Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Arequipa, The White City

Ripped from the pages of Tolkien and decorated in the bittersweet trappings of colonial splendor, Arequipa contains echoes of the Gondorian golden age beset by Smaug's ominous mountain. It stands in the shadow of El Misti, a conical volcano, and its name comes from the Quechuan (Dwarven?) phrase "Are, quepay" -- city under the mountain. The city's eponymous color comes from a stunningly white, volcanic stone called sillar; at any time of day or night, the stones stand out brilliantly against the black pavement and muddy cobblestones. Geographically, Arequipa lies very near Colca Canyon. Unlike the Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon has gently slanting, hilly sides. While we did not make it into Colca country this time, I'm led to believe that - in addition to the Canyon's most popular Andean Condor watching excursions - it hosts some of Peru's best white-water rafting, horseback riding, hiking trails, and some massive, remote ruins preserved better than those at Machu Picchu.

I can't even begin to consider the long, exhausting bus ride we took from La Paz into Arequipa, so I'll cut to the arrival. Arequipa's central bus terminal mirrors the rest of Peru; though smelly, chaotic, and crowded, a fleet of taxis is always waiting outside to shuttle you off to La Plaza de Armas. And what a plaza! We hadn't eaten much for a day or two, so we allowed ourselves to be hustled into on of the many open-air, second-floor eateries surrounding the square and enjoyed that delicious Peruvian cuisine we had missed so much in Bolivia. I honestly can't remember what we ate that first night, but the set menu at any of those restaurants offers a great value; we spent the whole meal observing the softly illuminated fountain, cathedral, and crisp, white buildings. Oh, and watching the Ghostbusters. Really, there was a car with a hodgepodge of extra gadgetry attached to its exterior with a similar shape and siren quality to the Ghostbusters car running through the center of town throughout the course of our meal.

Neither of us bothered to reserve a room in Arequipa, so we had to find a hostel on the fly (which isn't really that difficult in Peru). We can't remember the name of the place we finally settled, on, but it was located on the left side of the Cathedral, two or three blocks away from the plaza (as are most of the nice, affordable hostels in Arequipa). Once sheltered, we bathed, sorted our dirty -- wet and moldy, since that awful washer woman in Bolivia -- clothes, and went to bed completely exhausted.

Brice and I spent our first full day in the White City wandering the streets and taking in the sights. We started with the churches surrounding the plaza, and toured the Cathedral as well. The Cathedral in Arequipa, though its exterior architecture is beautiful, has a very protestant interior. All of the earthquakes and volcanic disruptions that plague Arequipa took their toll on the original structure's interior, so they settled on a minimalistic approach to cathedral artwork. Brice found some hatch-backs with (count them) two spoilers, so we stalked them through the streets hoping to get a photo for all of his gear-head friends back in the States. That was actually a pretty fun pass-time, looking back.

The greater part of our day took place within the walls of the Santa Catalina Convent, a labyrinthine compound in the middle of the city lacking both an Ariadne and -- we hoped -- a minotaur. Letting ourselves get lost in the winding passages and expansive court yards, we took the opportunity to learn about the lives of the nuns who inhabit it. Santa Catalina began as a sanctuary for upper-class women dedicated to the church; they brought all of their worldly luxuries into the convent, and generally employed female slaves in their daily service. But in 1871 a strict Dominican Mother Superior joined the convent, and the women were quickly reformed. Today, the nuns inhabit only the northern corner of the convent where they lock themselves away from the prying eyes of tourists.

Scores of wood ovens dotted the rooms and passages, and there was no absolute divide between where 'courtyard' ended and 'kitchen' or 'habitation' began. We climbed some stairs onto the roof of one of the cells, and took in the stunning view of Arequipa and El Misti from the best vantage point in the city.

Looking back on Arequipa now, I mostly remember floating from one interesting thing to the next. We viewed the Juanita Ice Maiden (she is NOT a mummy), sacrificed on the peak of El Misti at the peak of the Incan empire; we wandered into the suburbs of the city, and followed the winding streets; we journeyed out to a monastery with a remarkable library, and saw some school boys moving a statue of Jesus in the back of a pick-up.

