South America

19th July
2010
written by Ilana

Some Background:
Lots of people ask us if we planned our trip in advance.  We knew that wherever we started in South America, we would need to reach Buenos Aires for our flight to Melbourne on Aug. 25th to celebrate Bloom’s grandmother’s 90th birthday.  We had thought about starting as far north as Colombia, but we would have to move very quickly to get to Buenos Aires in time, so we chose to start in Peru and figured we would work our way through Bolivia and a bit of Argentina in a little over 7 weeks.  We knew we wanted to 1. Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu, 2.  See part of the Amazon basin, and 3. See Iguazu Falls.

The Inca Trail books up insanely quickly for the dry season (right now), so we booked it as far back as April, and even then the only date available to us was July 27th.  Since that was already booked we figured we would start in Lima and make our way down to Cuzco stopping along the coast and on the way.

We knew that along the way we wanted to go to Huacachina to hang out on sand dunes.  Mission accomplished.  We also knew we wanted to see Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca.

Arequipa
We arrived in Arequipa Tuesday morning after our 11 hour night bus, which was actually pretty great.  Bloom slept the entire time, while I kept imagining the bus crashing over the side of a mountain and would randomly jump up and look for my backpack, since I was convinced someone was going to steal it right out from under me.  I then watched “The Backup Plan” in Spanish.  So, although it was comfortable, the bus ride was not tons of fun for me, although I’m pretty sure Bloom would love to take that bus every night instead of sleeping in our hostels.

Ilana in the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa

Upon arriving in Arequipa I realized that I wasn’t feeling too well, and figured it was due to lack of sleep and went on with my day.  Our day consisted of going to different travel agencies and asking them about the best way to see the canyon.  It turns out that the only way to get into the canyon was to hike down and then hike back out, or you can just take a bus tour around the top of the canyon.  I figured that I’m tough, I can handle a hike into and out of a canyon!  Why not?  We then came upon the issue that the 3 day trek, which for some reason was less expensive than the 2 day, would have us returning to Arequipa an hour after Shabbos started.  We decided we would do the 3 day anyway, and if we couldn’t find a way to get the bus to get back earlier, we would wake up early on the 3rd day and take the local bus.

The Trek
Although I do generally think I’m tougher and stronger than I actually am, I had a sense that this trek would be trouble, since we were being picked up at our hostel at 3:30 AM.  That is a totally unreasonable time to start the day, especially when I knew I had not slept the night before.  Oh well, I figured I would sleep on the bus to the start of the trek, which was almost 5 hours.

At 3:10 AM there was banging on our door and a man walked in saying that it was time to go and that we were late.  Oh dear.  Our stuff wasn’t completely packed up and I had even left the bed yet.  This was bad news.  We rushed the hell out of there to find that no one else was in the bus aka van.  I thought that in Peru everything is always running late??  Whaaat.  Whatever, I figured I would just try to forget about the rush and go to sleep.  Before I slept the guide told us that the other people who were supposed to be trekking with us got food poisoning and could not come, so now the trekking group was me, Bloom and the guide.

I could not sleep on the van because it was maybe 5 degrees.  I was shaking with cold, and couldn’t feel my legs, and I realized my head was pounding and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  The guy behind me (a Canadian guy, although I was convinced he was European…am I terrible with accents??) mentioned that he thought we were on perhaps the world’s highest paved road.  That’s when it hit me.  I wasn’t just tired, I probably had altitude sickness.  I wanted to cry but I was too cold.

We got off the van to go to a lookout point where you can see condors flying early in the morning. I couldn’t walk from the van to the lookout.  I felt like everything was in slow motion and I couldn’t really breathe.  I tried to communicate this to the guide, but I don’t think he quite understood, since he responded by giving me oreos.  I looked around and everyone else seemed totally cool with the freezing cold and the altitude.  I figured that maybe I was just tired.

