Tag Archives: Travel

man crossing qeswachaka bridge and ruins below

Podcast: Crossing Qeswachaka Bridge

Posted by on June 21st, 2012

One of the most amazing adventures I’ve had in Peru was a trip to a hand-woven rope bridge called Qeswachaka about 150 km outside of Cusco. And no matter how you spell it ( Qeswachaka, Q’eswachaka, Keswachaka, Qeshuachaca, Queswachaca, or Qheswachaka) visiting the bridge was an incredibly unique experience.

Every year the bridge is rebuilt after the old one is cut loose and dropped into the water below. Hundreds of people join in the effort to weave the new bridge from grass even though there is a new wood and metal bridge upstream. The tradition brings communities together for hard work, lots of food, and even more fun.

If you would like to learn more about the history behind this festival, you can view an article I wrote for Apus Peru here.

While we were at the festival, my brother and I started working on a podcast. We put it together when we got home with the help of my good friend Ben Ayers. Click the play button to listen. I hope you enjoy it! (More photos below)

Right click here and select “save link as” to download the podcast.

Click on thumbnails to launch slideshow

andean boy wearing a poncho

Postcard: Mountain Villages

Posted by on June 13th, 2012


Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/1000 @ f/2.0, ISO 400

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

Postcard Rumira-6

Postcard: Rumira

Posted by on May 29th, 2012

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/500 @ f/2.2, ISO 200

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.

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/800 @ f/2.5, ISO 200

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).

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/1000 @ f/2.5, ISO 200

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.

Canon 40D, 50mm, 1/1250 @ f/2.5, ISO 200

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.

Canon 40D, 200mm, 1/1000 @ f/4, ISO 400

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:)

The Color of the Andes Part 1: Getting There

The Color of the Andes Part 2: The Process

The Color of the Andes Part 3: The People


Photos of Cusco 58 Years in the Making

Posted by on May 20th, 2012

La Compania was undergoing heavy restoration during the filming of the Secret of the Incas. Today it's one of the city's major landmarks.

In 1954 the movie Secret of the Incas hit movie screens in America. It’s probably best remembered as a huge inspiration for the Indiana Jones series. There’s even one scene where beams of light are reflected through a series of mirrors to reveal a treasure — just like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the movie itself is interesting for a number of other reasons; one of them being the early looks at Cusco and Machu Picchu on film.

Last week I was had a conversation over at the South American Explorers Club about how much Machu Picchu has been rebuilt since it appeared in Secret of the Incas, and that got me thinking about how Cusco might have changed too. I watched the film again (it’s available on Netflix) and looked for all the scenes with exterior shots of the city.

When one flashed on the screen, I captured it for later reference. Once I had ten photos, I loaded them onto my Kindle and went out on a photographic scavenger hunt. It was surprisingly easy to track down the locations because Cusco hasn’t changed much in 58 years. From 1954 to 2012 the most noticeable changes are the streetlights and trees which now fill the plazas.

In my photos, I wasn’t going for exact copies of the scenes from the film (in some cases trees now block the view or replicating the shot would require standing in the middle of a busy street). What I wanted to show was a clear before/after view of the Cusco landmarks.

Below you can find the results of my scavenger hunt along with the some interesting tidbits about how things have changed. You can view a map of these locations here. Continue reading

Climbing Cuesta Santa Ana-2

Podcast: Climbing Cuesta Santa Ana

Posted by on April 12th, 2012

So we’ve been in our new apartment for almost a week now, but I thought it would still be worth posting something about the guesthouse we were staying in when we first arrived in Cusco. Mostly because that guesthouse was reached only by one very brutal uphill climb through painfully thin air.

I decided the best way to tell this story was in audio format. This is the first time I’ve put together a podcast and it’s still a little rough around the edges, but a fun experiment nonetheless.

Click the play button below to listen.

Still Alive in Cusco

Posted by on April 6th, 2012

Hey friends, sorry for the absence of pictures and stories from our new life in Cusco. Looking for apartments has been crazy but we’re really close to being settled. Once that happens, I promise to keep a better posting schedule. For now I humbly offer a single photo of an Andean dancer from a recent festival in the city’s main plaza. Hang in there, more to come soon.

P.S. I think I’m sticking with the “s” spelling of Cusco. While not official, it seems like the most commonly used.

Cuzco Ho-3

Cuzco Ho!

Posted by on March 28th, 2012

I thought about writing my first entry from Cuzco (or Cusco or Qo’sqo if you want to get all fancy) as a postcard but it didn’t seem right to put the city I’m going to live in for the next several months into the same category as those places I pass through in a couple of days.

I’ll start this post by saying, getting to our new home was a grueling trip. Long layovers, exhausting flights, miscommunication, sleep deprivation, multiple security checks, none-too-friendly immigration officers, and lugging a hundred pounds of gear made this one of the most stressful and taxing journeys I have ever made.

