Mental sketches from the train

On the train from Puno to Cuzco


Maybe it was the way I was raised – near the railroad lines, running down to the tracks with my parents or grandparents to count the cars on the freights or wave at the conductors – but train rides, or even the sight of trains in general, fill me with all kinds of nostalgia and romanticism of days past. Staring out the window at mile after mile of changing terrain stirs my imagination: little sketches from the placid shores of the lake in the early morning hours, to the rain-swept plains, sheltered amongst the impossibly-high peaks of the Andes which we now rumble through.

Along the solitary track hover herds of alpaca, sheep, cows, and the small settlements of the ranchers. Their comings and goings marked only by their small, crude buildings, in different states of repair, and the humble graveyards that stand sentry over the Puno-Cuzco line.

Glimpses of a countryside – of a lifestyle – that one misses when exploring the frantic beehives that are the major cities in Peru. Little cameos of a simpler rural life.

Cattle grazing on soccer fields, standing under the goalposts like gluttonous keepers. The sheep snacking on the midfield while the children run home from school to eat their own lunches.

Farmers crouch in the fields, hiding from the rain under tee-pees made of cloaks or tarps, making them resemble the nearby, conical haystacks.

Just like at home, children in the arms of parents, or freely standing wave at the train as it passes by – hoping for a wave in return from those in the windows. I try not to disappoint.

Lake country.


Yesterday we arrived in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We checked into our hostel, los Uros (the floating islands) and set out to explore the city a bit and get some dinner. First we hit a small market and bought some fruit to give to the host families that we will be staying with on the islands. After that, we returned to the hostel to drop our bags off and to call our contact for the next days' stays. The man working the front desk offered to make the call for us, and, to our surprise, told us that Richard, the owner of the hotel on Amantani, would be there to meet us in 30 minutes. We went to our room to read and wait.
When he arrived, we were both surprised to see that Richard was about our age. We later learned that he had gone to school for hotel and tourist services, and that he had raised the money to build his own hotel by working in other hotels and as a guide. Richard now runs the hotel with the help of his parents and seems to be doing quite well; next, he wants to get a hot water hookup and solar panels for the place.
After working out the details for the next couple days, Claudia and I went back out into town to look around at shops and get dinner.
We didn't buy anything but we did manage to find an amazing place to eat. Claudia had stuffef rocoto peppers, which were both sweet and really hot. I had an amazing soup that was made of wheat, quinoa, pumpkin, potato, beans, some meat, and various other veggies. We also shared a plate of local cheese and some beers.
After dinner, we returned to the hostel, read, and tried to get some sleep... tried being the operative word. Puno, and the lake in general, are at the highest elevation that we'll encounter on this trip (between 3,800-4,000 meters); due to this fact, Claudia and I dealt with some minor symptoms of altitude sickness, such as insomnia, shortness of breath, and general discomfort. Despite this, we got some sleep, and were up at 7:30am to leave with Richard.
The boat ride was fairly nice. We stopped at los Uros or islas floantantes, which are artificial islands that are made entirely of reeds and their root structures. Richard explained a bit about the history and culture of the inhabitants of the floating islands, and we did a bit of shopping before moving on. The trip from los uros to Amantani took about an hour, so Claudia and I caught a bit of a cat nap.
Upon arriving at Amantani, those who were staying overnight were divided up between the different families while Richard took us to his hotel where his parents had lunch already prepared. The meal was awesome, as was the hour he gave us to chill before hiking.
Around 4pm, we left to hike to the top of the island to see the sunset. Needless to say, the steep walk up to about 4000 meters was rough on our unacclimatized systems, so we took it slow. The result was well worth the effort; the sunset was absolutely spectacular, as were the views of the lake and distant Bolivian mountain ranges.
On the return trip, my hands began to feel as if they were frostbitten; when I got back to the room, I found that they had swollen up due to the altitude. I took some advil and managed to get them to shrink down a bit, but not before I managed to take a couple pictures!
Dinner was a more casual meal of spaghetti, Amantani style (veggies and local cheese mixed in). Afterwards, we donned native clothing and headed out to a dance.


