Lost Toenails and other Christmas Stories

Traveling takes a toll on the body, and my body is no different.  While traveling in Lima, I had stubbed my toe while in the hostel, and it forced the toenail loose.  And then while in Cusco, I contracted a stomach bug.  So, when I returned from Machu Picchu, I decided that it was probably best to visit the doctor.  Luckily for the me, the Clinic was only a ten minute walk from my hostel.  While trying unsuccessfully to bridge the communication barrier between me and the receptionist, a peruvian doctor, looking strikingly like Javier Bardem and speaking English, intervened on my behalf and said he could meet with me in 20 minutes.

The diagnosis was as expected.  I needed to be put on antibiotics, and it would be best if I had the toenail removed.  Another 20 minutes later, I had my prescription, and my front toe had a new sexy / sleek look.  It was about this time, that I realized I should probably take it easy and stay in Cusco through Christmas.  This turned out to be a good choice, as I had just met a bunch of new people (many from my own dorm room) that I liked hanging out with.

The next week was spent exploring new parts of the city.  Cusco held an art exhibition in the streets near the Hostel I was staying at.  I also was introduced to the San Pedro market.  Leticia, a brazilian woman that I befriended while in Cusco, introduced me to a new Cafe named La Valeriana.  I spent the next couple of days getting to know Vanessa, Sarah, Clint, and Calvin.  We all decided to spend Christmas together.  Sarah prepared Swedish meatballs and potato salad.  Another couple contributed some fish.  We finished off our meal with fruits and cream and also a bottle of wine that I had purchased.  It wasn’t the standard american Holiday Feast that I’m used to, but it was with new friends, and that alone made it special.  After dinner, four of us went to the Plaza de Armas to participate in the Christmas festivities.  Children and adults were lighting off fireworks.  The whole plaza smelled of sulfur and small explosions.  Sarah spotted some children selling cotton candy and we all decided to have some.  I finished the night having a holiday drink with my friend Leticia.

The next day was spent saying goodbye to friends, some that I hoped wasn’t goodbye…. only goodbye for now.  I caught up on some emails and skyped with some friends back home.  The next day, I’d be leaving for Buenos Aires.

Cusco and Machu Picchu

After a 16 hour bus ride, I arrived in Cusco tired and ready to settle in somewhere.  I hailed a taxi and made my way for Pariwana hostel in the historical center of Cusco.  After settling in, I was checking my email when Eliza, an attractive woman, approached me about joining the BBQ that night.  I readily signed up.  Later, I left to go check out the Plaza de Armas and check out my surroundings.  When I returned for the BBQ, Eliza serendipitously introduced me to two girls that were taking Spanish lessons.  Being one of the things that I wanted to do in South America, I got the information for the Academia Latinoamericana Espanol school.  The next morning, I dropped in and immediately signed up for Spanish lessons for the week as well as have a host family assigned to me.  Hopefully this is what I need – to maybe lay low for the week and take in the culture a bit.

I spent the week taking private Spanish lessons and checking out the city of Cusco.  Cusco has many different plazas, Plaza de Armas being the most popular, and Plaza de Blas, to name a few.  Another day, I hiked all the steps to Cristo Blanco, a large Jesus statue overlooking the city of Cusco.  I also enjoyed  visiting the Church of San Cristobal which has a great overlook of the central part of Cusco.  The evenings were spent checking out restaurants.  One of my personal favorites is Paddys, advertised as the highest Irish pub in the world.  While it may be a total Gringo bar, it’s the only place in South America, besides Cuenca, where I was able to get some decent beer.  Old Speckled Hen trounces Cusquena and Pilsner any day of the week.  Another noteworthy place is Jack’s Cafe.  They served up a mean homemade chicken noodle soup when I needed it most.

Cusco is beautiful city, but it’s also very touristic.  Because of that, the cuzquenian people are constantly trying to sell you something.  Walking down the street, you’ll be hounded by women for massages, or gift items.  The men will hound you about buying paintings or roses.  People that work at restaurants stand outside and will shove a menu in your face and try to entice you into their restaurant with the promise of a free Pisco Sour.  Some restaurant owners are also involved in 2 or more businesses.  At one resturant, the owner approached me while eating my meal and asked if he could talk to me about planning a trip to Machu Picchu and what he could offer in return.  You get really good at saying no and many times you’ll make it your personal mission to refuse items from anyone selling.  That’s not to say that you don’t ever purchase anything.  After a couple days here, I recognized the need for a warm sweatshirt.  It is the rainy season and Cusco is typically cold in the evenings this time of year.  Stopping by a market one night, I purchased a sweatshirt made from Alpaca fur.  Make no mistake – Alpaca fur is “legit”.  It keeps the cold out.  The forearms of the sweatshirt remind me of the forearms of a wookie, but who’s complaining?

