For our final day in Peru we took a boat tour on Lake Titicaca.

It is a massive body of water.

Lake Titicaca is the South American version of a Great Lake. And it is, in fact, the largest lake on the continent, as well as the largest lake in the world at or above its elevation of about 13,000 ft.

In Incan times, a test of adulthood for youths was to journey from the Isle of the Sun in the lake to Machu Picchu over 300 miles away. If they survived the trip then they were welcomed as adults. Personally, I can't fathom doing that trek.

The guide told us that pisco was first developed in this area, as a means to circumvent Spanish laws banning the sale and manufacture of brandy.

In modern times we learned that a team from Walt Disney also visited the lake while doing research for their one animated movie that takes place in Peru, The Emporer's New Groove.

Our first stop was the Floating Islands of Uros, which are man-made islands composed entirely of reeds. New layers are slowly added to the top so that as the bottom layer decomposes into the lake the island stays at more or less the same height. The locals follow ancient traditions and only speak Quechua, but they also trade crafts with tourists and sometimes come ashore to buy things. They use reeds in all aspects of their life: fuel for fire, constructing their huts, their boats, everything.

Reed Island of Uros

A reed island of Uros.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is a deep, dark blue. The clouds are low to the horizon, and they had this light pink-orange stripe through them most of the time.

After some time spent in the reeds, we headed to Taquile Island, the largest island in the lake. It's home to locals who farm and create textiles. They shared a meal with us consisting of food from their island and the lake: rainbow trout, mint tea, and quinoa soup. Afterward they danced and shared stories of what life was like for them. It was quite relaxing to sit back, watch, and listen.

Taquile Island Hill

The first thing we had to do on Taquile Island was hike several hundred feet up this hill. It doesn't look very intimidating, and under normal circumstances it wouldn't pose a challenge, but given the elevation is was one of the more difficult physical feats I've encountered as an adult.

Lake Titicaca

The views from the top of the hill were worth the struggle.

Taquile Island Town Square

This is the town square on the island. They have a school and a meeting hall, a church, and even a mini factory. There's also a radio station and solar panels for generating power nearby.

After eating and exploring for hours, we finished our time on top of the island and hiked a long trail back down the opposite side to get a boat ride back to the mainland. From there we had three different plane flights to catch.

Peru was a fun adventure, full of a wide variety of things to see and do, but it was time to head home.

Lake Titicaca

This is what the lake looked like as we were leaving.

Lake Titicaca

The water at the island was clear enough to see through if you got close - a stark contrast to the port where we embarked.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca.

See All Comments (0)

From Cusco we flew to the far south of Peru, landing in Juliaca. The sky and clouds felt extremely low to the ground. The airport is at about 13,000 ft, but we quickly escaped in a taxi. Juliaca is not known for being a friendly town for foreigners to hang out in, which we had heard previously and seemed apparent even from the inside of a car. The hour long ride to the hotel in nearby Puno had us ascending, reaching a max of about 14,400 ft.

I never want to be that high again.

Compared to Cusco the altitude in Puno was downright oppressive. It dictated our ability to move. Walking on flat ground was fine, but any incline became a struggle. Your chest feels like it's not doing enough work, leaving you constantly out of breath. We adjusted slightly after a few days, but I never felt comfortable there. Sprinting or any kind of workout was forever out of the question.

We were within striking distance of the border with Bolivia, and thus our driver gave us two related warnings: watch out for cell phone roaming, and underage prostitutes.


Once we got to downtown Puno we quickly found the main square for a meal. It was dominated by the cathedral (every square in Peru seems to have one) but we also found the nearby House of the Corregidor. It's a colonial-era attraction that includes shops and a cafe. Inside we found board games and some great food. We sampled a huge variety, including local hot chocolate, pastries with guacamole, empanadas filled with mushrooms and artichokes and cheese, alpaca kebabs, and grilled lake trout. The alpaca was gamy, like venison. 

House of the Corregidor

The House of the Corregidor: bright colors, good food.

Puno Cathedral

The Puno Cathedral. Accompanied by lots of people selling wares on the steps outside.

Exhausted from travel and the altitude, we retired to the hotel. We ordered pickup for dinner from something approaching an Italian restaurant across the street, which meant a pasta featuring guinea pig with a side of chicken noodle soup to ease our ailments.