Sitting in Lima’s terminal, my spirits were pretty low. I had gotten about seven hours of sleep in the last two days and I felt burnt out from all the stress. We boarded our flight to Cuzco around 6:30 in the morning. Even before the wheels left the ground, my eyelids were collapsing.

I don’t remember what woke me up — it might have been turbulence, it might have been the fatigue induced nausea — but whatever it was, when I opened my eyes my mood started changing, for the better. To my side, distorted only slightly by the water streaked and stained windows, I saw the narrow coastal plain of Peru rise abruptly. Brown hills, green mountains, white peaks in turn passed below me. I watched as streams left glacial lakes and fell staggering distances into steep valleys lost in shadow.

As we flew higher, I saw a thick layer of clouds breaking on sharp peaks like ocean waves. Soon all was lost to whiteness. “What a country,” I said to Sonya. She was asleep. “What a country.”

I slept in vignettes for the next 30 minutes and woke up just in time for our plunge into Cuzco. I call it a plunge because words like descent or landing don’t quite do justice to the experience of arriving in the old Incan capital. When I had fallen asleep, the clouds were unbroken but now summits loomed unsettlingly close, like icebergs adrift on the same white sea our airplane floated on.

The pilot turned our craft in a full circle; nowhere, save for those menacing peaks, did I see ground. Now I realized that we were going to dive blind through the clouds, with only the flight instruments as a guide. Clouds don’t seem so soft and fluffy when you realize solid rock could loom unseen behind any one of them.

Soon though, the world opened up to me again and I saw we were flying through a valley with hills, still lush and green from the rainy season, rising high on both sides. Cuzco now came into view with all of its red tile roofs and square concrete houses. I was still delirious from the sleep deprivation but my adventurous spirit was alert and only beginning to wake up.

The short drive from the airport to our guesthouse so full of new sights that is hard to put it down in writing. One thing I will recount were the roads. Tire-polished cobble stones rose steeply from the city’s center and whipped around  switchbacks that looked more like hiking trails. Whenever our driver approached one of these he wouldn’t let off the gas but rather lay on the horn as a warning for anyone coming the other direction.

We wound through narrow alleys and up hills that sapped every last bit of horsepower from the tiny station wagon. Our guesthouse was perched on top of Cuesta Santa Ana, a stair-lined street with an impossible slope that fell away to an awesome view of the central Cuzco. At 11,000 feet above sea level, even walking up small flights of stairs left us huffing.

To fight altitude sickness, we sipped tea made from coca leaves but the effects were almost disappointingly mild. So mild in fact that after consuming the base product of the world’s favorite illegal upper, we fell soundly asleep and didn’t wake up until late afternoon.

When I did wake up, I set out on foot in search of water. The local markets only carried small bottles so I asked the receptionist at the guest house where the nearest supermarket was. Armed with a hand-drawn map I descended Cuesta Santa Ana. The trip down the stairs was easy, even fun, the trip up was less so. Ladened now with five liters of water and a bagful of groceries, I plodded slowly upwards, mouth agape, pulling thin air into my lungs.

When I reached the guesthouse gate I turned back to look at the steps I had just ascended and down on the city. When I looked, I had a suspicion that I was falling in love with Cuzco. My trip into the center of the city had taken me past colonial churches, Incan stone work, and crumbling plaster. When I looked at the architecture I noticed that something was missing — advertising. Sure, every shop had a sign and I had seen a few billboards at the airport but that was nothing compared to some of the places I’d visited in Asia.

Cuzco feels like its own city. Like anywhere in the world, western influence is a factor, but this city has somehow managed to keep a soul. How many other places in the world could you walk up to a McDonalds and only realize that it was a McDonalds after you had stepped under a stone colonnade and peered through the windows?

Sonya and I walked onto the roof of our guesthouse right before sunset where we saw Cuzco open panoramically before us. Rainclouds darkened much of the city, but off to the east we could see a mountain, snow sheeted, glowing yellow in the late afternoon sun. Below us people walked in plazas and church bells rang.  If I read what I am about to say somewhere else, I would dismiss it as a travel writer’s hyperbole, but I promise this is what really happened; as we stood there tracing old stones with our eyes and embracing against the mountain breeze, the soft sounds of a pan flute drifted up from somewhere in the cobbled streets below.


Death Valley-3

Postcard: Death Valley

Posted by on February 22nd, 2012

I took advantage of the long weekend and headed out to Death Valley with my brothers and dad for some hiking. The plan was to summit Telescope Peak but heavy snow kept us from reaching the 11,000 foot summit. Still, it was a great opportunity to carry my camera into a National Park and grab a couple of photos.

