Peru

I’m not sure how many trip reports I’ve started with, “I’ve wanted to go to X place for ages…” Having a penchant for travel and adventure, a bent for research and planning, and a desk job with access to the internet make it a very long list. I have planned literally hundreds of trips that may or may not ever make it onto these pages, but, I have been planning a trip to South America since I was 19..almost since I started planning trips! Here’s a map I drew in my journal planning my route way back then:

South America

But life gets in the way and after years of research and planning and saving and stalling, I never made it farther south than Costa Rica. My problem was that I was trying to see it all at once, everything from Cartagena to Tierra del Fuego, and preferably on a motorcycle. It’s a trip that I still hope to do someday, but it will take months and thousands of dollars, so I decided to start with one place: Machu Picchu.

Peru

LIMA

Machu Picchu was top of my list for South America and it got us to Peru but I’m just not going to go all that way and only see one thing. So we landed in Lima and got ready to eat – Peruvian cuisine has become world-renowned in recent years (much more than Pisco and ceviche now!) and so we planned to feast at Central, Astrid y Gaston and Maido – the 4th, 14th and 44th best restaurants in the world, according to some.

Maido

We booked the restaurants before we booked our flights and somehow I didn’t go back and check the dates – meaning that I scheduled our meal at Central a week too far in advance. The Horror! But the host found us a spot in the lounge and disaster was averted. It was absolutely incredible and we’ll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to eat there. Maido was even more amazing, if that’s possible, but Astrid y Gaston was a bit of a disappointment. Very luxurious with some excellent dishes but unfortunately not consistent.

Maido

Because we were staying in Miraflores (an upscale, safe suburb of Lima), and because we had travelled so long to get there (left the house at 5:30 AM and got to out hotel at 2:30 AM the next day) we didn’t go to as many museums as I would have liked but we did visit the Plaza de Armas and went on a monastery tour of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad with its mouldering library of books from antiquity – untouched since WWII, beautiful courtyard and a depiction of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) for dinner and Pizarro as Judas. It was beautiful but the all the stray dogs, some of them dead, were just heartbreaking.

And the traffic was incredible – 30 minutes by cab to get across town – so we spent some time lazing around the hotel and exploring the Barranco district nearby. Bohemian and busy, we were reminded of Madrid; everyone out on a Saturday night, taking wedding photos, strolling with babies, recording music videos, practicing guitar on a bench and of course eating and drinking. We stuffed ourselves with ceviche and Pisco sours and then it was time to hop on the plane.

Peruvian textiles

CUSCO

I was terribly worried that Cusco was going to be a tourist trap and almost regretted how much time we had to spend in the city but on arrival we found it to be a gorgeous city, full of history and culture and warm people. Before we noticed any of that, however, we noticed the altitude. As soon as we came out of the airport we swooned, and I wondered if that was the Hawthorne Effect or a combination of our fatigue and being out of shape. After some coca candy, a nap and some altitude pills we were feeling alright but still trying to remember to breathe deeply, walk slowly, etc.

Cusco

Cusco was the Inca heartland and the stone walls still form the foundations of the city but everything else has been taken over or topped by the Spanish. Qurikancha, the sun temple was the most important site in the Inca empire. Dedicated to the sun god, it was filled with life-sized gold statues but now not much of it is left –  only a few rows of stones topped with the Santo Domingo convent. It’s sort of is a miniature model for Cusco itself, full of beautiful Spanish colonial art and architecture with Andean flavor. Our hotel was a retro-fitted Spanish mansion with meandering hallways, surprise courtyards and fountains and the walls were covered with with religious oil paintings. It felt a lot like Granada.

Cusco

Our first night we wandered around the historic centre, saw the incredible Inca stonework and the famous 12-sided stone as well as the Plaza de Armas, then ended up on the patio at Papacho’s (a burger place owned by Gaston Acurio) on the square. It was a bit chilly but watching all the people and dogs and Andean woman with bundles of weaving and alpaca rugs was just the thing we needed. I had a drink with tumbo (banana passionfruit) that was too tropical for the Andes but really delicious and Matt had his first coca tea – not realizing that although it is much weaker than cocaine it is still definitely in the stimulant category and he was going to have trouble sleeping.

Peru

I could have spent days longer in Cusco, climbing up the hills to the Sacsayhuaman ruins and the San Blas neighbourhood (I saw them later) but once we had acclimatized to the altitude, we were off in search of motorbikes.

