Usually when I write these postcard posts, I end up writing way more than you’d find on the back of a 3X5 piece of paper. This time, I’ll make it quick. Last week my wife and I headed up to the sunny San Juan Islands for a little camping. We found a nice spot by a lake on Orcas Island and settled in for a couple of days of hiking, reading, and getting sun burned. This trip marks a shift for me personally and professionally (more on that in a future post) and it was a wonderful opportunity to breathe some fresh air. Life is moving quickly and I’m having trouble finding the words to sum it all up so I’ll end here and leave you with a couple more photos to enjoy. Cheers!
Primordial rainforest thick with strange bamboo and the spreading canopies of big trees. Rugged mountains flanked by black glaciers and streams that run as green as jade. Deep valleys cut by icy blades and filled with lakes bigger than most cities. This is Patagonia, the end of South America and to me, it felt like the end of the world. Continue reading
The country of Chile runs 2,700 miles down the Pacific coast of South America, from the arid reaches of the Atacama Desert in the north to the bitterly cold waters of the Drake Passage in the south. Almost smack-dab in the middle, you find the capital city of Santiago.
Maybe I’ve been gone for too long, but from the moment I left the airport, I got the feeling that I was home. I don’t know if it was the avocados, the wine, or the laid-back coastal vibe, but Chile — Santiago especially — felt like this crazy upside-down version of California. The landscape was familiar, the climate was too, and parts of Santiago could blend seamlessly into Los Angeles or San Francisco. Continue reading
It’s dry here. Drier than almost any other place on earth. You would have to go to some of the alien landscapes in the interior of Antarctica to find a place with less rainfall. On the bus ride from Arequipa to Tacna — a Peruvian outpost on the border with Chile — I couldn’t help but think the closest thing I had ever seen to the Atacama Desert were the photos sent back from Mars rovers. Sometimes the bus would travel for an hour without passing a single blade of grass or scrubby bush. The hills and mountains looked like barren and unmovable sand dunes of shale. Where we encountered life, it clung tightly to the sides of small rivers; desperate for water and shade. Continue reading
Colonial Arequipa was built from stones that look like they came from another planet and has a vibe like no other place I’ve visited in Peru. On the surface, this city with it’s gridded streets and familiar plaza-centric structure shouldn’t feel any different, but walking through it brought back more memories of southern Spain than Cusco or Puno. Continue reading
Four days ago I watched the outskirts of Cusco disappear in the rearview mirror of the bus. In these short few days of travel, I’ve already covered several hundred miles and visited two cities. The first was Puno, a town people visit mostly because it is on Lake Titicaca. The funny thing was, I never even got on the lake. Continue reading
Hey everybody, I know I haven’t written a postcard for a couple of weeks so I wanted to make this one really special. This week I have a video postcard to share and this one documents my trip to a curry house.
You might not think of Cusco, Peru as a place to eat curry but trust me, one can only eat so many potatoes and guinea pigs before you’re desperately searching for food from any continent other than South America — food with a little more flavor, food with a little more spice.
When we showed up at Korma Sutra curry house in the San Blas neighborhood, I got exactly what I was looking for. Apparently this restaurant is famous for a particularly spicy curry. One so spicy that you get a beer and a certificate of achievement if you can finish it. Of course I had to try. You can watch the video to see if I walked away with my prize or broke down in tears.
This last week was so full of adventure I am not sure where to start. I could talk about my visit to an organic farm, long walks in the Sacred Valley, visiting churches and temples, or hiking 11 miles above Cusco to see ruins.
I think, for the sake of brevity and my sanity, the place I will start is the one place everyone seems most excited to hear about. Machu Picchu is the more-or-less lost city of the Incas that splays out on a sloping hillside above the Urubamba River.
There are three ways to reach this wonder of the world. You can, if you are lucky enough to get one of the few coveted permits, hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. However, the majority of people take the train, which costs somewhere between $70 and $450 depending on how much luxury you want to travel in. The third option is to travel a precarious road around the backside of Machu Picchu to a hydroelectric plant and then walk or ride a local train the rest of the way.
My wife and I, along with my brother, my sister, and my friend Ben, chose the last option. That is how we found ourselves in the back of a Toyota hatchback bouncing down a road to the small town of Santa Maria located about 100 miles outside of Cusco.
When we pulled into Santa Maria the driver turned off the main road and onto a dirt road towards Santa Teresa, another small village on the way to Machu Picchu. The road followed the Urubamba River and rose steadily for a few miles. Soon the canyon began to narrow and the road climbed higher on the cliffside.