The next day is one we probably could have left out when planning the trip. Puno simply doesn't cater to tourists that much, so there was little to entertain us. This was exacerbated by headaches from the lack of oxygen and the fact that we could have easily combined all the activities with our last day.

We ventured down to the shore of Lake Titicaca, which is the main attraction in Puno. The pier had some nice views and was kept in good repair. We investigated several markets on the street both coming and going, but didn't buy much. It felt like we had seen it all before between Lima and Machu Picchu. By the afternoon we were ready for the day to be over.

Puno Harbor

This is the Puno Harbor, looking back at the city. There are consistently tons of houses on the hills in Peru.

Puno Pier

The Puno Pier. There were naval-based sculptures, graffiti, and some gross water this close to shore.

Puno Market

The largest pedestrian market in Puno.

See All Comments (0)

Clad in rain gear and armed with backpacks full of water and snacks, we rose early to have as much daylight in Machu Picchu as possible. You can hike up the massive hill, but we opted for the bus to conserve our strength and save more time. It was the right move.

Winding up the curving road any sense of place faded away. We entered a thick layer of fog that made it hard to see more than a few feet ahead. By the time we maneuvered through the crowds and got through the gate into the park proper, a steady drizzle had started. We got our bearings, hiked up a few more steps, and found ourselves staring out at a sweeping, misty ruin.

Machu Picchu

The fog made it hard to see the full extent of the site in morning. What we could see was lush and filled with places to explore.

We continued around the back away from the main area to get to the old Inca Bridge. The path was only wide enough for one person at a time, and exceedingly muddy. We were already soaked and dirty.

Inca Bridge

This is the Inca Bridge - this picture is taken about as close as the public is allowed to get. Although Machu Picchu is generally a pretty dangerous site given all the slippery edges, this was worse than usual: even a minor stumble here would spell certain doom. It would've been easy to defend against attackers though!

Machu Picchu

On the way back we got a view of the quarry on the back side of the mountain. The stone for construction was actually cut on site so the Inca didn't have to find a way to get it up the mountain.

We stopped by the Sun Gate, which is the end of the Inca Trail. But we didn't dally because we had an appointment to make. Given multiple recommendations from friends, we had paid extra to hike an adjacent peak called Wayna Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to climb it per day, and everyone gets a preassigned time slot. This makes the tickets extremely limited considering about a million people visit Machu Picchu every year, so they sell out fast - we had to buy them six months in advance.

Wayna Picchu from Below

The fog cleared enough for us to see Wayna Picchu from below. It's the peak on the right here. And the perspective makes it seem much smaller in this picture than it actually is.

The hike up about 1,000 vertical feet to get to the top of Wayna Picchu was one of the most treacherous adventures I've had while traveling. The steps were slick and broken, making it hard to find solid footing. The only hand holds were the occasional cables bolted into the rock face. And of course the path was only wide enough for one person at a time, so there was a lot of waiting for groups to pass. I was able to handle it better than some simply because my height made it easier: individual steps were as much as 3 feet tall, so it really does become more of a climb than a hike for portions of the trek.

We got to the top area where the trail ended and a complex of buildings emerged. We weren't particularly impressed by anything there. But we pressed on and finished working our way up some steep steps to the reach the summit.

Miraculously, the fog cleared, and we understood.

The view was stunning. The whole of Machu Picchu was spread out below us, the centerpiece in an awe-inspiring landscape.

Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu

Machu Picchu as seen from the top of Wayna Picchu. We had come a long way. I definitely zoomed in to get this shot.

After we had our fill of the view we descended a different way through some caves to see the Temple of the Moon. Then we headed back to the main site to grab some lunch, while attempting to dry ourselves during the indoor break.

The rest of the day was filled simply exploring the ruins. We saw temples and meeting places and houses and granaries. I took hundreds of pictures.

Machu Picchu Temple of the Sun

This is the Temple of the Sun. I think it's cool how the precision work is built right on top of the natural stone.

Machu Picchu

You can see some of the crumbling walls here, brought down by time and erosion. There was a lot marked for restoration work.

Machu Picchu Steps

This is possibly the most famous view of Machu Picchu: a multitude of tiers cut into the side of the mountain. They did this for farming! Also note that some of the buildings on the left have thatch roofs added to show what they would've looked like back in the day.

