Lisbon – Fatima – Porto

Our last day in Lisbon – we checked out of the hotel, stored our luggage and headed straight for the Port Wine Institute in hopes they had Larry’s iPhone. We were there just as they opened, and were overjoyed to find that they still had it! Disaster averted. Time to relax – we walked back to the Graça district, far up on a hill, and enjoyed the view from the convent.

As usual we were on the hunt for food. David Lebovitz had recommended Churrasco da Graça for traditional Peruvian spit-roasted chicken. Tracking down a little neighborhood spot in Lisbon is hard work, so we stopped for pastries at Pastelaria Estrela de Graça. Delicious. Continuing down the same street, we finally found our restaurant (Largo da Graça, 43). Churrasco da Graça is a neighborhood joint full of locals, with great service and no tourists (aside from ourselves). We started off with the amazing fresh cheese (queso fresco), sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper. I had the roast chicken and Larry had the dorado and potatoes.

We finished off with cake for dessert (motofolo cake? We saw another couple get it and were intrigued). Our last meal in Lisbon turned out to be our best. On the walk back, we got our last glimpse of the castle before taking a cab to Avis to pick up a rental car.

Portugal is relatively easy to navigate in terms of finding major arteries. We easily found our way out of the city, with Larry navigating and me driving. We had toyed with the idea of stopping off at Our Lady of Fátima, and decided to go ahead. The site is famous for reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary during six consecutive months in 1917 (as reported by three shepherd children). It’s also a popular destination year-round for pilgrimages and we witnessed a number of people on the grounds on their knees, crawling towards the primary chapel.

We were there before the start of the main pilgrimage season, which peaks on the third of every month between May and October. The Pope was scheduled for a visit and there were signs everywhere. The main square is massive, bigger than St. Peter’s at the Vatican. The grounds are huge and there are multiple chapels in addition to the main one. We saw smoke in the distance and thought there was something roasting (chicken!) but once we got closer we realized it was candles, lots and lots of candles. We each lit one and then bought rosaries and visited the Basilica before continuing on to Porto.

The main highway in Portugal is modern and quick, with efficient toll collection points every so often. Navigating the main highways are easy – but the towns are a different story. How did we manage travel before iPhones? We had set up international data packages before we left so Google maps was immensely helpful in finding our hotel. Which was interesting. In a funny way, not in a luxurious, everyone must stay here way.

Located in a somewhat run-down area, Hotel Albergaria Miradouro is one of the tallest buildings in Porto and has sweeping views of the city and beyond. We were on the 12th floor in a corner room so we had an impressive view. The furnishings are clean and well-maintained, but they probably haven’t been updated since the 70s. The hotel restaurant is one of those old-school places where the waiters are very professional and experienced – service was terrific, but we were pretty much the only people in there and it felt like they were spying on us the whole time. We had a nice Duoro wine and a mix of appetizers, including a vegetable pate and boars head cheese that only Larry ate.

The best part about the restaurant was the sunset, overlooking the Duoro River and the Atlantic. Absolutely beautiful. We ended our day with a quick trip downtown via Metro to Minchoes Restaurant for Internet access.. and pastries, of course!

Sintra, Cascais & Lisbon

It was Sunday, and we decided to take a day trip from Lisbon. We got up and the weather was warm, so we decided to travel light to Sintra (and then go on to the beaches of Cascais). We headed to the train station and grabbed a ‘nata’ (the ever-present pastry in Portugal) and some coffee.

After about a half hour train-ride (which was covered under our transportation pass), we ended up in Sintra. We started walking from the train station to the city itself. There was interesting art all along the road the led up to the town square. We took a quick look around, and then started walking the road up to Pena Palace. The wind was a little cold (we hadn’t brought our heavy jackets thinking the good weather would be everywhere). After walking for about half an hour continuing to progress upwards without even an easy shoulder and no end in sight, we re-read the tour book, and realized we needed to take the bus. We walked back to the closest busstop and waited. After a few minutes, the bus showed up and whisked us up the hills–luckily we stopped when we did.

We skipped the Moorish Castle (as Steve’s suggests) and went on to Pena Palace. We paid our entrance and walked up the path to the palace sitting on a plateau around the countryside. It was AMAZING! It was a mix of styles and colors–just like a castle from Disneyland with minarets and interesting sculptures everywhere (lions, crocodiles, etc.). It was windy, and getting cooler, so we quickly circled the castle walls. We then went inside, and toured the unique collection of antiques filling the many rooms of the palace. It was like a miniature Versailles–grand, but in a lot more intimate setting.