At some point in there, we bought Brice some hard-hitting antibiotics (all drugs are over the counter in Peru, as far as we can tell) at a local pharmacy. Whatever form of gastrointestinal death he caught in Bolivia, we soon beat it into submission. We also did laundry and some other necessary chores - bought some severely understuffed Oreos, crackers, chokosodas, and more toilet paper. I remember feeding pigeons some roasted corn kernels they put out in the restaurants.. we tried to eat them ourselves, but since we were always dining al fresco we decided it just HAD to be pigeon food. Seriously, why would you feed that to people? Like I said, the details all blur together into one fuzzy, happy sensation.

But what really stands out to me, above all the rest, is the night we spent at El Viñedo. Located at 319 San Francisco street, this is -- bar none -- the best food in all of Peru. Viñedo means "vineyard," and they do have a respectable wine list, but this place really earns its keep with its steak. Maybe you could find a better piece of meat in Argentina. Maybe. Having never been, I couldn't say. But let me tell you this: you will NOT find a better steak in Peru. (Believe me, we tried. Even a hugely expensive restaurant in Lima that specialized in steak couldn't compare.) I ate a medium-rare cut of tenderloin with garlicky mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, and light drizzling of red wine sauce; Brice had ostrich kabobs with fresh-cut pineapple and bell pepper, hand-cut steak fries, and mixed vegetables. Especially after the fried chicken horrors of Bolivia, we were seriously ready for an evening of self-indulgence and leisure. After dinner, we hit the town and let our hair down for the rest of the night; it felt great.

When we finally did leave Arequipa, it was on a bus for Nazca and the coastal lowlands. After spending so long in the mountains, I didn't really know what to expect on the coast. Brice and I had a couple of rough days in and around Nazca (animosity), but I'll try to be nice in the next post.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bolivia II: Las Pampas and Back Again

First and foremost, pampas is Spanish for Savannah. But - in this case - las pampas signifies the gigantic plains slightly north of the jungle and flooded by Bolivia's tributaries to the Amazon. We opted to visit las pampas instead of la selva because, while the jungle proper offered superior hiking, climbing, and botanical excursions, the floodplain offered superior accommodation, swimming, and opportunities for viewing wildlife. As we weighed our options, we decided it would be more fun to see the animals and some of the plants than all of the plants and (a very tentative maybe) some of the animals. Brice and I are both quite happy with that decision.

We traveled in motorized dugout canoes, captained by our tour guide, Jaimie, at Indigena. Our wildlife spotting expeditions led us through caiman, gator, and piranha infested waters, but we were also lucky enough to see (but not to photograph, despite our best efforts) the legendary pink dolphins of the Amazon; more on the wildlife later. The canoes came in a variety of bright colors, with re-purposed lawn chairs built into their structure as fold-out seating for the tourists. We piled our bags on and under thick, plastic tarps, buttoned up our sweat shirts (I mentioned that it was an unnaturally cold week in jungle in my last post), and settled in for the 2-hour commute.

Jaimie did a great job spotting wildlife for us; there were several smaller species we never could have identified on our own, and he knew in fairly accurate English how to describe the names, myths, and uses for the flora and fauna we encountered on our 3-day adventure. We enjoyed his company, too. The man possessed an excellent disposition for dealing with journeying college and university students, and he had a decent sense of humor too. On our way into the camp site, one of our party's canoes attempted to cross a small channel between two partially submerged land masses and became stuck a good 8-10 inches above the water level.

The Indigena lodge itself completely outstripped the other campsites we passed in both cleanliness and completion. There were some unfortunate gaps in the mosquito netting of the dining hall, but otherwise everything seemed exactly as one would expect. There was a slight moldiness to everything, from the normally hot, humid climate, and the bunks were all netted off individually and by cabin. They offered running, but not heated, water, and their in-house kitchen really wowed me with some of the beautiful dishes they presented us. All of the buildings inter-connected through elevated boardwalks, and there was a sufficiently dry yard with climbing trees and a hammock lodge as bonus features. Oh, and did I mention the best part? They had a local alligator called Frederico who lurked by the docks; no need to guess what Brice's favorite part was...

That's right. His favorite part was our Indigena pet kitty (he calls it a jungle cat in all of his stories, but don't be fooled). It meowed constantly, but we could avoid having the UK kids trying to feed it to Freddy when Brice held it, since that quieted it to a contented purr. The son of one of our camp managers loved to chase that thing around and grab its tail, but and that cranky old jungle cat put up with it amiably. On one of his iller nights (B. came down with a nasty case of the Jungle Flu almost as soon as we entered las pampas), he sat and petted it for hours while our 10 British friends downed 4 bottles what I think amounted to Bolivian bottom-shelf liquor. It nearly gave Jaimie a heart attack when a pair of them wandered off into the wilderness together, but they made it back to the bunks eventually.

