The Heart of Dampness

The Ucayali section of the Amazon, somewhere between Pucallpa and Iquitos
The Ucayali River, somewhere between Pucallpa and Iquitos.

I once visited Istanbul, reaching it by ship, and realized that was by far the best way to enter the city.  One slowly floats past the bustling city, with exotic minarets poking up from the skyline, and then disembarks in the manner travelers had for centuries.  The city of Iquitos is accessible by only plane or boat, and so the same romantic notion overtook me.  What better way to enter this one time rubber boom town carved out of the jungle than by boat down the Amazon?  You can’t understand this city without experiencing the river, I figured, so I flew to Pucallpa, and found my way onto a lanca, a passenger and cargo boat heading down the Ucayali section of the Amazon River to Iquitos.

I then spent the next four days on the equivalent of a Peruvian Greyhound bus, albeit in boat form, with hammocks instead of seats (bring your own), a hundred passengers in one big open deck, 2 trucks, 3 moto-taxis, 1000 kilos of salt, several thousand bananas, a few hundred eggs (hey guess what, you really don’t need to refrigerate them!), 8 pigs (they don’t actually squeal, they cry in a manner disturbingly similar to a very loud toddler), 2 cows, and a crate of chickens.  I also discovered, to my shock and disgust, that while the civilized world is trying to save the Amazon, the Peruvian boat passengers are using it as their garbage can, throwing their empty 2 liter Inca Kola bottles right into the water.  One Peruvian man decided that the boat ride was a good time to consolidate his cd collection, so after he emptied the plastic cases, he frisbee’d them, one by one, into the river.  Luckily, after about a dozen, a couple kids begged him to give the cases to them rather than to the river dolphins.  I think they were more entrepreneurs than environmentalists, but hey, same result.

Early into the first day, we were cruising along and hit bottom. Sudden dead stop! One of the moto-taxis on the top deck went sliding 15 feet across the deck towards me. Then there was the night we got stuck for 2 hours in the pitch dark. The procedure for that is to gun the engines for 2 straight hours as you turn the wheel back and forth and shine the spotlight around on the shore – i dunno, maybe looking for a crocodile who can help.

I did discover the greatest Peruvian invention since the potato: bathrooms that are also showers. That way they are always clean!  And then finally, after 4 full days of a 3 day trip, we reached Iquitos. Everyone just stood on the front deck staring. Maybe out of habit, maybe out of shock. Maybe they had all died, in place, out of boredom. There was no mad rush for dry land as I expected. I thought, hmm, is this just a cargo port and we get off somewhere else? But no, it was over! And I lost another 15 minutes of my life until I figured this out.

At some point, I think it was towards the early afternoon of day three, I discovered I’d had enough of Peru and decided to return to the US.  I spent a few days somewhat enjoying the frantic energy of Iquitos, and am now back in Lima for a long week before flying home.

Festival de Tinajani – aka More Skirt Twirling Photos

Traditional dances from various regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile

As the bus from Puno approached Juliaca, I turned to the campesina woman next to me and asked how I could continue on to the Festival de Tinajani.  Her face lit up and she told me, “Nosotros vamos a Tinajani tambien!” – “We´re going to Tinajani also!” I asked how we proceed there from Juliaca, and she explained rapidly, so I figured it was best just to follow her.  She was with a group of 3 other adults and 2 children, and after we unloaded their buckets of what I assumed was soup to sell at the festival, we attempted to find a taxi.  Ten minutes passed without luck, only bicycle taxis came by, and so I tried again to ask her where I go to get to the next city near the festival.  She convinced me to wait, and finally we got a taxi, loaded the buckets, and all piled in.  Deposited at a large plaza and market area, we happily discovered there were direct buses to the festival, and wouldn´t have to go to Ayaviri first.  I asked the oldest woman how much my share of the taxi was.  “Dos Soles” she quickly replied.  Based on my knowledge of transportation prices, my experience with Peruvians, and the smug expression on her face, I assume I paid for the entire family…and their soup, which I had helped to load and unload.