Machu Picchu Temple of the Condor

The Temple of the Condor. I thought this was the most interesting temple. The triangular stone on the ground is the beak, and the rocks angling out diagonally from behind it are the wings. See it?

After a long day of touring the park started emptying out. Of course the rain had stopped and the fog had lifted now that we had to leave. But braving the weather had been worth it.

I took one last look at the mountains around us and descended back into the present.

Machu Picchu Mountains

Blue mountains everywhere around us.

See All Comments (0)

From Cusco we continued our journey through the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu. The hike along the Inca Trail through the Cloud Forest is popular with tourists, but it takes 4-5 days depending on your speed, and you have to camp overnight in the company of mosquitoes. There are no roads, so you can't go by car. And when there were mudslides and flooding back in 2010 even helicopters had problems getting there due to the fog, rain, and treacherous terrain. We didn't want to spend the time getting wet and bitten by walking, so we took the only way to get there with any speed: the train.

Our train was called the Vistadome because it had windows cut into the ceiling to make for better views. It's certainly a unique trait among all the trains I've been on. It's also notable because navigating the mountains requires another special feat of engineering: the train actually reverses for part of the trip in order to go up and down a switchback. The train goes forward, stops, switches tracks, goes backwards, stops, switches tracks, then forward again on repeat for 20-25 minutes. It's an excruciatingly slow way to go because it feels like you're not making any progress, but it's also the only train in the world that covers a vertical change that quickly. On the way there we were actually descending the whole way, arriving at a little below 8,000 ft.

Sacred Valley from Train

These are the windows cut into the top of the Vistadome train.

Windows over Mountains

The Sacred Valley is very green and overcast. The reflections of the ceiling windows in the train also made for some interesting pictures.

Train Selfie

Checking in with a train selfie at the station.

Once we arrived at Aguas Calientes - which is the city below Machu Picchu - we glanced at the local market but ultimately found a small place to eat. That meal consisted of hen in chili, an old-style Inca soup, and a sort of lasagna baked pasta dish with chicken. Chickens were freely roaming the streets of the town in pretty large numbers, so it's no surprise they were on the menu.

You have to buy tickets to Machu Picchu ahead of time for a specific date, so we couldn't just show up even though we were so near. That meant we had time to kill. After lunch we rested up by getting massages - the town definitely caters to tourists looking to relax before or after their big hike.

We finished the day with dinner at Indio Feliz, a pirate and Caribbean-themed restaurant in town. It was one of the only places open late: it closed at 10 while everywhere else shut their doors at 7 or 8.

Foggy Mountains

This is looking up towards Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. When we arrived it was so foggy it was impossible to tell how many mountains were around us or how tall they were.

Guinea Pig Menu

Yep, that's a guinea pig on the menu. We had already tried it elsewhere. It's pretty good. Somewhat sweater and tougher than chicken. It's called "cuy" in Peru (pronounced more like "coy"). Also, as you can see on the menu, "mikhuy" is Quechua (the Inca language) for restaurant. 

Two days later and we were exploring the town again. We spent a significant amount of time shopping at the market, mostly buying alpaca wool scarves and blankets. We then caught a soccer match, which is clearly the national pastime in Peru.

While we waited for our train we had drinks close to the station at Toto's House, which had some inventive cocktails, but was completely empty other than us.

During the Vistadome train ride back to Cusco we got treated to a dancing masked man and a fashion show happening right in the middle of the train car. It was entertaining despite the fact that it was meant to get us to buy souvenirs we didn't need.

Aguas Calientes

Once the fog and clouds cleared it became obvious how we were trapped at the bottom of the mountains in Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes

The buildings in Aguas Calientes occupy a thin stretch of flat ground between the mountains and the Urubamba river.

See All Comments (0)

Let's talk about elevation for a minute, as it's going to factor heavily into the rest of our time in Peru. Iquitos, the Amazon River, and the rainforest were all around 300 ft above sea level. Lima's city center averages 500, which is slightly less than what we're used to: Chicago sits at about 600.

Cusco is above 11,000 ft.

