Posted in: Travel- May 31, 2009 No Comments

By mid-May, the itch to travel again was back. While living in Buenos Aires and establishing a normal routine has been fantastic, it was time to upend it all and embark on my most ambitious journey of this adventure to date.

To begin to familiarize myself with the countries I would soon be exploring, comprising nearly all of the west coast of South America, I stayed up all night before my flight watching The Motorcycle Diaries. Rather than La Ponderosa, I enjoyed the considerably more speedy LAN Flight 4640, and dropped into Lima amid a dense and clinging fog. As I taxied into town the sun woke up, the gloom burned off, and inexplicably my Spanish became 1,000 times more fluent.

NorthWestSouthAm – Lima
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Lima was the first stop so that I could attend the wedding of my good friend from grad school, Miguel. His family couldn’t have been more gracious hosting all of the out-of-towners, and I was lucky to be able to steal an hour of Miguel’s time away from his impressively high-level government job. He served as the guide for my first foray into real Peruvian cuisine, which is incredible. The sauces are rich, the seafood juicy, and the colors lively. The drinks even more interesting: chicha morada (purple corn juice), Inca Cola (a bit like bright yellow bubblegum), and the national libation Pisco Sour all set me into sensory overdrive.

Guitar on my back, I wandered to the top of the hill to overlook all of Lima, amusing myself while walking by testing my budding Spanish translating Sublime songs on the fly out loud (“olía a Lou-perro adentro el coche“?). There was a church whose main claim to fame is open catacombs with about 25,000 human femurs in a box, my “All Security Guards Know How To Play Hotel California” Principle was strengthened (will be upgraded soon to Theory), and I discovered that I am the tallest person in Peru. You can get your shoes shined for 25 cents, which doesn’t feel right, and even when you give the guy a dollar it still feels weird.

I may not have digested the entirety of Miguel and Pame’s wedding, but enough to hoot and holler at the kiss. The lovebirds disappeared for 15 minutes directly afterwards, which I can only attribute to my explanation the night before of the best of the Jewish wedding traditions. The reception was a blast between the nonstop dancing and the women throwing elbows for the bouquet. I learned more slang; now if I can only remember the plusquamperfecto. In the morning, fellow MITer Carlos and I were up early for surfing among the plastic bags and bits of floating schooldesk. We saw a bit of the Lima high life hanging out at Carlos’s friend’s country club, then it was time to fly to Bolivia.

NorthWestSouthAm – La Paz
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Airport security just ain’t the same in La Paz. Landing after midnight, I was told that the rumor I’d heard of a $135 entrance fee for Americans was true. I didn’t have that much in any currency, much less in dollars. They let me into the country, making me promise that I’d fetch the cash from the ATM in the other terminal and come right back.

La Paz is a capital city with only a few day’s worth of tourist activity, and only a few breath’s worth of oxygen. I walked around the prison right in the middle of town where families live with their convicts, the Coca Museum where we chewed leaves mixed with banana resin, and wondered at dehydrated llama fetuses at the witches’ market. Met Rachel, who is Kate’s friend from their time at the US embassy in Chile, and learned more about la vida Boliviano. Smiled at the Bolivian currency, whose faces all have attitude, especially the dude who looks pissed to be on just the fiver.

Most of the evening was spent steeling myself for the next morning’s adventure. There is a famous mountain bike trek from La Paz to Coroico called “The World’s Most Dangerous Road“. It is a 70km, high-altitude, medium-traffic, low-safety tumble downhill on a car-width gravel road right along near-kilometer vertical drops. A 23-year-old semi-professional British cyclist had fallen 800 meters to his death just the week before. Initially I was against doing this, feeling that I had already cashed my cheat-death-on-two-wheels-in-the-mountains card in Vietnam in 2006. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had to do this. A man can’t stay sharp, hungry, and focused without regular calculated risk-taking: one cannot simply rest on the laurels of past challenges conquered without growing soft. So I signed up to brave the road (risk) with the company that boasts far and away the best safely record (calculated), Gravity Assisted Biking. After telling almost no one that I was doing this the following morning, especially not Mama and Papa who would certainly disapprove, I went to sleep anxious the night before.