We then went to a village over the canyon where we ate lunch.  I was feeling too sick to eat, but I figured I always had the oreos for later.  We started walking to the canyon, and I walked at the pace of a 95 year old.  I kept insisting I would be better when we got lower into the canyon and into lower altitude.  As we got lower, it did get warm out, and I was able to breathe a little better.

However, even without altitude sickness, I am not in amazing shape.  I figured that I was in good shape.  I mean, I walk from the 60s to the 90s like every Saturday!  That’s a lot of blocks!  But alas, that was not enough to walk straight down a canyon for 4 hours.  I felt like someone was stabbing me in the knees, plus I still wasn’t breathing right.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 1

Colca Canyon. The oasis is down in the middle

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 1

We finally got to the bottom, and got to a small village that looked adorable.  The other groups were staying there, and there were people laying on the grass reading and writing in journals.  “We go to sleep in next village” the guide said, “One hour more walking.  Maybe one hour and a half.  Uphill only half hour.”  Uphill only half hour!  Was he serious!  “Look, if we don’t do this now, we’ll have to do it tomorrow and you won’t like that,” Bloom said to me.  He was right.  I wouldn’t like that.  Fine, I would get it over with, and maybe the next village would be even more awesome.  It would be our private village with no one else and it would be amazing.  Fine, I would continue walking.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 1

As we walked uphill I couldn’t breathe again.  My heart was racing, my head was pounding.  This must be what it feels like to have an asthma attack, I thought.  I am having an asthma attack.  I cannot go on.  I will stop here, and sleep on the dirt path, and maybe I will have to be airlifted to a hospital where they will discover that I have some kind of weird breathing disease and that I can never walk again!

I was spiraling out of control.  Am I so weak, that I can’t do this?  What is happening to me?  Maybe it’s not the altitude, maybe I am just a typical out of shape American who can only handle a tour bus!  I started whimpering all of this to Bloom, and then I also decided that the guide hated me, and thought I was holding him back.  “The guide wants to run ahead of me,” I kept whispering, since I was too weak to talk.  “The guide hates me!”

I am not quite sure why in my delirious state I got all neurotic about the guide, but I did.  He kept telling me I would be better “after hot shower.”  “So basically, he think I’m a hypochondriac!”  I said to Bloom.  “He thinks a shower will cure me!”  Also, where on earth was I finding a hot shower in the middle of this canyon.

We FINALLY arrived at the village, and that’s when I lost it.  I had struggled for an hour and a half to get to a tiny village where chickens kept trying to come into my small dirt paved room.  By this point, I was too sick to stand, so I tried to ignore the chickens, and the terrifying stuffed fox mounted on the wall of one of the huts,  went into our hut, put on as much clothes as I could find, and got into bed.

Ilana and the chickens

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

When I was growing up, my family used to go on hiking/camping vacations.  My brother Josh may have been only 6 or 7 and he would go on these hikes and he would inevitably end up saying/whining “why did I ever think I could do this??”  At that point I completely empathized with the young Josh.  Why did I ever think I could do this?  What the hell was wrong with me?  What kind of out of shape person hikes into a canyon without even acclimatizing to the altitude?

I was in a bad place.  Bloom, on the other hand, was loving this.  Especially the rustic nature of the village.  He figured the other village was too touristy.  This was the real thing!  There was no grass to lay out on here.  There was dirt, and there were chickens and mules and sheep.  And the family cooked in a kitchen hut over a fire.  And our hut floor was made of dirt!  This is authentic. I am not directly quoting Bloom here, but I am pretty sure this is how he felt.

