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Peru

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*************************************************************************************** Mon, Oct. 4: Iquitos, Peru
I`d expected our 800-km river boat ride up the Ucayali River from Pucallpa to Iquitos to be tough, but I had no idea just what an adventure we were in for.
I suppose the story really starts on Tuesday, when we showed up at the shabby Pucallpa port, crawling with sweaty workers carrying large sacks on their backs, to board our boat, which was scheduled to leave at 5:00 that afternoon. Unfortunately, schedules in Peru rarely mean anything. The boat wouldn`t be leaving until Wednesday at 3:00.
At 3:00 on Wednesday we showed up again and were glad to actually board the boat, but not so happy that it didn`t actually set sail until after 7:00. Now, before you go picturing some luxury, or even comfortable river cruise, I should describe this boat a bit. A combination passenger/cargo ship (called a "lancha"), the "Mily," as it was christened, was like most other boats plying the Ucayali, although perhaps a bit smaller and slower than many. As we learned later, there couldn`t have been a worse boat to get on that afternoon. After boarding the by means of narrow wooden planks stretched over the other boats between it and the shore, we arrived on the Mily`s front deck, loaded with cargo such as oil tanks, fridges, a truck and (later) several angry cows. Directly ahead was the dark cargo hold, loaded with everything else you could imagine. Up about seven stairs was the passenger deck, completely filled with hammocks, each replete with a sweaty Peruvian lounging about waiting for departure. Luckily, we had a cabin, just off the side of the passenger deck, which was dirty and stuffy, but provided us with a place to lock up our gear and a frequent refuge from the kids whose favourite game seems to be "Follow and Stare at the White Guys." In the back of the passenger deck was a dingy kitchen and a row of five tiny, foul-smelling, toilets, with a pipe above your head that works as a shower. Stairs led up to the top deck, which held more cargo and provided a nice place to take in some sun.
Well then. We were so happy to be underway. As we set out an amazing harvest moon was rising over the horizon, gradually changing from orange to yellow to white as it rose. Our happiness didn`t last long, however. When we awoke the next morning it didn`t feel like the ship was going anywhere. Assuming we were at a port, Kris said, "I`m not getting out of bed until we get moving." Good thing he broke that rule, because it turns out that somehow in the night we`d been piloted into a mud bank under the shallow water and were run aground. Nobody knew how long we`d be there, and nobody seemed too concerned. In Peru, these things happen. We were told a boat would come by soon to help push us out, and when it never came we were told another boat was coming. We were elated to see it round the bend at 3:00 or so, but our hopes plummetted as we watched it sail on by. It was apparent we`d have to take matters into our own hands.
A bunch of us guys descended to the cargo hold and began hauling 50-kg sacks of sugar on our backs from the back of the boat to the front in order to help lighten the part that seemed to be mired the worst (I`m not sure how that happened to be the back, but it was). Having moved about 150 sacks, we jumped into the water and began pushing the Mily from the side as our capitan revved the engine. You can imagine our elation when we saw the boat begin to move, so very slightly at first, and eventually enough to free it from the river`s muddy grip. After 15 hours mired in the mud, we were once again moving. The capitan rewarded us with three crates of beer that we were transporting (some of which would later be destroyed by the vicious kicks of the aforementioned angry cow). We enjoyed an amazing night of celebration and comraderie, but our excitement was to be short lived.
After an uneventful day of smooth sailing, watching pink dolphins cut through the water and eyeing the far-away banks for any sign of terrestrial wildlife, I awoke early Friday morning to the frantic sounds of people running around looking for life jackets. Dreading what I might find, I left the cabin to investigate. Turns out the engine had died and we were drifting at the mercy of the river`s swift current. People were worried we might drift into something we shouldn`t have and sink. I went back to bed, too frustrated to deal with it. When I got up again an hour or so later, I discovered that we`d (luckily?) run aground once again. Again, a boat was supposed to come by to tow us to a nearby port, and when it didn`t show up another was supposed to come that evening. We`d heard this story before and decided we were going to take charge of our own destiny. Kris was becoming increasingly worried that he`d miss his Monday flight out of Lima, especially since we were still a two-day sail from Iquitos, and staying aboard the Mily would mean two extra days waiting on shore for another boat which may or may not be coming anytime soon.