I love the light you find in high desert mountains. Some of the best light came right after we arrived back at camp from our hike. I was tired but managed to drag myself over to my camera and snap a few pictures of the last sunbeams as they shown under storm clouds (see first image).

Part of the reason I went on this trip was to see how I would do in the rarefied air of Cusco. When I turned back on a saddle below the summit I was exhausted but not dealing with altitude sickness, I’m sorry to say the same can’t be said of my companions who came down with me.  With the fear of altitude sickness lessened, I’m counting down the days until I hit the road for Peru.


Eating my way through Texas

Posted by on February 16th, 2012

Last month I spent a week out in Texas visiting family and eating an exorbitant amount of food. I also managed to get in a couple of photos and a little writing done while I was there. What I came home with was a story on barbecue; more to the point, a story that contrasted West Texas barbecue to Santa Maria barbecue.

You can read my story and see more of the photos over at the Santa Ynez Valley Journal. My old editor at the Journal has been kind enough to keep some assignments heading my way during this downtime between Thailand and Peru. Speaking of which, my wife and I finally got our tickets booked to Cuzco. We arrive in the city on March 27 and hopefully we will start getting adjusted to Peruvian life (not to mention the altitude) right away.

Chiang Dao-2

Postcard: Chiang Dao

Posted by on January 2nd, 2012

Our travels (and blog posts) have slowed down during the last few weeks. We rendezvoused with family in Chiang Mai where we spent the holidays enjoying company, eating good food, and seeing the sights. There is plenty to tell about Chiang Mai but I’ll save that for another time.

The only real travel we’ve done since arriving was a two night excursion into the Northern Thai countryside near Chiang Dao. Our first stop was an elephant training center that offered treks through the jungle via pachyderm.

The only other time I’ve ridden an elephant was at the circus. I was young and my memory is foggy but I have a vague recollection of a dark tent, a sad elephant that walked in small circle, and crying because I thought I was going to fall off. Continue reading


Postcard: Bangkok

Posted by on December 20th, 2011

I’ve been to Bangkok twice on this trip. The first visit was an off kilter race through the city shrouded in the haze of jet lag. The second, slower-paced visit, lasted about five days. I spent the first half of that time in bed, Sonya did the same with the latter half. Between the jet lag and our collective infirmities, there was a single day of clarity in Bangkok. A day when we got out, saw the sights, ate the food, and managed to remember what we were doing.

Seeing the city that way seemed almost appropriate — maybe even metaphorical. Bangkok is a place blanketed in haze, darkened by the shadows of tall buildings, and obscured by the blue smoke of the motorized masses. The maze of roads, alleys, and canals is disorienting. Here, getting lost in the crowd isn’t an existential worry but a very practical one. When the moments of clarity do arrive, it’s like wiping away a fine layer of soot from a wall, what’s buried beneath seems all the brighter.

When I try to wipe the soot from my own memories, they come back in short vignettes. Grey buildings pass by train windows. Tuk-tuk drivers shout over the roar of busy streets. Gleaming temples reach to the sky while piles of flood debris are strewn around their white walls. Pop music thumps from smokey bars where tourists gather to look at other tourists. Everything moves fast, everything is loud, everything is intoxicating.

I remember riding on the skytrain, looking out the windows while grasping yellow handrails. Below me a war raged on the streets. Taxis, buses, motorbikes, pedestrians, and bicycles scrambled forward, jostling for every inch of pavement and sidewalk.

I remember stepping out of the skytrain into oppressive heat. I remember the smell of food, smoke, and still water rising from the streets. It’s daytime and the sun scorches the pavement in front of me. I wait for someone, anyone to cross the road, thinking it suicide to go alone. A monk in saffron robes steps into the street, I follow him. I reach the other side alive. Continue reading

Siem Reap-11

Postcard: Siem Reap

Posted by on December 13th, 2011

When the throngs of tourists leave Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is about the only place to go. It’s a small town turned bustling city by a steady flow of dollars from eager travelers putting checkmarks on their bucket lists. That influx of cash has made Siem Reap something of a boom town where luxury hotels rise from dusty streets and waves of scooters break around Range Rovers.

For tourists, most activity centers on Pub Street. Located a short walk from the river, Pub Street loosely defines a collection of restaurants and shops that spill into side streets and line pedestrian alleyways. French, Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian restaurants compete for diners and proudly display their specials on chalk boards. “Free beer after 3:00.” “Buy one cocktail get one free.” “After they taste our food, they come back.”

I’m not sure that last one was a special, but it might have been. On the roads around Pub Street, tuk-tuk drivers prowl like sharks circling a school of fish. “Helloo sir, you want tuk-tuk. No? Maybe tomorrow? Very good price.” This ritual repeats every few feet, only punctuated by the occasional offers of having tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet. In case the thought of putting your feet in a fish tank is unappealing, most have “no piranha,” written on the side. How comforting. Continue reading