The kitchen

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

These were in the "kitchen." Yum.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

The next day I woke up to the sound of sheep and roosters, and immediately remembered that I was on the side of a canyon.  My legs hurt.  My head hurt.  And I was terrified of hiking another day.  Luckily we hiked for about 3 hours and then arrived at the oasis, which is a place for backpackers to stay and swim and eat and drink right at the bottom of the canyon.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

Oasis

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

At this point, the guide suggested I take a mule up the last part of the trek, which was straight up for 3 hours.  Most groups walk this part at 5 am on the last day, but our group was hiking up at 3 in the afternoon when it was hot (finally it was hot!)  and there was no shade.  Fine, I decided I would take the mule, but I was humiliated.  I had to be rescued out of the canyon by a mule.  Ugh.  How in the world will I ever do the Inca Trail?  It is 4 days long, and allegedly more difficult than this trek!  AND there are no mules!

a mule is not as fun as it looks

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

Bloom and the guide left to get a head start on the climb and I was told to wait for a man who looked like a small Peruvian cowboy who would get me a mule.  I waited with another girl who was also opting for the mule after having food poisoning the night before.  We waited and waited, but no cowboy.  We were told to climb up a little and find him.  We climbed for about ten minutes until we found him.  After ten minutes of climbing my asthma attack state was back.  The cowboy motioned for us to follow him and the mules up further.  Was this cowboy my nemesis?  Why was he making me climb more?  I really hated that cowboy.

Finally, after about 20 minutes of uphill climbing the cowboy helped me get on one of mules, and we started walking.  I’m pretty sure this mule was a reckless lunatic with a death wish.  Every few minutes he would stand all the way on the edge of the canyon wall, where I imagined us both plummeting to our deaths, or at least to our sever injuries.  But hey, the view was nice, and at least I wasn’t walking.  This was fine.  Until, the cowboy decided to up the ante, and throw rocks at my mule!  This, logically, made the mule run up the canyon.  This was not fun at all.  I kept screaming when the mule would run, but I guess the screams didn’t translate.  On top of all of this, the mule in front of mine began to have explosive diarrhea.  I use the word “explosive” carefully there.  It was literally exploding, and I was pretty sure that I would get off the mule covered in the other mule’s diarrhea.

Ilana on a mule

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

Altitude Sickness

As we trekked higher up the canyon, the worst of the altitude sickness came back, and I was trying my best not to vomit.  I thought about how crazy it would be to vomit off the side of a mule, and how I would laugh if it hit the cowboy, but I would feel bad if it the other girl…  Toward the top, I heard someone yell my name, and looked up and saw that Bloom was almost at the top, taking pictures of me on the mule.  FINALLY, we reached the top and I couldn’t move.  At this point, I knew it had to be altitude sickness, because it was so significantly worse the higher the altitude.  Like the previous day, I could hardly walk, but somehow it was much worse now.  We had about a 30 minute walk to the village at the top of the canyon, and I again didn’t think I’d make it.  This was the sickest I had been.  When we got to the hostel, again I put on every ounce of clothes I could find, and tried to sleep.  However, there was a massive festival happening in the village and it was happening right outside our window.  There was a parade of trumpets outside the window and it went until 3 am.  They certainly know how to party.

The next day we went to some hot baths, and took the local buses with the guide in order to get back to Arequipa before Shabbos, where we had already pre-paid for Shabbat meals at some vegetarian restaurants.  It was nice relaxing time in Arequipa, which is a beautiful city with an abundance of pretty awkward vegetarian restaurants, one of which may have poisoned Bloom, but still a very nice city.

So that’s that.  The trek was beautiful, but being sick was terrible.  We decided to come to Cuzco last night in order for me to acclimate to the high altitude before the Inca Trail.  I will admit that I am terrified of the Inca Trail seeing that the Colca Canyon trek was a ginormous fail on my part.  I am really really hoping that this whole thing was just sever altitude sickness, and that I will not need to be emergency helicoptered out of the Inca Trail.  We have a week and a day before the trail…we will try to do some small treks to prepare ourselves (by ourselves I guess I mean myself), and hopefully it will be a good time.  Stay tuned.

18th July
2010
written by Ilana

So after what seemed like forever, we finally left Lima on Sunday and went to heaven on earth, a desert oasis called Huacachina. The oasis is a 5 minute drive from the city of Ica, which is a 4-5 hour bus ride from Lima.