The rest of our adventure basically amounted to wildlife spotting, so I'm going to set this post up like a photo album from now on:

1) "Angry Birds." They puff up and screech when you get too close. No idea what it's really called

2) Jabiru. Freaking. Awesome. Think flying ostrich.

3) Porcupine. This was one of Jaimie's better catches. None of us could have spotted it alone.

4) Capybara, or R.O.U.S.

5) Caiman or Alligator (not Freddy, though...)

6) Red-bellied piranha. We went fishing and our cook was good enough to fry up our catch. Piranha is... edible. Barely. Brice caught this one. In fact, he caught more fish than anybody (except Jaimie).

7) Anaconda hunting in the marshes was good fun, but they reek of death and rot.

8) Boto dolphin surfacing in the ripple; none of the photos were timed right... We went to a fork in the river and swam with them, but Brice was too busy dying to join us. : (

9) Squirrel monkey on the boat! They're friendly, fuzzy, and adorable. This was curious about our canoe.

10) Howler monkeys. Not so friendly, but still fuzzy!

11) FREDDY! We also went baby-gator spotting, which was good fun (since our UK friends were trashed). Also, Brice says "I petted it."

12) The elusive 'carnivorous tree weasel.' Seriously. Your guess is as good as ours.

As far as the 'back again' is concerned, it took us close to 3 hours to make the Jeep trip back to Rurre. From there, we learned that the planes were still indefinitely grounded, so we grabbed a Bolivian Dinner (you'd think that would imply a number of diverse dishes, but really it's just fried chicken, fried plantains, and french fries), rented a room, and wandered out to our very confusing bus the next day. It took us another 18 hours for the return to La Paz, but we made it into the city at around 5:30 in the morning. La Paz is fairly quiet that early, since almost everyone is either sleeping or praying. Brice and I did our hobo-routine, trying to score a warm place to sleep in a distended lobby, but we ultimately gave up and found an early-risers coffee shop that would feed us.

After that, we popped by Swiss Bolivian to finish our business with them, got on a bus to Arequipa, Peru (connecting through Puno), and kissed Bolivia GOODBYE. Kissed is the wrong word. What we did was more of a sympathetic hand-wave from the other side of our sterile safe-room (Peru). All in all, it could have been worse...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bolivia I: The Road to Rurre

Our drive around scenic Lake Titicaca took us through some of the most beautiful regions of southern Peru. We got to see more of the shore than previously anticipated, and the bus wasn't even that uncomfortable. Little did we know, all of that was about to change.

The Bolivian border crossing is something like Russian Roulette, except that revolver's fully loaded and the target is your wallet. First comes the confusion. The bus will stop a good distance from the border, and everyone must amble into the proper lines and buildings on the Peruvian side to process their passports. This involves a trip to the stamping station, a trip to the police station, and then another trip BACK to the stamping station for another round of inking. Somewhere in there it would be prudent to hit up the ATM, since the Bolivians are getting ready to rob you blind. Anyways, aside from going back and forth, the Peruvian side of the border really isn't that terrible. Everyone speaks some semblance of English, and - all in all - it could be worse....

Ideally, we would then walk about 100 yards to the Bolivian side of things, pay to have some important documents photocopied, and go through their immigration office. It's not so bad, if 1) you're not an American and 2) you've properly completed the Peruvian exiting requirements. But, trust me, you are an American and you haven't completed the Peruvian requirements. So, back across the border you go. Stamp here, sign there, and it's time to trek the 100 yards back to Bolivia. So there we were again, getting ready to pay the ridiculous visa fee - something like $140 U.S. dollars (which you MUST pay in greenbacks) - and oops, out the door you go. But hey.....

It was worse. This time, all you have to do is pay a fat Bolivian woman $2 to photocopy your passport. Then you can hop back in line, pay what basically amounts to a bribe for the border police, and have your documents stamped. But let's face it; you're not that lucky. You'll have to track down another money changer to get the proper amount in American dollars, since you just changed all of your money over into bolivianos when you left Peru an hour ago. So, back across the border to Peru, money, money, money, back to Bolivia, pay the bribe, get the stamp, and get back on the bus an hour later.

