Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kristin's Corner - Peru

Since we have been in Bolivia for over a week and are heading into the Amazon tomorrow morning, and therefore will not be in internet range for about a week, I figured it was time for me to wrap up the month we spent in Peru. Once again, "Kristin's Corner" is going to focus on things that Kevin missed. Here they are in no particular order:


The food in Peru was a pleasant surprise after a couple months of fried carbs in Colombia. We found that there were way more veggies and great, inexpensive "trucha" (trout) could be found just about everywhere. No, we did not try "cuy" (guinea pig), a Peruivian specialty. Call us unadventurous, but as soon as we saw that a whole guinea pig is served in front of you, we decided that tasting it was unnecessary. Kevin ate alpaca and llama (see below for a picture of one of the poor little guys) quite frequently, and I would have to say that my favourite local dish was "rocoto relleno" (a red pepper stuffed with beef, potatoes, cheese, veggies and lots of spices). Our "go to" budget food was empanadas and, whereas in Colombia they were fried, in Peru they were baked. Also, as the pictures in the past couple posts can attest to, amazing chocolate cake was just about everywhere - how could you not have one a day for around $1 a slice?

We are proud to say that after sampling the local food, both street food and food in the restaurants, we each only had one serious bout of South American tummy troubles. Although this may not seem like a great feat, most of the friends we met on the road have had many more problems. The German couple we became close with in Colombia, and whom we will be travelling with for the next week or so in the Amazon, were even hospitalized after their Santa Cruz trek because of serious stomach issues from the food and water. On that note, it will definitely be an adjustment when we come home and detailed discussions around tummy troubles with people you just meet are somewhat taboo, as it seems to be a source of frequent conversation down here.

Also, a pleasant surprise in Peru was the existence of decent, inexpensive wine. Since we are somewhat "budget travellers", I had to largely avoid wine in Colombia, as it was expensive (well, expensive by South American standards), but much to my delight, since Peru is closer to Chile and they produce some of their own wine, decent red wine was plentiful. Below is a picture of from Peru's largest winery... The surrounding area is so dry, I was quite actually surprised that grapes could even grow there.


Of course, we did not visit every region in Peru and our interaction with the locals was somewhat limited, but I found the people in Peru to be very different than those in Colombia. Firstly, although they were generally very pleasant, I found them to be much more subdued and quiet than their South American neighbors. Some people we spoke with said that this is because of the high altitude in Peru. I am not sure I buy this, but, instead, I think that it is partly due to the fact that Colombians are notorious for being boisterous and full of life and partly due to the fact that Peru is a lot more touristy than Colombia. While Colombia is pretty new on the "gringo trail", Peru has been on such trail for years and seeing and dealing with tourists is not a novelty for, and, frankly, not always very enjoyable for Peruvians.

I also found that people were trying to rip us off left, right and centre in Peru. My first meal in Peru was a delicious pizza in the Lima airport and the 14 year old who sold it to me gave me my change and of course "forgot" to give me 5 soles. These "mistakes" happened all the time, whereas I do not think they happened once in Colombia. Kevin thinks I have become paranoid that people are trying to rip me off, but I was not paranoid before our time in Peru...


Before I really started reading about South America, I must admit, I sort of associated visiting South America with galavanting around in the sun and heat. I now know that is definitely not the case. Granted we were in Peru in their winter (the summer is their rainy season), but it was cold! I do not think we went out one night in Peru without our fleeces, scarves, socks and runners (I am really looking forward to being about to change up the clothing situation once we hit Brazil in about a month). Even on sunny days we were always in pants and long-sleeved tops. In Huaraz, we bought his and hers Alpaca sweaters (I bought a matching one to Kev's, much to his delight) and on our treks would need every single layer we brought, as well as touques and mitts to stay somewhat warm. I am definitely not complaining - I would actually rather it be too cold than too hot - I was just a little surprised. I guess it makes sense, as we were between 3000M and 4000M during most of the month we spent in Peru.

Even though it was fairly chilly, the sun was very strong, which is also because of the high altitude. To further protect himself from the sun, Kevin bought a wide-brimmed goofy hat for the Inca Trail, and I must say, I gave him a hard time, but by the time we reached the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, I was running to the nearest kiosk to buy my own goofy hat. Stay tuned for a post and pictures of us wearing our goofy hats around Lake Titicaca and La Paz once we return from the Amazon (see below for a preview). And wish us luck in the Amazon - Kevin described to me what the death from an anaconcda would consist of yesterday over dinner (and after we booked our Amazon camping trip).

