The Road Through Time

It’s early August and the past few months have been a bit of a blur, days of staying in punctuated by trips for groceries and home supplies, and a few rounds of golf. I feel that we’re a lot less stressed here in Canada, but the news from outside our borders is routinely troubling.

Michelle Obama has gone on record about feeling low-grade depression through all of this, a revealing comment from someone who was resilient enough to be a truly historic First Lady. While I’m not feeling the stress in exactly the same way – removed as I am from a lot of the turmoil that she’s surrounded by – even in Canada there’s a constant and pervasive low hum of tension just below our senses that we try to ignore so we can carry on as best as possible.

We feel it in small ways though. I find myself more irritable about silly small things, never completely relaxed, looking for ways to keep myself occupied. Perhaps you’re feeling the same, or something different.

The lengthy heat wave we’re experiencing in Ontario hasn’t helped for me personally, although it’s a great summer for pool owners. I can do dry heat any time, but the combo of 90oF-plus temperatures and humidity just as high makes me even more testy when I do have to go out, and I’m drained of energy by the time I get back home. I really feel for so many of the seniors I see in grocery stores who seem to be struggling with navigating the ever-changing rules as our society tries to safely get closer to normal, but I get frustrated with people who appear to have forgotten how to drive or can’t seem to understand the social-distancing thing.

So this is a good week to offer a little distraction via the next part of our journey to Peru, through the blazingly hot desert to see the Nazca Lines and Chauchilla Cemetery.

Peru is most famous for the Incas, but there were many cultures before them. From Huacachina Oasis the road took us backward in time to the mysterious Nazca people, and then forward to the very early Incas, through burnt landscapes filled with eerie dust devils and so empty that we wondered why anyone would have ever made a home there.

The Pan-American highway crosses the Nazca Plateau and there’s even a spot where a tower has been built to view a few of the strange and gigantic etchings in the dirt without flying over them. The area is protected, so you can’t walk out to the etchings, but you can get a decent view of a couple of them from the tower if you’re not inclined to do the flight. The view from the tower, though, doesn’t capture the weirdness – for that you need to see all the Nazca Lines from above, stretching for miles across the desert plateau, layers and layers of them.

The sprawling branches of the huge biomorphic “Tree” glyph
Straight geometric shapes stretching for miles mixed with undulating wavy shapes

As we left the tower, the sun was setting over the eerie landscape that houses the etchings – more than 50 miles of flat reddish land dotted with little scrubby bushes that seem to survive on virtually no moisture.

We stayed in a charming 3-star hacienda-style hotel surrounded by farmland — how they managed to grow food in this climate was a sign of Peruvian ingenuity.

The next morning, those of us who planned to brave the Nazca flights headed off to the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport.

Maria Reiche was one of the first noted researchers of the Nazca figures. The enormous geoglyphs had been mentioned by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, as ‘trail markers’ in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until humans invented flight that people were able to see them in their entirety and realize their significance. An American historian, Paul Kosok, was the first to study them in depth, including from the air, and he was later joined by an America archaeologist, Richard P. Schaedel, and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist who had come to Peru originally as a governess and tutor, then stayed on when WWII started. She’d been doing scientific work in Lima when she became fascinated by the Nazca figures. She joined Kosok in his research and spent the remainder of her long life studying, mapping and protecting the geoglyphs. After the Pan-American highway was cut directly through one of the figures, she lobbied the government to protect their national treasure and also sponsored the tower that we’d just been at the afternoon before. For her efforts, she became known as the Lady of the Lines, and is honored at the local airport.

Safety Note: For several years before we arrived, the small-craft flights over the Lines had a poor safety record, with several crashes and deaths. At one point, as group leader for our cluster of eight travellers, I was going to recommend that we skip the flights entirely. The Peruvian government had worked diligently to improve matters, and by the time of our trip our tour company was able to recommend several approved flight companies. The one we used, as you can see in this photo of yours truly waiting to board the plane, was Air Majoro.

Any time you’re planning an adventurous activity, it’s important to do your research in advance – there’s always an element of risk in these types of activities, but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and make an educated decision about how far you’re willing to go.

The airline put my hubby and I on different planes – they spent a lot of time figuring out weight configurations among all of us on the small craft – so we each had very different experiences.

One thing you should be aware of before deciding to fly is that the planes tilt at severe angles to give you the best view of the figures etched into the red dirt. They also make a lot of pretty tight turns to allow you to see as many of the figures as possible.

Rising into the deep blue sky, it’s truly stunning to see how many figures the ancient Nazca people carved – there are over 1,000 of them, spreading for miles, often crossing other figures, and in a wild assortment of shapes and styles. Seventy of the figures, known as biomorphs, include the famous animal figures (monkey, spider, lizard, heron, etc.). But these are only a small proportion: there are 300 odd geometric designs, and 800 straight lines running for up to 30 miles in length!

