BootsnAll Travel Network

Moving –

October 15th, 2009

After a few years we’ve decided that we should probably move along with our geeky selves and create a blog on our own domain. We’ll be trying some different posts while we’re over there, in an effort to be awesome. The guys at bootsnall are being nice enough to send us these files, so we should be moving the archives over shortly.

It’s also very easy to remember.


Buenos Aires Redux

October 8th, 2009

Sunday, we leave for Buenos Aires, Argentina for a one-month working holiday. We reserved an adorable studio apartment in the trendy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. We’re planning to sample a wide variety of Argentinean wine, and we’ll bring back a variety to share with our friends and family.

Almost exactly 5 years ago, we went on a whirlwind 4 day trip to this same city. Ever since we’ve been dreaming of re-visiting. We’re excited to explore the city more in-depth and revisit our favorite spots. No, we will not tango for you when we return, but we will take more pictures of people performing this amazing dance.



Another Inca Trail

May 31st, 2009

Lower Terraces of Choque The dry part  Llamas Rock

There are 3 sites widely regarded as the most important Inca ruins. Machu Picchu is by far the most well-known, studied, excavated, restored and easiest to access. Vilcabamba, the last Inca retreat during the Spanish war is technically accessible but has remained largely buried in the jungle since its rediscovery in the 1960s. Choquequirao’s current status is somewhere between those 2.

There are plans for a cable car or train in the coming decades, but currently the only way to access Choquequirao is an arduous 4-day trek there and back to the edge of civilization. After a 4-hour bus ride and 30-minute taxi ride from Cusco, you reach the small town of Cachora which has some hospedajes and a pollipaperia (hole in the wall serving up plates of french fries and fried chicken.) Cachora serves as the start of the hike. You can also hire mules here to carry your bags, but we decide to do it ourselves.

The first day of hiking is the “easy” day, where you only ascend 1500 feet and descend 4500 feet over a period of 12 miles. What complicates matters is the intense high-altitude sun reflecting off the dry, rocky landscape and the fear of falling into cactus.

Things get interesting on the second day which while only 6 miles begins with a steep 1000 foot drop before beginning a 5000 foot ascent. Fortunately, that trail quickly climbs into cloud forest, providing relief from the glaring sun. At the top of the climb, you can finally get your first good view of the ruins and while still a couple miles away they appear to be a relatively flat walk. Still, at noon, we have already been walking for 6 hours with our camping supplies on our back. We take advantage of the family-run campsites which provide basic meals of rice, eggs, and lentils, and relax for the rest of the day.

The next day, as we begin our short walk to the ruins, each bend unveils new sections from the citadel at the top down to the farming terraces barely perched above a sheer cliff face. We are ecstatic to drop off our bags before spending the day traipsing up and down the mountain searching out remote ruins.

The highlight of Choquequirao (and the draw for us to do this trek) is the llama terraces. They are the sole example of Inca’s incorporating art and religion into their stone walls. There are signs of active excavation and restoration works throughout the entire site. The llama terraces are currently receiving the most attention though with at least 10 full-time people working to clean and restore them. We were lucky to find the informative and talkative supervisor who explained the process of applying a plaster to the stones to brighten them and showed us the recent excavations.

It’s estimated that 70% of Choquequirao is still undercover, but even now it’s an overwhelming site about 3 times as large as Machu Picchu. After a full day of following aqueducts, entering maze-like chambers of temples, and pushing our legs to the limits on the giant steps of the Inca terraces, we realize we’ve only scratched the surface and could easily spend another day exploring this massive site.

But the next morning, we need to begin our return journey.  This is where carrying our own bags pays off. Groups that hired mules were forced to backtrack the same 21 mile route over the next 2 days which gave Cara nightmares.

Instead, we continue down the other side of the mountain with a knee-jarring descent that is too steep for mules. Even with our 6AM start, the sun is already brutal by the time we reach the base of the mountain, leaving us a scorching 6 mile climb to go until the lush lodge of Tambobamba. When we finally reach our destination, we have no shame in paying for a hot shower, drinking beers in hammocks all afternoon, and sleeping soundly in a bed. To top it off, the friendly lodge owner lets us tag along the next day on his drive to the tiny town of Huanipaca. From there, we take a 20-mile shared taxi up, up, and away and end up at a paved road where we successfully flagged down a sporadically passing bus headed home to Cusco a few hours away.