We walked back to the Moorish Castle, and realized that we didn’t want tour ruins in the wind. We grabbed the bus, and headed back to town. We crossed the now busy square, and went to the National Palace. This is was a Gothic/Moorish design. Each ceiling had a different design. Many of the walls were covered with murals. It was a nice stop (once we got past the touring crowds).

We were hungry and decided upon a Lojo do Vinho in main square (suggested by Frommer’s). We had some nice wine (Tinto da Anfora), olives, bread, and some great sausage (which they covered with alcohol and lit aflame in order to cook them). We were alone for a while, until the tourists started to show up for lunch and the restroom. We paid and headed down the hill back to the train station, to catch the bus to Cascais.

We tried napping on busride to Cascais as we round through the hills toward the beaches. We arrived at the beachtown (after guessing correctly on the right busstop), and exited into a very touristy little area. The cold was here too, so we headed to McDonald’s for some quick intranet and a soda. We searched for the beach, and finally found it. It was only a few tourists, and a lot of onlookers, enjoying the beach. It reminded me a lot of the French Rivierra with boats in the harbor and building ringing the water. We decided to walk the beach area, seeing some interesting wavy brickwork in the pedestrian zone. We finally settled on a coffee shop for some pastries and some dark hot chocolate at Pastelaria a Bijou de Cascai–they had multiple types of hot chocolate and a mix of pastries to enjoy.

We then grabbed the train back to Lisbon (still covered by our tour card), went back to the hotel and took a quick nap. We got up and went to the walking to the Figuera district looking for a restaurant listed in Frommers (Faz). Several restaurants were overflowing with people watching the Lisbon/Porto soccer match on TV. We walked through the Alfama District as it got darker. It was a quiet Sunday night where people were out at the local restaurant or home watching the soccer game. We finally heard the famous Fado music that Lisbon is famous for (forlorn folk singing) as we passed by the neighborhood establishments. We got to Faz and saw it was too fancy for what we were looking for, and decided to go back to a small place that we had passed long before.

We headed back to “Ho Caldas”, a small neighborhood restaurant that was full of locals and no English menu in sight. We figured out what we wanted, breaded pork and chicken, both accompanied with potatoes and rice. The portions were large, and the prices cheap–we wished we had split one dish. We watched the rest of the soccer game as Porto ended up winning to the local’s disdain.

We walked more through the city. We went back and had coffee at Nicola, a cafe that was always busy near the hotel. After hanging out at the coffee shop for an hour or two, we finally headed back to the hotel.

Lisbon

We started the morning with a little exercise – a run along the river for Larry, and I just walked since I´m not running right now. Lisbon has a nice run/bike trail next to the river, headed to Belem. We met up at the public market, which was fairly slow due to the holiday (May Day). There were still a few vendors there, selling meat, cheese, fish (including octopus), and produce. It´s a very clean, airy market.

We got back to the hotel with great intentions – get showered, see more of the town, swing by the Port Wine Institute to see if they´re open and have Larry´s phone. But when we got to the room, we both expressed a need for a nap. Still dealing with jet lag, we laid down for a nice nap and didn´t feel guilty at all. Vacations are for doing what you want, relaxing, and not being on a schedule.

After our nap we went by the Port Wine Institute to see if they had Larry’s phone, to find them closed for May Day as expected. We decided to go see the castle, which is a hike up the hill in the Alfama neighborhood. Okay, everything in Lisbon is a hike up a hill. Which is okay considering the amount of pastries we were consuming. The castle has sweeping views of the city. Not a lot to see on the grounds, just better views than the lower area before the entrance.

We used one of our tour books and did a walking tour of the Alfama. It´s a charming neighborhood, tight-knit and friendly. The confusing, crooked narrow cobblestone streets (more like alleys) were designed to confuse anyone who attacked the city. Many homes here don´t have their own laundry or even their own bathrooms.

After exploring the neighborhood, we stopped in at a neighborhood cafe (Pios Cafe) that was suggested by a food blogger I follow. It was late for lunch, but we had a terrific sandwich and salad and hung out for a while and enjoyed the atmosphere.

We left the cafe and Larry went to the tourist police station (conveniently located next to the tourist office) to fill out a police report in case the phone was turned in (there’s a central lost and found in Lisbon). I went to another tourist office to do a little research on the Internet – since we didn’t have the trip planned out to start with, it would have to unfold along the way.