There are only a few somewhat humanoid figures: a large pair of what looks likes disembodied hands, and a 100-foot tall figure etched into the side of a hill. It’s often referred to as the Astronaut, with an odd helmet-shaped head and its arm raised as if in greeting to something in the sky.

The geometric shapes are astoundingly sharp and straight for having been created over 2,500 years ago by removing the reddish upper layer of dirt up to about a foot deep to reveal the pale yellowish base beneath. Reiche found the mathematical precision to be highly sophisticated. Her research with Kosok found that many of the figures pointed towards the summer and winter solstices, so they theorized that the plateau was a gigantic astronomical calendar.

Since then, a lot of people have speculated about the purpose of the figures, from landing sites for aliens to religious ritual designs to markers for underground sources of water in a landscape that receives only about one inch of rain in a year.

This figure, my personal favourite, was originally called The Hummingbird, but is now believed to represent a forest bird called a Hermit

Many of the theories seem to fit some of the Lines, but none of them fit all of the Lines, and it’s not until you fly over them that you see how strange they truly are. Whichever theory appeals to you, there are a lot of questions still. Some that popped up in my head that day: what could prompt those ancient peoples to make so many of them (think of the effort in measuring, excavating, running straight edges for miles and miles and miles even up in the hills), why would they make so many different shapes, why would they lay them on top of each other like a crazy jigsaw puzzle? I’m not sure we’ve come to any real understanding of what the etchings are for, or are even close to it.

Our pilot gave us a heads-up as we approached each different figure or cluster of figures, tilting the plane steeply so that the wing tip was pointing towards where we needed to look. Then he would execute another tightly-banked turn to move on to the next figure.

It turned out that my plane had a hot-dogging pilot who seemed to be showing off a bit for a guest he’d brought on board. I was doing okay stomach-wise until he started zipping through tighter and tighter turns, while I got greener and greener in the face. I had to stop taking photos and was fervently praying to land soon when someone must have alerted the pilot that I was looking pretty bad, because suddenly we were doing just that. On the ground, our excursion leader sat me down and hustled to get me some coca leaf candies.

Peruvians have been using coca leaf tea for centuries for altitude sickness, and it turns out that coca leaves are also great for nausea. Both tea and candies are available everywhere, and I recovered enough to be able to explore a couple of shops – I bought a silver-coloured wrist cuff with the most famous Nazca animals on it – while I waited for my hubby’s plane to return.

What I didn’t find out until they landed was that his pilot had trouble with the landing gear and was delayed for several minutes as he frantically pumped the lever to get the wheels down. My hubby regaled me quietly with this story after we got back to the hacienda.

Was the flight entirely safe? Well, everyone in our group eventually made it safely to ground, although not without a bit of a close call. Do we regret taking the flight? No, there’s no other way to get any real sense of the scope and enigma of the Nazca Lines. Should you go to Peru, check recent safety records and decide for yourself.

The mystery of the Lines becomes even deeper when you visit the ancient cemetery of Chauchilla, just 19 miles south. The Nazca culture believed that the afterlife was a mirror of their earthly existence, so they buried their people in little houses constructed underground, hair braided and clothed in well-made robes, surrounded by the artifacts they had used in life – pottery for cooking, tools if you were a builder, and so on.

You can visit Chauchilla and its subterranean necropolis today because robbers had been digging up remains for some time – walking across the blistering sand, you can see bones and bits of smashed pottery scattered about – so the government turned it into a protected open-air museum.

You approach Chauchilla across miles of bleak desert, where eerie dust devils spin up out of the sand with a noise like gusts scouring the air.

Wear closed footgear – Chauchilla sits in part of the Atacama Desert (according to the National Geographic Society), commonly considered the driest place on earth. It was certainly the hottest place we’ve ever been, a strange wind-blown inferno which for some reason the Nazca peoples decided to make their home. Any of our travellers wearing sandals took no more than a few steps before they sprinted back to our overland truck to get shoes. Even the truck itself was parked under a huge shaded ‘truckport’ to keep it at a reasonable temperature while we explored the site.

Long stone-lined paths lead to covered areas where you can view the tombs.

The occupants are well-preserved and you can see details of their lives, including stone grinding bowls and simple pottery. It was an appropriate place to visit on Halloween, as it happened.

So this brought to mind my next question: how did these apparently simple peoples create the mathematically-sophisticated Nazca geoglyphs? And why would they have gone to the trouble?

Questions to ponder as we moved forward about 1,000 years in time to a place on the coast where the ancient Incas sent fresh fish by footpath over 300 miles to Cuzco, the religious centre of their culture. The road to Puerto Inka is cut through soft sand down to the beach – we blessed our skilled driver for navigating the precipitous twists and turns.