At some points the canyon wall was almost completely sheer. It was so steep that the road looked like a three-sided tunnel. There was canyon wall above, below, and on one side. On the other side loose gravel tumbled a thousand feet or so to the river below. (To see a video of this trip click here)
After about a half hour of tense driving, the canyon widened and the road switchbacked down to Santa Teresa. As we continued to the hydroelectric plant we saw the scars of past floods of the valley floor. Huge boulders were piled on top of each other and the remains of concrete suspension bridges stood twisted in the middle of the river.
Peru is famous for its variety of ecosystems. During the few hours we spent in the car, we passed from a steamy valley to a dusty canyon and back to a lush river valley. As we approached the first hydroelectric work the landscape was overwhelmed by thick vegetation and lush jungle crept toward us.
We unloaded our car and began the 10 kilometer walk along train tracks to Aguas Calientes — base camp for most visitors to Machu Picchu. Our hike included about 1,000 feet of climbing from 5,800 to 6,800 feet above sea level, but after living in Cusco (11,000 feet above sea level) I hardly noticed it.
The train tracks took us right along the river. The air was humid but not stifling and it was filled with birdsong. We passed many small settlements where women sold drinks and snacks to refresh hikers. The sun had fallen behind the mountains by the time Aguas Calientes was in sight but its light was still reddening the clouds above us. We found our hotel, took showers, grabbed some food and turned in early.
The next morning we woke up before 4 a.m., ate a quick breakfast at the hotel, and walked down to the bus stop. By 5:30 the bus was slowly climbing the Hiram Bingham Highway to Machu Picchu. A few minutes later and I was sprinting up stone steps to an overlook where I hoped to capture sunrise.
As I ran, I had two things on my mind; reaching the top before sunrise and before other photographers snagged all the good spots. When I scrambled over the last stair and onto a terrace with a panoramic view of the ruins I realized my race was pointless.
The high mountains around Machu Picchu pushed sunrise back about half an hour further than I had expected and unlike so many other famous places I have visited, there wasn’t another photographer in sight. In fact by the time the sun came up, there weren’t even that many people at the ruins.
Compared to a place like Angkor Wat, the contrast was shocking. There hundreds of photographers with insane amounts of expensive gear had turned up before dawn to shoot sunrise over the famous temple. Here I was one of two people who even bothered to bring a tripod.
After lots of group photos overlooking the ruins we started exploring with the help of our guide. I think the thing I found most interesting about Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire is how little people actually know about it. For instance, depending on who you ask, Machu Picchu could be a fortress, a temple, a convent, a palace, a vacation home, or even a portal for communicating with beings from other worlds.
Our guide preferred simple answers and said he thought it was just another city, albeit a city with an amazing view and likely some importance within the empire. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him that it was actually a military base where royal warrior nuns trained to fight extraterrestrials.
The other thing that caught my attention was how recent the Incan civilization actually was. Some of the most famous ruins around Cusco were only 30 years old when the Spanish put the Incas’ empire building to an end by doing some of their own.
After we finished exploring the ruins, we opted for the thousand or so feet of stairs that lead down from Machu Picchu to the valley floor instead of taking the bus to Aguas Calientes. Once we reached the river we crossed to the other side and followed the train tracks in the opposite direction we had the day before.
At one of the small outposts along the tracks we paid a few soles to enter a large garden that included two beautiful waterfalls and an abundance of greenery. The woman who owns the gardens also runs a small restaurant where we stopped for lunch. It had a great view of the Urubamba River and cozy picnic tables.
We hiked back to Aguas Calientes along the rails. By this time most of the group was footsore and tired so we found some park benches to nap on before we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo that night. Even though it was dark, the train ride is worth describing because of how bizarre it was.
The ride home was set to a soundtrack of thumping Peruvian techno. This was punctuated occasionally by native dancing in the aisles. About halfway through the ride, the staff donned expensive clothes woven with alpaca wool and proceeded to have a fashion show in the middle of the train. Keep in mind that I was half asleep for most of this which made it one of the more surreal travel experiences I’ve ever had.
We pulled into the Ollantaytambo station around 8 p.m., and were able to find a cleanish hostel for about $10 a person. We went out to dinner close to 9 p.m., and I think just about everyone was falling asleep in their plates. I don’t remember much after that except collapsing into bed. It had been a very full day.
(If you would like to see a map of our journey click here)
I’ve had so many adventures in the last week, it’s going to be hard to fit them all on the blog. My travel’s started last Monday when I packed up for three days of photography and interviews in two mountain villages where the NGO Threads of Peru works.
Threads is primarily an organization that promotes the native weavings of the Andean people around Cusco, but up until last week I hadn’t actually photographed any weaving for them. That changed after about two hours in the back of a Toyota Hilux. Continue reading
Last week I finally got a chance to get into a high Andean village. On Wednesday I traveled with a team from the NGO Threads of Peru to document a dye workshop in the community of Rumira, which is about an hour’s drive outside of Ollantaytambo on the eastern edge of the Sacred Valley. Roadwork meant walking about 20 minutes uphill out of Ollantaytambo to catch a bus that would take us the rest of the way up dirt road to Rumira.