That's a massive change. Stepping out of the pressurized airplane the sky looked lower somehow. There's really no other way to describe it. The horizon felt closer. The clouds were within arm's reach. But I didn't notice any physical changes in myself immediately. Not until we started walking uphill. That's when it hit me. I got winded a lot more easily in Cusco. It wasn't noticeable walking around the flat parts of town, but any staircase I saw gained extra respect.

The local cure for altitude sickness is coca tea. I tried a complimentary cup at our hotel: it tasted like a bland green tea, and I honestly couldn't tell if it had any effect on me at all.

Cusco Rooftops

Cusco houses and rooftops are jammed together beneath a low sky.

History is visibly layered in Cusco. A foundation of Inca stone supports Spanish brick which sometimes sits beneath modern materials. Each subsequent conqueror left their mark on the buildings around town.

Cusco Cathedral

This is the Cusco cathedral, showcasing layers of bricks from different time periods. The Inca stone is lit up by orange lights. It's hugely significant because the stone does not have mortar between its seams: this made it able to shift and move more freely during earthquakes, which allowed some buildings built by the Inca to stay standing while their modern counterparts crumbled. And archaeologists still don't know how the Inca managed to cut the stone into perfectly straight segments without modern tools.

Cusco Shops

This is a look at a typical street in the commercial district of Cusco. Shops and hotels fit right into the old stone, building in, under, and around.

Cusco lights.

The city's expansiveness only becomes truly apparent at night. This is the main square with a multitude of houses visible on hills in the distance.

We had dinner at Papacho's, a pub-style restaurant where I could order a burger. It was a purposeful choice to dine there because it's another location by Gaston, the chef behind La Mar in Lima. We were getting to know the chefs and their restaurants, just like the locals.

Cusco is as close as you can get by plane to Peru's most popular tourist attraction. We rested up, brimming with anticipation.

See All Comments (0)

Compared to the jungle, Lima felt like an entirely different planet. I've never been so glad to be back in civilization. We had a big suite to ourselves at the Peru Star Hotel in the hip and modern San Isidro neighborhood. It came complete with some nice outdoor seating and a small bar serving food and drinks in the mornings.

Lima Hotel

The Peru Star courtyard. I felt like I a was on a relaxing vacation here rather than in a fight for survival. Photo credit to Monica for this one.

To complete our journey back into the land of the living we indulged at a nearby pizzeria called Antica. It was refreshing to taste something as familiar as pepperoni and mushroom pizza.

We then ventured out to the Parque de La Reserva, which holds the world record for being the largest water fountain park. It was amazing! Going at night was the right decision. And without even planning it we arrived during a themed event: all the music they played over the light and water shows was from Star Wars. You can't escape the big franchises even in foreign countries. There was also a simultaneous dog show competition, which provided some good laughs and juxtaposition to the epic music around us.

Pink Water Fountain in Lima

This is the largest and first fountain you see when entering the park.

Video of an Eagle Projected onto a Spout of Water

They projected video in several places, using the water as a screen. Here's an eagle soaring to the Imperial March.

Group of People at Water Fountain Park

This park was clearly a favorite attraction for the locals. It got pretty crowded in places.

Child Looking at Rainbox Water Fountain

There's an entire novel ready to be written based on this one picture.

Leaving the park we grabbed an Uber - the wait times were a lot longer than I'm used to in the US (consistenly 10-20 minutes), but it saved us a lot of pain from trying to flag down and haggle with taxis. It also saved us money: a thirty minute ride across town was only ever $2-3! This is the second time I'd been able to use my apps in a foreign country, and it makes things ridiculously convenient. This paragraph brought to you by T-Mobile and their free data when out of the country.

Our destination for dinner was Huaca Pullclana. It's an ancient ruin of a pyramid with a fancy restaurant set right in the middle of it. Fine dining next to unearthed walls that were constructed 1800 years ago! Surrounded by history, I sipped on a pisco mojito, a variation on the country's cocktail of choice, the pisco sour. I had a passion fruit martini next, and we chomped down the first of many ceviches. Fried crab claws in soy sauce came next, followed by fried prawns with potato in a sweet green sauce. We rounded things out with vanilla ice cream served atop nut caramel and cooked pineapple.

Restaurant in Ancient Ruins

Our dinner table post-meal, with ancient walls in the background.

Then we went back to the hotel and slept for 13 hours.