May Day celebrations were being held around the city – there was a foot race in the morning, and concerts taking place around the city. We enjoyed the general festivities as we wandered around the city.

We decided to stay one more night in Lisbon, so we could hopefully get Larry’s phone on Monday, and also to see more of the area and city. We ended the day with a trolley ride to the Belem neighborhood. Our primary destination was Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, the origin of Lisbon’s Pasteis de Nata.

The original recipe for these delicious little egg custards was invented by two Catholic sisters in the convent at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The recipe is a heavily guarded secret, allegedly only known in full by three people. The pastries sold at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem are the only ones that can be called Pasteis de Belem – they’re called Pasteis de Nata everywhere else. The bakery was founded around 1837 by clerics from the monetary and was the the first shop to sell Pasteis de Belem, and they’re really delicious here.

After enjoying our pastries, we walked around a bit and found a little grassy knoll on top of a museum that had closed for the day. I was still suffering from jet lag and laid down on the grass for a little snooze. Larry mocked me and took incriminating photos. We ended the day by just going back to our hotel and crashing for the night.

Luton to Lisbon

We woke up early (setting multiple alarms, so we wouldn´t miss another flight). We showered, finished packing, checked-out, and headed to the airport. It was a quick 15 minute walk from the hotel, and soon we were checked in for our EasyJet flight to Lisbon.

We went around the airport, looking for breakfast. We finally happened upon the Marks and Spencer “Simply Food” Store. I normally have an aversion to the concept of pre-packaged sandwiches. However, everything looked fresh that morning. Sheri had a good free range eggsalad and rocket sandwich, and I had a chicken tika tortilla wrap. Both were GREAT! I´ll reconsider the value of the traingularly packaged sandwiches in future–there are some fresh sandwiches out there.

We checked into our EasyJet plane. It was a LOT different than the Virgin flight. They offered us food and drinks, if we wanted to pay for them. We were well-fed after the breakfast at the airport, so we sat reading up on our Portugese destinations. After a few hours, we landed in Lisbon. We had finally made it to Portugal. We got through Customs–it was a VERY long line, much different than the speedy efficiency in London. We picked up our bags, and looked for a taxi to our hotel. We were in Lisbon, only about 12 hours late, after our screw-up of the day before.

We saw the long line for getting a taxi, and looked for a second level of taxis which Rick Steve´s travel book had suggested. We never found it, and drug our bags back to the long line. The line moved quickly and soon we were being driven to our hotel. The sites were amazing: big walking zones, tall statues in open parks, and lots of roundabouts. The taxi driver seemed nice (talking about the sites), but when he got to the airport, he said the bill was 24 Euros (about 10 Euros more than it should have been). He said it was because of the “bag charge”, so we begrudgingly paid it. NO TIP FOR YOU! (next time we need to remember to get a receipt, so that we can report the taxi driver to the city service).

We entered the VIP Eden Hotel which was right on the Restauradores Square. Our room wasn´t ready, so we dropped our bags and decided to head out into the city. We were getting hungry, so we went searching for lunch. One place, Bota Alta, was recommended by several bloggers and Frommers. So… we went searching for it. The roads zigzagged and climbed over many hills and steep streets, but we finally arrived at the right location. It was fairly busy, and they led us to our table. They brought multiple things to the table for appetizers, but we pushed most away. If you sample anything on a plate, then you pay for the plate (as we had read in the tour guides). We had a hard cheese for an appetizer that was good. Sheri ordered the “bacalhau real“, a mix of fried codfish, egg, and potatoes–it was tasty. I ordered the dorado that was a little too bony for my liking, but still very fresh fish.

We made a circuitous way back to the hotel, checked-in, and visited our room. We went up to the hotel roof, and saw the amazing views of Lisbon; this was definitely an amazing city. We decided to nap for a few hours, it had taken more than 24 hours to make it to Portugal.

We got up and decded to go to the Port Wine Institute. It was in Barrio Alta, the same district where we had had lunch. It was in an old building and the furniture was all leather. It was still busy at 11PM at night. Sheri had done her homework on Port wines (really 3 best years, and 4 names). We had two 20 year old tawnys and one 30 year old tawny. They were all great (differing styles, but all still good). It was 11:45PM when we left the Port Institute, and decided to go looking for some snacks. We exited and noticed the revelers filling the streets.