This was our first of many long bus rides in South America, and after reading Lonely Planet I was terrified of having my things stolen while on the bus.  I wore a money belt and held my bag for most of the ride, which was probably a bit over the top.  We watched The Day After Tomorrow in Spanish, which kind of made it more fun,  since we guessed about the dialogue.

As soon as we got off the bus in Ica we realized how happy we were to be out of Lima.  As opposed to gray skies and nasty weather the skies were clear blue, and it was actually warm outside.  When we drove up to Huacachina and I saw the oasis and the massive sand dunes, I knew I was going to be much happier than in Lima.Huacachina oasis

We decided not to book a hostel in advance, which stressed me out, but I decided to try and adapt to the backpacker lifestyle and be more go with the flow about things.  When we reached the hostel, the man at the desk told me it was full, and I then immediately lost my new backpacker style and freaked out.  Bloom went to some other hostel and was told there were parties there until 6 am.  Not our style.  After checking out a few more hostels we found one that was cheap and relatively decent in what appeared to be a Peruvian family home.   It was confusing where the hostel ended and the home began, but overall it was good.  I apologized to Bloom for my freak out, and once again told myself that I would be more chilled out about things in the future.  We’ll see how that goes.

The next day in Huacachina we wandered around the oasis and relaxed.  In the evening we went out on the dunes in a sandbuggy that speeds over the dunes.

In the dunebuggy

We were in the buggy with a few Israelis and a few chabad guys.  Classic.

Of course Bloom was an awesome sandboarder, and I was too scared to stand and board, so I went sitting up or on my stomach, which actually went insanely fast.

Bloom sandboarding gracefully down the dunes

Bloom gracefully sandboarding

Ilana sanboarding head first and not so gracefully

The whole thing was amazing.  We saw the sunset over the dunes and they looked like they went on forever.

From Huacachina

Sadly, we left Huacachina that night on an 11 hour overnight bus to Arequipa where we planned on touring or trekking the Colca Canyon.

We splurged on first class seats on the bus, which meant that our seats were huge recliner chairs which leaned very far back.  Another luxury was the heat, which we hadn’t encountered previously in Peru.  AND there was wireless internet!  The bus was definitely nicer than any hostel we had stayed in thus far.

10th July
2010
written by Ilana

After deciding that Lima was an awful smelly city, and considering leaving early and spending shabbos alone in some small town, we decided to stick with it and give it another try.  We spent Friday walking around downtown Lima, which was surprisingly really nice.

We went to a vegetarian restaurant where we again realized that our lack of Spanish is going to be problematic.  The only word that looked familiar to us was tortilla, so we ordered that.  I did not know that a tortilla was actually fried eggs on rice…  Hmm…  At least I was able to communicate with the taxi driver by holding up nine fingers telling him I was only willing to pay 9 soles for the ride.

Bloom will write more about our Shabbos experience, but I must say that I have never felt more like a homeless bum than I did in the Lima shul.  I figured it was ok to look like a homeless vagabond, wearing hiking pants, hiking boots, a fleece and a skirt over the pants.  I felt like an idiot, but figured it would be ok.  When we got to the shul, I looked around and saw that all the other women were wearing fur coats and lots of fancy jewelry.  It was like walking into Or Torah in a track suit.  Humiliation.

I realized the humiliation was worth it when I saw the kiddush, which was actually fancier than our wedding.  There were tuxedoed waiters walking around with champagne, and then a massive fancy lunch.  It was crazy.

That kiddush made up for our awful hostel situation, which wouldn’t be too terrible if only our room had a window that opened to the outside and not to the hallway, and it didn’t smell like mildew, and there weren’t Europeans smoking everywhere, but yeah, other than that, it’s alright.

Tomorrow we are off to Huacachina, a desert oasis a few hours south of Lima.  We hope to go sandboarding there, and get some fresh air after being in the city.