In 20 years, more of the Choquequirao ruins will be uncovered and the route will be easier (but don’t hold your breath on the train.) For now, however, this imposing journey and rustic camping are inseparable from a visit to these spectacular ruins and help limit visitors to about 10 per day. Given the wealth of Peruvian archaelogical wonders, in 80 years, Machu Picchu will be old hat; there will be a train even to Vilcabamba, and some site no one has ever heard of will be a new 7th wonder of the world.


In the Jungle

May 27th, 2009

Our lovely boat Us at our “lodge” Macaws

After our rat-infested, sweaty expedition into the Malaysian jungle 2 years ago, we felt we were prepared for anything the Amazon could throw at us. When our tour agency mentioned that sleeping bags were not included, we laughed. Who needs a sleeping bag in the jungle? Which is why we were shocked when we arrived in the middle of a friaje – a cold spell in the jungle when the winds come up from Patagonia.

Instead of sticky and 90 degrees, the jungle was sticky and 70 degrees and the mosquitoes were toned down. It turns out the amazon doesn’t even have the leeches that crawl after you while you walk! (They do have their own special giant leeches though!) These cold spells make the amazon jungle have slightly less reptiles than expected, but way more birds than you can imagine.

This cool, cloudy weather made for relatively comfortable sight-seeing as we boated for 10 hours up rivers lined with caymans, turtles, and birds galore, but our guide was freezing. Theoretically our tour was in the hands of Juan, our guide whose sole qualifications appeared to be speaking a few words of English and recognizing the calls of every macaw, parakeet, and other bird that flew overhead. In actuality, El Capitan ran the show, solving all problems with a large knife, continuously bailing out the ramshackle boat, spotting wildlife, and as needed clambering out of the boat to dislodge us from rocks in shallow parts of the rivers.

After 5 hours of boating up three increasingly smaller rivers, we stopped to camp at a remote homestead. We asked Juan how much further the next day to reach our “camping lodge”. El Capitan scoffed when Juan said 2 hours and curtly corrected him: “6!” It turned out El Capitan was right, and we would be going very deep into the jungle. That night, while we were eating dinner in our docked boat with a candle for light, the homesteader stopped by to inform us that one of his dogs had been bitten by a snake. Welcome to the Amazon!

The next morning, 6 hours in the boat went quickly as we spied caymans sleeping on the riverfront, playful capybaras (4 ft long guinea pigs), and countless colorful birds flying alongside the boat in spite of the cool weather. Then we arrived at our lodge, a great idea 10 years ago before it was devoured by termites. Though the common room and bathrooms were long gone, there were still 2 platforms for bedding covered by a mostly intact thatched roof overlooking the muddy river and surrounding jungle – rustic accommodations.

After seeing the jungle from the boat for 2 days, we were ready to don rubber boots and dive into the forest. Juan led us through the jungle for hours. During the day, we awaited screeching, vibrant macaws near their clay lick and spotted butterflies. At dusk, the monkeys started swinging through the trees above us. By the time night fell, the truly creepy things started emerging from the depths of the jungle. Alongside stick insects and tree frogs, there were small spiders, big spiders, and giant spiders awaiting their prey. We slept easier when we were encased in a tent. El Capitan slept soundly in the open boat.

On the third afternoon, we begin the trek downstream back to civilization, camping on a vacant beach. The cool weather starts to break, and we were devoured by insects while we sleep, the Amazon’s parting gift. We spend our last morning watching dozens of parrots eating clay and spying on turtles and caymans sunning themselves on the beach as the sun finally emerges. We spot our first large white mammals of the trip. Back at the rural airport, we spot hundreds more of these large white mammals. They must have gone downriver, where the lodges haven’t been eaten by termites; showers exist; and El Capitan isn’t there to cut his way out of problems.


Rocks in the Cloud Forest

May 18th, 2009

Misty Morning at Machu Picchu Orchids above the ruins

Two things are immediately apparent when you visit Machu Picchu. First, you are in the jungle. Second, the Incas were masters of molding mountains.

When we boarded the train 2 hours from Machu Picchu, the terrain was dry and rocky. Very quickly trees and vines took over the landscape offering ocassional glimpses of Inca ruins. On arrival, everything is lush, but you are in the horrible tourist trap of Aguas Calientes, still a grueling 1 hour climb or bus-ride away from the citadel 1,500 feet up. Climbing up through the clouds, the orchids are blooming, the birds are chirping, and the insects are biting. By the time you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, you have a new appreciation of the epic efforts necessary to build this city.

The trademark of Incan architecture is their precisely carved stones, creating temples and walls that fit together seamlessly like puzle pieces. Machu Picchu contains many of these. In addition, Machu Picchu shows off the Incan mastery over irrigation with a street of 16 still-functioning fountains. But what makes the city so impressive is its integation with the mountain. Natural out-croppings are carved into stairways and altars, the best example being the temple of the condor where 2 giant out-croppings form the wings of this bird deity.