As evening began to fall we arrived at a unique place to stay, the Hotel Puerto Inka just outside the ruins of the ancient village overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific.

After checking into one of the comfortable, salt-scented rooms stacked in layers up the hillside, many of us checked out the ruins of the Inca buildings, which even in their rustic village state still displayed remarkably precise engineering.

A few people took a walk along one of the many paths in the surrounding hills (presumably those of the fish-runners), or along the gorgeous beach.

At dinner, since it was Halloween, we celebrated with a round of Pisco Sours and organic candy suckers that I’d brought with me, while the waves crashed on the shore and storm clouds darkened the sky – a fitting wrap-up to a day of strangeness and wonder.

The Nazca Lines are one of those ancient mysteries that will haunt and intrigue us for a long time, I think, and should not be missed if you go to Peru.

Next up: beginning our high-altitude acclimation 8,000 feet up in Arequipa, the ‘White City’ for its white-stone buildings set among three looming volcanoes, and widely considered the most beautiful city in Peru. Its residents consider themselves so set-apart from the rest of the country that they even have their own, unofficial, passport (which you can buy).

In the meantime, stay calm and kind for yourself and the people around you, stay safe for the better tomorrow that will be coming.

The surreal coastline of Peru

This week really got away from me! Hubby and I were watching a two-episode show on Prime video called El Dorado, an ‘archeological’ adventure made in 2010 to capitalize on the impending ‘end of the world’ in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar). The show played pretty fast and loose with archeology – even the supernatural parts – but the scenery of Peru is spectacular. Then hubby pointed out to me that it’s Thursday!

So, this blog post is a bit seat-of-my-pants, but it will give you an idea of the strange and often other-worldly coastline of Peru, where the Andes mountains dip their feet in the Pacific Ocean, creating some hair-raising roads that hug the mountainsides alternating with lunar-looking desert and verdant farms that demonstrate that modern Peruvians haven’t lost their skill at agriculture.

Leaving Lima very quickly shows you Peruvian life outside of the one-percenters. Ramshackle towns perch between the highway and the beach.

You are travelling along the famous Pan-American Highway, an ambitious concept designed to stretch between both tips of North and South America. The United States had a vision of cooperation among all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, and held the First International Conference of American States in 1890. Delegates from 13 countries attended, and among numerous political discussions one of the ideas proposed was a railroad that would stretch along the entire western coastline. Several decades into the new century, when road transportation began to dominate, the highway was born, and it was quite a thrill to be riding on a portion of the South American network.

Life is very basic outside Lima, almost a throwback to another time, with plaster or mud brick homes mixed with shop stalls selling modern goods like open-air convenience stores.

The road weaves in and out along the coast, sometimes moving inward through hills on which the Peruvians, echoing the ancient desert carvings on the Nazca Plateau toward which the highway is leading, have inscribed gigantic advertisements into the dirt.

The roadside is also dotted with odd little shrines and memorials in isolated places.

Within a handful of hours we’ve arrived at our overnight destination, the little city of Pisco. The word “pisco” means bird in the old Peruvian language of Quechua, which has been in use for hundreds of years, long before the Inca Empire. Pisco sits amid the remnants of the ancient Paracas culture, which flourished over 1000 years before the Incas. In modern times this section of coastline is part of the Paracas National Reserve, a protected area that straddles both arid coast and the deep blue aquatic biosphere off shore, where thousands of birds and other sea creatures live on islands strewn across the waters.

The moisture in the sandy soil allows vines to flourish, despite the heat and dryness, and one of the products to come out of those grapes has made the town famous: Pisco brandy, used to make the delicious Pisco Sour.

After checking into our quaint hotel scrunched in at the edge of one of the streets in the middle of the city, where the rooms were basic and clean, we went down to the main square to explore a little of the area before dinner.

Pisco is in an earthquake zone, and in 2010, just two years before our visit, an 8.0-magnitude quake destroyed about 80% of the city, which was still being rebuilt. From the pretty central park, filled with funky topiaries and pretty gardens, we could see signs of the damage in the severely cracked bell tower of the Cathedral, which was so bad that they had to construct a new church next door.

Nevertheless, the people of Pisco are resilient, and many relax in the park as the day winds down or stroll the delightful open-air market.

With such a long coastline, Peru specializes in fresh seafood, and we returned to our hotel for a fabulous meal that began with the beverage we’d been holding off on trying until we could sample it in its home base — the amazing Pisco Sour. It reminded me of a sweeter Margarita, but smoother and more refreshing.

We followed that with a huge bowl of chicken and vegetable soup topped with a fried egg — pure Peruvian comfort food!