Thanks for reading and I hope all is well! xox

Monday, September 27, 2010

Culture Alley - Peru

We've finally made our way into Bolivia, meaning that country number two in our adventure is officially in the books. I had long planned to do a post which reflected upon some of the cultural elements that made our visit to Peru memorable, but we’ve often been without internet of late, I’m feeling a little lazy and it’s clear to me what the people want – more Kristin. As such, I’ll leave it to her to largely wrap up Peru for us (likely once we return in about a week’s time from the Bolivian Amazon) and focus on a couple of selected topics instead. Paring down this post should also make it more easy for Kristin to come up with her list of “things that I missed”.


Our visit to Peru coincided with the buildup for the local, regional and national elections that will be taking place in October. In contrast to the increasingly scant levels of voter turnout we have been seeing in recent elections back home, participation in the political processs seems to be at a fever pitch in this part of the world. I can't comment on the issues that are of particular concern to Peruvians, but the campaign managers here capitalize on the word “change” to a degree that Barack Obama's team never would have dreamed of.

At home, when I think of think of elections, I think of televised debates, Ipsos Reid polls and "elect Person X" signs along highways and on people's lawns. In Peru, it is a little more in your face. Instead of plastic signs, people paint (or allow others to paint) the walls of their houses and businesses with colourful advertising for their candidate of choice. I’m a little sad that we won’t be around to witness the reactions of the paintees when the elections are over and the candidates don’t offer to return the buildings to their original colours. Also, instead of television commercials or radio spots, cars drive around in Peru (often surprisingly late in the night) with loud speakers attached to their roofs to let you know who you should be voting for and why. I thought this could also be a creative solution for advertisers to bypass “Do Not Call” registries back home. We’ll see if it catches on.

Outside of the election process, people seem willing to demonstrate in public for any number of reasons. This typically appears to involve the members of various organizations getting together, getting angry and then heading somewhere congested to cripple traffic. An extreme example of this phenomenon occurred just about a week ago in the context of a water dispute between the cities of Cusco and Arequipa, where unhappy citizens erected blockades all around Cusco and effectively hemmed in the city. While this was most certainly designed to send a message to different levels of government, it also had the effect of informing numerous tourists that they would be missing connecting legs of their trips (and for some, reservations for the Inca Trail).

The People

I’ll let Kristin detail her impressions of the people in Peru, but I observed that Peruvians as a people were quick to smile and seemed to enjoy a good joke. Unfortunately, they didn’t always seem to enjoy my jokes. I’m not sure if it was another language barrier issue or the fact that I’m just not funny, but most of my attempts at what I would deem to be semi-sophisticated humour were met with blank looks or questioning stares. Surprisingly, my most well-received Spanish “joke” to date probably remains the “I want my mother” line I dropped when their were tarantulas near my hammock in The Lost City. Unfortunately, I wasn’t trying to be funny. Right then, I just really wanted my mommy.

One holdover from Colombia was the interest and amusement expressed by Peruvians in our height. While sometimes I think it would be nice if we were less tall – it would be nice to blend into the crowd from time to time - people approaching us to comment on our height or, as was the case with the parents of the little guys in the picture below, to request a picture with one of us, has been the starting point for some of the most enjoyable interaction we have had with local people. Obviously our height is not a cultural element of Peru, but the interaction with locals can be enlightening. I hope that in the future we are able to come up with more conversation starters that don't begin with pointing or staring.

Of all the places we visited in Peru, I think that Cusco, as the former capital of the Inca Empire, and the surrounding Sacred Valley were the places that I would most quickly associate with cultural heritage in Peru. You can see some of our pictures from those places here.

I thought I'd add an amusing story and new personal low which occurred today and has nothing to do with culture or Peru. We are in the process of securing our Brazilian visa and needed to get our passport-like photos taken at a local shop. When the lady in the shop handed the photos back to me, I swore that I heard her say, "I shaved you," but just assumed that I had heard incorrectly. However, when I looked at the photos, it was clear that she had photoshopped my face to remove what she must have considered to be my very embarrassing facial hair. I had hoped that South America would be a ridicule-free environment for my first-ever facial hair growth experiments; sadly, that does not appear to be the case. It is also quite possible that the woman made it look like I was wearing lipstick in the photo, but, this, I am still attempting to verify.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Into the Condor's Lair


An electrifying saga based on true events, the following three short stories chronicle the compelling tale of a couple of young marrieds in the week following the completion of their trek to Machu Picchu, hypnotically transporting the reader to Peru and into a world of intrigue.