When we finally got moving the next day we went to lunch at La Mar Cebicheria. On the way there our driver told us this restaurant was owned and operated by chef Gaston Acurio. It turns out that chefs in Lima are celebrities, and the locals love to talk about them and brag about how well they know them. It was common to hear them referred to on a first name basis: "Oh La Mar? That's one of Gaston's restaurants. I met Gaston once..."

La Mar was my favorite meal of the entire trip - though to be fair, there were a lot of close calls. And that shouldn't be surprising: by one count, Lima boasts 3 of the 50 best restaurants in the world. That's the same number as New York!

I tried some local beers while munching on the local version of chips - sweet potatoes and plantains - in some awesome nutty sauces. The main course was maki with crab and avocado, a seafood platter, and their special, the saltado pacifico, which was a cheese-stuffed ravioli with BBQ scallops and prawns. I was so happy after that meal. 

Lunch Time at La Mar

Crowded, noisy, and oh so tasty. I really liked everything about La Mar. That includes the bright pastel colors against the slate interior. And those chairs were surprisingly comfortable.

We walked off the food by spending the rest of the day meandering through the Miraflores neighborhood. We traversed a multitude of city parks, and made a long stop when we found the ocean. The weather in Lima is similar to San Francisco - it's gray and cool. Light jacket temperatures.

Lima City Park on the Ocean

A typical city park on the ocean.

The next day we made our visit to the historical center, centered around a plaza simply - and aptly - called the "Main Square" in English. The architecture was very Spanish, all the buildings washed in bright, solid colors.

We went inside the Lima Cathedral, where we were surprised to find hundreds of real human skulls and a few complete skeletons. It's a Christian practice that dates back to the beginning to entomb bones beneath the altar, but most churches in the US are simply too new, being built after the tradition fell out of favor in modern times. It was a fascinating, if macabre, insight into church history.

We ventured next door to the Archbishop Palace, which gave us a glimpse at what luxury looked like 500 years ago. It was filled with paintings and sculptures and religious artifacts. Don't touch anything.

When we came outside again we stumbled into protests blocking the streets. This is the second time I've accidentally joined a protest crowd while traveling abroad. It took us a while to figure out, but in the end we discovered it was a union march.

Brightly Colored Lima Buildings

Bright, solid tones dominated the historic center of Lima.

We did lunch across town at Maido, which is number 13 on that list I mentioned of best restaurants in the world. We paid for the full 16 course experience. Even with tiny bites for most of the courses, it amounted to far too much food. There were a lot of experiments, with flavors as well as presentation. Every dish came with its own distinct plating and silverware. There was even an egg served in a nest on a mini tree at one point. I forced myself to try everything, and the only real mistake was the river snail. I almost didn't keep it down.

River Snail at Maido

This is a river snail. It was the size of my fist. And it was absolutely disgusting.

We went shopping in the Inca Markets after eating. They're a mix of enclosed and open air markets specializing in hand-crafted goods. But we ultimately decided not to buy much until later in the trip so we didn't have to carry it all with us.

Our final day in Lima was largely uneventful; we visited more city parks, chief among them Mariscal Castilla, a water park focused on children. We even spent some time in a Wong, which is a general goods store chain, comparable to a Target or Walmart. I always enjoy seeing how the average day of a local denizen plays out, and going to the Wong definitely provided that perspective.

I loved Lima, and I would easily go back given the chance. And if I did nothing but eat and drink and sleep and explore city parks I'd be content.

See All Comments (0)

As I described in more poetry in my previous post, Monica and I flew through El Salvador to Peru to start our honeymoon. We had a second layover in Lima that resulted in the most emotionally fraught airline experience of my life: despite booking our tickets months in advance, we had been moved off our flight for no discernible reason. It mattered way more than usual because the hotel at our destination would not pick anyone up if they arrived later than noon local time - getting down the Amazon river at night was simply too dangerous. So what might seem like a delay of only an hour or two to get us on the next flight would actually result in an entire day lost. We spent hours at the airport talking to a dozen customer service representatives as the clock was ticking down and not a single one could help us or even give an explanation for why we were the ones that got moved while a hundred other people didn't have their plans mysteriously changed. It was a truly awful way to begin the vacation, and I will never forgive LAN Airlines (now LATAM) for the distress they put us through.