We all sat on the bus for several minutes, and the passengers started to get antsy.  “Vamos!” they all began to yell.  We moved a bit, stopped some more, moved a bit.  People started to get off to try their luck with another bus.  The young woman sitting next to me had been attaching yarn braid extensions into her hair, and so I assumed she was a dancer headed to the festival.  As soon as she got up, I knew it was best to follow her.  We got on the next bus, which filled up when a man butted right in front of us (an everyday experience in most any line in this country), and unfortunately we had to stand for the ride.   An hour and a half later, we turned off right before Ayaviri, onto a dirt road heading into the altiplano, the high plains between the two spines of the Andes.  As we followed buses and cattle trucks loaded to capacity with festival-goers, a continuous series of buses and combis, now empty, passed us on their way out.  The festival was nowhere in sight, just desolate, dry grasslands, fields, and pastures with cows, sheep, and llamas.  After twenty minutes, the dramatic rocks which I had seen in pictures came into view, then the parking lot loaded with hundreds of buses, then the crowds, covering the hillsides.  Emerging from the bus, I didn´t know where to turn.  There was color and activity in every direction, so overwhelming I didn´t know where to start.  I didn´t want to miss any photo opportunity, but I just had to begin.  Right next to me was a field with some dance groups practicing.  After a few minutes there, I weaved through the vehicles, and merged with the crowd crossing a precarious plywood bridge to the site.  I moved through the rows of food vendors and people eating lunch, chicharones on grills sputtering grease at every turn.  At the dance site, I tried to determine how to best sneak my way in, but each corner was filled with crowds and police.  I circumnavigated the entire area, since I saw other photographers on the far side.  I waved my camera in front of a guard and he let me pass.

Since I had no idea how I was going to return to Puno, how difficult it might be, and how long it might take, I knew I couldn´t stay long.  So I alternated between taking photos, filming videos, wiping the dust off my camera, and blowing it off my lens.  Group after group of dancers performed, each with their own band of musicians and singers.  The announcer´s voice boomed through the PA system constantly, even over the music and voices of the singers, “TINAJANI RAYMI!”  “La Provincia de MELGAR!”  The crowds continued to grow on the rocks and hillsides surrounding the site.  At 1:30 I forced myself away, knowing I had to be on my way out of there by 2:00.  But on the hillside there was so much more activity:  kids flying kites, groups of dancers waiting, carnival games and foosball tables.  I made my way back through the food area, to the parking lot, and once again found myself in the practice field.  A group of women danced in a circle, surrounded by men parading huge red and white banners.  Another amazing photo opportunity!  I snapped as fast as I could, and then delved back into the parking area looking for the combis heading back to Ayaviri.

I got the last seat on one just about to head out, and encountered a small group of Spaniards, the other other tourists I saw the whole day.  We spent the ride amused by the smiles and laughter of an adorable little girl, just as entertaining as the festival we just came from.

I just got off the bus – dancers practicing in a field

The crowd, visible from the parking lot

One of the market and lunch streets

So much overwhelming color, activity, and so many people, I didn’t know where to start!

I got my way into the photographers’ row, right at the side of the dance area

Skirt-twirling action!

Dust, dust and more dust – not so good for the camera and the sensor.  Luckily I had my Rocket Blower with me.

This dance involved sweeping the dirt right onto me!

Danza Tondero de Piura, surprising to see so far south

Awaiting their turn to dance

transportation costs:

Moto-taxi from hostal to Terminal Terestre Puno – s/. 1.50 – 7 min
Bus from Puno to Juliaca – s/. 2 – 1.5 hr
Taxi with family and food to Plaza – s/. 2 – 5 min
Bus directo from Juliaca to Tinajani – s/. 5 – 2 hr

total: s/. 10.50 – 4 hours

return trip:
Combi Tinajani to Ayaviri plaza – s/. 1.50 – 25 min
Bike taxi to Ayaviri Terminal – s/. 1 – 5 min
Bus from Ayaviri to Juliaca – s/. 3.50 – 1.5 hr
Bike Taxi to paradero – s/. 2 – the slowest 10 minutes of my life, as every other bike taxi passed us
Bus from Juliaca to Puno – s/. 2.50 – 1.5 hr

total: s/. 10.50 again! – 4 hours

Additional photos can be viewed at in the Dance or Peru galleries.