It seems like Friday/Saturday night in Lisbon is one amazing pub crawl, with many rowdy drinkers filling the streets, singing yelling, etc. We made our way through the crowds and finally decided on a Tapas Restaurant with outdoor seating and live music. Our waiter didn´t like our “Mexican Spanish” (Portugese is similarly spelled to Spanish, but pronounced VERY different) and kept trying to pawn us off on another ex-US waiter. We ordered beer, water, pimentos padron (which we love) and patatas bravas. While waiting there, I realized that I had forgottent my iPhone back at the Port Wine Institute!!! I ran through the streets back to the location, but they had already closed at midnight. I knocked on the door to no avail. I gave up, and then I had to search through the crowds to refind the tapas restaurant where I had left Sheri. I told Sheri the bad news, and we hoped that the phone was left behind and not stolen in the crowd.

We finished our tapas and headed back to the hotel after 1AM. I was bummed to have lost my phone, but we had made it to Portugal/Spain. We were already getting into the rhythm of Portugal and being on vacation. We went to sleep after the long day.

London

We arrived in London fairly refreshed after being able to stretch out on the plane overnight. We had 5 hours to get to Gatwick from Heathrow – another bit of fallout from the volcanic eruption was that our plans changed and we no longer had a connection out of Heathrow. We decided to check the Virgin first class lounge to see if we could hang there for a bit – score!  We were on the list for access to the lounge, where we had Internet access and great showers.

We already had tickets for the Gatwick Express train, so we took the Tube to Kensington South, on the hunt for lunch. Lunch turned out to be cupcakes from a terrific local bakery, Hummingbird Bakery. They were on my list of places to try to hit so I was happy there´s a branch just outside the Tube station. Then we hung out at Starbucks, where we hitched on to a wireless signal for a bit. Larry enjoyed a coffee and we people watched. Larry went down the street for a kebab and then we finally got on our way to Gatwick after waiting for a while for the train to finally leave the station.

The lines at the EasyJet check-in were horrendous. We had paid for speedy boarding and still had to wait a while. When we finally got to the front of the line, the agent surprised us by saying our flight was closed. We were speechless, looked at our watches, and at once realized we had pulled a rookie move and hadn´t paid attention to the time. Our flight was leaving in 15 minutes and the gates had just closed. We were out of luck. The agent then told us that she could get us on a flight on Saturday – but we weren´t willing to wait in London for that long, we were supposed to be in Portugal in 2 hours!

We had a joint freak-out and kept going on about how we missed our flight for no good reason. Unbelievable. We got in line at the EasyJet sales counter and started to use our phones to look up other flights, from London to anywhere in Portugal. We ended up changing to an early morning EasyJet flight into Lisbon, but out of Luton. So we gathered our things and got on yet another train, bound for our third London airport in one day. Before we left the airport, we called the hotel in Lisbon to change our arrival, then booked a cheap hotel next to the Luton airport for the night.

We finally arrived at the Ibis hotel at the Luton airport around 7:30pm, exhausted after traveling for 24 hours. No energy to even go have dinner, we munched on snacks we brought with us, set two alarms to be sure we´d make our morning flight, and went to bed.

One thing I´ll say about making a mistake like this – we´ll never forget it, and it´s not likely we´ll ever make a mistake like that again!

SFO to London

After being delayed by a week by an Icelandic volcano, we FINALLY get to head to Europe, and better yet, it´s first class on Virgin Airlines. We took the Supershuttle to the airport without problem. It was mid-afternoon, so we thought we would grab a snack since we didn´t have lunch. We had a great burger and fries at the Burger Joint at the airport. It was perfectly cooked and fresh, definitely worth the stop.

Since we were on Virgin First Class, we thought we would go to the Virgin Lounge. They offered us free drinks (beer and mixed drinks) as well as snacks (cheese and manchego quesadillas). It was a comfortable wait before the flight.

We finally went to the plane and boarded when our gate opened. We walked to our individual cubicles with partitions separating the passengers. There was a nice footrest, and the seat converted into a bed… no this is the way to fly!!!! The stewardess offered us drinks and gave us our sleeping suits (black long sleeve shirt and sweatpants). The captain spoke up and said that the plane was delayed taking off since they didn´t refill the oxygen. Better than another volcanic explosion, and we took off almost an hour late. The seats had individual monitors to watch on-demand movies/TV shows/etc. This was the life of comfort. The stewardesses (stewardi?) came around offering us drinks and snacks until dinner a few hours later. Dinner was very good, asparagus soup for Larry and salad for Sheri. For the main meal we both had pork medallions, mashed potatoes. And the desserts (creme caramel and cheesecake were also good).