Some of our group opted for the fresh seafood paella, which looked fantastic, although I’m not a big seafood eater myself.

It’s a short drive from Pisco to the town of Paracas, the jumping-off point for cruises out to the Ballestas Islands, an animal sanctuary out in the ocean formed of a series of rocky outcrops amid the Humboldt Current, which brings many creatures to these little outposts in the water.

Paracas has a nice little waterfront that you can stroll as you wait for your boat, with cute little cafes strung along the promenade.

The ride out to the islands is smooth and pleasurable. On the way you get an excellent view of a strange and massive figure cut into the desert sands approximately 2,200 years ago by the Paracas peoples! It’s been named El Candelabro because of its shape, but no one knows what it really represents. Although it’s hard to tell from the water as you pass by, the figure is 595 feet tall, and was cut two feet into the soil, allowing it to last for over two millennia and be seen 12 miles away.

You can spot the Ballestas Islands from some distance, pretty grey mounds sprinkled through the deep blue water.

Your boat will take you quite close, and if you’re at all prone to seasickness, let me warn you that the remainder of the cruise is going to be quite unpleasant while you get spectacular views of the wildlife. The waters are very choppy as they swirl around the rocks, and the bobbing up and down of the boat mixed with the strong smell of boat fuel as your pilot stops at each outcrop is intense.

I’d taken an anti-nauseant before we boarded, and had to hurriedly swallow a second one while we were out there, neither of which helped very much. I’m not sorry we took the cruise, but I paid for it for several hours afterward. Fair warning should you choose to go 🙂

The closeup views of the wildlife are worth the effort, though. These islands are often referred to as the mini-Galapagos for a reason, but unlike those more famous islands, here visitors are not allowed on shore, which is non-existent anyway.

Numerous sea lions basking on the rocks
The pretty Humboldt penguin
Beautiful Inca terns

Happy to be back on land a few hours later, we had the opportunity for either more adventure or some R&R at the Huacachina Oasis farther inland. The oasis looks straight out of a 1930s Hollywood movie, laden with palm trees and a circling promenade made for languorous strolling — balm to my unsettled stomach.

However, Huacachina is most well-known for its dune buggy rides across the towering sand hills that surround the oasis. I wasn’t up to it, but my hubby went and really enjoyed it (although he did tell me that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me at the time).

From the oasis the road enters an increasingly surreal landscape that makes you feel as if you’re on another planet — strange white rocks emerging from the sands, long empty stretches of sand edged by mirage-like golden hills in the distance, with the highway snaking back and forth surreptitiously through all of it.

This road takes you to one of the strangest places in South America: the mysterious Nazca Lines. Some of us would be taking a flight over the Lines to see them from where they were seemingly designed to be viewed, high above the plateau on which they were inscribed, but no advance reading could prepare us for what we were soon to experience. More to come in the next Peru-themed blog post in two weeks!

N.B. all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.

Intro to Peru, starting with fascinating Lima

Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.’ Hiram Bingham, Lost City of the Incas

In 1911 a young lecturer from Yale University was exploring Peru in search of the ancient Incan capital of Vitcos. Travelling along the winding Urubamba river, he asked local people about any Inca ruins in the area. On one particularly drizzly day a farmer named Melchor Arteaga led him across the river and up to the top of Old Mountain, called Machu Picchu in the local language. The rest is enshrined in history.

Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first non-Peruvian to see the jungle-cloaked ruins of the citadel named after the mountain it sits on, but he received support from Yale University and the Peruvian president to return in a year later and excavate the sprawling piles of rocks, revealing an amazing ancient city that was so well hidden in the Andes that the Spanish invaders never found it. It remained intact and was eventually reclaimed by the surrounding cloud forest.

Bingham’s photos and accounts of his expeditions were a sensation and the discovery of Machu Picchu would become one of the greatest ‘finds’ in history – so famous, in fact, that most visitors to Peru see little else.

That is a great mistake, because Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Straddling the jagged Andes mountains, on the eastern side the country is the dense green Amazon jungle. Crossing the crest of the mountains, roads wind among the grey and ochre-coloured peaks under an unearthly blue sky. The western side drops steeply toward the Pacific Ocean, in landscapes that look like they’re from another planet.

I hope that by the end of this blog series you’ll feel the same way, and look for a tour that spends at least two weeks or more exploring some of the many, many different aspects of Peru.

I grew up most enthralled by ancient Egypt. A fascination with all ancient cultures, and growing up watching adventure movies with my dad (like the 1954 movie Secret of the Incas, which served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ signature outfit), meant that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list but not at the top. A higher list spot belonged to a remote and mysterious archeological ruin high up in the mountains of Bolivia called Tiwanaku, which would be capping the trip and was actually the part of the journey I was most excited about.