The Bus Ride

Once again, Kevin had an uneasy feeling in his stomach. While he had ridden similarly jarring buses before, never before had they been piloted so quickly and never before had the consequences for a missed turn been so severe. Thinking back to that morning's phone call with their intended hostel in Cabanaconde, he recalled the urging of the woman on the other end of the line for them to book this particular bus as soon as possible and the seemingly innocent suggestion that he and his wife try to sit on the right side for the best views of the Canyon. Looking out the window with an unobstructed view of the floor of the Canyon several thousand feet below, he felt certain that he would have enjoyed the scenery much better from the other side of the bus.

"You okay?" Kevin asked his wife this question with as much serenity as he could muster, trying to mask the fear growing inside of him.

"I'm fine," Kristin replied, equally unconvincingly.

Kevin smiled and patted Kristin on the leg. In an effort to distract himself from the events unfolding outside the window, he turned to his new book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was a hopeless effort, as the shaking and rocking of the bus made focusing on the tiny print nearly impossible, but staring at the pages provided the temporary relief he was hoping for.

By some miracle, Kevin felt, and without any appreciation for how long the unpleasantness had lasted, the couple found that the bus had not careened into the abyss and that they were at long last being dropped off at the main square in the small town. Having found their hostel and dropped off their belongings in their room, Kristin and Kevin sidled up to the bar for a badly-needed drink.

"How was the bus ride?" came a voice that Kevin instantly recognized from the phone call earlier that morning. She slid a big beer across the bar to Kevin and poured a glass of wine for Kristin.

"Ugggggghhhh," Kristin replied, taking a sip of her Malbec. Kevin only made a face that indicated that he had been less than impressed by the experience. He pressed the bottle to his lips.

"Yeah," said the woman, nodding in agreement, "my husband won't let me take those buses. They're too dangerous." Kristin shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Kevin gripped his beer more tightly.

"Why? Have there been accidents on that road?" Kristin asked with heightening alarm.

"Yeah, a few recently. Which bus company did you take?"

"Andalucia," Kevin replied flatly, replete with the knowledge that the woman knew perfectly well which bus they had arrived on.

"Ooooh, they've had a lot of accidents lately, and actually had three in one week not too long ago. They were suspended by the government and just resumed operations."

Kevin closed his eyes and took a large swig of beer from his big bottle. In that moment, he was back on the bus and reliving every harrowing turn and bump from the journey. He knew what Kristin's next question would be likely even before she did.

"Three in one week! Did the people die?!?!"

"Not all of them," explained the woman, who then offered to book them a tourist bus for the ride out of the town, which she assured the lanky couple would be much safer. Kevin resisted the temptation to scold the lady for failing to inform them of the bus issues before they booked their tickets. He realized such an outburst would be pointless and that the small hostel couldn't advertise the accidents and risk scaring off prospective gringo customers.

"Another big beer," Kevin called out instead, as he put back the last of his first bottle. After the story he had just been told, he was sure that the next beer would taste even sweeter...

The Hike

At last, Kevin could make out the top of the ridge above him. A bead of sweat slipped down his forehead as he made the final strides up the steep hill and out of the Canyon. When he finally reached flat ground, Kristin was already waiting for him. He shook his head in disbelief as he considered the hour of energy, water and the relative cool of the early morning they had wasted by choosing the incorrect starting point for the trek, as they always did. Their foray into the 3191 metre Colca Canyon - twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and famous for its resident Condors - had not started well. Having been in similar predicaments dozens of times before and knowing the pitfalls, each of them conscientiously avoided laying blame for the blunder.

There’s the path,” Kristin exclaimed, pointing to a spot a couple of hundred metres away. She glanced at her watch. “It’s only nine o’clock and we still have plenty of time if we hurry.” With that, Kristin set off.