8th July
2010
written by Ilana

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.  And by lives, I mean approximately a year, but if you know me you know I like to speak with hyperbole, so as I was saying, the first day of our trip is here and it’s cold and bleak.  I’m not trying to be a downer, but seriously, I am so cold and the sky was whitish-gray all day, and we spent most of our time wandering the streets wondering if there was more to Lima than ginormous KFC’s and stinky cars.  The sad answer is, not really.  From what I can tell, Lima is pretty lame.  We even thought about booking out of here tomorrow morning and spending shabbos elsewhere, but we decided against it, since, while Lima may not be so cool, they do have a shul and people who will feed us, so that is making us stay until Sunday morning.

Our flights here were long, but shockingly not so miserable.  Even though Spirit Air does not feed you and makes you pay for drinks and has no TV’s, etc, I kind of respect them for being honest about the fact that they’re cheap.  American Airlines tried to charge me to use a blanket (a blanket!), yet they pretend like they care about their customers and they’re awesome, etc.  I prefer Spirit Air.  At least they’re honest.

Anyway, we arrived at the airport, and we knew that a guy named Carlos was supposed to pick us up and bring us to our hostel.  I was surprised when I saw a lady holding a sign with my name.  She was definitely not Carlos.  Bloom and I had read some lonely planet on the plane and it kept reminding us that in Lima there are all kinds of scams with taxi drivers and you need to be extremely careful because people will try to kidnap you.  After being adequately scared out of our minds, we decided that we would ask the alleged Carlos to tell us his name before getting in the car with him.  I was a little worried when I saw that Carlos was a woman, but then she introduced us to a man.  It was kind of amazing when Bloom said to him “What’s your name?” in an aggressive tone.  The guy told us he was friends with Carlos, which we accepted warily, and followed them out of the airport.  After 5 minutes of walking through a parking lot while being followed by taxi drivers trying to get us into their cars, I realized that I make a terrible backpacker, since my back was killing me!  I was seriously hurting, and I wasn’t even out of the parking lot!  I was trying not to lose Carlos’s friends or Bloom, while also trying not to think about my back and ignore all the taxi drivers and children who kept trying to sell us things.  We finally all got into a taxi and what followed felt like nothing less than a police car chase.  Carlos’s friends nervously laughed about the psychotic driving and tried to make conversation with me.

This is when I had a sad realization about the next two months:  I do not know Spanish.  I sort of thought that I would be able to make it here with my tidbits of Spanish that I picked up from Sesame Street and the maintenance guys at Heschel, but alas, that is just not going to cut it.  Carlos’s friend asked me questions and I really tried to figure out a way to integrate donde esta or agua or banos into a conversation, but it was a total fail.  I even said all three of those things at once to show Carlos’s friend that I knew some Spanish words.  He actually seemed pretty weirded out by me saying “where is…water…bathroom…” and then smiling proudly at myself.

Outside our barricaded hostel

Today we wandered around trying to find the chabad and at least one vegetarian restaurant.  Two crucial places.  We found both, but realized they were both really far from us, which was sad.  When we were at the restaurant we overheard people speaking in English about plans for Shabbat, so Bloom went over to them and found out about Lima and where to go for Shabbos.  The girl made two references to “people your age,” when talking to us.  1.  When talking about the rabbi of the local shul she said, “He’s really young for a rabbi, maybe like your age”  Ok…  2.  Then she told us about how Cuzco is awesome and there were 300 Israelis at Chabad when she was there a few weeks ago.  She then said “but they might be too young for you guys, they’re all like backpackers”

OH DEAR.

To make matters worse, tonight we met an Israeli guy at our hostel (Bloom is actually out at the grocery store with him now.  Quite the playdate), and he mentioned that he was 23, but one of his friends is 26.  I think he was trying to make us feel better about our age, by telling us he has friends kind of close to our age.

Freezing and trying to avoid feeling like I was wrapped in mildewy towels

Are we too old for this?  I guess we’ll find out soon enough.  I’m just hoping to stop being so cold and maybe pick up some Spanish on the way.

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