By the end of the trip, though, I’d completely fallen in love with Peru – it’s that remarkable! But to see past its most famous feature, you have to take the time to explore its many layers.

Start your adventure with at least a couple of days in Lima. Most tours fly you in and ship you out to Cuzco the next day, but Lima is a great city, and a wonderful introduction to the country. I recommend arriving least one day early to give you time to explore the architecture, culture and fabulous food of Peru’s capital.

Most tours will locate you at a hotel in the upscale Miraflores district. We were so fortunate that our tour, with Tucan Travel, put us right in the middle of the city, just a block away from the central plaza. We stayed at the Hotel Maury, a 3-star hotel that looked it was straight out of a 1950s adventure movie! The wood-lined bar with gorgeous murals, a lobby with classic wall clocks for several international cities, elevators with old brass number plates, and an old-fashioned breakfast room that may have been a bit worn around the edges but exuded atmosphere, more than made up for the basic rooms.

On top of that, on our very first morning a parade proceeded to the Plaza de Armas right past the entrance to our hotel – all we had to do was step outside and have front-row seats to the colourful spectacle. We had no idea what the strange costumes meant, but it was a fascinating slice of real Peruvian life.

There seemed to be a lot of festivals going on when we arrived in late October, so almost every time we turned a corner there was something artsy taking place. Peruvians do celebrate Halloween, and the Spanish part of their history means that they also celebrate the Christian holidays that come afterward. It was a very lively time to be there and I highly recommend it.

The Plaza de Armas, aka Plaza Mayor, is the core of the city, and to us it felt like the heartbeat as well. It’s a very picturesque square fringed by several important historical buildings displaying stunning Spanish architecture.

In the height of irony, conquistador Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone for the imposing Cathedral of Lima, in a location on top of ancient Inca tombs, after he and his company systematically overran the country and destroyed both the Inca civilization and a large part of the artifacts that told its history. Inside the cathedral you can see the entrances to several tombs safely preserved under glass, as well as the tomb of Pizarro himself.

Walking around the perimeter of the Plaza shows fascinating streets radiating away from it, with colourful buildings and artwork, lots of arcaded shops to explore, pretty tree-lined seating areas, cafes with delicious food and snack shops filled with treats for the local sweet tooth, and ladies with carts purveying all sorts of religious articles.

Expand your walk a little further and you’ll come across the beautiful Convent of Santo Domingo, where we found another band setting up to play.

The interior of the building is rich in colour, with vibrant chapels, a delightful trompe-l’oeil floor, beautiful tiled cloisters and lusciously-scented rose gardens. The library is a magnificent wood-paneled room with about 25,000 richly-decorated books.  

Bus tours leave from the Plaza regularly to take you on a wider tour of the city, where you can see everything from the imposing Judicial Palace to flower vendors tucked into tiny open shop-fronts.

These are just a few things you can discover as you explore Lima – don’t neglect the opportunity to spend at least a little time there.

It won’t be until you finally leave Lima to see the rest of the country that you’ll see your first evidence of the wide disparity between rich and poor in Peru. The interior of the city may be filled with ornate buildings and pretty parks, but the poor are all clustered in stacked slums on the outskirts, living a bare-bones existence and working at whatever they can to make ends meet.

A few things to be aware of before you go:

  • The plumbing standards in all of South America are not even close to ours, so even in major cities like Lima your used bathroom tissue can’t go in the toilet (little covered pails are handily placed and regularly cleaned out by staff).
  • Tap water is not safe to use even for brushing teeth.
  • If you eat in central restaurants, you shouldn’t have any issues, but you’ll want to be wary of out-of-the-way places for trying things like guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy – as curious as you may (or may not) be, things like that are best avoided. My hubby and I had no trouble with the food during our three weeks, but some of the other tour passengers who decided to be adventurous did pick up a serious illness.
  • You may see warnings about a high crime rate in Lima. My hubby and I walked freely around the streets surrounding our hotel without any problems – we stumbled across a great barbecued chicken restaurant one evening on one of the side streets. Just be as prudent as you would in any large city in your own country.
  • Learn some basic Spanish before you go – it’s a lovely, easy language to learn and will smooth your connections with local residents if you can at least say hello, please and thank you. In more remote areas, a phrasebook will really come in handy.
  • Future posts will include information about travelling to the higher altitudes of Peru. You may see some tours that begin in Puno/Lake Titicaca and go downward from there, ending in Lima (more-or-less sea level), but that’s a hard way to do it and I’ll be explaining why later. The itinerary we followed, starting in Lima and slowly climbing higher to allow for acclimatization, is (based on both extensive research and the experiences of our group of travellers) the preferable method.