As he raced after her, Kevin thought back to the previous night and the reason he now found himself in such a hurry. The conversation with their hostel owner and former guide had started out harmlessly enough, with the finely-dressed man in his mid-20s providing them with possible route choices and approximate hiking times for what was to be their multi-day exploration of the valley below. However, when the gentleman had casually remarked that some hikers had dared to complete the classic circuit of the Canyon in a single day, Kevin shot a glance at Kristin and, from the look in her eyes, could tell instantly that they would be undertaking the entire three-day, two-night route in and out of the Canyon the following day. He sighed audibly.

Descending down the dusty path towards the bottom was thirsty work at the high altitude, where the intense sun felt like it was hanging just above their heads. Furthermore, Kevin’s spirits had not been lifted by the multiple locals who had laughed when the couple had explained their ambitious hiking plans for the day. As they finally reached the river marking the end of their descent, they came across the first in what would be a series of forks along the unmarked path. Determined not to lose their way again, Kristin and Kevin consulted the 4 x 6 inch map they had been handed before they set out that morning, which Kevin was convinced had likely been drawn by a pre-schooler. Frustrated at the lack of detail, he cursed loudly.

“One day, when I have money, I’m going to come back here and pay for some actual trail markers in this Canyon. They’ll probably build a monument in my honour,” he proclaimed.

Kristin thought briefly of responding that perhaps Kevin should focus on finding a job first, but she knew that it was best not to interrupt him during one of his self-indulgent moments.

The remainder of the hike was enjoyed by Kristin in relative silence, as Kevin’s laboured breathing told her that he would be very selective about when he chose to speak. After many ups and downs, they had successfully steered themselves to the “Oasis” – typically the second night’s accomodation on the classic circuit - for lunch and a dip in a pool around 1:30 in the afternoon.

Kristin knew that with the right combination of rest and food, she could coax Kevin up the 1100 metre series of switchbacks and back to the hostel they had spent the previous night. She mentioned to Kevin that, in her estimation, they could do the climb in roughly half the time their guide had suggested.

Rolling his eyes, Kevin made a mental note never to hike the Grand Canyon with his wife.

The City

Peru’s second largest city certainly had a grip on him. He strolled through the streets of Arequipa with his wife, Kristin, on his arm and marveled at the beautiful white buildings which glistened in the sunlight from a once again cloudless sky. The white volcanic rock from which the buildings were constructed was called sillar, and its natural reflective properties on a church he was staring at in the distance brought back vague memories of Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris. Naturally, he often compared the cities he was visiting with those he had been to before, and at that moment he couldn’t help but think how Mount Vesuvius near Naples had nothing on the dominating presence and near perfect cone-shape of El Misti volcano looming in the background.

They passed by the Plaza de Armas, which was perpetually busy and an attraction in and of itself, on the way to their daily ritual. Walking with their arms interlocked, Kristin pressed herself tightly against the bulging muscles of Kevin’s right arm. He looked down to study to her smiling face and wondered whether it meant that she was similarly contented with the city or whether her thoughts had again returned to the happy hour drink special (3 Pisco Sours for 10 Soles ($3.50)) she had discovered earlier that day and made him swear they would return for later that night.

The afternoon ritual – a large slice of chocolate cake at one of the city’s many cafes - was as foreign to Kevin as many of the places he had been visiting. For one, he didn’t even like desserts. Secondly, he had been lactose intolerant since a nasty stomach bug attacked him years before while travelling in Eastern Europe. While he couldn’t explain his new craving, he was exceedingly happy that his intolerance to dairy seemingly retired from his body around the same time he retired from private practice.

As he watched with some amusement as Kristin scraped every last inch of chocolate icing off of her plate, he thought back to all of the amazing food they had sampled during their four-day stay in the city. He was convinced that he had never experienced better dining value in all his 29 years. He was also convinced that while Arequipa could never be home to him, it was probably the finest facsimile he had come across during his time South America.

“Don’t forget,” Kristin said, cutting off his train of thought, “you promised that we would go have Pisco Sours tonight.”

He broke out in a grin from ear-to-ear.

About the Author

Kevin Long is a devilishly handsome travel blogger from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has been married to his wife, Kristin, herself an occasional travel blogger, for over two years and the couple has no children (though, they are constantly asked by South Americans when they expect to be making some). Kevin’s current hobbies include eating, sleeping, drinking, trekking and riding buses. He dreams of one day again wearing a pair of jeans and a different pair of shoes.