Machu Picchu

I’ll start by saying that I decided against doing the trek to Machu Picchu.  I had heard that you needed to book months in advance and I, unfortunately, did not know when I was going to be arriving in Cusco.  That being said, I found that traveling in the off season, you don’t need to book your 4-5 day hike in advance.  In fact, most travelers that I’ve encountered here have been booking their treks once they’ve arrived in Cusco.  I also discovered that there’s so many options that they can essentially tailor for you once you arrive.  There are 4-5 day treks, 2-3 day treks, jungle treks, overnight trips.  The reason that you need to book in advance for the on-season is partially because Macchu Picchu only allows 2500 visitors a day into the site.  Huayna Picchu only allows 400 visitors a day.  So there are definitely benefits to going in the off season.

I went up to Machu Picchu on an overnight trip and stayed in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, the town one typically stays during a trip of this type.  While there, make sure you check out the hot springs.  It’s a great way to lay around and soak up the atmosphere.

Instead of taking the bus up to Machu Picchu the next day, I opted instead to hike up the mountain with the other overnight pilgrims at 4am the next day.  Make no mistake – the hike up is pretty brutal (at least I thought that, before trying Huayna Picchu).  It takes about an hour to hour in a half.  The hope is to see Machu Picchu as the sun rises above it.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case that morning as everything was shrouded in cloud cover and mist.  Nonetheless, Macchu Picchu is spectacular once you enter.  Bring plenty of water, since water at the Machu Picchu food stand will run you about 8 peruvian soles for a regular bottle (~ 3.50 USD).  I originally had a guide scheduled for a portion of my tour, but instead got tired of waiting for him and eventually went in on my own.  It would have been nice to better understand some of the buildings as I explored, but I was able to see and explore more on my own.  I ran into other adventurous souls like myself and quite enjoyed having the opportunity to meet and talk with them in a more casual atmosphere.

At around 9:30, everyone scheduled for entrance into Huayna Picchu started arriving outside the gate.  At 10am, I was let into and started my trek up to Huayna Picchu.  The trek up to Huayna Picchu is probably the toughest and most nerve-racking hike I’ve ever taken in my life.  With steep drops and no barrier to stop someone from falling, it’s not for the faint of heart.  I’m baffled by how the Inca’s were able to haul stone and materials up Huayna Picchu for construction of their city.  As I was going up, I saw young kids bounding down the makeshift stone steps with effortless ease.  Mind you, these are the same kids that challenge me to a snowboarding race down a black diamond run.  To have that kind of fearlessness.  Regardless of the nerve-wracking experience, the views are breathtaking.


The last two weeks have been pretty relaxed for the most part.  I’m occasionally running into other travelers that I met earlier in my adventures.  And while you don’t necessarily form extremely tight bonds with these people, the familiarity helps to make some of the undesirable parts of traveling (loneliness, culture shock, etc) more digestible.  It provides an anchor, and I think is helping me to appreciate the people that are more constant in my life.

Lima and Huacachina

Before arriving in Lima, I had been told to only give it 1 or 2 days by other travelers.  “It’s just another big town” they said, and I believed that to be true.  I booked a room at a hostel called Puriwasi for a night and set out to get acclimated to the area of Miraflores.  It’s a super touristy part of Lima with coffee shops and restaurants galore.  Take note – you won’t be saving much money here.

At the hostel, I met up with two girls from Australia, Nessa and Sean, and headed out to the malecon (boardwalk area) for some food.  Every restaurant we encountered was pricier than normal and since we couldn’t make up our minds of where to go, we settled on going to Chili’s.  I ordered the Sampler Platter, which is full of all things that make my soul soar – Buffalo wings, Southwestern eggrolls, and chicken fingers.  The sweet taste of home.  That night, I joined all the hostelers on the roof for some Pisco Sours and travel talk.  Andrew, from Scotland runs the bar.  He kinda fell into the job a couple months ago when as he describes it, the owner offered him the job after he had made him the best Pisco Sour that he had ever had.

The next morning after realizing that I was still very tired from riding overnight buses the last couple of nights, I booked another night at the hostel.  I decided to take it easy that day.  Later, Emad, James (two other hostelers), and I hopped a bus to the center of Lima to check out the Parque de Reserva where they light up a bunch of cool water fountains at night.  After arriving back at the hostel, struck with a bad case of indigestion, I decided to call it a night.  The next day, I joined a group of people from the hostel to go out to the historical center of Lima and see the Monastery of San Francisco and the catacombs buried underneath.  While not as extensive as the catacombs located in Paris, France, I still found the tour to be quite enjoyable.  That night, I joined everyone on the roof for a Pisco Sour tutorial and the chance to say goodbye.  Most everyone that I had befriended at the hostel were leaving the next day and I was ready for my next adventure.  I had one more stop to make before going to Cuzco.