Dirtbiking

MARAS 

So many people told us that we needed to explore the Sacred Valley but the options we had were all by bus; wake up at 5 AM, see all the sites and get back to Cusco by dark. I am always conflicted by bus tours; you get to see the sites but you pay in advance for a set itinerary and if you want to stay longer you’re hurried on to the bus and if you want to skip something, you can’t. Eventually I found a place that rented dirt bikes for super cheap and we made our own plans.

Maras

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. First we had to explain that we wanted two motorcycles – that I would not be riding on the back of a 250cc dirt bike at altitude – and then we had to go and pick up the second bike – in the back room of the proprietor’s house, up the stairs, on a street dug up for construction. But eventually we were on the road and heading out to explore the Sacred Valley. First stop, Maras, the ancient Inca salt flats that are still being worked today.

Getting out on the bikes was amazing! It was Matt’s first time on a dirt bike and the altitude affected the speed quite a bit but travelling through small towns, walls painted with slogans from various political parties, llamas grazing all over the place, women selling textiles at high altitude markets….and of course the backdrop of the Andes. It was thrilling. When we got to the salt evaporation ponds, we walked down and took a look around, then got back on the bikes and went on to explore more of the valley. We ended the day by signing some house purchasing documents at the hotel and celebrating with a round of pisco sours, our new tradition.

INCA TRAIL

We had brought our backpacks as luggage with us to South America, but as the time arrived for us to set out on foot, we stashed books, shoes, our nice clothes and whatever else we thought we could do without into a bag that we left at the hotel, then filled up our water bladders and got the weight adjusted on our backs. We had wanted to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu rather than taking the train and once that decision was made it hadn’t occurred to us that we wouldn’t carry our own gear. We found out later that most people opted to carry day packs and have a porter take the rest.

After being on the bus for hours getting to breakfast and the trailhead, the pack weight felt good and we bounded along the rolling “Inca flats,” stopping to learn about the cochineal beetle on the prickly pear cactus from which carmine dye comes, the angel trumpet that is used by shamans in a hallucinogenic tea or to visit with the Andean families (and their dogs) at the rest stops. It was hot but not very strenuous and we were both delighted and annoyed to find our porters setting up the tent for a hot lunch. It seemed unnecessary to be stopping for so long, so soon, but not even a few hours later we were glad of the pace.

Glacier

Our guide was excellent and we learned that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, as well as an important crossroads for trade and Inca trails criss-cross the Sacred Valley (and the Inca empire, from Santiago to Quito) but the one we were following was meant for royalty. The Inca venerated nature and stone – mountains were objects of worship – so they chose the path that went the highest into the mountains to be close to the sky and one that followed the valley without destroying anything. Lucky for us that meant straight up.

The Urubamba river follows the same path as the milky way and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu starts at 82 km close to Ollantaytambo, passes the Patallaqta ruins, and then climbs up through the high jungle to Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmi Wañusqa) at 13,700ft. Day 2 was spent almost entirely gaining altitude. When we got to the pass after climbing all morning we could still see the campsite where we had started out that day.

Matt

We were exhausted and moving so slowly, dragging ourselves up on our hiking poles, chewing on coca leaves and gasping for air as we got closer to the pass but having only gained a space of about 30ft at the summit, we almost immediately started the trail down. Up 3000ft in one day and then back down another 1000 before making camp.

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu was fairly remote, even in Inca days, but a series of relay runners were set up to deliver a message from Cusco in only 6 hours. On special occasion, fish could be brought fresh from the sea in about 16! Because of the distance and the speed of the runners, the Spanish never found out about Machu Picchu. They only got to about Ollantaytambo (where we started our hike) and from there, bridges were destroyed, the trail was covered and the Inca royalty escaped to the jungle.

Our third day of hiking was the “scenic” day where we stopped at the site of several ruins but at times it seemed only to alleviate the constant descent. My toenails! My ankles! My knees! In many ways it was worse than the ascent but maybe only because I hadn’t accounted for the difficulty. The experience of hiking the trail was so worth doing but Matt and I agreed that without a doubt it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

Machu Picchu

MACHU PICCHU

On the last day we got up at 3:30 AM – not to see the sunrise from the Sun Gate, as we had originally believed, nor to be the first at Machu Picchu, but because the train for the porters leaves before 5 AM and they had to run down the mountain to meet it. I cannot believe that with 500 people on the day every day that a better arrangement can’t be made, but maybe the tourists are just too tired when they get home to advocate. We were able to walk to the end of the campsite but couldn’t go further because the checkpoint doesn’t open until 5:30 AM. Standing there in the dark, someone joked that we waiting in line in the dark on Black Friday but otherwise we were pretty quiet, waiting for the last stretch.