We woke up at 630am, after a night of song and dance. Claudia and I were informed at dinner last night that Richard's mother would be following us up after the meal to help us dress. We weren't too sure about the idea of being two tourists parading around in native garb, but because the nice old lady was set on dressing us, we didn't want to disappoint. At the least, we could provide her with some laughs at our expense for her troubles on our accounts.
The experience of the dance was something that I can never forget, but completely failed to capture on film. We were all crowded into a small courtyard that was draped with flowering vines, and open to the starry night's sky. A small campfire in the middle of the cobblestones was all that was needed to illuminate the scene of musicians, villagers, and tourists, all clad in brightly embroidered fabrics.
Even though Claudia and I went with the intention of not dancing, it soon became obvious that the villagers would not accept this as an option. So, we danced... or more like shuffled, though a few songs, and spent a lot of time talking to members of a British tour group that was at the party with us. It turned out to be a fun night after all, and we both slept pretty well after.
In the morning, we had a quick breakfast, thanked our hosts, and left for Taquille.
On Taquille we had to climb a bunch because the people there preferred to build near the top of the island, rather than the shore. Again, the view was beautiful, but the going difficult due to the altitude. Though I really enjoy being in the islands, I am looking forward to going to a lower altitude where I feel a bit better than death warmed over.
As I write, I am sitting on a little beach in the cold sunshine; all would be amazing if it wasn't for the headache that has been plaguing me since we got here. Hopefully it will subside soon, and the return trip to Puno will restore my health a bit.
When we return, we are going to buy tickets to ride the train to Cuzco, and then relax until we leave at 8am Monday. That’s all for now!!


Headache didn't subside, so I went to a clinic and saw a Dr.. As I expected, it was the altitude, so he prescribed a couple meds. After taking the first dosage, I now feel human again. I just wanted to mention how awesome and cheap the medical service was at the clinic. If this had happened in the states, I'd still be waiting to be seen and the whole process would have cost me an arm and a leg. I was in and out in less than a half hour, and everyone I dealt with were extremely kind.