Here Comes the Sun – aka Inti Raymi 2008

**Sorry, the links to most the photos got messed up.  Please view photos in the Peru gallery at or my Inti Raymi set on Flickr here.

Here are some shots from the Inti Raymi morning ceremony to greet the sun, at Coricancha.  I got there bright and early, and hour and a half before, in order to get a good spot on the railing.  But the front row was already full!  What to do?  Wait until someone makes the mistake of leaving their spot, and jump right in!  Then push, nudge, and hold my ground for the next 3 hours.

Keshwa Chaca Inca Bridge 2008 – Photos

You can view this entire photo series, with captions, on my website at in the “Inca Bridge” gallery.

See THIS POST for my videos of the bridge construction.

see THIS POST for the story of getting to the bridge site.


Keshwa Chaca 2008 – part 1: Getting There

Photos of the bridge building can be seen HERE, and also on my website at in the Inca Bridge gallery.

Videos of the bridge can be seen HERE

Rolando stopped the taxi right in front of the group of women weaving straw ropes, sitting by the side of the road.  Their kids immediately ran to the window, “Propina, propina, carameletto?” Oh no, I thought, I haven´t even gotten out of the car yet and they’re asking for handouts.  As soon as I pulled myself out and gathered my backpack and tent, the chorus of women started:  “Propina gringito, propina.  Carameleto para los niños?”  – “Tip, little white boy.  Candy for the kids?” My goodness!  They even sounded a bit angry that the money and sweets hadn’t started to flow from my pockets.  And I haven’t even pulled out my camera yet!  I came here with the hopes of spending three days taking award winning, up-close photos, and the women were already not pleased with my presence.  Is this how the next three days were going to be?

My welcoming committee, as I exited the taxi and immediately began taking photos.

I had headed south from Cusco on Friday morning and took a bus for two and a half hours to Combapata.  From there I switched to a collective taxi, and joined 9 other people as I crammed myself into the back of a tiny hatchback station wagon.  As an unshaven old man slept on my shoulder we slowly wove our way through herds of cows and sheep being led down the road, and forty minutes later, after picking up yet another passenger, everyone got out in Yanaoca.  I had thought we were going all the way to Huinchiri, but now I discovered I was the only one who wanted to go there.  Since the festival wasn’t until Sunday, neither locals nor tourists were heading to the bridge site yet.  So while it cost 2 soles to go the previous forty minutes, it was going to cost me 70 soles for the next hour and a quarter to Huinchiri!  I sat in disbelief in the car, refusing to get out.  I knew there were no other options, but I quizzed the driver.  “Are there any other cars going?  Any trucks, any buses?”  “No, not until Sunday.”  “But 70 soles?!” I responded.  “I haven’t brought enough money.  I’ll never be able to get back!” I tried to bargain with him, and soon started to beg.  “But you only charge 2 soles per person going back and forth all day.  How much do you make in a couple hours?  30, 40 soles?”  “Yes, but the road is very rough, full of rocks,” he replied.  We sat in silence for awhile, and every couple minutes I went up 10 soles.  “50?  60?” But 65 soles was the best I could get out of him  “Sesenta?” I kept trying, just for a personal feeling of accomplishment.  “Mas cinco,” he insisted.  Finally I had to agree:  65 soles.

A view along the way between Yanaoca and Huinchiri.

He was right.  The road was terrible.  We wound our way through dry grassland, with herds of cows and sheep and alpacas feeding on the q’oya grass that was the same material used to construct the bridge.  There were mud huts with thatched roofs, and precariously constructed stone walls meandering across the low hills.  At one point he gestured to a distant hill, “Atras, atras,” telling me the bridge was behind.