Machu Picchu

This was the last, “easiest” day and we were buoyed up by the fact that Machu Picchu was only a few hours away but we were beat and before we got to the Sun Gate we needed to climb on hands and knees up the Inca “staircase” and try to keep from falling into the valley (some 6000ft) below while hikers jostled past. But we made it and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the mist was still magical in spite of all the photographs that exist.

We were awed and wowed by this city in the clouds. Watching the mist cover and reveal the city it seemed as special as it has ever been – to the Incas and to Hiram Bingham when he ‘discovered’ it and every morning with every new batch of visitors. That the Incas build such a monument to stone and sky so beautiful and so remote is incredible, but that it has survived virtually unharmed after more than 500 years is astounding.

The city has about 200 buildings, with a quarry and farming terraces to support it, high above the Urubamba river, although archeologists still say that there would not be enough infrastructure to sustain a completed and populated city there. But in one hundred years there was a quarry built on top of the citadel (to bring the granite slabs down to where they were needed, instead of up), terraces, houses, and several temples. The most special parts of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and the Room of the Three Windows.

The Inti Watana translates as a place to “tie up the sun” and on a certain day it is a marker for the sun. Similarly, the Sun Gate lines up with the Temple of the Sun with mathematical precision. For our part, it was just neat to look back on it and see how far we’d come only that morning, never mind that week.

Our amazement at the ruined city was tempered by our fatigue, hunger, pain and stench and hopped on the bus that would take us down the hill to our hotel in Aguas Calientes. Cruel joke that Matt had booked us into a room without an elevator and we groaned as we climbed up to our room on the third floor, quads aching.

Cusco

The rest of the trip was spent recovering; thermal baths, reading, wandering around Cusco and drinking pisco sours. My mom asked me today if I would go back and I would without hesitation. I’d love to see some of the other ruins and to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. I’d even do the hike again, although maybe a different path.

Andean family

See all the photos here.

Also, check out the story I wrote for Steller stories:


October, November; Fall in Love

Degan
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” 
~Albert Camus

Leaves
I expected to see rain as soon as we got home from Prague but this fall has been so beautiful and crisp and clear  – the kind of weather that brings out the colours in the trees and allows them to stick around for a little while without melting… a.k.a the kind of weather we never get here. Matt and I were even able to get in a couple of extra (chilly) motorcycle rides up the Sea-to-Sky highway and I’ve managed to put off buying both a winter coat and umbrella a lot longer than I should have been able to expect.

Tea
So Riley and I have been taking advantage and heading out to the dog park every day and running and generally spending a lot of time outside where I have fallen in love with the way the sunlight streams through the trees, dressed in yellows and reds and golds. I can’t seem to go around the block without taking a photo of everything.

Degan
This isn’t new for me (I love fall and I am always taking a photo of everything) but I am also taking a self-portraiture class with Vivienne McMaster. It’s the second art class I’ve taken this year that was at least as much therapy as art but it’s been interesting to explore some new areas. Normally I hate taking photos of myself but the light and the leaves have been incredible and my hair matches the dying maple leaves so I’ve been keeping an eye out for photo ops.

Degan
Autumn is all about tea and toques, sweaters and boots, seeing your breath when you speak in the morning, having rosy cheeks and spending evenings reading (preferably by a fire). It’s my favourite weather when it’s cold enough to wear a vest and a toque but not raining so you can wrap both hands around a mug of tea. I should probably move somewhere where this season lasts longer than a week (as it usually does in Vancouver) and I am looking forward to winter but I’ve just been so in love with this fall.

Fall
I’m still on my “summer off” working – it seemed like we had just got back from Europe before we left for Hawaii – but I am starting to dig in and see what’s possible there before we move to Seattle in June. Everyone told me that I would know my dream career when I saw it, and I guess that’s true because I can say pretty confidently that I want to work at the Museum of Anthropology or at National Geographic but in terms of career paths and moving to Seattle, that means going back to school to do Anthropology or Museum Studies or taking a job, any job, at the Seattle Art Museum and working my way into a good fit. In preparation for that, I’ve applied to volunteer at the Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Vancouver, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Police Museum and registered for some day-long classes at UBC’s Continuing Studies – “From Cabinets of Curiosities to the Modern Museum” and “In the Footsteps of the Adventurer Archaeologists.” I’m also looking into taking some classes at the University of Washington next September and  I’ve started doing some work at the David Suzuki Foundation, which I’m really excited about.