Seeing some fishermen on a nearby sandbar, we donned our trunks, jumped into the murky water and swam to shore. The fishermen were very friendly and agreed to take us and our gear to the nearby village of San Cristobal, where we could hopefully board another boat to Iquitos. In San Cristobal, little more than a collection of wood and thatch huts, we learned that the boat that was supposedly coming that evening to rescue the Mily was still at port in Pucallpa, a two-day sail away. Our captain, much like many Peruvians before him, had blatantly lied to us. There was, however, a boat coming that afternoon heading back to Pucallpa. For Kris, this was the only real option for getting back to "civilization" by Monday. For me, although disappointed to turn around and not see the adventure through to Iquitos, it was a chance to avoid several more agonizing days on the Mily, or in some sandfly-infested riverside village.
Our second boat, the "Henry 2," was much larger and faster, less crowded and the passengers seemed generally weller-off. We pitched my tent among the hammocks to ward off mosquitoes, and sailed back to Pucallpa, arriving at 2:00 am Monday morning.
A stressful, rushed day followed as we got flights organized out of Pucallpa and all our things ready to board a plane, Kris to Lima and myself to Iquitos. Long story short, we both made our flights. As I gained altitude, I could see the once-large Ucayali snaking below me through the endless forest, like a microscopic image of some sort of amoebic worm slithering over a head of broccoli. In 50 minutes I`d accomplished what I couldn`t in five days: I arrived in Iquitos. I`m not sure how I`m going to proceed from here, whether I`ll fly to the Brazilian border and then on to Manuas, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, or whether I`ll try my luck with another river boat. Right now, I`m leaning toward flying.

Sat, Sept. 4: Puno, Peru
The ride from Copacabana across in to Peru was much les painful than we`s expected, only a couple of short climbs, and the rest was more or less flat. At the Peruvian border we met Chris, a friendly French guy who`s spent the last two years cycling all over the world. Real interesting guy, and lots of fun too (visit his web site, French only). We ended up teaming up with him all the way to Puno.
The road to the town of Juli continued alongside the lake, which was covered along its shores with a dense layer of emerald green algae. All along the road were Peruvians tending donkeys, sheep and a few llamas, all of which made the scenery very pleasant.
Juli itself is a nice little town with as many as five large stone churches and a well-manicured central plaza. The three of us had such a good night just hanging out, eating cake and playing cards. It was like we were all drunk on the Peruvian air, and I don`t think I`ve laughed that much since the "worst hot springs ever" in the Argentine Seven Lakes region.
Unfortunately, something Chris ate in Juli didn`t agree with him, for the next day he was a hurting unit, and we only got about 7 km out of town before we had to turn around to catch a bus instead. We think he had a bit of giardia, which was causing him to explode dramatically from both ends, and riding would have been next to impossible. Kris and I decided to accompany him to Puno. The bus ride itself was horrible, but not uninteresting. As soon as we got on, a woman asked us to sit on a couple new winter jackets and tell the customs agents that they were ours (there are several checkpoints near Puno). I said no way, and she got quite upset. We were 16 passengers crammed into a little van, with seats obviously designed for short Peruvians and not long-legged Canadian cyclists. Anyways, at the border the girl sitting on the other woman`s new jackets denied they were hers, and amidst some angry words the first woman, (the illegal jacket smuggler?) was escorted off the bus. s we drove away I watched her in a tugging match with another young woman over one of her precious jackets. Weird.
In Puno, we loaded our bikes surrounded by about 20 overly curious men and rode off to find a hostel.
Kris and I were in a bit of a silly mood last night, so when we saw a pet store across from our hostel we decided to buy Chris a get-well fish. Chris (the French one) was quite surprised, and he`d never received a gift quite like it. His new friend was named "Red Wine," fr reasons not entirely clear to any of us, and he lives alternately between a water bottle and a one-litre ice cream pail that Kris nd I emptied in a shameless binge earlier that day.