Sandboarding in Huacachina

Before leaving on my trip, I had heard about sandboarding from my lifecoach, Gracie.  Basically, you strap a snowboard to your feet and slide down a 300 foot sand dune.  It’s become a huge draw for travelers to go to Huacachina.  I’d been looking forward to it the whole trip.  Unfortunately, the day before arriving in Huacachina, I kinda messed up my foot.  That being said, I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity.

Upon arriving in Huacachina, a natural oasis outside Ica, I located a hostel and immediately signed up for a sand buggy and sandboarding adventure.  Within a half hour, I was getting fitted for a snowboard.  The bindings were crap and the snowboard looked like it had seen better days.  However, I felt lucky they even found a pair of snowboard boots to fit me.  Soon after, seven other individuals and I got on the sand buggy and screamed as the driver drove us up and over sand dunes at breakneck speeds.  I loved every minute of it.  After arriving at our destination, I dismounted and got my board ready by rubbing candle wax on the bottom.  My foot was sore, but I grunted through the discomfort and latched on my board.  I had visions of flying down the sand dune, using my skills as a snowboarder to carve and weave back and forth like one of those pros you see on the X-Games.  Not so.  I came to find out that it is extremely difficult to carve on sand like you can on a mountain.  Maybe I was too timid or not used to more “powder”, but the best that I could muster was going 30 or 40 feet at a time before falling.  I finished with a huge smile, spitting sand from my mouth and trying to shake the sand from my hair.  I arrived back at my hostel, said hello to my roommate – the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen in my life and proceeded to take a shower and wash the sand out of all of my orifices.  I ended the night at Banana’s, a local pub, watching a Tom-cruise wannabe from Cocktail overemphasize every bartender trademark move used to make a Pisco Sour.

The next day, knowing I’d be leaving on a 16 hour overnight bus ride to Cuzco, I decided to sign up for a Pisco wine tour in Ica.  Pisco is a grape that the peruvians grow.  They make a wine and a liquor out of it.  Due to the climate and the fermentation process, the wine is extremely sweet.  I quite enjoyed the wine.  When it came time to try the liquor however, I startled the girl next to me when I almost gagged on it.  Smooth….. I know.

I left that night on a very comfortable bus but uncomfortable with the feeling that I’ve been pushing myself too hard across Peru.  Shouldn’t I be enjoying myself without trying to push from one destination to the other?  I had all these visions before I left that I’d be doing language studies and volunteer work in an effort to expand my horizons.  “Go easy on yourself”, I reminded myself.  I was just getting my feet weet.  I was only 4 1/2 weeks into my adventure.  I turned on my movie display and picked a movie from the list.  “Fun Size” looked like it would probably be stupid, but somewhat enjoyable.  I settled back into my cozy bus seat with the realization that I was going to have to make some adjustments when I reached Cuzco.

Walking the Beach

I arrived in Mancora, Peru, and after locating a hostel, the first thing I did was walk the beach.  Walking a beach is so therapeutic for me.  And, in this moment I feel for the first time, that I’m not quite sure where I’m going.  My plans for the most part have been somewhat free-flowing and I’ve had to make some adjustments to my trip (like taking out a stop on the west coast of Ecuador).  But I had yet to feel like I wasn’t sure what to add or how long I should stay anywhere.  It’s scary to not have something or some purpose guiding your travels.

So I walk the beach.  With each step in the sand, I leave an imprint.  And with every indentation in the sand, is a thought, or idea, or concern, or something that troubles me.  I ponder where I really want to go or what to do with my life.  Sometimes I berate myself for the mistakes that I’ve made.  And other times, I remind myself of how fortunate and blessed that I am to have this amazing opportunity.  But after a couple steps, the water comes rushing back in, taking with it my thoughts, dreams, mistakes, and fears.  Nothing is permanent.  This is something that I’ve always struggled with.  I hold onto things far too long and am fearful of too many things.  I’m too hard on myself.  Like the waves washing away my footprints, so do my days wash away my mistakes and fears and replace them with wisdom.  A fresh start.  This is what I need.

The second day in Mancora, I decide to stay at PK’s Hostel.  It’s a pretty crappy place, but I meet Thomas, a man from Holland who’s been traveling for well over a year.  He’s got his breakfast tucked under his arm and he gives me a huge smile, slightly creepy, but one that says “Hey – I’d really like some company for breakfast”.  So I invite him over.  We talk about travel and how it changes people.  To “find yourself” is not really what happens, he explains.  Instead, it’s all the little things that happen to you that change you.  It’s the small conversation you had with someone one day, the small adventure that you have another day, or the challenge you have on another day that altogether changes you as a person.  You gain confidence.  A new perspective is gained after living your life out of a bag each and every day.  Your new minimalist lifestyle starts to give you a greater idea as to what is important in life.