After dinner, we closed all the windows and dimmed the lights. We converted our reclined seats to lay flat. There were even covers and a duvet to keep warm during the overnight flights to London. We were definitely on our way to Portugal. After a while we dozed as we headed to our final destination.

Tambopata to Lima

We were up early, yet again.  We quickly dressed and walked down to the boat by 5AM.  It was dark, and clouds had engulfed the jungle and the river.  However, we were finally heading home (only a day and a half to go).

We started down the river in the cold, misty morning.  About half an hour from the lodge, the engine broke down.  As one boatman took apart the engine trying to see what was wrong, the other pulled out an oar to adjust our coarse floating downriver through the branches and rocks that littered the river (luckily we weren’t trying to do this in dry season).  After about 20 minutes of trying different things, the motor finally sputtered into operation. Thankfully, we had left early.  We all sat there drowsy and quiet in the morning mist as the motor chugged in the background.

After about 10 minutes of powering down the river, Sheri gave out a high pitched scream.  She jumped up and rushed to the aft of the boat.  A large spider had started climbing over the railing next to the seat in front of her; the long legs were creeping over the edge.  Leon quickly jumped up and swatted it with his shoe, finally getting it to fall into the river.  Afterwards, he said it was a BrazilianWandering Spider (very poisonous); Sheri thought she saw something coming across the water while the motor was being fixed.  We were all awake now :)

At 7AM we finally made it to the mouth of the Heath River (where it merged with Rio Madre De Dios).  We forced the boat up a small stream, and one of the boatmen jumped off and tied it off to some shrubs.  He took the paperwork up to a Peruvian border station at Puerto Paldo, since we were now permanently in Peru (as opposed to balancing on the Peruvian/Bolivian border as the Heath River is defined).  We went ahead and had our pre-packed breakfast (pancakes, fruit, hard-boiled eggs).  After waiting for 10 minutes, the paperwork was resolved, and we were ready to go.  However, the motor wouldn’t start again.  It was another 10 minutes of tinkering with the motor and priming in more gasoline, before the motor finally churned to life.  We backed out into the river and were on our way upriver on the Rio Madre De Dios back to Puerto Maldonado.

The clouds cleared a little, but the river was mainly empty of other watercraft.  We made our way back to Puerto Maldonado without incident.  It was about 80 miles over five hours.  The boatman wedged our boat amongst all of the other boats. We disembarked and gave a tip to the boatmen who seemed suprised about getting anything. We hopped into a Inka Natura tourist van and went back to their business compound. We used the restroom, washed up, and collected our remaining bags.  Back in the tourist van, and off to the airport we went.  It was amazing seeing all of the motorcycles in Puerto Maldonado–the main mode of transportation.  Men, women, kids were all traveling around on motorcycles; it was amazing to see.  After about ten minutes, we made it to airport.  We quickly checked in, said goodbye to Leon and tipped him, and went to the waiting area for our plane.

We waited for an hour at the airport and finally our LAN flight was available.  We boarded and were off, rising above the jungle.  The LAN flight was wonderful as always–good leg room although all they give you for snacks is hard candy (no other food, no drinks).  We landed in Cusco, and we were back again.  We wondered around the airport looking for some lunch while waiting for our next flight to Lima.  After two hours, we boarded our flight to Lima.

We landed in Lima at 4 in the afternoon.  It was warm, and we had already been traveling for 12 hours.  We cleaned up and changed our clothes in the restroom at the airport, and then we checked our bags into baggage storage.  We went searching for a taxi.  The guidebook said that taxi prices were VERY flexible in Lima, and that it was a requirement to haggle.  The 40 sol fair went to 30 and finally to 25.  However, the driver who was assigned to us was hoping for a better fare, and after sitting in the taxi for 2 minutes and not going, we got out and made our way back through the lines of taxis.  A taxi passing asked if we needed a ride, and we said yes and negotiated for 20 sol to the Plaza de Armas.  We got in and off we went.