Puno is a very touristy town, and it hasn`t left a good impression on any of us. When you spend so much time travelling in places that see very little tourists you get used to being treated like a human being, and not seen as a walking dollar sign, as in places like Puno, or Copacabana. Nonetheless, Kris and I decided to sign up for Puno`s standard tourist tour, to the nearby floating "Uros" islands. The islands are made of layers of totora reeds, which are constantly replaced as they are worn through from the bottom. Originally inhabited by the native Uro people, the islands are now home to mainly Quechua that supposedly work to maintain the Uro traditions of fishing and reed gathering, although they really survive off the boatloads of tourists that arrive every day. Kris and I weren`t expecting much form the islands, and they lived up to expectations.
Tomorrow Kris and I are going to set out down the road toward Cuzco. Our French friend is going to stay behind to spend some time with a freind here in Puno, and we`re sad to have to split up. Although we`ve spent only two days together, it feels like we`ve known each other much longer.

Fri, Sept. 18: Cusco, Peru
Although we´d expected a tough ride form Puno to Cusco, the road was one of the best yet, beautifully paved with wide clean shoulders for the most part, and downhill the majority of the way. We kept saying stuff like, "Tomorrow we´re going to pay for all this downhill," but tomorrow was always just as easy. One tough pass, and then a gradual uphill into Cusco itself, and that´s it. The scenery was some of the nicest I´ve seen down here, as we followed a narrow valley through that gradually got greener and greener the closer we got to the city.
A couple highlights from the journey: Stopped for the night in the village of Santa Rosa, we went out to search for dinner when we heard a brass band playing. We followed the sound to a small courtyard, where a party was getting into swing, and where we were invited to share a meal and several beers with a crowd of locals celebrating the annual fiesta for their patron saint, Santa Rosa. There, we did our best attempts at the local dances and we met Father Paul, the local priest from Illinois, who chatted with us, introduced us to some nuns (and nuns in training) and shared some wine. A good night out.
Our next stop were some hot springs we´d heard about. Nothing to write home about, just a nondescript building (and for something to be referred to as nondescript in Peru it has to be exceptionally bland!) with four rooms and deep square tubs. Nonetheless, they were nice and hot, and after a good soak we realized there was no way we could get back on our bikes. Luckily, we were allowed to camp right there next to the tub, and the whole deal, hot springs and accomodation, cost us each two soles (about 80 cents Canadian).
Two days later ew were in Cusco, a nice enough city, but crawling with tourists and therefore all sorts of street hawkers targeting tourists. A bit annoying at times, but what can you do? It´s always an unpleasant experience coming from the friendly villages of the countryside to the big tourist centres, where you´re basically treated like a walking dollar sign. I prefer to be seen as a person rather than a gringo, but whatever. I chose this moment to become quite sickv for a few days, having contracted sometihng I now refer to as the Inca Stinka, but as Buddy would say, I´m feeling much better now.
Kris and I have now recently returned from the classic four-day Inca Trail hike. I wasn´t going to do it, but when Kris offered to front me the outrageous fee, I accepted, and am not disappointed for having done so. The hike took us through mountains cloaked in brilliant rain forest, and up through the misty clouds to several high passes. What made the trek though was the group we were with, a veritable crowd of 14 tourists, accompanied by 20 staff members (mostly porters) and two guides. What sounds like it could have been a mess was a great time, as we all got along great. The unbelievable food didn´t hurt either. The trek, of course, culminated with a visit to Macchu Picchu, possibly the most famous archeological site in the world, which couldn´t possible live up to its reputation. Although the stories of the Incas themselves are fascinating, up close Macchu Picchu is just a bunch of old walls. It´s breathtaking to look down on it from above though, when you can see it laid out precariously on the top of a steep mountain, surrounded by more peaks all shrouded in deep green forest.