I take a surf lesson, eat some tacos and Ceviche, and meet some other great people.  I end my stay at Hostel Loki where I spend a night drinking and conversing with other like-minded individuals from around the world.  But, it’s time to move on.  I decide on an overnight bus to Trujillo.  I need to get to Lima, but 20 hours on a bus from Mancora seems like too much.  So, I’ll do 9 hours and then take a break.  I’m stressed because my bus is an hour and a half late showing up.  Andrew, an Australian that I come to find out that’s been traveling for almost 2 years, shows up and is incredibly calm.  Maybe too calm.  He pets the dog in front of him and doesn’t seem fazed at all that his bus is late.  The bus finally departs.  When I reach Trujillo, I immediately head to Huanchaco, another surfing town 20 minutes outside the city.  I locate a hostel and then…… I walk the beach some more.

I hang out with Andrew a bit.  Like me, he’s in his late 30’s and just got tired of working the corporate grind.  We discuss politics and books.  After awhile we talk about travel frustrations – late buses, inconsiderate people, taxi cab drivers trying to rip you off.  After awhile, they become funny stories that you tell your fellow travelers or friends.  “I remember this one time…..”

Andrew boards his bus to Huarez with some girls from the Hostel.  I’m on way to Lima.  Maybe we’ll see each other when I get to Cusco.  Another goodbye.  I imagine that when all is said in done, I’ll get more comfortable saying goodbye…. or at the very least letting go.

Vilcabamba and the trek to Peru

The nights following my departure to Cuenca, I was filled with anxiety as to the best way to get from Cuenca to Vilcabamba or Loja.  I read some things indicating that bus rides could take up to 7 or 8 hours because the buses stop frequently to pick up other passengers.  I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in Loja for a night as well.  Interestingly enough, the night before leaving Cuenca, I spotted a sign that stated that there now exists shuttle service between Cuenca and Vilcabamba leaving from my hostel, La Cigale.  Perfect.  Vilcabamba it is.

The driver was a bit crazy, only apologizing once for making the back of the vehicle slide while slamming on the brakes in the rain.  But, I put my faith in his abilities and tried to get some sleep.  The ride was mostly comfortable and only took 4 1/2 hours to reach my Hostel in Vilcabamba.  Izhcayluma is more of a resort than a hostel.  Dorm rooms go for $12 a night.  You can put everything on your tab including meals, drinks, and massages.  Bring money though, as I’ve heard the ATM’s in Vilcabamba are not always in working order.  Note that while there are plenty of backpackers here, there are also a good amount of American retirees and baby-boomers.  I enjoyed staying here, but I couldn’t completely get into the vibe of this place.

The next day, I booked a horseback ride.  My guide and his son, led me and 4 other individuals up into the mountains surrounding the city for a 5 hour ride.  It was a ride intended for more advanced riders, I feel.  There were times I was quite fearful, being on a horse with a thousand food drop and no railing right beside me.  If you can get past the fear, which I was able to from time to time, you’ll find the views to be spectacular.  The payoff came when we eventually ended up at an amazing waterfall tucked away in the forest.  Upon arriving back in town, I was thoroughly sore.  I had planned to stay in Vilcabamba only 2 nights, but decided on one more day before leaving.

The next day, I walked into town and had some lunch and purchased supplies before leaving.  I needed to plot my entrance into Peru and decided on taking the overnight bus from Loja to Piura where I will then take a bus to Mancora.  I’m ready for some beach time again.  I spent the next day mostly laying in a hammock and reading.  I have to remind myself that I can’t be running all the time, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy some days doing mostly nothing.    By 7:30pm it was time to leave.

I arrived in Loja at 9:00pm and purchased my ticket to Piura, Peru.  My bus leaves at 11:00pm.  I try to sleep, but the constant shift in gravity back and forth, due to the andean region the bus was traveling through, makes it difficult to sleep.  At 3am, we arrive at the border.  We first spend about 20 minutes signing an exit card and getting our passports stamped exiting from Ecuador.  After crossing the border, we are then required to fill out a card and have our passports stamped for our entrance into Peru.  All in all, the process went smoothly, except for the fact that it was the middle of the night and very little light.  I felt like a spy being exchanged at the border of Peru under very shady circumstances.  Luckily, the country accepted me and I was on my way.

After arriving in Piura at 6:30am, some other travelers and I get a taxi to take us to a bank and ATM where we exchanged our money for Peruvian Sole’s.  I am then dropped off at the bus station.  After a 3 hour bus ride, I finally reach my first destination in Mancora, Peru.