Our taxi driver wanted to practice his English, and he attempted to describe the sites in the sprawling city of Lima.  All of sudden he pulls into a gas station and tells us to get out.  We noticed that his hatchback area had a big tank, and we ultimately learned that it was a propane powered car.  The majority of cars in Lima seemed to be propane-powered (unlike the rest of taxis we had seen in Peru which were standard gasoline).  He refilled his propane, and then he continued on to Plaza de Armas.  Lima looked like an interesting city, with many interesting plazas and architecture–one square was completely surrounded by blue buildings… it was stunning.  Definitely the rush hour traffic in the Peruvian capital was worst we had seen.  As we got closer to the Plaza de Armas the roads were under construction and traffic was being re-routed.  Finally, we just told him to let us out, and we would walk the rest of the way to the plaza.  The plaza had an impressive fountain in the center, and it was ringed by old architecture.  The sun was setting, and numerous people were snapping photos of the reddish sky.

After walking through the pedestrian shopping area, we found another taxi and headed to Miraflores for dinner.  It was another circuitous journey across the city in heavy traffic as we closed in on the touristy Miraflores district.  The Parque Central was bustling with people, a lot of them snacking on the multitude of food carts sprinkled through the park.  We wondered around and found the restaurant which didn’t open until 7:30 (and might never open; at 6:30PM, the antique shutters and doors closed to the world). We decided to wait and see if it would ever open, so we found a cafe nearby where Sheri had a pisco sour and Larry had a mate de coca (as usual).  As we waited, we noticed that people were lining up outside the restaurant; we finished our drinks and joined them.

At 7:30, Astrid y Gastón opened.  The restaurant is run by Gastón Acurio, a celebrity chef that Sheri had heard of who also had opened a restaurant in San Francisco that she wanted to try.  We were going to have dinner in the bar since we didn’t have reservations, however, the hostess gave us the option to sit at a table as long as we were done by 9:30.  So… we took her up on the offer.  We were seated, and watched as the numerous waiters watched us and waited on our needs.  They brought some wonderful breads which we rapidly ate after not having a real meal all day.  Sheri had a suckling pig rib and chicken entree that was good; Larry had seared tuna with sweet potatoes three ways which was wonderful.  For dessert, we had a lemon tart and classic bonuelos. We finished, paid and went in search of a taxi.  Our driver took us past the coastline on the way back to the airport which had a lot less traffic, and the sea air was a nice change.  Ultimately, we decided we wished we had spent a day or two in Lima (to hell with the crime warnings), and enjoyed the restaurants, atmosphere, and beaches to be found there.

We got back to the airport, collected our bags from storage, checked-in to our flight, and went through security.  We did some final purchases, trying to get rid of the last of our Peruvian money.  We were going to buy water for the plane, but the merchant warned us that Delta would confiscate our bottled water, even though we were in a secure zone… damn them!  So… we finally made our way to the flight (where they did search our bags for liquids), boarded our plane for our midnight departure back to the US.  By noon tomorrow we would finally land in San Francisco–our vacation was over, however, we were both ready to be home.

Tambopata, Day Two

We got up at 5AM again today. We headed down to the dock motored down the Heath River. After about 15 minutes, we got out of the boat and started hiking down the path with Leon. After getting lost yesterday, it didn’t seem like the best idea, but the path was well-worn.

After walking about 20 minutes, we exited on the edge of a lake. There was a row boat filled with water that Leon proceeded to bail out. We got in, and he slowly paddled us along the river. We saw small caiman poking their eyes and snouts barely above the water. Leon paddled us along the quiet lake in the early morning as the sun rose.

We saw swarming pools of tadpoles stirring up the water. It was teaming with life which surrounded our boat. There were large birds, we asked Leon what kind of birds they were. They were “Big Birds”. We laughed to ourselves.

On the far side of the lake, we saw some howler monkeys whose screeches filled the quiet morning. We toured the lake and finally were back where we started. We exited the rowboat and hiked back to the Heath River. Our boat met us, and back we went to the lodge.

We had lunch.

Late in the afternoon, Leon met us in the huts for our trip to the Pampas. The wind was blowing and Leon wondered if we would have to cancel our trip because of the dangers of trees falling on us, but no such luck. We finally got to the edge of the Pampas after an hour of hiking, and the trail became a path of water and mud. Because Sheri’s boots were so short (only calf-length), she couldn’t walk through the middle of the puddles, so Leon slowly traipsed through the weeds along the edge of the path. It was slow going, but we finally made it to the big tree where they had a lookout platform with a wooden stairway built up to it. The sun was low in the sky, and we just wanted to get back to the lodge, so we took a few pictures and said we were ready to go (before Leon had a chance to relate how they were trying to save the Pampas). We picked our way back through the mud, and finally re-entered the jungle. The light was waning and we were soon ensconced in darkness. Leon took the lead, Sheri behind (trying to ignore the pitch black surroundings, focusing only on the flashlights), and Larry following. It was a fast march back to lodge ignoring the surroundings and darkness that enveloped us.

