VOUCHER TO ADVENTURE
“Attention all passengers! Flight 162 is currently overbooked and we're asking for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for $800 vouchers, overnight hotel and first class seats back to Honolulu tomorrow” the intercom then repeated. Now this is an announcement we're not tired of hearing! My wife and I happened to be in San Francisco for the weekend, our next big adventure was about to begin. “Yes, we will” as we yell and hurriedly run to the ticket counter.
Back in Honolulu we are faced with the dilemma of what to do with our vouchers. Should we use them to visit family, have a relaxing vacation or experience a new adventure? The answer was simple: a new adventure in some far away place! We look up where the airline flew and it comes to us, American flies directly into Lima , Peru ! We begin working on it immediately. Before we know it, the next summer has arrived and it was time to take off on our adventure with only a backpack each!
We landed in Lima after our overnight flight, then on to Iquitos , in the heart of the Amazon rainforest of Northern Peru , via a domestic airline. We walk off the plane, groggy from lack of sleep, into thick humid motionless air. Adonay, our guide for the next week, greeted us with a warm smile and handshake. I'm not sure how he knew we were his guests, maybe because we were the only Caucasians on the plane. Adonay was a local Aymara Indian who has never been out of the area but is fluent in Spanish, English and his native Aymara tongue. He is an expert in everything, including music; he is an accomplished guitar player and singer which we find out later that night when he closed down the lodges nightclub. Soon, Adonay had us gliding down the Amazon river in a flat-bottomed aluminum boat. The ride appeared to be a silent movie of the early 1920's except it had very vibrant colors as we sat back and took in the scenery of the lush vegetation lining the vast brown river.
Arriving at the Explorama Lodges, on the banks of the Napo river, we feel like we are going back in time; there is no electricity and all water we use is filtered directly from the river for everything, including drinking water. Our thatched-roof hut is complete with two single beds, mosquito netting (real cozy if you want to fit two people in one bed) and a kerosene lamp, for our only source of light. The meals are the best with fresh locally grown vegetables and fish caught from the river outside the door. The wildlife is abundant with giant yellow anacondas, tarantulas, parrots (who like to swoop down and sit on your shoulders), toucans, giant iguanas, spider monkeys, saddleback tamarin monkeys, pink river dolphins, capuchin monkeys, black tegu lizards to our own “resident” capybara who visited us during meals to suck on our fingers. Not sure what a capybara is? Just think of a giant rat about two feet high and three feet long, shorter nose, stubby tail and very bristly hair, the worlds largest rodent!
Adonay takes us on a number of nature hikes, one of which involved climbing to the top of the rainforest canopy on a suspended walkway over 100 feet off the jungle floor, the same one we'd seen on the Discovery channel and National Geographic. The walkway is suspended using ropes, cables and wood wrapping them around the trees, but not attached directly in order to protect the trees. Looking above the tree line, we are able to watch for many different species of birds, see clouds form before us and then dump the shower of rain they had just collected, and just take in the awe of such a breath-taking sight previously invisible from the depths below.
The local shaman, or medicine man, showed us the many different plants they use to treat diseases and illnesses and opened our eyes to the possibilities of the immense rainforest. (Many Western scientists frequent the Amazon and meet with the shamans to search for cures for diseases). One common problem along the river, one that I would never want, was the water; which many locals drink directly, unfiltered, from the river. The muddy river water causes their bellies to swell, due to a parasite, to make them look pregnant, even men. But the shamans easily cure this problem with their local medicines taken from the native plants.
Before we leave the lodge, the parrots make sure to relieve me of the buttons to my shorts when I hang them out to dry, which certainly proved tricky the rest of the trip.
Now it's off to Cuzco , the former capital of the Inca empire. But before leaving the Amazon we discover our flight from Iquitos to Cuzco is canceled because the domestic airline we are flying on has gone bankrupt. Donde Estan el Bano? is my response to get us out of the mess or at least the extent of my limited Spanish. Unfortunately, asking the airline representative where the bathroom is didn't help us much. With a little patience, we get on another airline and continue our journey.
“Help! No air!” Or, at least it felt like it! Arriving in Cuzco is dramatically different than Lima or Iquitos ! The elevation of Cuzco is 12,000 feet and there is little oxygen! Although it is summer back in the U.S. , it is now winter in our part of the world, so we're glad we packed just enough clothes to layer. We acclimatized overnight and depart the following morning on a pre-arranged 4-day group trek through the Andes Mountains in the light brisk air.
The trek that we are participating in is complete with guides and porters. The porters carry the majority of the load; all our food, tents, sleeping bags etc. and we just carry our own day pack, which at times, almost seemed more than I could handle in the high altitude. From talking to our guide we discover that being a porter is actually a pretty good job for the locals as it is one of the higher paying jobs in the area. The porters are in great condition as they are able to keep a consistent pace, well ahead of our group of deep-breathers. During the trek, several persons in our group develop blisters even with our very expensive boots on. The participants of our group come complete with expensive hiking apparel; backpacks, hats, pants, shorts, shirts and especially boots, all designed to keep moisture away and make for a comfortable hike. This is in stark contrast to our porters who wear very simple clothes down to the Flip Flops that are made out of old car tires. Our group is comprised of ten people that come from all over the United States .
The trek on the Inca Trail takes us through many different ancient Inca city ruins, over thirty miles of trails and over two mountain passes of 14,000 feet each. Talk about seeing double and having blurred vision, yikes! Good thing for Coca leaves we use as a tea to help us acclimatize. The locals also use Coca leaves to treat a number of ailments from headaches to altitude sickness. In the Incan ruins we see mammoth blocks of angled cut stone weighing several tons, which the Inca's mysteriously cut and moved from quarries miles away to locations on hilltops and valleys to build their cities.
On the fourth day we arrive at our destination, Machu Picchu , “the lost city of the Incas”. The last few miles of the hike slowed me dramatically. Sharp pain increasingly shoots up my leg as we near the end of the trail, I think I have shin splints! Going from 14,000 feet to 9,000 feet without stretching enough in the morning was just a little too much. The pain in my legs, however, does not interfere with the sheer magnitude of what is before us. We explore the ruins, being careful not to interrupt the archeological significance of the sprawled mountain top ruins.
The next day we're off to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca via a bumpy 12-hour train ride through the Andes Mountains . (I hope by now they've replaced the axle on that train car. Talk about a rough ride!) In Puno we spend three days checking out the city, seeing the world's highest navigable lake and taking a boat ride out to the floating islands. Lake Titicaca contains about a dozen floating islands, made entirely from the harvested reeds that grow in the lake. When we walk on the islands, it feels like walking on a giant waterbed. I try to keep a firm footing as I get the feeling that if I fall down I might just stick my hand right through to the water. It astounds us to learn that some of the people who live on the islands never make it to shore, thereby living their entire lives on a not-so-solid surface.
Our stay in Puno is short-lived, as it's time to head back to the states. Describing to our families and friends what we just encountered was difficult and almost like a dream but we know the adventure left us wiser with a taste for more.
Remember, be flexible when traveling, anything can happen so don't stress out about it. Besides, you never know when you will get a free voucher. Also, don't forget to bring extra buttons.