We waited standby for our original flight (where we had selected our seats months earlier!) and through shear luck, exactly two people did not make the boarding call and we were allowed on. I resented every other person on that flight. Why were they better than me? Did they pay more for their tickets? Were they all loyalty members? I couldn't find any logical explanation.

We landed in Iquitos - a city with a dangerous reputation - frayed and on edge. I was paranoid someone on the ground would try scamming us, so when I finally found our uniformed, English-speaking tour guide it was a huge relief.

During the two hour drive to the river docks in Nauta we stopped once for a local snack, which largely amounted to rice and plantains wrapped in a tortilla-analogue. After precariously loading up our luggage and stumbling onto the tiny boat - which was really only a canoe with a shallow motor - we were on our way down the Amazon River.

Amazon River Docks at Nauta

The Amazon River docks at Nauta. It's a big, brown river.

The sun started setting while we were still on the boat an hour later, which was all the evidence I needed for the strict airport pickup deadline. We threaded through the last of the narrow forks only with the help of flashlights. I'm glad our guides knew where they were going.

Amazon River Fork at Night

Amazon River fork at night. Notice how light the sky is in comparison to the river. I didn't modify the brightness or contrast at all - that's how it really looked.

We were greeted with a passion fruit drink and a heavy snack consisting of beef mixed into rice. This was an example of what we'd be consuming during our stay: lots of juices of all types, including melon and pineapple, accompanied by rice with bits of protein hidden inside. After ensuring we had enough to eat, we were promptly shown to our room where we could rest after a full day of travel.

Of course, the room itself offered no respite. The humidity ensured I was uncomfortable. The mosquito netting made getting in and out of bed a clumsy chore. And the sounds. I can't describe the sounds adequately. Despite being exhausted physically and mentally, I couldn't sleep. Being in the canopy made the jungle come alive around us in a myriad of frightening ways. I could hear numerous primates howling, something like a bullfrog croaking, and at one point what must have been a large cat roaring. Then the monkeys started throwing things at us. I heard impacts on the roof regularly until sunrise. I'm not certain I slept at all any night I was there.

Treehouse Hotel Room

A treehouse hotel room. No windows. No walls. No AC. Power only during the day. Limited plumbing.

The jungle was much less daunting in the morning. climbed down to the lodge and I asked our guide about the monkeys throwing things at us. He assured me I wasn't hallucinating: "They don't think we should be here." No kidding.

Treehouse Lodge

The Treehouse Lodge. This is the one communal building where all the meetings and meals took place.

We spent the day exploring. It included tours up and down the river forks - there were a lot of birds of various species that weren't afraid of us. And there were occasionally monkeys competing for space on the branches.

Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest. This represents what an average view of it looks like from the inside. I did not modify the saturation or colors here - it's really that green and bright. There are sections of variability - huge trees or termite mounds - but this is mostly what it looked like during the day.

We took a night hike into the jungle and it was terrifying. There are more species of spiders and grotesque insects that come out at night there than I ever imagined possible. Most of them were deadly, and our guide took a particular kind of glee in pointing them out to us. The mushrooms were equally fascinating and deadly: some looked almost crystalline, others utterly alien, and some even glowed in the dark.

When we returned we noticed bats hanging right above our heads in the one covered hallway the lodge had. They didn't bother us, and we didn't bother them. We were in for more of a shock when a tarantula blocked our path just a few feet from our room. The walkway was barely over a foot wide there, so we would have to step over the big, furry spider. Coincidentally, only a few minutes earlier our guide had described in great, gruesome detail how tarantulas could fling their poisonous needle-like hair over distances to impale a perceived threat. I looked it up later, and he was telling the truth. With a short jump we made it past the beast and won the day. It's a battle I'll never forget.

The next morning we went fishing. For piranhas. Their jaws and teeth are terrifying up close. The preferred bait is raw beef - most of the time it's gnawed off the hook the instant after you've finished casting. Combined with how murky the water is - you can't see below the surface - it made the river all the more menacing.

The good news is that I caught a catfish. And then the lodge gutted and cooked the fiends for us to consume.

Pirhanas on a Plate

Fresh caught piranhas (plus catfish in the back!).