Mules and stuff...the Trek experience

We returned from our cañon trek a couple hours ago, so I thought it was time for an update. Monday morning, we left at 1am with our guide to catch a bus for the Cañon de Colca area. Needless to say, I failed to get any sleep before leaving, and, as I was soon to find out, sleeping on the bus was out of the question (at least for me). The bus ride was a 6 hour medley of crying children, old women conversing across the bus in quechua, and the occasional, seemingly random outbursts of Latin music over the bus´s loud speakers. I decided that the best course of action was to pull my hood over my head and feign sleep, as the alternative was to look out the window and watch the bus careen around hairpin curves, dangerously close to the edge of a dark abyss, or make eye contact with the people who got on the bus at later stops and were forced to stand in the aisles.
When we finally arrived, we had a nice breakfast at a local hostel of eggs and these really nice rolls that were shaped like triangles and were hollow (I didn´t get a name). After that, we bought food supplies at the local stores, and set off to the trailhead. We were greeted at the start of our trek with a sight that was rare and auspicious; four adult condors were glyding over the deep chasm, looking for prey (or just looking cool). Our guide, Alain, said that this was very good luck, as most people go specifically to see the condors but often leave disappointed because they don´t come out. Seeing this as a good sign, I swallowed my initial reaction to turn around at seeing the tiny line of the trail zig-zag dizzyingly down the cañon, and followed Claudia and Alain.
We treked non-stop for four hours until we reached the cañon floor. For the first part of the journey, it wasn´t too bad, and I felt we made good time. After crossing a suspension bridge, we walked a bit more uphill to a tiny hostel to have lunch. Roy´s, as it was called, was truly a heaven on earth. On a tiny patch of grass in the middle of that massive cañon was an oasis of shaded, thatched huts and lean-tos in which to sleep, camp, ear, or just check out the amazing view. We had rice, scrambled eggs, and a really nice soup; after eating, we took some time to soak our feet in a pool of cold water that they had set up.
After this quick break, it was time to move on. We snaked our way back up the cañon a bit while Alain explained the history of the region, and showed us different herbs that could be found there and told us how they could be used. This all went on until about 2 until we began to climb a more steep path, and Claudia began to have difficulties catching her breath. From this point on, we slowed our pace; we made a lovely pair - when we climbed, Claudia needed to pause to catch her breath, and when we descended, we had to go slow because my knees had started to act up. Despite all this, Claudia was a trooper, and kicked the metaphorical ass of her first hike ever; I, on the other hand, started to feel like a big baby! We decided that the next day, it would be a good idea to take mules back up to the top because it was a very difficult and steep path to use.
For the rest of the afternoon, we got to walk through various native villages, and even visit small museum that Alain had helped set up to help the native population explain their culture; in all, it was a very informative experience, and helped explain some of the things I worked with at The Field Museum. Around dusk, we passed through the last of these villages and started our final descent into the camping area where we were to spend the night. Needless to say, by this point our reserves of energy were cashed, and my knee no longer wanted to function. Somehow we made it down before dark, but not before both my hands, behind, and a large portion of my pride were bruised.
We crossed another suspension bridge, and climbed a small bit to reach The Oasis - a nice little hostel with grass huts, and a pool that gets filled every day with water from the river. Needless to say, we were too tired to enjoy a swim, but Alain made a nice dinner of rice, alpaca fillet, and red wine. After dinner, we went to our hut and promptly passed out - Claudia fully clothed, and myself with a random kitten that had adopted us sleeping against my face. A few hours later, I woke up sick to my stomach, and didn´t get much sleep after that. At 330am, Alain woke us up to leave with the mules. It looked like dawn was breaking through the gaps in the hut, but when I walked out, I was greeted by a brilliant crescent moon and a sky full do stars, it was absolutely breath-taking.
When I finally saw the mules, apprehension set in; was I really going to trust my safety to one of those things? I guessed I had better, since I knew he had the advantage on me, with four feet to my two. I mounted awkwardly, shrieked a little when it took off to follow its ranchero, but then managed to chill out when I realized it was on autopilot and only wanted to follow his leaders. For the next hour and a half, I loosened up more, to the point where I was able to relax, let the mule do his job, and enjoy what was certainly the most beautiful moonlit scenery I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. All went very well, until we get closer to the top, and things got more steep. A combination of things started to freak me out about my mule ride: my stirrups were too short, forcing my knees out, rather than keeping them close to the mule in order to hold tight; the actual foot part of the stirrup was too small for my feet, so I kept slipping out when the mule jostled me (exactly when I needed to hold on the most); and lastly, as the descent became more steep, the mule jostled me more, and my already-tired hand just couldn´t hold on to the saddle any (it was taking most of the weight because my legs couldn´t hold on). I needed to get off... but what wasn´t the mule stopping? We had decided to stop near the top where some old women were selling food and beverages in the growing dawn (most treks exit the cañon at that time, so they made their living off the tourists), but my mule wanted to join the other mule that Claudia had already vacated before I could even get off. Of course, I shrieked a bit again, then the ranchero came and held the mule for me to get off. That was it for me - dark or not, I was walking the rest of the way. After collecting myself, Alain and I pushed on, and we hit the top of the cañon in about 20 minutes (not too terrible, considering). Claudia and the ranchero had gone on with the mules. so we walked through the terraces, back to the town in order to meet them.
From there, it was breakfast, a bus to relax in some hot springs, and then the bumpy return trip to Arequipa through the amazing scenery of mountains and dessert that I had missed the day before. We arrived exhausted, but glad that we had gone. All in all, though it was embarrassing at times, I feel that we did pretty darn well for the inexperienced gringos that we were, and had a great time while we were at it. No pain, no gain, right?