In our next installment we’ll look at travelling along Peru’s Paracas coastline to two special places – Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, and a clump of offshore islands often referred to as the Mini-Galapagos, not to mention a gigantic ancient figurine predating the Inca culture that’s carved into a hillside along the way!

The Monkey’s Tail

How many types of birds do you typically see in your back yard? I’ve counted maybe a dozen at different times – blue jays, cardinals, wrens, robins, pigeons… – the usual urban North American coterie.

In the Amazon rainforest there are 1,300 species and counting.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, of all the known species of creatures on the earth, 1 in 10 are found in the Amazon basin – “40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Over 2,000 new species of plants and vertebrates, including a monkey that purrs like a cat, have been described since 1999.” It’s mind-boggling.

The first thing you notice walking through the Amazon Jungle is a battle for life – layers and layers of plant life climbing on top of each other, growing on each other, feeding on each other. Jostling for every nutrient they can wring out of their complex environment.

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

You look up through layers of green to catch a glimpse of the sky, or downward to a dense layer of new, old and decaying growth littering the ground. Nothing goes to waste in a rainforest.

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

The jungle is home to myriad creatures as well – carpenter ants carting massive pieces of leaves like banners, spiders clinging to tree trunks, huge butterflies flitting in and out, secretive capuchin monkeys clustered on branches.

A black tarantula ventures a couple of legs out from its burrow near the top right

To celebrate World Rainforest Day this week on June 22, this blog is kicking off a Peru travel series with a peek at exploring that very jungle.

In Peru, typically visitors access the jungle along one of the Amazon’s tributaries, flying from Cusco to one of the jungle’s great frontier towns, Puerto Maldonado. From the Andes mountains your plane swoops down over masses of dense green-ness, sadly patched with barren brown pieces of denuded land, to a murky river snaking through the thick jungle growth.

How fantastic it must have been for the first intrepid explorers to be faced with the undisturbed masses of vegetation, and how daunting to explore for months slowly moving through unknown and difficult terrain.

We arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, easily, landing in muddy, ramshackle, colourful Puerto Maldonado, where any useful supplies for a trip into the jungle can be bought and loaded onto your transportation to the river dock.

Once at the bare-bones wooden dock, we boarded a long motorized canoe that zipped along the Madre de Dios river for just an hour and a half, past steep banks dotted with wrecked wooden canoes and the odd small cabin, residents cruising by in their own motorboats bringing supplies back home from the town, and people using illegal gold-dredging methods that destroy the river ecosystem.

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

The river banks look the same, I imagine, as they must have for the early adventurers, but the river traffic is a modern concoction. The river is wide and flanked by tall green walls of trees – palm, wild papaya and mango, and many other kinds that we didn’t recognize.

Illegal river mining

Eventually we were brought gently up to a jetty peeking out of a clearing in the green wall – the access point to our comfortably rustic lodge, the Eco Amazonia. No hacking our way through the jungle – porters collected our baggage and led the way on raised walkways to the main lodge to check in. Had we arrived a few weeks later, the river would have risen right up to those walkways – the lodge even thoughtfully provides racks of loaner rubber boots for its guests.

Arriving at the lodge

The lodge wasn’t one of the luxury versions, but I loved its green-meshed and wood-sided buildings strewn amongst the brilliant red- and pink-flowered ginger plants with vivid green leaves.

Colourful meals were served in the large dining room – our first lunch led off with a fresh avocado salad, followed by a mysterious banana leaf-wrapped packet that, once we untied the string, revealed a delicious chicken and vegetable rice pilaf.

Our raised cabins were ranged in rows along the grounds, past brilliant green lizards, little brown agouti and parrots lurking in the palm trees. Here we finally heard all the sounds you expect to find, from insects and birds and monkeys in the jungle that surrounded the lodge property, just a short bridge-walk away.

A small agouti roams across the grounds

The accommodations were basic but quite comfortable, straddling the line between civilized and adventurous. Steps lead up to a screened porch, then a large sleeping area with several twin beds, and a dimly-lit bathroom that intermittently had warm water in the shower. At night we could hear the preliminary light rains spattering down on the corrugated tin roofs, and the insects humming safely outside the walls.

There are a lot of things to do in the jungle after a meal and a cup of the thick, dark, concentrated Peruvian coffee that has to be thinned with water to be drinkable.

On our first afternoon we were taken across the river to the lodge’s Monkey Island, a sanctuary for primates rescued from the pet trade. There are golden and brown capuchins, and a particularly cheeky female spider monkey who loves to pluck plastic water bottles from visitors and bite off the caps. I was standing next to a small feeding platform, taking a few photos, when she decided to run across, climb my shoulder and sit on my head, wrapping her long prehensile tail around my neck for balance so tightly that I had to wiggle my finger in between to keep from choking. I could hear cameras going off furiously while I tried to see past a screen of black fur. After a minute or so she’d had enough of her perch on my head and uncoiled herself to see who else looked interesting.