Along the way I realized that the bone jarring ride was probably doing at least 65 soles of damage and wear and tear to the taxi.  After an hour we reached a gate across the road, with a couple of locals attending it.  A handwritten sign was posted: Taxis – 5 soles, Camiones – 10 soles, Turistas – 70 soles.  70 soles for tourists!  My heart sunk into my stomach.  I´m never going to have enough money to get back, I thought.  The taxi driver talked to the men for a bit, then turned to me asking for 2 soles.  I quickly fished the money out of my pocket, discreetly hid my camera so I would look less like a tourist – if that was at all possible – and didn´t ask any questions.  While I got in cheaply, it wasn´t until perhaps two days later that I realized “Turista” likely meant 70 soles for an entire tourist bus.

A couple of the “Quince curvas” of the road winding down to the site.

We passed through the gate, climbed over the top of the last hill, and began the descent to the river valley.  “Quince curvas,” he told me – fifteen distinct, precarious turns in the road.  I caught my first glimpse of the bridge far below, but it quickly disappeared.  I saw a few tents in a pasture several hundred yards beyond.  Then he dropped me off in front of the women.

Where I was dropped off.  The bridge is right below, the weaving women just to the left, and the campsite in the distant top-right, to the right of the bus. The abutment of the far side of the bridge can be glimpsed in the center.

to be continued…

Keshwa Chaca – Inca straw bridge near Huinchiri

See THIS POST for photos of the bridge construction.

See THIS POST for the story of getting to the bridge site.

Nearing completion of the Keshwa Chaca – Inca bridge made of q’oya grass – on Saturday afternoon, June 7, 2008

[flickr video=2566110776]


The completed Keshwa Chaca – Inca bridge – on Sunday morning, June 8, 2008.  With soundtrack of French tourists, who had instructed the locals to act natural as they cross…you know, so that their photos will look more “authentic” :)

[flickr video=2565020973]

The Real Story

A map uncovered by Paolo Greer demonstrating that Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first outsider to “discover” Machu Picchu (and the farmers living there, who presumably knew it was there as well)

A few months ago I met a real life explorer in the South American Explorer’s Club in Cusco named Paolo Greer.  He told me of his lifetime of searching for lost cities in the mountains of Peru, his studious research in dusty archives in Washington and Peru (I don’t think you’re allowed to say “archive” without first writing “dusty”), his innovative use of satellite maps to locate lost sites, and his technique of countering poisonous snakebites with a modified stun gun.  He even mentioned an NPR show where he was referred to as the real Indiana Jones.  AND, he was on the verge of breaking an amazing story of the true modern discovery of Machu Picchu.

At first I was fascinated and captivated, eager to hear of his adventures and his theories.  But after a few afternoons in the clubhouse, I repeatedly overheard him tell the same stories to any eager audience.  I began to suspect I had already learned all the juicy information.

Then last week, returning on a path back to Ollantaytambo after hiking to the Pumamarca ruins, we were joined by a British paleoecologist who was studying the ancient remains of mites buried in the mud of a lake.  The rise and fall of the mites, it turns out, from Inca times to present, corresponds to the rise and fall of the local populations, due to the fact that the mites lived in the llama poop.  Anyway, at his first mention of modern explorers, we exclaimed, “we know one of them!”  Turns out he has been working with Greer, helping him get his newly gathered information into the news.  And 5 days later…here it is: (sorry, some of these links don’t work anymore).  And here is the tale of our first unsuccessful but unforgettable expedition to the Pumamarca ruins.

Link to Article (no longer available)

Link to 2nd Article (no longer available)

Link to 3rd Article (no longer available…the Internet isn’t as permanent as we think!)