We arrived in Arequipa yesterday afternoon by plane from Lima. The flight was only an hour and fifteen minutes, but the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. For much of the trip, all the land below bore the scar tissue of Milena of seismic uproar: ancient rivers of lava, eroded by wind, rivers, and rain; mountains of wildly-varying sizes; and rippled plains, the color of ash. When we landed, we were lucky enough to find an extremely nice taxi driver that told us all about the area while we rode into town - where the best places to go were, what to avoid eating, the history of the people, and other interesting facts.
Our hostel, Home Sweet Home, felt (and feels) just like that. The staff is exceedingly friendly and helpful. We were able to arrange to join a group trek through the Cañon de Colca, which only cost us about $40USD. We will be leaving here at 1am to take a bus to the Cañon (it picks us up at our hostel) - a 6 hour trip. When we get there, we will spend the first day hiking to the bottom of the Cañon, and then slightly up again to a place called The Oasis. We will stay at the Oasis one night, then hike back to the top to take the bus back. Hopefully I´m not in such terrible shape that this will be a painful endeavor.
Today we spent walking around the beautiful city of Arequipa. Most of the time was taken up by touring a massive monetary that is essentially its own town within the city. From there, we went to the Plaza de Armas to buy our tickets to fly from Arequipa to Juliaca ($17USD!), and then have lunch. We feasted on cuy (guinea pig), potatoes, and some very strong Pisco sours. Needless to say, we had to be tourists about the whole event and take photos of the critters being devoured. From there, we went to an amazing pasteleria, and I had the best mocha cake ever.
At this point, its time to pack our stuff up, because we will be leaving it locked up at the hostel. After that, it´s going to be a quick shower, and then a long nap before we have to head out. The next couple days will be intense, but hopefully there will be many good pictures and stories to come out of it.

Guard dogs and rock n roll

We spent our last day in Lima walking around the city to various museums. On our way to the national museum of art, one of the tourist police saw us checking a map and asked where we were headed. After showing us the quickest way to get to the museum, he told us that we were just in time for the changing of the guard. We decided to stick around to see what it was all about. People had begun to gather across the street from the massive government building on the plaza in order to watch the ceremony; everyone was silently watching the courtyard, while guards with riot gear stood in the street, and military-looking police stood outside the gates. Everyone seemed respectful, except for a lone, black, stray dog that was sleeping without a care against one of the columns in the gated enclosure around the focus of our attentions. Soon a marching band in full regalia emerged and began to duck step their way around the courtyard while playing some kind of marching tune.
Soon they ascended onto a platform just inside the gate, and silence fell. I had a feeling we were in for something solemn and wonderful; even the dog saw something important coming and moved a few feet over so that he could resume sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk so that he could see. One of the guards lightly kicked him, but this only succeeded in making the dog half-heartedly raise his head, look at the man, and then lay back down. Then the band started to play. The tune sounded familiar, but I couldn´t place it... then it came to me - it was the theme song to Hawaii 5-0. The marching band went full-swing into an enthusiastic composition made up of old rock tunes. Claudia and I suppressed laughter, just in case this was some kind of serious event we weren´t getting, but then saw that it was just a chance for everyone to enjoy some live music.
We lingered for a while, and then went on to visit the art museum and an archaeological museum in pueblo libre. Hours later, we returned via the plaza where we had witnessed the ceremony, and I found it very satisfying to see that the lone black dog was still dozing, unperturbed in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the palatial building, being guarded by the same militaristic policeman with rifle in hand.


Greetings from Lima

We arrived at our hostel last night around 1030pm. Its a really nice spot in central Lima, with multiple rooms, a terrace and restraunt on the roof where they have large tortoises roaming around the floors eating crumbs, and an internet cafe on the ground floor. We had a nice, cheap meal of fried fish, potatoes, and white rice, washed down with some beers called Cristal at a local bodega-like place. We only went there to buy some waters, but they heard us talking about food, asked what we wanted, sat us down, and fed us. Pretty awesome. Claudia is speaking to me in Spanish only, so I am slowly but surely remembering things Ive forgotten.
Today we walked around the city to get our barings, and see what was in our area. We hit up el barrio chino first for some Peruvian Chinese food for lunch, and just to see the sites. From there there we went to the cathedral and monestary of San Fransisco, where they had an absolutely amazing old library of manuscripts dating back to the 14th century; sadly, no photography was allowed on the tour, so I have no pictures of the place. We also were shown around the catacombs under the cathedral, and througout the monestary. Our guide was very nice, and spoke English fairly well. After that, we walked around a nearby park called el parque de murales, where they had all kinds of neat things for children, and an outdoor bandstand with a running track around; much better than having an ipod on for your jog!