Now back in Cusco, we´ve done our best to knock a few items off our Christmas list in the myriad tourist stalls, and are now mentally preparing ourselves for a long, possibly 30-hour, bus ride to Huánuco, from where we´ll begin our final days of mountain cycling before descending into the Amazon. The reason for the bus ride is that Kris would really like to visit the Amazon with me, and I´d also like his company, but there´s no way we could cycle all the way there in the limited time he has. Plus, the road sounds like one of the foulest there is, which meant I needed very little convincing to fast track this next section.

Wed,Sept. 22: Tingo Maria, Peru
A 25-hour bus ride from Cusco, which wasn`t too too bad despite the fact that all the movies were dubbed in Spanish (it`s a tough life, I know) brought us to Lima, the Peruvian capital, where we had pretty much the whole day to explore before catching another bus at 10:00 that night. Eschewing the regular touristy things to do,like visiting churches or seeing the ocean, we instead indulged in satisfying our yearnings for North American culture. First stop was McDonald`s, where we each had two or three burgers and a McFlurry before finally dragging ourselves out of the hard plastic chairs. Next up, we found a movie theatre and sat down for "The Village," which I`d never heard of but was quite good. Having nothing better to do after the film, we wandered back and forth down the pedestrian street between the two main plazas,Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin, before deciding we`d waited long enough and could finally go for dinner. Luckily, KFC was just up the block, so we again did the North American thing and gorged ourselves on greasy chicken. Afterwards we went and saw another movie,"The Punisher," again much betterthanI expected,and madeour way to our bus.
Although Kris was kept up with cold sweats, the lingering effects of his illness, I slept the whole way and was in Huànuco before I knew it. Spent the day more or less hanging out in our hotel room off the main plaza (Even watching NFL football on TV!). Nice town though, and not another tourist in sight, which I found very nice after too much time on the gringo trail. Huànuco was also the first place I`ve seen pineapple for sale in large amounts, a sure sign we were getting closer to the jungle.
Glad to be back on our bikes, we cycled out of town the next day (yesterday) under perfect conditions, only slightly cloudy skies and 23 degrees. After descending for 10 km. or so, we began the long climb up from less than 2,000 metres to 2,770 metres. At the top of the pass was a long dark tunnel in which we thankfully didn`t meet any traffic, and then the fun really began. From the top of the pass, it`s about 65 km. and more than 2,000 metres downhill to Tingo Maria, on the edge of the Amazon jungle. As we descended, always fast but rarely fill-your-spandex fast, the temperature warmed, the green foliage became more and more dense and the air more humid. All along the road were colourful, aromatic flowers, and each breath was filled with that lively jungle scent that I just love, like the tropical house at the zoo, only this is the real McCoy. "I don`t mean to shock you," I said to Kris as we flew past a small waterfall tumbling from the rock wall beside us, "But we`re cycling into the Amazon." "I know," he replied, "From the Andes!" Very cool. Possibly the best day of cycling yet. As we descended we met several trucks chugging uphill the other direction, with boys on home-made wooden wagons holding on to the back, hitching a ride up the mountain. Very impressive. By the time we finished descneding, the temperature was 33 degrees.
We arrived just before dusk in Tingo Marìa, a town much larger than I expected, full of three-wheel motorcycle taxis, like the tuk-tuks of Bangkok, and alive with an energy I felt was missing from some of the Andean towns. Or maybe it`s just that I was in such a good mood after the great day. I`M IN THE AMAZON!!!
Kris and I are taking a day off today, obstensibly to explore some of the nearby caves, but in reality sitting out the rain that`s been falling steadily all day. Tomorrow we`ll set out east even further into the jungle, over a supposedly breathtaking pass towards the town of Pucallpa.

Mon, Sept. 27: Pucallpa, Peru
After spending a full day in Tingo María, checking out a nearby cave that was full of screeching birds and downright creepy in the darkness, we set off east towards Pucallpa. At first the road was a bit fickle, alternating between pavement and rough, rocky sections, before finally making up its mind and deteriorating into a rocky mess just in time for possibly the toughest climb I´ve faced yet. We grinded our way uphill for about 30 kilometres, the road was rough and the heat and humidity were debilitating. Several hours later however, we crested the pass and began an equally long descent, a nice break for our legs but our hands were soon aching from riding our brakes, as the road was no better yet.