Link to Article with Pictures of the Maps and Documents

edit 2011-07-26:  Paolo Greer is now mentioned in a wonderful book by Mark Adams called Turn Right at Machu Picchu, a story partially inspired by the article that Greer was releasing in South American Explorer magazine at the time of this blog post.  Greer certainly is an “obsessed amateur historian,” as Adams calls him in the book, and their meeting commencing at the Lima SAE clubhouse in Miraflores reminded me so much of my first discussion with Greer at the Cusco SAE clubhouse.  Greer was enthusiastically, single-mindedly determined to share his story.  My companion and I had to begin to avoid him out and about in Cusco so as not to hear his theories again and again!  The paleoecologist mentioned above is also a footnote in the book, footnote 9 page 186.  I put together a blog post called Exploring the Andes to discuss the new book Turn Right at Machu Picchu, to discuss a photography e-book called Andes, and to showcase some of my favorite Peru photographs from other travelers.

The Bus to Sicuani

When asked a question, a Peruvian will never respond that they don’t know the answer.  Instead they will always offer an answer, any answer, its accuracy and veracity: unimportant.  Ask the next passing Peruvian the same question, you will get a wholly contradictory, yet equally passionate response.  Put the two responders together and ask the question, and you will be either greatly amused or infinitely frustrated by the ensuing debate, depending on the importance and urgency of the question.

This becomes an issue when you are asking for the location of, say, the buses to Sicuani.  I first asked a teacher at the Spanish school.  “Avenida Cultura,” she confidently responded, “al lado del grifo” – next to the gas station.

“So there is only one gas station on Cultura?” I asked in Spanish, knowing that there are numerous gas stations on this street, hoping the sarcasm would translate.  “No, of course not!” she smiled, amused by my bilingual wit.  But returning to her serious face, she again insisted, “It is next to the gas station.”  “¿Esta cerca?  ¿Puedo caminar?” I asked – Is it close, can I walk to it.  “Si, si, claro,” – of course.

I asked a few other people over the next week, but never got a similar, or clear response.  A couple days later, I posed the question to the woman at the reception desk at my hostal.  Surprisingly, she confirmed the earlier response.  “Avenida Cultura.  Close.  Yes, you can walk to it.”  “How often do the buses depart?” I asked.  “Cada diez minutos,” – Every ten minutes.  Based on her previously consistent record regarding similar questions, I was now certain of two things:  it wasn’t close, and I’d consider myself lucky if the buses left more often than every ten days.

So I set out on a reconnaissance mission a few days before my journey.  I started walking down Avenida Cultura, past one gas station – no sign of a bus terminal.  Ten minutes later, another gas station.  No sign of a terminal, so I asked a passing woman.  “¿Sicuani?” she repeated as she looked pensively at her girl in tow.  “¿Sicuani?” the little girl echoed.  The woman then recalled, “Keep walking, it’s across from the hospital.  When you get to the hospital, ask someone.”

About ten minutes later I stopped in a Radio Shack and happily discovered that blank CDs were 25% cheaper than in the center of town.  After I bought a couple packs, I asked the woman where the paradero for the Sicuani buses is.  “Two blocks, no mas.  Maybe one and a half.”  After three blocks I came across a bus terminal.

“Is this the paradero for the Sicuani buses?” I asked the first knowledgeable looking person I came across.  “No, one block further.”  And so finally, after two more blocks, just past the fourth gas station, I found my stop.  Now, if I am only able to direct the taxi driver there on Friday morning.

Oh, the Suffering! (aka Corpus Christi)

It just wouldn´t be a religious holiday without the self-induced suffering.  And the whipping.  Even the kids get to take part!

Images can be viewed on Flickr here

Get me to the Plaza on time!  (We will meet back up with these guys a little later…)

The little guy was enjoying the whip quite a bit

Often those are toy stuffed llamas on their back…these were real!

I don´t have much of a zoom lens, so I was right up on these guys.  I got pushed out of the way of an oncoming saint a few times!

Chiriuchi – the traditional food of Corpus Christi.  Yes, those are the guinea pigs in front!

To be continued… if I have time,
As always, more religiously uplifting photos on Flickr

Again with the Voting

I´ve entered myself into another photo/ writing contest, which again turns out to be a popularity-voting contest.  However with this one, there is no signing in or registering…you just click!  AND, you can vote once a day, every day, and keep voting and voting and voting for me!
1. just go here:‎
2. look for this picture of Clara´s painted face and the blue steps:
3. click and vote daily
This way I can win a new spectacular camera, and won´t have to keep battling with the stray hair I have on my sensor which is ruining my beautiful photos.
Thanks mucho!