Wrong. It's not the same bus. This one is cramped, smells bad, and has no A.C. But hey, it could be worse.... at least we're not still stuck at the border station, right? After about 30 minutes on the hot, dirty bus, we entered the town of Copacabana. It's one of the more popular tourist destinations in Bolivia, since it's located on a peninsula that juts into the lake and has Peru a (theoretically) comfortable 45 minutes away. There's just one problem: even if you're not staying in Copacabana, the bus is stopping in Copacabana, and there's a 2 boliviano entry fee. Well, that's only about 33 cents, so it could be worse.... Brice and I grabbed quick lunch, observed the port, and sat around waiting for our connection to La Paz. There was some confusion as to which bus we wanted, but we worked it out in the end. Hey, at least Copacabana is pretty (and if you do manage to miss your bus, there are lots of combis in the town willing to go to La Paz fairly cheap).

Back on the road to La Paz, we took a chance to enjoy all of 30 seconds of the rolling hills and blue skies before the 'Bolivia sucks' mantra set in. But all the while we remembered this: it could be worse...

About an hour outside of Copacabana, we had to cross Lake Titicaca. The shores where Copacabana and mainland Bolivia come closest together are (maybe?) half a mile apart, but this is Bolivia, so don't kid yourself. There is no bridge. We got off the bus, purchased tickets for the 'ferry' (a large motor boat) not included in the cost of our bus fare, and hoped for the best. We got across just fine, and the boat itself seemed sea worthy, but it's hard to envision a worse reality for the flatboats they used to ferry the buses across. Even without any of the passengers on board, the buses nearly capsized the ferries; men with bailing buckets had a lot of work on their hands to make the trip possible, but none of our things got wet so - at least in that sense - it could have been a lot worse.

We got back on the bus, took a nap, and made it into La Paz by nightfall; it was a long day. We took a taxi to our hostel, met with a travel agent to finalize our rain forest plans, and took a walk through the city. La Paz - at least the lower portions - is kind of like a big street carnival. Socially, it's set up like a funnel. The center of the city is in the bottom of the valley, so the closer you live to the center (the 'lower' you are) the higher your social status. We stayed in a place fairly low in the city. The streets were entirely packed with vendors, pedestrians, cars, and pigeons. We didn't have more than a few seconds of peace the whole time.

I got really fed up with having my ass grabbed by nasty old men, and Brice got really fed up with me trying to keep a hand on him so we could stay close together in the crowds. Our map was less than accurate, so we wandered a bit longer than we had intended, and - after a while - (I blame him) Brice did what he does best and left me to my own devices for the night. I spent an hour killing time in an Internet cafe, and then I visited one of La Paz' most popular bars: Oliver's Travels. Oliver's is a fun place, run mostly by a cranky, drunken Englishman and a bunch of college-aged gringos; the atmosphere is great, but what's really worth the visit is the book exchange. Good old 'Oliver' has quite the scam going, but after 3 weeks reading trash you'll pay his (reasonable, by American standards) prices to get your hands on a decent paperback. And hey, his prices could be worse....

The next day we sent out our laundry and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of La Paz in a slightly (albeit not incredibly) better mood. We viewed the major churches (there's ALWAYS a mass in session in La Paz) from the outside, found the black market (though not the desired goods), the witch's market (where you can buy a dehydrated llama fetus!), and Plaza Murillo to feed the pigeons. Feeding the pigeons was kind of the highlight of our day in La Paz, but: it could have been worse. We chased them around, trying to start a swarming rally, and took some photos of the unique-looking riot police situated in the area (Brice made us stop and take their photos several times). I'm not doing it justice in this retelling, so here's a portion of my journal:
La Paz is alive, and I think it hates me. Can I take a step without the garish honking of ancient taxis and the stale stench of urine? I don't know, I'd need the space to take a step in the first place. The smell of vendors' dinner stalls mingles with the diesel exhaust and sickly-sweet tinge of roses. There are so many roses... I want one, just to carry around and remind me that there are still nice things in this sea of faceless ass-pinchers. It's nearly Mother's Day - Mother's Month, in Bolivia - and the roses are on sale. Brice won't buy me any, not even a single stem with thorns still on for a measly 16 cents. Maybe he hates me too.

There is no peace in this place. La Paz, you are your own antithesis. In London, they go to bed at 3, in Paris by 1:30... La Paz: true eternal city. Last call at 4, taxis come at 5. Mass at 6. Do they ever sleep? Fast-paced shopping on every corner, impenetrable traffic in the streets. No empty taxi in a 3-mile radius. Night and day differences between rich and poor. I've never seen so much poverty in one place, but they all seem to get by. But seriously -- when do they sleep?