Our spider monkey visitor

As evening fell and we made our way back to the canoe, we could see the deep tracks of a caiman in the cracked dry earth of the river’s edge. Some of us took the opportunity to do a night canoe ride by paddle on the river in the hopes of spotting a black caiman or two along the banks, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. It was eerie and silent, gliding softly through the water under hundreds of stars – that was when I felt closest to the early explorers.

Our long hike through the jungle itself was led by a genuine Amazonian native, Marco, who’d grown up in one of the traditional villages and knew the forest like the back of his hand. He showed us some of the many plants that the villagers have used for a long time to promote fertility, heal maladies, even to send messages – one of the trees makes such a loud, carrying sound when it’s hit with a piece of wood that people would use it as a locator signal.

This tree holds the source of extracts for both male virility (the purplish protrusions) and female fertility (the green vine winding up the trunk)

We ducked under fallen trees, crossed weed-choked streams, took photos of each other dwarfed by just the roots of towering jungle trees. And yes, you can actually swing on the vines.

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

Our main destination was an oxbow lake well-hidden by wild papaya trees. There’s a tall viewing platform that some people climbed, but we chose to be paddled around the small lake in a canoe, watching ducks swim along the fringes and a black-collared hawk look for prey from its perch on an old branch. Back on shore, butterflies of all kinds flitted around us and landed on our gear. We felt miles away from anywhere.

In the evenings after dinner everyone congregated in the bar and explored the many intriguing cocktails created by the staff. I believe I sampled an Anaconda and perhaps even a Jaguar, perfect after a day in the jungle.

Our three-week adventure to Peru and Bolivia included just two days in the rainforest, so we weren’t able to catch sight of the area’s most famous residents, like the elusive jaguar or the giant river otters, but it was a window into a mysterious green world that forms one of the greatest natural wonders of our planet. Even today we know so little about it, a place with over 16,000 species of trees alone, and a staggering estimated 2.5 million species of insects!

The sight of a big, bright blue Morpho butterfly landing delicately on a leaf in front of you is a magical thing.

There are numerous rainforests around the world, all rapidly dwindling because of our greed. To learn more about these biodiversity hotspots and how you can help save as much as possible, check out the Rainforest Rescue website.

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.

Women around the world

My dad was ahead of his time. His generation viewed women only as wives and mothers, but he encouraged me to study science as a career choice. When I was a little girl and wanted a bicycle, he took me to the bank to open my first bank account and helped me save up enough money to buy one. Years later, he taught me not only how to drive but also the basics of car maintenance — he showed me how to check the oil, change a flat tire, top up the windshield washer fluid.

When I was just seventeen and adventurous, I decided I wanted to drive 300 miles to visit my great-aunt in the city I was born in, and he agreed to let me take the family car. He drew a map for me of how to get there while avoiding the craziness that was Toronto traffic at the time. My mother, who couldn’t drive herself, came along with me, but in contrast to my dad’s calm assumption that I’d do just fine, she prayed surreptitiously most of the way. She was a good sport, though, and we had quite a few laughs along the way.

I was lucky — both my parents raised me with a strong sense of ethics and taught me how to be an independent woman. When my husband and I decided not to have children, they supported our right to make that decision for ourselves.

Not all young women in the world have had that encouragement and respect, so the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, just around the corner on March 8, is so important because it’s also a celebration of equality for all genders, whether female, male or any other. The theme this year is EachforEqual, which speaks to exactly that point.

There’s a photo contest attached to the event, but I’m not a competitive person (except when playing Backgammon, at which I’m ruthless 😀 ), so I’m happy to just post my own photos of wonderful females from my travels.

Flower arranger, Lima Peru
Group of lively girls dressed up for a Day of All Souls parade, Camana Peru
Ladies selling handmade dolls, Arequipa Peru
Samburu women with their spectacular beaded neckpieces, Samuru Kenya
A mother elephant protects her baby, Samburu Kenya
The sisterhood, Masai Mara Kenya
Grandmother making flour, Uros Floating Island, Lake Titicaca Peru
Young woman herding llamas, Andes Mountains Peru
Girl selling handwoven reed cup, Khwai village Botswana
A devoted mother

How can we love a world that’s in such turmoil?

Pestilence, fires, plagues of locusts and political chaos – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen are loose!

But none of that has changed the fact that our world is a beautiful, fascinating place.

We are a global family. Maybe we’re as dysfunctional as regular families often are, but we are nonetheless all linked together in a world-wide ecosystem. We need to stay connected to each other on a deep personal level, to understand, to help, to educate.

