Monday, December 26, 2011

A Magical & Mystical Christmas Day

Wow!   Words cannot describe what an amazing day I had today.  Today was the day we went to Machu Picchu.   Given our last minute travel plans, it was too late to get a permit to hike the Inca Trail, so we opted to take the train up to Machu Picchu.   I know it seems like cheating, however, we were able to secure a ticket to the Huayna Picchu entrance.   Huayna Picchu is a mountain high above Machu Picchu and they only give out 400 tickets per day to climb it. 
The train ride itself was truly a scenic journey.  The traveling hillbilly loves a great train ride.  The 30 minute bus ride however is quite another story.   The rain made the roads wet and muddy.   As we drove up the mountain, weaving our way around the mountain, the bus was just inches from the mountain on one side and there was just a steep drop off on the other side.  The bus ride two and from was quite a scary adventure!
We arrived at the station, walked to the entrance of Machu Picchu and immediately went to the Huayna Picchu entrance.  We decided we wanted to do that first and then make our way back down to explore Machu Picchu in the afternoon.  We hiked up to Huayna Picchu which is almost 1,200 feet above Machu Picchu!  It was often a very steep climb but luckily there were ropes in some of the steepest parts to help you pull yourself up.  The trail itself was wet and muddy so we were slow going.  The climb up provided the most stunning scenic views!   At times, we were completely shrouded in clouds, which only added to the mysticism of the experience.  I know the pictures will never do it justice. 
We finally arrived at the top, both winded and excited!   The view from up there makes you feel like you are on top of the world!   You realize how high you truly are when you gaze upon Machu Picchu so far below.  
Going down was an even bigger challenge but we knew  we would be rewarded with an depth exploration of Machu Picchu once we got back to the bottom.  We were not disappointed!   On the train ride to Machu Picchu my friend and I were wondering if we would be underwhelmed with Machu Picchu since we’d just done Ollantaytambo the day before.  Would it be just another Inca ruin?  Boy, were we wrong to even think such a thought!   We were completely taken aback and overwhelmed by how magnificent this lost city of the Inca’s is.   It is amazing what they were able to build and how much of this city still stands.   Incredible!
 Only 400 people in the world got to do what I did today.   It truly was a once in a lifetime experience made all the better because I got to enjoy it with such amazing friends!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

 Hydrotherapy or Peruvian Water Torture?
This post is for my sister who might better understand the benefits of hydrotherapy.   So after a night of room service, relaxation and sleeping in past 7am, all I needed was a relaxing massage.   I decided on one of the spa’s “luxury therapies”, the Yucamani Stones.   It was a 2 hour treatment for the bargain price of $125 US dollars.  It was a combination of hydrotherapy followed by an hour massage with hot and cold stones. 
The treatment started out nicely with some time spent in the dry sauna (10 minutes).   After that I had a choice of the cold shower or the ice tower.  Neither sounded relaxing.   I had just come from having lots of cold showers in the Amazon and now I was paying to take a cold shower?!   The ice tower didn’t sound like a great option either.  However, I decided on the ice tower after I was informed all I had to do was place some shaved ice on any places that ached or were tense.  That was followed by  10-15 minutes in the steam room.   As I settled into the steam room, they actually brought in fresh eucalyptus leaves!  Aaahhh, what a nice touch.    Now, back to the ice tower, ugggh!
It was time to head to the pool.  They actually had these metal chairs, kind of like lounge chairs at one end of the pool.  I was told to pick a chair and relax.   I thought this will be nice.   Then they turned on these jets and water jetted out everywhere, including in my face, in my eyes and in my ears.  Plus as we all know, we tend to float in the water so I had to hold on tightly to the chair to keep from being pushed off!  Not as relaxing as I initially thought.  This was followed by a few minutes standing in this small circular wall in the middle of the pool as water shot up at all angles.  I honestly thought it was going to blow my bathing suit off.   Then at the other end of the pool, I stood under a water fall that pounded on my neck and shoulders.  Finally time to get out of this crazy pool, only to discover I now had to walk down a few steps into ICE WATER.   Finally, time to get into the hot Jacuzzi.    Ahhhhh this is more like it. 
After the Jacuzzi, it was time to go back down the steps into the ICE WATER.  It must be time for my massage by now.   Oh, but a quick shower first.  I was told to step into the shower and push button 1.  I stepped in, pushed button 1 and cold water starting pouring down!   After a few minutes it shut off automatically.  Now I was told to step into the next shower and push button 1 again.  There were four separate showers in all, primarily cold water, each focusing on pouring, shooting or pounding cold water on certain areas (legs, arms, neck and shoulders).   I was really starting to feel like this was some form of Peruvian water torture and I paid for this!  Finally, a walk across some cold stones as water shot out pounding on my legs.
Finally it was time for my massage.   The massage was absolutely amazing!   I was instantly relaxed.  Those hot stones felt so nice after all that hot/cold/hot cold treatment.   My massage was over an hour and I still didn’t want it to end.   After the massage I was led to a wooden lounge like chair to sit and relax.  As I sat down, the therapist plugged something in and suddenly the chair began to heat up.  I was ready to take a nap!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Finally rain and lots of it on the day of departure!
The Traveling Hillbilly must admit I was truly looking forward to a thunderstorm while in the Amazon.  The weather report called for thunderstorms everyday while we were there, but despite multiple threats (dark clouds, rolls of thunder and some lightening in the distance) we never had more than a few minutes of light rain.   Well that all changed today!   A sudden downpour came on our ride down the river heading to the airport.    It made the boat ride quite damp and the muddy roads made the slippery bus ride all the more adventurous!
All in all, we got to the airport safely and arrived in Cusco only about 30 minutes late.  I am now safely in my hotel room in the Sacred Valley, thrilled to have electricity, hot water, internet access and even DirecTV.  
I’m ready for the 2nd leg of this trip.   I’m sure Christmas Day on Machu Picchu will be an incredible experience, even if the forecast for rain is accurate.
For now, I have the wonderful memories of my Amazon tour and the truly beautiful people I met.   The Traveling Hillbilly really lucked out and had some great people in our small group.  You would never know the eight of us had just met and weren’t old friends.  We all got along so well and had such a blast!  To our guide, Eder, who we all adored, we know we drove you crazy, but thanks for making this trip so special.    I hope you get to meet Drew one day.   Just know that if I ever run into her in Los Angeles, I will send her your love!