Degan Walters
But right now I just want to get to work.

Tea

What I’m Reading and Listening to this month:

Degan Walters

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

summer

You know those summer days when you were a kid that stretched on and on? You would ride your bike to the store and then a friend’s house and entire days would pass where nothing happened except being hot. And then just when you thought you could not be more bored, it was time to go back to school and you instantly wanted to take back all the bad things you said about sitting around doing nothing. My summer was not like that at all. This past spring we decided to move to Seattle and got everything ready…and then deferred it until next year. Then I applied for and was accepted to the Master’s program at the Centre for Digital Media and decided not to go. It is too much of what I have already been doing as a career for me to spend the time and money learning. I went to Tofino for an epic spring break surfing and diving, we got a dog and closed our company,  we learned to sail, I started Crossfit, took about twenty classes online, and read a lot of books.

And then there were more adventures:

Summer

Diving Skookumchuck Narrows

Some friends and I went to Powell River and did a couple of dives in Mermaid’s Cove at Saltery Bay before heading to Egmont and doing some wreck, drift and wall diving at Agamemnon Channel, the wreck of the HMCS Chaudiere, and the rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows. A fantastic trip.

Warbonnet

Barnacle

Visiting the International Buddhist Temple 

I took myself to Richmond’s International Buddhist Temple for a mini-adventure. It has the largest gold Buddha in North America and many beautiful murals and gardens. Once inside, I really did feel transported – I would have loved to stay and read my book or meditate by one of the pools. There’s also a restaurant on site where you pay by donation and that was pretty exciting too,  although they brought me way too much food.

Temple

Riding Highway 20

In July we rode our motorcycles Highway 20 through the Cascades to Osoyoos and then home through Manning Park. He wasn’t in it so much for the stunning mineral-rich turquoise lakes, beautiful wastelands of flooded river banks, mountains or valleys but rather for the sexy S-curves and the lack of stoplights. When I stopped to take a photo of the scenery, Matt took one of the road. It was hot but we were both so happy.

Walterses

We stopped for lunch in Winthrop, a delightful gold-towny surprise and then stayed in Osoyoos, which was less exciting than I remembered – especially with not being able to do any wine-tasting or fruit-hauling.  But we were just there for the road so next time we’ll stay in Winthrop and ride it all the way back too.

Keremeos

Visiting Quadra Island

We had tried and failed to go camping a couple of times so Matt finally found us a cabin on Quadra Island for the August long weekend. Quadra Island is pretty far away but in exchange for a bit of a car ride (which Riley would give half her breakfast for anyways), we got an enormous house with an enormous patio, a hot tub and a bbq! We were delighted and wished we could have stayed a lot longer.  I could see urchins 60 ft down from the deck (which had me regretting not bringing my dive gear), and porpoises playing in the channel a little ways out. We went canoeing and beachcombing and hiking to explore the bluffs. Riley was so happy to be able to run around outside by herself and explore under the deck. She did go in the canoe and in the water with a little coaxing, but we weren’t there long enough to get the ‘city’ out of her – she still peed in the driveway every morning.

Walterses

Sea

Quadra Island

Nick Bantock Art Workshop

The next weekend found me on another ferry, this time to Sidney-by-the-Sea by the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. I went for an art workshop with Nick Bantock that was even more awesome than I could have imagined. It was less technique heavy than the workshops I’m used to with Jeanne Krabbendam but provided enough ideas and energy to get me started on several projects – which I will probably have to revisit come winter.

art

Diving Browning Pass on the Mamro

I lasted about seven months after the last trip to Browning Pass before I had to book it again, this time on a liveaboard. I wanted to go back with a camera but now I think I may just have to go back every year. I’ve been diving in some amazing warm water places but this has got to be one of my favourite places in the world, mist and mountains (and more orcas!) topside and a world of colour down below – corals and sponges covered in fish and invertebrates – stretching as far as the eye can see.

Browning Pass

Undersea

There were only 6 of us on the boat which was nice and cozy. We had an opportunity to stop at Telegraph Cove  – an old whaling station – on the way up to Port Hardy and have a look through the museum. The whole town is on boardwalks around the cove and the museum has whale skeletons of all varieties. You think you understand how big whales are but it really hits home when you can stand inside a jaw with other people or use a vertebra as a stool.

Whale vertebrae