We need to preserve our global home, which as humans we have resoundingly trashed, there’s no doubt about that. People are afraid for our future, and so some extreme solutions are being proposed.

There has been a lot of travel shaming recently, with suggestions ranging from don’t fly to don’t travel at all. While the coronavirus situation will certainly have an effect on our travel decisions until it’s over, I think the environmentally-prompted messages to stop travelling completely are completely wrong.

Travel is one of the greatest educators we have available to us. I don’t say ‘tourism’, I say authentic, respectful and responsible travel. There is simply no substitute for visiting another place and experiencing it first-hand –  talking to the people who live there, sharing their food, seeing the wildlife in its own natural habitat, getting a feel for what another culture is truly like.

The slipyard where RMS Titanic first took shape

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland last fall. I’m a huge Titanic buff, so the opportunity to stand on the slipway where the epic ship was built in Belfast was an amazing experience, but so was the Black Cab tour that we took to gain an in-depth understanding of the Troubles. Belfast is a lovely city with lovely citizens who were so warm and welcoming, but we could feel how fragile the peace is, and how worried everyone was about the repercussions of Brexit.

Going on an adventure teaches you resilience, and often a lot about yourself at the same time. Visitors to Africa often find it a transforming experience on many levels, and TripSavvy lists a safari as one of their 10 Most Romantic Adventure Trips You Can Take.

Samburu Reserve

On a trip to Kenya we spent some time in remote Samburu reserve, where tall giraffe and red-tinted elephants wander among the thorn trees nearby and purple hills roll away into the hazy blue air for as far as the eyes can see. We stood on the rust-coloured ground, and I had the most profound feeling of having stepped back in time through eons to when the world was new, and we might have been the only creatures upon it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I wasn’t alone in having it.

Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been the unscripted interactions with local life.

One night in Bali, after suffering from a migraine all day, I asked my hubby if we could just go up to the restaurant on the roof our our beach resort. It had a Mexican theme, which was oddly the rage in the main city of Denpasar at the time, and our eating there was more a matter of convenience than expecting great food. It was a hot, humid night, but the cooler air on the rooftop was soothing. We were the only patrons, and the entire restaurant staff trickled slowly out to chat with us as we enjoyed the truly excellent Mexican meal they made for us. They pulled up chairs around our table and asked us all kinds of questions about Canada, including “What do you do when it snows?”, to which we replied, “We go to work just like usual.” They were flabbergasted that we would drive in the snow. It became one of the most memorable nights of our trip through southeast Asia.

In the town of Chivay in the Andes, our tour stopped for lunch before lurching up to the top of Colca Canyon to watch the huge condors fly. The restaurant owners kept a pet alpaca in the courtyard, which my hubby and I were immediately drawn to. For some reason the friendly little camelid decided that my hubby’s hiking pants looked really appetizing, and we laughed as it tried determinedly to snag a bite out of one pant leg.

Staying at home teaches you nothing. Staying at home stunts our burgeoning sense of connectedness.

Staying home will only promote insularity, xenophobia and fear, and people do terrible things when they’re afraid. When we travel, we begin to understand how alike we are to other people on our planet. We share the same joys and the same pains, the same desire to share life with someone special, the same need to leave some small legacy behind. The differences in how we approach these are what makes each culture so rich and fascinating.

There’s no substitute for sitting in a restaurant overlooking the lights of Hong Kong harbour at night, trying to look elegant while attempting to spear your slippery scallop with a jade chopstick. In a small town about half an hour away from Vienna, my mother’s best friend embraced her as they reunited for the first time since  nursing together during WW2 50 years before, then served us rich coffee and a delectable Austrian torte in her flower-filled house. In Cairo we ate mezze in a dim restaurant filled with the aromatic smoke from huge pans of sizzling falafel. We had afternoon tea in New Zealand while watching, and feeling, Tongariro volcano rumble in irritation on the near horizon.

The wonder of standing in the Temple of Heads at Tiwanaku, one of the most enigmatic archeological sites in the world, where an ancient civilization flourished so high in the Bolivian Andes that they were above the tree line and had to invent new techniques to grow food, is something you have to experience in person. As is having breakfast in the morning sunlight as the mighty Zambezi river flows swiftly by just a few feet away..

What we need is for travel suppliers to find more sustainable ways to provide their services, and as travelers it’s equally our responsibility to be good guests. That means:

Many suppliers are indeed looking at improving their environmental footprint. Expo 2020, taking place in Dubai from October 20 2020 to April 10 2021, will include a climate-focused event that “looks to further advance the conversation, and encourage action on climate and sustainability issues that are leading to an increase in natural catastrophes.” As citizens of the world, let’s do our part and be responsible travellers.