In the early morning, Machu Picchu is coated in fog, hiding views of the surrounding mountains and the river below. It’s easy to see how it was lost for hundreds of years. A few hours later, when the sun burns through the mist, a complete view of the city emerges surrounded by lush forest and a dramatic mountain backdrop. Scores of magenta orchids dance in the sun as they dangle off the surrounding cliffside and fields of grass shine on the many terraces.

Machu Picchu is by far the most famous Inca settlement, but it gains this fame largely because of its magnificent location and its isolation from the Spanish conquerors. However, we were just as impressed by the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Tipon, and all are worthy destinations. Unfortunately, these sites, including Machu Picchu, are all left lacking in artistic appeal. All the excellent ceramics and textiles have been looted or removed to museums, leaving empty stone rooms with wild flowers attempting  to stand in for the previous splendor.


Food in Peru

May 13th, 2009

Trout Tartare

Traveling in Central America we very quickly got sick of the basics of rice, beans, and a side of meat. In Arequipa, Peru, we were delighted to learn that the basics were delicious from spicy stuffed peppers to sliced potatoes in a rich peanut sauce. In Cusco the basics continue to be tasty with their herb-laden soups and variations on fresh trout from stewed to fried to ceviche. But the truly spectacular restaurants in Peru combine these traditional specialties with the styles of other cultures executed to a high culinary quality.

In Peru, Gaston Acurio is Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and Giada De Laurentiis all rolled into one. His lofty goal is to spread Peruvian cuisine throughout the world ambushing countries one by one with an ingenious blend of local ingredients and Peruvia techniques. In his country Gaston has elevated the local cuisine to new heights and introduced foreign influences, from Japanese to Italian. For example, at his trattoria in an old monestary in Arequipa we enjoyed Italian food with an Arequipeñan twist such as saffron risotto stuffed into a spicy rocoto pepper and moist chicken ravioli swimming in a creamy puree of aji peppers and peanuts (aji de gallina ravioli).

Other restaurants in big cities of Peru have made similar culinary jumps and we have taken it upon ourselves to feast at a new high-end Peruvian restaurant every week. In Cusco, amidst the sea of bland restaurants offering grilled alpaca and baked guinea pig, there are some standouts creating delicious and inspired cooking. One of the best dishes we’ve enjoyed was at the artsy restaurant, Macondo. Shredded alpaca was marinated in lime, peppers, onions, spices and served in hollowed out citrus shells, an appropriate starter to a meal heavily influenced by Inkan basics.

These restaurants are great, but a more accessible option is Juanito’s, an ambitious shop one block from our apartment. They churn out sandwiches, french fries, and fruit juices using some of the best bread in town and your choice of 12 sauces ranging from tzatziki to chimichurri to ketchup. They serve you a Philly cheesestreak, an avocado sandwich, or Adam’s fave a sliced suckling pig sandwich stacked high with mini tamales.

From our daily lunch set menus at dive-ish restaurants to the nicest meals in city, it’s easy to be thoroughly impressed with Peruvian cuisine. Hopefully someday Gaston will have his wish and peruvian ingredients and food will be readily available throughout the world.

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The Week in Ruins

May 3rd, 2009

Inkan Lintel Cara at Pisaq

Yes, we are going to Machu Picchu, the most impressive Inca city still standing. No, we are not hiking the 4-day iconic Inca trail to get there. We realized that we would not enjoy the hike due to the mandatory guide, porters, and 198 other trekkers keeping us company. Fortunately, the Incas foresaw our dilemma and built dozens of other cities, fortresses, and religious centers with hundreds of trails connecting them. Unfortunately, they also had a penchant for building on mountain peaks.

When the Spanish colonialists arrived in Peru 500 years ago, they decapitated the Inca leaders, subjugated the native Peruvians, and systematically dismantled their buildings oftentimes converting them into churches as they converted the populace to catholicism. Machu Picchu was spared this defacement and destruction through obscurity, but time and neglect played their roles.

Over the last week, we have climbed over perfectly carved rocks, ingenious hydraulic works, and farming terraces at 8 different sites. The ruins in and of themselves require some imagination to envision what they once might have been. But they all share stunning locations with views of farmland, verdant rivers, forests, and snow-capped mountains. All these ruins can be reached by road, but the old footpaths are still being used by farmers today. Unlike the ruins, we are able to have the trails mostly to ourselves, soaking in the scenery and attempting to outpace the herds of sheep. We say “hola” to the passing farmers, but realize that to ask for directions, we would need to learn Quechua, a language inherited from the Inca civilization like the trails we follow.