We finally made it back to the lodge. We left our muddy boots outside our hut, and went inside for a warm shower. We had dinner, more people were arriving, and then we went back to rest. We packed up for our early morning departure to head back to civilization tomorrow!

Tambopata, Day One

We were up early to leave for the bird blind at 5:30AM.  We woke up and shined our flashlights through our mosquito nets onto the floor to make sure there were no ants or spiders or scorpions awaiting an inadvertent misstep.  It was still dark outside while we dressed, but the day was already starting to brighten.  We met Leon and the others at the boat.  We motored upriver 20 minutes to an anchored, floating bird blind.  It was a big one-room cabin floating on the water with windows open towards the bank 50 feet away across the water.  Leon (our guide), Sheri and I were dropped off, and the boat headed back to the lodge.

It was silent until 6:30AM, when the birds started arriving.  It got very noisy as there were at least 100 birds in the trees above the far banks.  It was very busy as the birds moved from tree to tree.  Suddenly, the macaws were startled and they flew away.  There were still parrots and parakeets that slowly  descended lower and lower in the trees.  Finally, the birds landed in the clay, and started eating the dirt–the clay has some mineral  they don’t normally get in their diet.  At 7:30, the birds were startled and they all flew away.  Now there were NO birds in the bank across from the bird blind (and we weren’t going to leave until 8:30 or 9AM); silence permeated the jungle in stark contrast to what we had heard before.  We could hear birds upriver and downriver, but we were stranded in our little room.

We unpacked a breakfast that the lodge had pre-made for us.  The cold pancakes with a hint of orange were really good.  There were also hard boiled eggs, fruit, tea, and sandwiches.  Bees started showing up attracted by the food.  After sitting in relative silence for half an hour the macaws came back at 8AM.  They were vibrant reds and blues and yellows against the green canopy of the jungle.  Finally, they also alighted on the clay riverbank. It was an amazing sight as they intermixed with more parrots and parakeets feeding on the clay.  As we watched, we also saw a Laughing Falcon, a toucan, and numerous other types of birds.

Finally at 8:45 the boat came back.  It took us five minutes downstream where we would have a morning hike back to the lodge.  We headed off on the path.  Leon took us off-trail to stalk some wild pigs and monkeys.  We saw a large wild boar with big tusks cross the pass far ahead of us.  We were doubtful as Leon told us to set down our packs as we stalked them, “they’re agressive, and it’s better in case we need to run away from them”.  Leon had a machete, and we had cameras.  Something was wrong with this picture.  We got closer to the boars, and they ran away scared–too bad :)

We passed by a leaf covered with small red bugs.  We asked Leon what kind of bugs they were.  He answered, “They are B-U-G-S… Bugs.”  Sheri and I looked at each other and almost broke out laughing.  Well… that’s really useful. We realized yet again that we were on a Disneyland ride, Leon’s English was good as long as he stayed on script, but don’t ask any questions or you’ll probably get no response to your question :)

Ultimately, after looking for some monkeys, we realized that we were lost–LOST IN THE JUNGLE.  We had been off the trail for a while, and Leon was needing to constantly use the machete to keep forward progress.  We had to balance beam our way across two logs to cross two separate streams.  We we came to a third stream (without a log nearby), and after Leon tried to cut down a tree to make another bridge, he gave up and headed in a new direction.  We kept changing direction, trying to find a real path or at least the river, but had no success.  After an hour of searching, in the mud and occasional rain, we finally made it to a trail.  After starting in one direction, he then turned us around as he realized the right direction.  At noon we finally made it back to the lodge; our 2 hour trip took more than 3 hours.  We were exhausted.  We showered and rested before lunch.

We had lunch in the lodge, and there were only three of us there to eat.  It was beef in an Asian style sauce with fried sweet potatoes.  It was very good after our tiring morning hike.  We let Leon pick what our next activity was going to be–going to a small town in the afternoon.  We went back and relaxed in our cabana.

