Jungle Sounds

What stays with you long after you’ve left the Amazon aren’t the sights, but the sounds — that enchanting, ever changing symphony that is with you from the moment light enters your eyes right up until you disappear deep into the best sleep of your life.

Our visit to the jungle took us to Puerto Maldonado, a rather unattractive city near the Bolivian border. After crossing over the Andes, our plane slowly descended over a seemingly endless flat green carpet, punctured only by a rich brown river that twisted and snaked its way through the Peruvian jungle. That river was the Madre de Dios and, after nearly an hour upstream on a long boat, its shores would be our home for the next three days and nights.

Those days would be filled with excursions — hikes, canoe trips, canopy walks — through an ecosystem unlike any other. We were struck by the size of it all. You know how they say everything’s bigger in Texas? Well, if Texans ever waltzed down to the jungle, they’d head home with their tail between their legs. We were also overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of plant life, a seemingly endless array of trees and plants intertwined with one another.

But mostly it was the sounds… if I close my eyes I can still hear the jungle surrounding me.

The view — and the sounds — from our cabana

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Dawn boat ride on the Madre de Dios River

Dining with the Limoncellos

It doesn’t take long to take in the sights of Peru’s rather dreary capital, leaving plenty of time to graze through a city that has rightfully earned a reputation as South America’s gastronomic epicenter.

Old Lima remains the city’s commercial hub and contains some spectacular Spanish architecture well worth a visit. When you decide it’s time for a break, Bar Cordano is a central Lima institution dating back to 1905 — its decor is a step deep into the city’s colonial past. Businessmen take their lunches there and the menu, like most places we visited, is as voluminous as a New England diner’s. But what Bar Cordano does superbly, and superbly cheap, is the jamon sandwich. In full view to all who enter through its faded wooden doors, there’s jamon de norte and jamon de pais, two hulks of ham from the country that sit atop the bar, alongside a mound of fresh rolls and a big slab of queso. A tall beer washes it all down and before you know it you’re back in the Plaza de Armas soaking in the palace and churches.

20130907-184214.jpg Making a jamon de norte con queso sandwich at Bar Cordano

Of course Lima, nestled on cliffs overlooking the Pacific, is best known for its ceviches. Fresh fish is being chopped and marinated in a spicy blend of citrus at every moment and in every corner of this city. And while it may be hard to find a bad batch, finding a great one takes a little time and effort. Our favorite was Sonia, located in the working class seaside neighborhood of Barranco. Sonia has been making ceviche utilizing every possible ocean critter for 33 years. Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour, is a great accompaniment, but don’t overlook the leche de tigre (or “tiger juice”) — that’s the marinade from the ceviche itself and… maybe I should let you discover that one for yourself.

20130907-172650.jpgShrimp ceviche at Sonia

Lima’s restaurant scene continues to go upscale, with brilliant chefs taking a stab at novo andino cuisine. One of them is Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who recently opened Amaz in the upscale Miraflores neighborhood. Amaz has already been reviewed in the New York Times and featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Amaz was, well, amaz. The highlights were paiche, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, served in a chorizo sauce, and a flawless lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian steak stir-fry.

Before we departed for the airport, there was time for one last bite. It would be one of my favorites and a fitting end to two weeks in Peru. La Lucha is a hopping sandwich joint in the heart of Miraflores, and when we got there at 7 on a Friday night, a crowd of Limonites (or as I persisted on calling them: Limoncellos) were already queuing to place their orders and jostle for a table. On the advice of the guy behind me, who claimed he had been five times in three days, I ordered the chicharrón, a fried pork sparerib sandwich with sweet potatoes, red onions, and a ubiquitous Peruvian hot sauce called aji. Add fries — “las mejores del Peru” according to the menu; who am I to argue? — and a Pilsen and I knew I would sleep well on my red eye home.

20130907-172125.jpgThe chucharrón at La Lucha

Machu Picchu!

No words or pictures can ever do the centerpiece of the Incan empire justice. Nestled among endless peaks and valleys deep in the Andes, the colossal series of homes, temples, astrological signs, and agriculture terraces is awe inspiring and worthy of its status as one of the great wonders of the world.

I could barely sleep the night before. We would rise at 3:30, fill up on Nutella and peanut butter, and line up at the gate. The park rangers don’t permit you to commence the final approach to Machu Picchu until dawn due to its treacherous nature — while relatively flat, many parts of the narrow trail hug a cliff with a precipitous drop off. So we cranked up some music on our iPhones (“Blurred Lines!”), turned our head lamps into strobe lights, and had an impromptu dance party.

The sheer size of Machu Picchu makes it difficult to soak it all in. I asked Renaldo, who had been doing this trek for 13 years, how many times he had been there. “Over a thousand.” Do you ever get tired of it? “Never.” I could see why.

Eventually it was time to leave, but before I did there was one final climb: Wayna Picchu. That’s the pyramid-like mountain that you’ve seen in every photo jutting out just beyond Machu Picchu. A steep vertical ascent culminating 1,180 feet above the ruins, it’s just the sort of challenge my tired, sore legs needed after a 4-day trek. Despite my longing to kick off my dusty hiking boots and down a cerveza (or four), the extra work was well worth it, leading to its own set of ruins at the summit and a one-of-a-kind glimpse down onto the sacred site.

***

I’ve been blessed to travel to many great places around the globe, but Machu Picchu is the greatest I’ve ever seen. The natural beauty of the location and the exquisite manner in which the city was built into the mountain side make it a right of passage for any traveler. And if trekking for four days and sleeping in tents doesn’t appeal to you, know that there is a train that will take you directly there and back. (There goes your last excuse.)

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Inca Trail: Day 3

The Inca Trail is, of course, a journey to Machu Picchu, but along the way you pass through nearly a dozen other Inca sites, from simple check points for the couriers who served as a precursor to the two-legged Pony Express, to elaborate villages, temples, and agricultural terraces. The two most spectacular of these were Intipata and Wiñay Wayna, which alone made the journey as momentous as the ultimate destination.

And after the rain and snow, the sun shined down on us the third day. The trek of 6 miles consisted primarily of steep descents along 3,000 steps laid out by the Incas. It was truly the most epic day until…

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A view of the Andes from the ruins of Wiñay Wayna

Inca Trail: Days 1 & 2

After an early wake-up call and two-hour drive from Cusco, we arrived at kilometer 82, the starting point of the Inca Trail. Three days later we would look back on our first group photo and scarcely recognize the clean, naive faces in it. That first day was a long (8.7 mile), gradual ascent to about 11,000 feet. The weather was beautiful, perhaps lulling us into a sense of complacency, and the scenery was reminiscent of the Colorado Rockies — a river valley running through the Andes.

We met our amazing team of 14 porters (“the Green Machine”), our gifted guides Raul and Renaldo, and Super Mario, the incredible chef who ensured we didn’t lose so much as a tenth of a pound along the trek.

We went to bed early to the sound of raindrops on our tents…

The second day of the Inca Trail is universally regarded as the toughest. This section of the trail is 10 miles in length and rises to 13,829 feet — the highest point in the trek. Really, it’s challenging enough without rain. Followed by heavier rain. Followed by snow on the approach to the summit. Followed by still more rain.

Despite the adversity, we topped Dead Woman’s Pass, where we were rewarded with a queso sandwich, a hot cup of coca leaf tea, and (most importantly!) a shot of rum.

The rain would eventually give way as we brought our soaked selves into camp.

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Our guides Raul and Renaldo bringing up the rear on the second day’s climb to Dead Women’s Pass