Butterflies, Piranha, Lizards and Alligators oh my!

So after my first day in the jungle, I was thinking this is a little more touristy than I expected; hiking through the jungle, touring a local farm, and boating down the Amazon.   HOWEVER that opinion has changed a little.   This has truly been a great adventure!
After two days in the jungle, the Traveling Hillbilly has logged multiple hours hiking through the jungle and boating along the river, both during the day and night (scary dark), sat for an hour at the clay lick watching the macaws, (stunningly beautiful birds), gone caiman (alligator) searching along the Amazon at night (we even saw a couple of caiman), seen several monarch butterflies (such a bright blue hue) , got stuck knee deep in mud (more than once), seen multiple capybara (the worlds largest rodent), seen a few monkeys  and kayaked down the Amazon.   But it is still early, day 2 is not over.   At 4pm, we go to the “mammal lick” in the hopes of spotting some mammals.   We’ll see what happens.  
Well the Traveling Hillbilly needs to pack before the 4pm departure.   It will be too dark to pack by the time we get back tonight and we leave tomorrow for Cusco and the Sacred Valley!  I hope my time here in the jungle has prepared me for the challenge of Machu Picchu!

The Lodge Deserves Its Own Posting
So we arrive at the lodge and the first thing we see when we step in is the bar!   The Traveling Hillbilly is liking this place already.   The bar is all open air and made of local wood.   It’s very cool.   After the long journey getting here, I’m ready for a drink!  But first we have to learn about the lodge.   It’s a very environmentally friendly lodge and they have made every effort to make it “at one with nature.”     Their goal is to combine tourism with environmental  education to support conservation of the areas in which they operate.
 Now let me tell you about the rooms.  It turns out the bar is the only place that has electricity!  There are three “walls” and then just an open space facing out into the jungle.  The door to the room is just a pair of curtain panels, no locks, no keys.  There is a nice “refreshing” shower.   By refreshing, I mean very cold, no hot water!  We have mosquito nets over the beds.  The room is very nice, but I am going to miss electricity.    Plus it is difficult to navigate if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night! 
It gets dark around 6pm and I mean very dark.   But you can actually see the stars here at night.   They are simply amazing, such an beautiful sight.  The electricity in the bar shuts off at 9:30pm, but the bar remains open until the guests are ready to leave.     And there are a couple hours during the day, when you can “charge” your electronics in the bar. 
It’s going to be nice to be unplugged for a few days!

The Traveling Hillbilly Arrives in the Amazon

As we fly into Puerto Maldonado in the southern Amazon region of Peru, I notice how green everything looks from the plane.   Everything is so lush and tropical.  I half expect to see a T-Rex traipsing through the jungle knocking down the trees!    The river looks like a dirty brown ribbon wrapping its way around and through the jungle.   I wonder if that is same the river I’ll be going down soon.    The pilot announces the current temperature, which translates to 88 degrees Fahrenheit.  I can feel the humidity already!   Surprisingly, it’s not raining.  When I checked the forecast the day before departure, it looked like thunderstorms every day in the Amazon and rain every day in Cusco!
The airport is very small.  It reminds me of the one in Siem Reap, Cambodia.    It’s a much different experience than the arrival in Lima!   There is much less chaos.     I’m very excited for the trip to begin!
I’m even more excited when I see the bus we’ll l be taking.   It’s one of those smaller, rustic buses where all the luggage goes on top.   I feel like we are heading off on an African Safari.   We have to take the bus 45 minutes, through dirty and very muddy roads, to the “port.”   The port is basically a set of wooden steps that lead down to the river.  At the port, we board what is basically a motorized canoe and start our 2+ hour boat ride to our lodge, located deep in the jungle.
A couple hours in to the trip with no sign of wildlife.   I am anxiously waiting for my biggest fear to be realized.   I just know that a snake is going to fall out of tree into the boat.   Luckily, the river is wide and we have a canopy over the top of the canoe, so hopefully we’re safe.  And yes, the dirty brown ribbon I saw from the plane is the exact river we are heading down.  Again, it reminds me of a prior trip.  It’s similar to the river raft ride, Huckleberry Finn style; I did in Chang Mai a few years ago.  But this time, there are no elephants.   

The Traveling Hillbilly Goes off the Grid!!!!

So for my loyal followers, I apologize for not having posted anything for a few days.   I’ve been in the Southern Amazon region of Peru with no access to the internet and limited access to electricity!   However, I have been keeping a log of my journeys so you will see multiple postings appear.   
I had quite a few adventures in the Amazon and I hope you enjoy following along.   While you’re catching up on those, I’ll begin chronicling my adventures in the Sacred Valley.   If you’re ever been to Cusco or the Valley, please feel free to pass your words of wisdom along!  Or if you have any advice for Santiago and the surrounding areas, please share those stories as well.