At 3:30, Leon came by to take us to the village.  A light drizzle was happening, and we had hoped that he was going to cancel the afternoon outing.  We dressed and rushed down to the boat.  It was an hour downriver to the small village.  We exited the boat and immediately 10 kids met us (we were the novelty for the day).  We climbed a long set of stairs up the embankment to the community.  The village was merely about twenty buildings surrounding a big field, a big soccer field.  Leon toured us around telling us about the 200 people that lived here.  The community looked like it was mainly comprised of kids, and he confirmed that having big families was very common.  We visited the school where the children were taught Spanish, Esau (local language) and some English.  We saw an animal jawbone in the mud as we wondered around the community.  The tourists were a big attraction for the day.  It was interesting to see more solar panels (for their lights and radios) in yet another part of the country; it’s amazing how many solar panels we saw in our Peruvian travels.  They showed us some handmade jewelry, mainly made out of seeds and pigs teeth.  We bought a necklace and then left.

It was dark on our return trip.  The boatmen shone lights on the banks as we passed.  We saw the glowing eyes of several caiman lurking in the murky waters.  Fishing bats erratically flew past our boat.  We saw two tapirs swimming at the river’s edge, and then they rushed out of the water and into the brush.  We continued to see more families of copibaris (the world’s largest rodent); there are lots at the end of the rainy season, not so many after the jaguar and anaconda have their way during the dry season.  Leon said he saw an ocelot, but no one else saw it, as he stopped the boat and scanned the bank with his flashlight.

We got back to the lodge, and it was still only the two of us.  We had a chicken and potatoes for dinner.  We then headed to bed early, since we would be getting up early again tomorrow for a lake tour–leaving at 5AM :(

Arequipa to Tombopata

We got up early and checked out of the nice hotel. The hotel packed us sandwiches which we took with us to the airport.
We took the taxi, and headed to the airport (easy commute in the early morning).
We were stopped at the guard shack at the airport and then headed to check-in.
We paid the airport tax and headed to the plane. We finally got an unobstructed view of the volcanoes that surround Arequipa that were next to the airport runway.

We headed off in the early morning and flew back to Cusco. We waited at the airport for an hour and a half. We tried the cheese sandwiches that the hotel had made us, however, they weren’t good, so we grabbed some snacks at a coffee shop. We paid yet another airport departure tax and headed out on the plane to Puerto Maldonado.

We laneded in Puerto Maldonado, and when we got off the plane, we were immediately hit with the humidity of the Amazon. We were finally at sea level, but not it was hot and sticky.
We were met at the airport and taken by bus to the check-in area. We met our guide, Leon, who explained the town as we were taken to the compound. The streets were filled with motorcycles, it seemed like everyone was on a motorcycle (a lot without helmets).

We got to the compound. We dropped off half our luggage, and then picked out wader boots. Sheri’s were kids size (barely going to the half of her calf), while Larry’s went to his knees. We grabbed some water and headed back to the van. It was quick ride to the boat. We met the driver and the assistant, and pushed off from the dock.

We headed down the Rio Madre De Dios. The clouds were looming in the sky as we headed down the wide river. We saw a lot of birds, but it quickly became monotonous, with even few boats on the river. Leon brought out our lunch. Sheri’s was vegetarian (and grilled veggie wrap), while Larry had a Chifa (Peruvian Chinese food) of a wrap with meet and vegetables in an asian sauce. It was tasty.

We finally got to Bolivia. Our boatman quickly switched the flag so that we were flying under the Bolivian flag–less problems I guess. The Bolivian Border Check-point was a small hut on the riverbank. They grabbed our passports and checked us into Bolivia.
We then started heading up the Heath River which is the border between the two two countries. Immediately we saw a large white cayman basking on the bank. We headed up the Heath River. We saw several families of capybara, the world’s largest rodent. They looked like sheep sized guinea pigs.

We finally arrived at the Heath River Lodge. There were about 15 huts spread along the lodge area. We went to our hut, which was two beds covered by the required mosquito netting. We took a shower, and finally had continuous hot water (after many showers of lukewarm water) due to the huts personal hot water heater.

We went to dinner and met several other people who had been at the lodge several days already (and were leaving tomorrow). They talked about almost stepping on a poisonous snake, and we started wondering about our stay in the jungle. We sat with Leon, and an empty place setting for Jay (who was already in Miami). Dinner was good, but we were ready for bed. We took our flashlights and headed back to our hut.