You can check out more photos from the featured stories here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

Our trek to Machu Picchu is finished and, to borrow a famous mountaineering phrase, "we knocked the bastard off!" Now, I'm not necessarily sugggesting that our hike along the Inca Trail is on par with Sir Edmund's feat, but I think it's fair to point out that we accomplished our goal without resorting to the use of supplemental oxygen...

With 500 people a day allowed on the Trail (including guides, porters and cooks) and literally thousands more showing up to Machu Picchu each day from Cusco or nearby Aguas Calientes, the experience is a far cry from the scene in The Motorcycle Diaries where Che Guevara and his horny friend have the archaeological site all to themselves, but we knew that was coming. What I didn't expect along the way was/were: the long, liberating streches of time when our group was allowed to hike at its own pace and where we encountered almost no other hikers; the quality of the secondary Inca sites we visited, each with its own sense of purpose and where we were given time to explore without roped-off sections or other tourists at every turn; and the feeling that the Trail itself, and literally following in the footsteps of a civilization with so much importance to the local population, could be more magical than the final destination. For some, arriving to Machu Picchu from the Trail is truly a spiritual experience; for others, reaching the end is anticlimactic. I can only say that I found reaching Hiram Bingham's "Lost City of the Incas" satisfying in a way that pure climbing hikes/treks never could be, and I am so grateful to have been able to share the journey with Kristin. And for the record, I thought the ruins were very impressive and that area surrounding Machu Picchu could not have been more spectacular.

For four days and three nights we made the pilgrimage with as good of a group as one could hope for, and the people made the experience even more memorable. Our group of "tremendous hikers", as our guide repeatedly called us, featured a family of four from California (with two sons around our age), a young couple from Denver, a young couple from England (most recently living in Perth), two English girls, one Irish girl, our guide, our assistant guide and ourselves. Some random group highlights for me included: watching a guide/trekkers love triangle develop (which we hadn't seen since our Lost City Trek) and gossiping about it each night with the others before dinner; talking with the California brothers about the size of their giant calf muscles (one of them had calf muscle reduction surgery, I shit you not), which I can definitely relate to...(ahem); and the time one of the English girls tried to show us some sort of bend-over backwards dance move and ended up, somehow instead, catapulting herself forward and almost took down our entire dining tent with us inside. A classic youtube moment lost in time, unfortunately.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that we were supported along the way by our cook and a group of eighteen porters - the Llama Path "Red Army". It's a tough sounding name for an incredibly hard-working and friendly group of people. I think that multi-day trekking would be a lot more popular worldwide if (i) it always involved being provided with a warm meal three times a day that you felt no obligation to help prepare and (ii) you were given a standing ovation every time you arrived at a rest stop. That was part of the Red Army experience. I have suggested to Kristin that she could continue the tradition of giving me a standing ovation whenever I accomplish something moderately difficult. She didn't say anything, so I imagine she is still mulling it over.

As always, my Inca Trail experience by the numbers...

Average wake-up time for the four days of the trek: 4:37 a.m.

Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: 1 - this time with significantly more painful consequences

Number of times I thought I was going to die: 1 - the first time I saw (smelled) the toilets in the Inca Trail campsites

Number of times I was scolded by crusty, old ladies: Twice - once on the Trail when I apparently lingered too long where somebody wanted to take a photo, and once on a major set of steps right outside of Machu Picchu when I suggested to a large tour group coming the other way that if they walked single file then people could probably move in both directions

Number of times I regretted not paying for a porter to carry our packs: Enough

Number of times I beat Kristin to the top of a pass: Zero

Number of times I beat Kristin to the dinner tent: 3

You can check out our pictures/captions from the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Making the Grade: Travel Report Card #1

Amazingly enough, the two-month anniversary of our trip to South America has come and gone, meaning that our time here is one-third finished. To mark the occasion, I have decided to give us a report card grading our progress in the first trimester of our journey. [Editor's note: While I am quite confident the word "trimester" does not apply solely to pregnancies, even if I am wrong, I feel that we have experienced enough intermittent nausea, bloating and moodiness in the first two months that the maternal terminology is justifiable.]