Ride, Ride, Ride, Hitchin´a Ride

Sunday was El Dia de La Madre here in Peru, which is similar to Mother´s Day in the U.S., except that here all citizens are required to go to the bakery and then carry around a cake in a box covered with hearts.  There were also a couple local celebrations going on in the Sacred Valley, so when I arrived at the bus “station,” I encountered a line running out onto the sidewalk.  Luckily Nienke had arrived earlier, and was closer to the front of the line.  I expressed that we should take a collectivo taxi instead – just a few Soles more, quicker, and probably more comfortable.  But as I was trying to convice her that there is a marginal difference of safety between the driving habits of the taxistas and the bus drivers, a bus began to depart for Chinchero, with a final call for passengers.  We boarded and fought for some standing room space for the 45 minute ride.

We succeeded in holding our somewhat comfortable spaces, as well as our belongings. Upon arrival in Chincheros, I stocked up on bananas and bread, and we negotiated with some taxi drivers for a ride to the terraces at Moray.  I laughed heartily at their first offer for 70 soles to let them know I wasn´t a sucker gringo, and we tried to get it down to 20.  None of the drivers seemed interested and they wandered off, so we stood around for a bit.  One finally re-approached, we agreed on 30, and headed off across some dirt roads, through Maras, and on to Moray.

At the site Nienke worked her magic and convinced the guard that Moray wasn´t on her Tourist Ticket, and so that is why she didn´t bring it (they just recently added it to the Tourist Ticket, and her ticket had actually expired a few weeks ago.  I never even bought a ticket yet.)  I played along, mostly kept quiet, and in the end, we both got in for free!  We had planned to hike on to Salineras, the salt making terraces, since Lonely Planet told us it was quite easy, but the nice lady who let us in for free said we would need a guide, as the trail is difficult to find along the way.  So I flaged down a car driving out, we got a ride with a couple who had hired a private taxi from Cusco for the day, and off we went to Salineras.  We walked across the terraces, I took 100 pictures that probably all look the same, and we hiked on down to the small village below.

We waited for a combi but they were passing us by, already full, so once again I flagged down a ride, this time with a large emtpy tourist bus returning to Urubamba.  As we wandered around Urubamba looking for a place to eat, we ran across some girls in costume, so I asked if there were dances going on in the plaza today.  Yes!  In a half hour!  Of course, this was one of the celebrations this weekend, el Señor de Torrechayoc.

We decided it was best to leave a little early so that we could manage to get back to Cusco at a reasonable hour.  We headed to the bus station and again discovered that the lines were out the door.  As we stood there not knowing what to do, a guy told us he could put us on a bus for Cusco without a ticket, 3.5 soles (50 cents above the typical price).  He ushered us to the bus, kicked the people out of the front seats, and put us there.  It turned out to be the bus that takes the side dirt roads all the way back to Cusco, and stops at every house along the way to pick up or drop off someone, but the scenery was beautiful and we eventually made it back.

Hmmm, how to get back to Cusco?

Chinchero Market and Hike (aka, How did we lose the trail?)

The image links to Flickr all disappeared. I will retain the captions for future reference, and here is the set of images from the hike!

View the images on Flickr here.

Women enjoying chicha at the Chinchero Market

The ruins at Chinchero

Starting the hike from Chinchero

Boys with their sheep.  They asked us where we were going…In hindsight we think this is where we got distracted and “I” lost the trail!

I took the lead and, hmmmm…where did the trail go?

Trying to re-find the trail

Pigs in training for Marathon de Chanchos!  I had no idea pigs could run so fast for so long.

Ruins at the lower right

The long and painful (on the knees) descent

Long way still to go to get to the bottom

Walking through the little village at the valley floor

More photos on Flickr!