Welcome to Cusco…massage?

April 30th, 2009

Cara working in the room Courtyard…ish Our house

If you shut your eyes, the center of Cusco could be interchanged with any backpacking tourist mecca around the world from Kathmandu to Bangkok to Bombay. With offers of guided tours, massages, and bland restaurant food amidst gaggling conversations of English, French, German, and Hebrew, you also want to put in ear plugs.

With eyes open, packed stone houses with terra cotta roofs lead away from the chaos way up to hills crowned with grass and trees. One of these nose-bleed houses will be our home until June.

In some ways, the neighborhood of San Blas is like the South Side Slopes in Pittsburgh: walking distance to chaos – if you have a strong heart and lungs – with breathtaking views of the city below. But tucked away on side streets in this neighborhood are candle-lit restaurants, eclectic shops, and quite a few bars and lavanderias. This was an irresistible combination for us, and luckily Pittsburgh has trained us for the many stairs.

Plastered on doors throughout this artsy neighborhood are postings for live music, lost dogs, and apartments for lease. Naturally, the door we knocked on was the home of a painter whose colorful works hang throughout the house. His influence is apparent in the wood furnishings, planked walkways, modern decor, and the vast array of windows overlooking the city. The mini-apartment also has the modern amenities of cable TV, kitchenette, and a hot shower complete with growing tree limbs entering from the courtyard.

Instead of a shower on these cold mornings we rely on strong stovetop coffee and a morning climb to a nearby bakery to wake us up. In peaceful Plaza San Blas, we eat our pastry and no one offers us a massage.


Goodbye, Arequipa

April 24th, 2009

Volcano Misti from Yanahuara

We will miss:

  • Mankalu and Sarza for the best set lunches around
  • Volcano Misti for its beautiful views wherever you are in the city
  • Sunny days and cool nights
  • The laundromat that spells Adam’s name “Aron” but always remembers us
  • The numerous plays, concerts, and art gallery shows
  • Evenings relaxing in the plaza and strolling the walk-street
  • Happy hours that last from 6pm to 11pm
  • El Gato for entertaining us and never actually biting us
  • Colonial House Inn for its generous and friendly staff, great location, and tranquil atmosphere

Chile Up There

April 23rd, 2009

Candelabra Cactus

When we rented a truck to visit Lauca National Park in Chile, we were shown the wrenches, jack, and spare tire. Jorge told us we would be fine as long as we had a full tank of gas. He also gave us his cell phone number so we could return the car after-hours. Unfortunately, jumper cables and a tow rope were not included with this rental.

The truck carried us from sea-level up to 12,000 feet. We quickly left the fertile valley of Arica, the northern-most town in Chile, entering the barren wasteland which lasted until 8,000 feet or so when the candelabra cactus begin to sparsely dot the rocky hillsides. Another 1,000 feet and wild brush joins the hillside. Yet further a few flowers and guanacos (a wild relative of the llama) add to the scenery. 2 hours later, by the time you reach Putre at 12,000 feet the gateway to the park, the hillsides are covered with alpine shrubs and the guanacos are starting to run out of breath. People should stop here for the night to avoid altitude sickness but we still had headaches in spite of spending the last month in Arequipa.

The next morning we awake refreshed and ready to go higher. Our truck does not. The first step to dealing with car trouble in tiny Putre is actually finding someone else who has a car and praying they have jumper cables. After 45 minutes we manage to talk to some construction workers who have a truck but no jumper cables but who call their coworkers who have both. For the next 45 minutes, 7 construction workers jump, push, fiddle with engine parts, and ultimately tow our truck around in circles in an effort to get it started. They finally give up and begin calling the Avis rental agencies on our behalf. The offices are all closed, but Jorge answers the third try to his cell phone, promising to send another vehicle. 3 hours later, Jorge’s promised vehicle arrives, and we are finally off to the park.

Vicuna younguns Vizcacha catching the last rays of sun A lake entirely too high

Until the sun sets, we spend the day with herds of vicunas (a wild relative of the alpaca with incredibly fine wool and lungs of steel), shy vizcachas, and flocks of flamingos feasting in lakes at an elevation of up to 15,000 feet. Snow-covered mountains tower over the already impossibly-high park where it’s easier for birds to hop around than fly in the thin air. We’re thankful for our truck which actually starts the next morning, but it wouldn’t have been too bad to be stuck up here another night.