Language Skills: C-

Analysis: While our Spanish skills have improved (I now know that in my first days here I was explaining to locals that I didn't understand what they were saying because "you don't speak Spanish"), they simply have not progressed as well as we would have hoped before we set off. I think the quality of the classes we took were partly to blame, but ultimately I think that we are our own worst enemy in that we travel together and exist primarily in a happy, English-speaking bubble, have never really studied our materials in earnest (it seems to take away from valuable and more enjoyable exploration/eating time) and probably do not step outside our comfort zone as often as we should.

Illustrative example(s): The low point in our bungling of the Spanish language likely came about three weeks ago when it took me about 45 seconds for a lady at a convenience store to understand that I was asking for a bag to put our goods in. The Spanish word for bag is five letters and it is one that I know, but, apparently, my pronunciation is so atrocious that it required me repeating the term fifteen times and looking for outside intervention to make the connection. Arguably, our most natural Spanish skill was revealed last week when the owner of our current hostal told us that we should always pay the same amount (about 90 cents) for taxis in Cusco regardless of what quote we receive from the driver. If the driver tries to ask for more (because we are tourists), we were told that we should just act like we don't understand what they are saying and walk away. With some pride, I assured the owner that no "acting" would be required on our part.

Imaginary Teacher says: "I am very disappointed with the KLongs' speaking and comprehension skills. This is an area that I would like to see vast improvement in during the next reporting period."

Social Skills: B+

Analysis: I can't give us full marks here because our language shortcomings are keeping us from more rewarding contact with locals, though that doesn't mean they are not enjoying our presence here (see "Illustrative example(s)", below). That said, in the past two months, Kristin and I have been absolutely amazed by the quality of the people that we are getting to know. We have an expanding network of friends from different parts of the globe that I have no doubt we will keep in touch with and hopefully see again during or after our trip. Heck, we might need another six-month trip just to visit them all once we are done in South America.... [Editor's note: If that doesn't get a comment on the blog from my Mother-in-Law, nothing will.]

Illustrative example(s): I think the traveller/friend section, above, speaks for itself. As alluded to earlier, even though we don’t speak with the locals as often as we would like, they seem to be having some fun at our expense. On a couple of occasions, a group of kids has run up to us, said something in Spanish much too quickly for us to comprehend and then broke out laughing in unison afterwards. This may not be flattering. Additionally, I noticed for the first time in Huaraz that one of the locals, much to his delight, was making fun of the way I walk (... as many of you know, it may be the case that I walk with a slight spring in my step). So, in some ways, going to South America feels a lot like returning to junior high school. Thank god I have a girlfriend this time around.

Imaginary Teacher says: "Kristin and Kevin appear to be getting along very well with their fellow travellers. The locals think they are funny looking."

Bargaining: B

Analysis: From the time we reached the coast of Colombia, it has become very apparent that haggling over the price of goods and services is going to be a constant reality in South America. Some people are very good at bartering; some people really enjoy it. We are doing reasonably well, but we find that arguing over the price of a banana, and then wondering how we did afterwards, can be exhausting and sometimes it would just be nice if there was a price that was THE price. I also don't particularly enjoy the feeling that "successful" bargaining on our part usually means that we have gotten more from, or given less to, people who generally do not have as much as we do.

Illustrative example(s): Early on, we found that we were having our bluffs called by the local, more experienced merchants. After slowly and loudly walking away, we often found ourselves returning with our heads hung low and paying the price we swore was too much in the negotiation. As Kristin can attest to, admitting defeat is not my strong suit. Lately, however, we seem to be getting much better deals and, after much debate, I was pleasantly surprised to get back money that appeared lost after our dunebuggy ride in Huacachina ended an hour earlier than scheduled. While we are convinced that we are still getting a gringo rate in a significant number of our transactions, it is comforting to think that the premium is gradually being reduced.

Imaginary Teacher says: "Kristin and Kevin have shown some aptitude for bargaining, but sometimes appear to lack a killer instinct. Buy low, sell high - that's what I always say!"

Budgeting: A

Analysis: This grade depends on how you define the metric. We have stuck fairly closely to the loose budget we set for ourselves, so I’m giving us a high grade. Our goal is to try and not cut out or skimp on activities that will make our trip memorable, while looking for economical ways to eat some of our meals and for places that offer simple, clean accommodation. Could we do the trip for less money? Certainly. But we're not sorry if we take buses that don't have reputations for falling apart on windy, mountain roads, and I can't help it if the biggest bottles of beer on the menu are so tasty and fun to drink.