In the afternoon we visited a local village. It was a sad scene. The children were unattended, mostly crammed around a ten inch TV screen watching Chuck Norris VHS tapes. The largest building in town was the abandoned wood slat church/school, fallen into disrepair, a high water mark from flooding evident along its side.

Inside the house of the self-styled mayor, we met a sloth named Pablo. He took to both us immediately, literally. While his claws are not painful they're also not pleasant. We watched him slowly meander around the room. His movements might have been sluggish, but they were always sure.

Pablo the Sloth

Our sloth friend, Pablo.

We purposefully stayed out on the river through dusk. It meant fighting off more mosquitos, but it allowed us to see pink river dolphins jumping and splashing around. While we watched, our guide tried to convince us of the health benefits of the drug ayahuasca and told us the myths of the giant snake Yacumama. We briefly went ashore on a large sand dune, complete with gulls and eggs and all manner of mysteries. It was a stark gray to the jungle's constant green.

Amazon River Dark

The Amazon river can get desaturated when there's rain and clouds and the tide exposes some sand.

We watched the sun set in tones of equatorial blue, a day of travel back to civilization looming before us.

Amazon River Blue

The Amazon river at sunset.

See All Comments (0)

Take a two hour flight from a major metropolitan area to a small town, then drive for two hours, then get on a boat for another hour and a half. You're now in one of the most remote places on Earth: the Amazon jungle.

Everything made by humans is out of place here. From the slate and rusty steel sheet roofs alongside colorless thatch above to the black tar roads below, it all perpetuates a monotone existence. Only the occasional smear of paint - inevitably an advertisement - bucks the trend.

Everything else is green. Greens along the river bed so yellow they're chartreuse. Greens in the canopy so kelly they summon unbidden memories of St. Patrick's Day. Greens on plants imbued with silver, with earthy brown, with every imaginable shade in the spectrum.

And then the long road opens up to show the full Amazon river, not those tiny tributaries we've been skipping over. This is a behemoth. A leviathan moving so slowly you might not notice, but incessant, utterly unceasing. Once we're far enough down it and away from civilization, I know with cold hard certainty that this river has committed murder. Without the right supplies and preparation it would kill an unwary traveler mercilessly. And it had. Countless times.

So we treat it with the respect it's due. Once you accept that this is not something to be tamed or conquered, it opens up to you. Its branches are the original roads, exposing the whole Amazon basin to quick and easy travel. We go and go and go for what feels like forever and around every bend something new delights: pink river dolphins jumping and splashing, falcons on lookout in the branches, jaguars heard yet unseen behind heavy vegetation. I was Harrison Ford in Apocalypse Now.

When we finally arrived at the Treehouse Lodge it's apparent where the architect got their inspiration: we are walking into a fully functional Ewok Village.

Rope bridges connect the rooms, and one starkly missing amenity is walls, with only nets to keep the bugs out. The humidity is smothering. But we made it to our destination. The adventure had begun.

See All Comments (0)

We began our final day in country by going to the Galata Tower. It's expensive to get in, but it has some of the best views you can get of the European side of Istanbul, considering that it's a tall tower built on top of a hill. We got there early because we had walked by several times before - it's somewhat centrally located - and there was always a huge line. Our foresight proved prudent and we only had to wait a couple minutes before taking the elevator up to the top.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower at night, with lights projected on to it. You can even see the moon to the left!

Galata Tower View

Dizzying heights looking down from Galata Tower.

Once we'd had enough of gazing at the city we made the short hike to a noisy fish market. There were numerous vendors and cafes trying to sell us the fresh catches of the day. We opted for a quiet place on the water where we ate fish kebaps and drank Turkish coffee served with the typical Turkish delight candy.

We proceeded to wait in a long line to visit the Basilica Cistern, a hugely popular tourist site that once served as the reservoir for the city. You might recognize it from the Bond film From Russia with Love. It's all underground and feels like a wet cave. And it's enormous! The fact that 1500 years ago people made something this big underground and it's still structurally sound is terribly impressive.

Basilica Cistern

The three-story tall main hall of the Basilica Cistern.

Basilica Cistern Upside Down Medusa Head

The famous upside down Medusa head in the cistern. Why is it there? That's a mystery that's never been solved.

Basilica Cistern Cracked Column

An artistic shot of a cracked column in the cistern.