This whole stretch is currently being paved, although I think they´ve been working at it for some time now. Either way, past the pass the road is closed, only open to traffic for certain, very limited times of the day. Unfortunately for us, three in the afternoon wasn´t one of them. After pleading with the woman manning the barricade, flashing my best puppy dog eyes, she agreed to let us pass, as long as we went slowly and carefully, as if the road conditions gave us any other choice. Happily, we left behind the string of trucks waiting to pass and set out onto the road ahead.
As we cycled past the construction workers, all very friendly and cheering us on (some even making kissing noises at us which was a bit unsettling), the road gradually became nicer and nicer, until finally it was beautiful, pristine, pavement, still smelling slightly of tar. What a ride this will be when the whole thing is paved! Now that we could look around instead of watching for rocks in front of us, we saw that we were descending alongside a deep limestone gorge, a little river flowing quickly below. The hills were covered in deep green growth, broken only by the waterfalls that occasionally tumbled just beside the road. Stellar!
We arrived just before dark to the village of El Boqueron, which was unfortunately celebrating its 6th birthday so we wouldn´t get much sleep due to marching bands, costumed dancers, and revellers in the room next to mine playing bad music on a crappy radio.
In the morning we decided to just go 15 kilometres to the larger town of Agauytia, where we were interviewed by a local radio journalist, ate the best fried chicken I´ve found yet in Peru and where Kris got ill once again with the Inca Stinka´s estranged Amazonian cousin.
The blissful pavement ends just across the bridge past Aguaytia, and we soon found ourselves again on a hellish road under the scorching tropical sun. And don´t even get me started on the humidity. Although I managed to keep my spirits high, Kris didn´t do so well, and there was no end to the colourful adjectives he was coming up with to describe the rough road. There was not even any nice scenery to raise his spirits, just trees right up against the roadside, all covered in a thick orange dust. Making things even better, we crested a small hill and suddenly noticed the sky ahead was completely dark. Five minutes later we were in our first Amazonian deluge, which we luckily were able to sit out under the corrugated steel roof of some locals who were hanging out in hammocks with nothing better to do. The rain lightened up in about an hour and a half, and we were able to ride the remaining couple of kilometres to the village of San Alejandro.
Since we´ve been in Peru, the shouts of "Gringo!," although still around from time to time, have more or less been replaced with cries of "Mister!" as we pass. I´ve come to find this almost as annoying as Gringo. I´m not sure why, if it´s the way they yell it, more like "Meester," or it´s just the fact that they have nothing else to say after that, or maybe because I know that when they yell it they´re assuming I´m an American. What´s more, I wonder how everyone in Peru has somehow managed to learn this one word and have figured that "Mister!" is what they should be yelling whenever they see a white guy, instead of "Hello," "Good Day" or even a simple "Sir." On the other hand, why are they yelling at all? We´ve noticed that Peruvians love to yell. In fact, I think they love noise in general. All day and all night, in every village across the country, people are shouting, horns are honking for apparently no reason, mangy dogs are barking and roosters are cock-a-doodle-dooing. Agggghhhhh!!!
But I digress.
Although I was keen to attempt to cycle the remaining 111 kilometres to Pucallpa, Kris had no intention of revisiting that road, and nor was it very likely we´d be able to get to Pucallpa in one day, which was the time frame we´d given ourselves in order to guarantee that Kris would have time to catch his flight home from Iquitos. Therefore, we took a taxi this morning, which was an adventure in itself as we careened around corners covered in loose gravel, blindly passed swerving tanker trucks and generally put our lives on the line as our friendly, if suicidal, driver pretended he was piloting a rally car.
Safely in Pucallpa, we´ve found a boat leaving for Iquitos tomorrow evening and are relaxing until then at a cheap yet surprisingly comfortable hotel. Cable TV, swimming pool, even a ceiling fan! You have no idea how luxurious this is to us! We don´t really know what to expect from the boat, but we´re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Three days of cockroach infested, mosquito plagued, swelteringly hot hell on water, here we come!

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