We had a nice, quiet day, and went to bed early so we could catch a cab to the airport the next morning. Oh, and it turns out they do sleep. From about 7 AM - 10.

Unfortunately, the laundry still wasn't back at 11 o'clock that evening, so we had to call the front desk and ask them to 1) track down their washer woman and 2) get our clothes back. Our jeans, shirts, hoodies... everything! came back sopping wet and freezing cold. We had a few pairs of wearable things between us, so I guess it could have been worse.... Anyways, we left it all out to try as best it could, and got some sleep. The next morning, our things were still wet, but we were in no mood to complain. (Well, I was, but I thought Brice would probably leave me face-down in the Amazon river if I did.) So, we packed our things, hailed a (drunken) cab, and tried our luck at the airport.

Our travel agents at Swiss Bolivian Adventures did their jobs flawlessly. We didn't have an issue getting our tickets, and the airport's domestic flight exit tax could have been worse... all the same, about two hours after our flight was supposed to depart they finally told us that it wasn't possible for us to fly into Rurrenabaque any time this week. Apparently it had rained there (rain? in the jungle? never!) the night before, and the dirt runway was entirely washed out. So, we refunded our departure taxes, took a cab back to the Swiss Bolivian offices, and let them sort us out. They began the paperwork to refund my credit card, set us up with a bus schedule to Rurre, and wished us luck.

Finding a cab to the bus terminal turned out to be easier said than done. It was some sort of school holiday, and the roads were completely overrun with children in uniforms doing jumping jacks. But, we did make it to the bus office, we did purchase tickets to Rurre, and we did find our bus before it left without us. I had Brice a bit more frantic than he likes to be searching for it, so he was quite moody by the time we figured out where we were supposed to board. I bought some water, crackers, and cookies to tide us over - it's an 18 hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque, on a good day - and Brice bought himself a rather posh-looking wrist watch - which fit him better as an arm band than a bracelet - so he wouldn't be captive to my scheduling whims. To this day, people still compliment him on that watch.

They used to call the road to Rurrenabaque the "death road" because the perilous turns, washed out rocks, and sheer cliff faces contributed to - you guessed it - a number of gruesome, horrifying deaths. The road we took is the "new death road." It's not somehow safer or better constructed than the old death road, but it has the advantage of being relatively new; it's reputation hasn't quite been built. Well, 'new death road' or old 'death road,' we descended into the tropical lowlands (the first third of the trip) without issue, and honestly, the road could have been worse. Sure, it was washed out and flooded in a few places. Sure, we almost had half a dozen head-on-collisions. But really, it could have been worse! Some of the guys we met a few days later at our campsite said that their bus had actually overturned and nearly fallen into the ravine, and that after they evacuated the wreck the survivors were nearly run over by a logging truck. They spent hours out there on that road, without a ditch or curb to cling to, waiting for another bus to come and rescue them; it must have been terrible.

Then again, nobody died, so....

We stopped at a small jungle town along the way, encountering what may have been the worst of public toilets in South America, and got back on the bus. That was our life for an entire day: on the bus, off the bus, on the bus, off the bus... At 6 AM the next morning, we had made friends with the English-speaking tourists around us, rekindled our old animosity from the days before, and really, really wished our other clothes were dry enough to wear. Oh, and we had arrived in Rurrenabaque.

We sat around until sun rise, whereupon we attempted to feed ourselves and find the Indigena Tours offices. "Bolivia sucks" became "Rurre sucks," but, as is always the case, it could have been worse. We ate some chicken soup (complete with whole drumsticks and boiled eggs), hired a cab to take us to the Indigena offices, and completed the remainder of our paperwork. One of the tour guides took mercy on us and walked us over to the village charity house. They were good enough to give us new jackets (donated by past toursits, probably) for a reasonable donation, and it's only thanks to that that we didn't freeze during what I've heard was one of the coldest, wettest weeks in Rurre's history.

After all of that, we were finally on the road. Our Jeep 4x4 had to navigate the flooded, muddy roads for nearly two hours to get us to the canoe launch for our river tour, but... well, you know. We made friends with the British girls in our tour group and Brice fantasized about the jeep overturning in the road. We drove through herds of cattle, flocks of heron, and a pile up half a mile long. But all the same, we made it to La Pampa and started one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of our vacation.