We wandered around town for a bit before hopping on a ferry to our final tourist destination: the Maiden's Tower. This tower is on an island in the middle of the river, and there are a ton of myths and folk stories that surround it. Most of them involve a maiden or princess being shuttered inside - nominally for her own protection. As such, the tales behind a lot of Disney movies, including Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Rapunzel, can trace at least part of their origins here. In real life, the Athenians used it as one end of the giant chain they stretched across the river to control trade and help win naval battles. Yes, the idea of using a giant chain to block off a body of water is real. I thought it was just fiction in A Clash of Kings.

Istanbul Street Art

Cool street art we randomly found off the beaten path.

Maiden's Tower

The unassuming Maiden's Tower.

Maiden Tower View

The Maiden's Tower isn't that tall, but the view is unobstructed.

With all our touring done we went back to our hotel, the Rixos, and had drinks at the bar on their roof. Upon getting outside I realized we could see the restaurant we had eaten at our second night in town, as it was right next to us, and the view from this rooftop was almost identical.

We searched online for the best place to eat dinner in the area, and arrived at Ficcin, a family owned and operated restaurant with simple but tasty fare. I ordered a meaty pide, one of their signature dishes, and was very pleased. It made for a memorable local meal that despite the very high quality surprisingly didn't break the bank.

We eventually made our way back to my favorite bar in the city, Parantez, to finish the night. There we met Swedish business exchange students and had some hilarious conversations with them. It just goes to show how international of a city Istanbul is.

See All Comments (0)

After a final decadent resort brunch we flew back to Istanbul. Our first stop was returning to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which if you recall is the largest mosque in Istanbul. This time we took our shoes off and went inside. It's enormous, with high vaulted ceilings that reminded me of the Hagia Sophia, long hanging chandelier included. There was even an English speaking tour guide who was there to answer questions. Everyone inside was very quiet, and the place had a serene, peaceful feeling to it.

Süleymaniye Mosque Interior

Inside the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Süleymaniye Mosque Ceiling

Intricate patterns on the Süleymaniye Mosque ceiling.

Outside, we explored more of the complex around the mosque. We found the tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultan responsible for building this imperial mosque. That's a moniker applied only to mosques commissioned by sultans, and they are distinguished by having four minarets instead of the usual one or two.

We then hopped on a boat tour of Bosphorus, that massive body of water diving Europe and Asia. Other than getting a unique view of both halves of the city the highlights included seeing the ferry building and Rumelihisarı, a castle fortress on the European bank of the river.


The big blue Bosphorus.

Rumelihisarı Fortress

The three towers of Rumelihisarı. It was built to help the Ottomans when they besieged Constantinople. Now it's a museum and sometimes a location for festivals.

Bosphorus Bridge

Directly under one of the huge bridges spanning the river.

After disembarking we walked along the bottom of the Galata bridge, where a multitude of restaurants and bars compete for the attention of passers-by. We stopped for a glass of Efes and watched the sunset on the water.

Galata Bridge

A lively view of the waterfront. You can see the Galata Bridge on the left, restaurants spanning its bottom half, as well as ships to the right, including one of the enormous cruise ships that stopped in while we were there.

Bosphorus Sunset

Sunset on the water as seen from the Galata Bridge.

We moved on to dinner at Lale Iskembecisi, a recommendation from a local friend. The proprietor of this restaurant did not speak English, and it featured tripe as one of its main dishes. In a word: authentic. Having had a remarkably bad reaction to tripe in Prague, I chose a safer lamb kebab dish. It was creamy and delicious.

Leaving at around 9 PM I noticed that the salons were at their busiest of the whole day, full of groups of young men getting cleaned up while they chatted and laughed with each other. Some sort of pre-going out ritual? As that's something American guys never do it stuck out to me.

We finished the night by hopping around the bars in the pedestrian-only back streets, including stopping at an awesome hostel named simply "Raven," and a place with live music called "Bar Rasputin Live." I got a chuckle out of that one. It was the most European-feeling part of town yet.

Istanbul Street

This is a good example of what the pedestrian streets look like in Istanbul. The tables and stools are very low, and the establishments bleed into one another. You can easily have a conversation with someone across the street. Simultaneously exposed and intimate.

See All Comments (0)