Illustrative example(s): We're doing the normal, budget food things to save money - cooking some of our meals, buying from grocery stores and eating street food. Though, given the number of breaded, meat snacks needed to satisfy my daily appetite, we probably don't save near as much from buying from street vendors as the average travelling couple would. We've also learned that worst thing that can happen from simply asking for a discount, even in situations where it might seem slightly absurd, is a little embarrassment, and the potential savings can be meaningful to one's budget. Finally, because we're not scraping the bottom of the barrel at every opportunity and have enjoyed most every place we've visited, we've also been able to get by to this point without any real splurges or other treats that many travellers use to avoid long-term travel burn out. [Editor's note: Yes, we travellers get burned out too. I'm sure you all feel terrible for us.]

Imaginary Teacher says: "Keep spending! That modelling contract is bound to come in at any moment and then money won't be a concern."

Adding it all up, it looks like we finished with a first trimester travelling GPA of 3.0. While I’ll admit that we are not the Rhodes Scholars of travelling yet, I thought the imaginary teacher was a bit harsh at times. Hopefully the next report card is more favourable.

Check back soon for our next post – our Inca Trail experience.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Getting Our Buggy On in Southern Peru

I thought I would throw up a quick blog entry and photo collection from our time in and south of Lima, which was necessarily brief because we were in a hurry to get to Cusco for our upcoming Inca Trail trek.

We only spent one night in Lima, which is in the middle of its "several consecutive months of mist" thing right now. Our quick impression was that Lima is absolutely massive, the views of the Pacific and the coastline in the city were more beautiful than we would have imagined, and, again, the disparity in wealth between the area we chose to stay and some of the areas we drove through and saw as we left Lima was still enough to boggle our minds. If you were transported directly into the Miraflores or San Isidro neighbourhoods of Lima, I imagine that one could easily find all of the comforts of home and enjoy world-class cuisine on a nightly basis. Still, some of Lima's other neighbourhoods had me double-checking that our taxi doors were locked as we rolled through, which I have never done before in my life.

Above all else, I'll remember the traffic in Lima and the chaos on the roads. While I'm convinced the driving in Peru is not based on a system of predictable rules, Lima takes it to the next level. On the way to our hostal, the two cars in front of our cab crashed into one another as we were merging onto one of Lima's main freeways. Thankfully, our cabbie managed to swerve around them before we joined the pile, but the experience gave some insight into his pre-driving routine, which was: (1) start up the engine; (2) cross himself and say a quick prayer; and (3) do up his seatbelt. The taxi drivers that pray before starting off with us in the back (this was not the first time) have the same effect on me that Rocky's pre-fight prayers had on Mickey (may he rest in peace). The sensation is completed when we discover, as we always do, that the seatbelts in the back are missing or broken.

Our next stop was the "oasis" of Huacachina, which really seemed like it was dropped into Peru from somewhere in Egypt. In all my travels, I'm not sure I've ever been to a place that stood out so much from its surroundings. I believe there to be a few different versions of the story, but the lagoon at Huacachina was said to have been created in the middle of the desert long ago from the tears of a woman who was mourning the death of her lover. It's a fairly big lagoon, so she must have been really upset. Long a vacation spot for the Peruvian elite, these days the small town is firmly on the Gringo Trail and largely dominated by the backpacker crowd, many of whom can't seem to bring themselves to leave behind the incredibly enjoyable sandboarding and dune-buggy opportunities. They must have better funding than us, though, because the town was the most expensive non-capital city we've visited, but one that was definitely worth a couple of days.

Unlike many tourists in the region, we bypassed flying over the famous and mysterious Nazca Lines (giant geoglpyhs left in the desert by the Nazca people some 1500 years ago), partly because of our fear of flying and partly because I just couldn't imagine any animal sketches providing me with more enjoyment than this one. Thankfully, our 18-hour bus ride to Cusco provided more than enough opportunities for sharp cornering and motion sickness and we didn't feel totally left out.

If we can make it work, we'll try for one more blog post before we start our trek on Thursday.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cruzing for a Bruising

[Editor's note: Judging by the unprecedented number of comments and page views generated by Kristin's last post, I trust that you will all be disappointed to learn that is again I, Kevin, who is back at the controls. I'm not jealous. Let's move on.]

