on the market alone.
After a day and a half in this urban jungle, we meet our next guide. His name is David Condori, named after the holy messenger bird of the Incas. He takes us on a day-long tour through Urubamba, the Sacred Valley. While we make our way to Ollantaytambo (viewers of A Series of Unfortunate Events might recognize this name; do geckos with an extra leg ring a bell?) we get our first sights of spectacular Inca ruins. From Pisac we drive to Moray, for a view into the genius of Inca agriculture. By using gigantic terraced pits they were able to grow coca plants, but also fruits from the forest at an altitude of over 3000 meters. We continue to the salt mines near Maras, where work has stopped in the wet season. Thousands of large puddles are continuously filled with warm salty water from an unknown location. An ancient irrigation system makes sure all the holes are filled equally. In the dry season, the salts that build up after evaporation are harvested and sold for their medicinal properties. Right now, the inhabitants earn their living from tourism.
In the late afternoon we arrive in Ollantaytambo. Before allowing us to rest, David takes us to a viewing point on one of the mountains surrounding the town. He points out the historical center of what was once a military stronghold. To my surprise, I can easily distinguish the shape of a llama in the old buildings. This is no coincidence: Cusco looks like a puma, Macchu Picchu is a condor and another town resembles a snake. We walk to our hotel near the train station of Ollantaytambo and wave goodbye to David, whom we’ll meet again in two days. The next day we take it slow, acclimatizing to the height. For 2800 meters, it is surprisingly warm. We pay a visit to the llama-shaped fortress, which also served as a religious center. I see the Inca Imperial style of building for the first time, and I’m blown away. Somehow, this mysterious culture managed to perfectly fit together irregularly shaped granite blocks, weighing maybe ten tonnes, without a crack between them. The exact angle at which the walls stand makes them indestructible and able to withstand the regular earthquakes of this area. The temple of the sun looks out at the actual face of Apu, the mountain spirit, a clearly visible rock formation on the side of the hill. To think that this was the site of the last stronghold of Manco Inca, the last king who battled the invading Spaniards to the death, gives even more historical importance to the place. The Inca temples, with simple symmetric fountains and windows that align perfectly with the sun, are stunning on their own.
In the afternoon we hike up the mountain once more and then enjoy the many hummingbirds in our hotel garden. Our Christmas eve is spent eating pizza, after which we call it an early night in preparation of the coming adventure: hiking the Inca Trail.

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A cactus flower on the site of Pisac.
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Agricultural terraces built in concentric circles at Moray.
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Each of the five thousand salt puddles is owned and exploited by the people of Maras. A great portion of the salt goes to Japan, a country with strong trade connections to Peru.
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Children in Ollantaytambo celebrate Christmas in a play. Yes, that is an actual dead alpaca on the kid’s waist.
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A hummingbird rests just outside my window in Ollantaytambo.
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It’s impossible for me to identify this guy; there’s dozens of different hummingbird species in Peru.
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A view of the religious square of ancient Ollantaytambo.
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Can you see the llama?

Peru Part V: Welcome to the jungle, again

In the jungle with my parents

Picking up my parents from Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport is a strange experience. Of course, I am very happy to see them again. On the other hand, their arrival marks the end of my time as a volunteer in the jungle. From now on it will be much more like a family holiday instead of what I’ve experienced so far. Fortunately, I get to show them the rain forest from my perspective, before we move on to other parts of Peru. We visit Boca Pariamanu for two days, allowing me to meet up with some friends again. I show them the forest at night, which they later describe as ‘being in some sort of dream’. With my bright headlamp in front, I lead the way along the trails. At first, they’re not quite sure what to think of the caiman and the snake I’m suddenly holding in my hands. But they get used to having me as a guide. After a long day of hiking on Boca’s main road, it’s time for me to say a final goodbye to the town that has been my home for more than six weeks.
We don’t leave the jungle straight away, but my experience in the forest becomes very different. From now on, it’s all in control of my parents and the guides they have booked. We’re taken with a big boat on the Madre de Dios river, all the way to the Rio Heath which marks the border with Bolivia. Here we sleep in a small raised hut, and to me this seems like a useless luxury. Who needs walls in the jungle? A roof is enough in my opinion. And what’s up with the three course meal we’re getting served twice a day? Let me just grab my rice and veggies straight out of the pan. I have serious trouble adjusting to the new, more touristic way of traveling. Thankfully, we have Pepe; a very knowledgeable and friendly guide. I serve as his sidekick: the animals he fails to notice, mostly at night, are quickly spotted (and caught, if possible) by me. Through the eyes of my parents, I get to experience some things all over again. I share their enthusiasm when they see capuchins, squirrel monkeys and hoatzins for the first time. But also for me, many things are new. We climb a massive lupuna tree with a rope ladder to get a 360 view above the canopy and we watch one of the global top ten macaw clay licks from a floating platform. I have a close encounter with a group of coatis, a raccoon-like mammal that communicates with strange clicking noises. The most amazing view I get on the Pampas del Heath, a big stretch of savannah in a place where you would never expect it. It feels like suddenly entering Africa when the trees give way to the great open plain. This is where giant anteaters and the illusive mane wolf roam, but it’s also the stage of a daily spectacle when yellow and blue macaws return from the forest to their nesting trees. We even get a good look at the toco toucan, the biggest species of toucan in the world which is very hard to see in this part of the country.
When we’re transferred to our next destination I almost sleep through my parents’ first (and my sixth) tapir sighting. In the late morning we arrive at the most crowded piece of jungle I’ve seen so far: Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata National Reserve. A long muddy road stretches to a small port, where a canoe takes us and our luggage through the palm swamp and on the oxbow lake. All hell breaks loose as buckets of rain pour down from the clouds. My parents scramble to get their rain coats on, while I’m happy for the frogs and plants that are finally getting some water again; it’s been ridiculously dry for the wet season.
We only have a day to spend in the lodge that we’re taken to. I wish I had more time in the reserve, as it turns out to be an amazing spot for wildlife. Brown agoutis roam the terrain, while squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys jump from tree to tree. Our guide tells us he sees bushmasters on the path near our hut rather often, while I’m happy catching an olive forest racer. After the rain eases down, we venture out with the canoe to see what makes the lake famous: giant river otters. And are we lucky. The entire family shows up, playing and catching fish right before our eyes. We don’t even need Pepe’s binoculars to see them munching on their freshly caught food. The river otters (called ‘wolfs of the river’ in Spanish) used to be heavily endangered because of the trade in their fur. Now they are slowly coming back, repopulating the lakes one family at a time. As if this sight is not enough, a three meter black caiman decides to pay us a visit and show off its enormous jaws. We have no luck finding a tree boa, apparently common in this area, on our final night walk. The next morning we pack up, get back to Puerto Maldonado and check in for our flight to Cuzco. I’m grumpier than ever, now definitely leaving the forest and Maldonado behind me. The prospect of hiking the Inca Trail does not yet excite me; I arrive in the ancient Andes capital without a smile. But that’s about to change.

Video: a tapir swimming and climbing on the shore of the Heath River.

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The size of the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) is not made clear by this far-away picture, but seeing this creature on the flat pampas was a very special experience. For our guide, this was his second sighting in five years.
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Red-and-green macaws (Ara chloropterus) enjoying their morning salt lick.
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The jungle provides readily made swings for anyone wishing to unleash their inner child.