If I hadn’t spent my childhood bouncing along mountain roads in my dad’s old Baja Bug, the ride might have been a little frightening, but as it was I just took in the scenery; the mountain streams, scraggly wildflowers, and ancient terraces build by Incan hands. The only real adventure we had on our way up was pulling another van out of a rut.
The van was on it’s way down the road when it hit a muddy patch and got wedged against the side of the mountain. All in all, I’d say getting stuck against the mountain was better than falling the hundred or so feet off the opposite side of the road. The rest of the ride was almost uneventful. In one spot we had to wait for some sheep to move off the road and in another we spun our tires a bit getting up a hill. Oh, and we also ran over a cat — our driver thought it was rather funny.
I was warned that the women in Rumira might be camera shy so I began slowly. I did a lot of listening and observing of the dyeing process, which at the time I arrived mostly consisted of lighting fires to boil water over. The photography I did do was mostly through my long lens (70-200mm). Once the fires got going and the water was hot, the real work got underway.
The woman used several different natural dyes to create a number of colors from yellow to purple. Some of the dyes included crushed insects and various minerals. If you’re interested you can read more about the dyeing process on Threads of Peru’s website and you can also check out the three-part series I’m writing for Threads’ blog (see links below).
At one point I asked our guide, Urbano, to introduce me to each woman so I could shoot a posed portrait and have names to go with the faces. When we did this, the women’s shyness was apparent — Rumira is close to major tourists attractions but it is also fairly traditional and not often visited. I got a few decent shots but mostly a lot of hiding.
I took a ton of photos during the day — close to 650 — and filled up 8GB of memory cards. It didn’t take very long for the women to start ignoring me and allowing me to work closer. I’ve fallen in love again with my 50mm f1.4 and I used that for most of the day.
In some places (my mind goes to northern Zambia) you can get really great posed portraits, but in others shooting candids is the best bet; the villages around Cusco fall into the latter category. Of course shooting candid photos can yield some great results.
Being foreign and male, my interaction with the women was somewhat limited but I did get to spend some time learning about the dyeing techniques from Daniel Sonqo, Threads’ master weaver. The results he and the women were able to achieve using only natural ingredients were impressive.
I did a little exploring in Rumira, which is actually two villages divided by stream, and got to know some of the kids. Most of them wore bright orange and red ponchos, and were either camera-shy or complete hams. One kid seemed to have a sixth-sense and would instantly strike a pose when he felt my camera pointed at him — even if I was shooting from 20 feet away.
The skies were overcast all day and rain fell a couple of times. Standing outside by the dyeing fires was cold, smoky, and often damp, but I loved it. There is something powerful in these mountains; watching damp clouds slowly wash over rocky heights and seeing sheep graze in alpine meadows that slope steeply down.
We stayed in the community from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. It was a quick visit but enjoyable and productive all the same. I had the pleasure of shaking the hand of one of the older weavers before we left. We both exchanged goodbyes in our second langue; Spanish (many people outside Cusco learn Quechua as their first, and sometimes only, language).
On the way home I sat facing backwards on a bench behind the van’s driver. We left Rumira the same way we entered, but the landscape was still new and exciting. I remember passing through a striking valley with grey walls that crumbled into grey boulders along the road. Along the valley’s floor grew a scrubby bush with small yellow flowers and near the bushes flowed the same river we worked by in Rumira. The unsaturated tones of the rock made the hues of the flowers even more brilliant.
We arrived in Ollantaytambo a little before four in the afternoon and caught a taxi back to Cusco. The drive between the two cities takes a little more than an hour and passes through some of the Sacred Valley’s most spectacular vistas, made all the more brilliant by the setting winter sun.
Cusco is an interesting city; full of history, colonial architecture, and compelling traditions. But after spending the day in the Sacred Valley, it’s hard not to notice the dust, the noise, and the smell of urban life. I’m grateful that I get to live here and I’m even more grateful for the chance to get out.
(My work in Rumira will be posted as a three-part blog on Threads of Peru’s website. As the stories post, I’ll link to them here:)
This past week we finally had a chance to escape the cobbled streets of Cusco and get some of that fresh (and thin) Andean air. Sonya and I hiked out to a place called Chacán Cave in a valley near Cusco. The place was pretty amazing and we got to catch glimpses of local life along the way. If you happen to read this blog and also be in Cusco, you can see a detailed trail report here. It should give you all the information you need to retrace our route.