We have just left the charming mountain town of Huaraz in Peru, which served us our base for trekking in the Cordillera Blanca, a picturesque mountain range sporting 35 bad-ass, snow-capped mountains that top the 6000 metre plateau. Our trek of choice was the 4-day, 3-night Santa Cruz circuit, to which we added an additional day and night that allowed us to incorporate a trek to a nearby glacier lake and postpone showering for another day.

We brought the usually assortment of goodies for the trek. We each had a few layers of clothing (necessary, since it got down below -5 degrees Celsius at night), some water purification pills, some snacks and some digestive issues. Kristin also brought a feminist novel that even she had to admit was awful and give up reading, and I brought a head and chest cold that made me feel as close to death as I had ever been in my entire life when we camped at 4200 metres on the second night.* [Editor's note: I'm not sure whether it was (i) a combination of head congestion and altitude or (ii) the chemical withdrawal from my burgeoning addiction to Coca Tea, but every afternoon on the trek I developed a headache that was out of this world. Thankfully, as I hammer out this blog post at lower altitude and sip on my Coca Tea, I feel a lot better.]

Our group for the trek was a good one. In addition to the KLongs, there was a father/son pair from (more or less) Canada, a French/Austrian couple from Montpellier, a honeymooning couple from Tel Aviv, our guide, our cook and two donkey "drivers". Everyone got along very well and brought complimentary items that made the experience all the more enjoyable. For example, the French/Austrian couple brought hard alcohol for the evening, the Canadian son brought a Spanish phrase book with a hilarious section of sexual/romantic lines, and the honeymooners brought young love. These items were complimentary in the sense that they allowed me to call out "Easy Tiger" in Spanish, which I learned from the phrasebook, whenever we heard noises coming from the honeymooners' tent, which I probably wouldn't have done if booze hadn't been involved. Good times.

I'm not exactly sure what I can say about the trek itself other than it was spectacular. It is also the first place I've visited where I was truly upset that we didn't have a really nice camera. While I think our pictures of Huaraz and the trek are pretty nice (you can check them out here), they just don't do justice to, and couldn't really capture, what there is to see. At the same time, I don't believe the trek itself will even be my most vivid memory in the Cordillera Blanca. That honour goes to the road/pass which took us from the end of our Santa Cruz trek to the beginning of the glacier lake trek and which I have dubbed for this post "the Scariest Road of All-Time". Now, while we have been assured by our Peruvian friends that there are many worse roads than the one we took, the ride was one of the most spectacular and harrowing experiences of our lives. The drive in our overloaded (both in terms of cargo and people) taxi van took us from 3900 metres to a mountain pass at 4750 metres and then back again, down a terrifying series of switchbacks complete with a smattering of crosses in memory of those who didn't make the corners. On the way we had a flat tire (on the way up, thank goodness) and saw vans similar to our own that had broken down or had their axels snapped in half by the rough road. While it was bit difficult to focus on the surroundings as we were driving, the road winds down to a chain of beautiful, turquoise mountain lakes, while majestic Nevado Huascaran, the largest mountain in the Peruvian Andes, towers above. It was a lot to take in, but, having survived, I highly recommend it to our readers.

A couple of lists to finish us off:

Lessons Learned/Reinforced on the Trek
  1. There is an incalculable benefit in being the first person into the toilet tent each day;
  2. Eating lunch in a cheap Peruvian restaurant is not always a good idea right before beginning a trek;
  3. After your third cup of Coca Tea in a day, you are no longer taking it to combat the effects of altitude;
  4. If your wife has to pee a minimum of three times each evening, make sure that your sleeping bag is not positioned between hers and the door of the tent; and
  5. If you are not feeling well on a multi-day trek, make sure everybody knows about it so you can get the maximum amount of sympathy (and medication) from others.

My Santa Cruz experience by the numbers:

Max altitude reached - 4750 metres (once hiking, once driving)
Highest camp site - 4200 metres
Showers - Zero
Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls - 1
Number of times I thought I was going to die - 1 (but it lasted nearly the entire duration of our trip down the Scariest Road of All-Time)
Cow Patties - literally, tens of millions
First time I was forced to put on all of my layers - Day 1, 5:30 p.m.

We're in Lima now and are going to hang out in Southern Peru for a few days. Will the KLongs find adventure there? Find out by tuning in early next week - same Bat Time, same Bat Channel.

*Only two days later, the Scariest Road of All-Time replaced Camp #2 as the closest I think I have ever been to death.