The group of riders rendezvoused at a local cafe just after dawn, savoring our pancakes and more coffee than was advisable over gallows humor and rumor mongering. The van ride to the top was short, depositing us along a striking barren lake whilst the guides drilled us on safety practices and allowed us to tentatively spread our wings on the shock-absorbing suspension and powerful hydraulic disk brakes. For the first several kilometers we enjoyed paved roads to grow accustomed to threading the needle along the adjacent cliff. Soon, asphalt gave way to gravel and teeth chattered in sync with ohms hummed to stay focused. As the road narrowed and coarsened, we were made to up the ante by switching from the mountain side to the cliff side of the road, one dust-induced sneeze from a long way down. The crosses along the way marking the plunge points of prior unlucky travelers kept focus on knife’s edge. My motorcycle accident ensured that I was always prepared for a rapid bus to round the corner in my lane, and that every time I grew too comforable with racing over scattered stones downhill I should pay more respect to the powerful forces I was only barely sharing control with. The speed was humbling, and I gripped the brakes as loosely as possible to avoid devolving into an uncontrolled skid or flying over the handlebars. The scenery was magnificent, which I only allowed myself to appreciate when we would all stop to regroup, and the thin air I gulped was iceberg crisp.

Six exhilarating hours later, we rejoiced at the animal shelter at bottom over cold beers and hot showers. I took the opportunity to ask our guides about the real versus warned danger, as this was a topic I explored in my graduate thesis (linked HERE in hopes of upping its all-time readership from three to perhaps half a dozen). With no reason to instill fear/awareness any longer, they insisted all the stories and stats were dead on because “this bastard is just bloody dangerous”. Triumphantly we rolled back into La Paz and I broke my “don’t eat food from one country in a completely unrelated country” rule by celebrating with some llama tikka masala at Star of India.

NorthWestSouthAm – Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, and Isla del Sol
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I took an early morning bus to Copacabama on Lake Titicaca (stop snickering), linking with Nora from Germany and Paige from Australia to explore Isla del Sol, the Incan sun god birthplace. We trekked up the Stairs of the Gods with all our gear, which was a breath-laborious exercise to all the gringos and none of the island kids who were touting lodgings all the way up. Redescended accidentally on the Camina de Burros (Donkey Trail) and was knocked down half a flight by an errant mule making a sharp turn while swinging a wide load. Off on top of Capitan Felix’s boat, we hiked out to the Inca Table and stumbled across an Asunción festival with a band and costumed dancers and more stars than you would ever believe dangling above.

NorthWestSouthAm – Cuzco
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With these experiences as prologue, the meat of my trip was to begin. My sister Jenny had made the suggestion months before that we all meet somewhere in South America, and it had been too long since I’d last seen then: Jenny and Mama in January and Papa the previous November. The Leyboviches always start big, and we met in Cuzco for a lunch of cuy (guinea pig). It rhymes with fooey and it was chewy. We explored the city together, marveling at the Inca walls of huge stones lay perfectly smoothly against one another. The Catedral surprisingly became one of the favorite churches I’ve ever seen, decorated with amazing painting and gold leaf. Jenny paid homage to the patron saint of single ladies, the Virgin Mary was more important than Jesus to symbolize Pachamama (Mother Earth) and always in the shape of a mountain, and there was a huge Last Supper painted from the native perspective: guinea pig for dinner and Judas as the only dark one (hence the good guy, as he looked native and was against Jesus, much like the natives were resistant to their Christian colonists). Just outside town we visited Sacsayhuaman, where we warmed up for Inca ruins to come and Papa executed a perfect ninja roll.

NorthWestSouthAm – Huchuyqosqo Trek
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We sipped coca tea early the next morning (I don’t think I slept in once during this trip) and met Roberto (Beto), who was to be our guide for trekking towards Machu Picchu. We began in a small village a ways out of Cuzco where Papa talked about his boyhood home in Moldova being made of of the same adobe bricks as the shanties we passed and Mama telling stories about her girlhood “stop sniffling and cover your mouth when you sneeze, plis you know ze rules”. The first day’s hike was 16km, rising from 3200m to 4500m. We were told a max of 4200m before, but apparently telling hikers the magnitude of elevation change in advance tends to psyche them out. Battled the wind on narrow trail along precipices at times and basked in the sun in the middle of broad beautiful meadows at others. Jenny strutted through a herd of sheep and llamas wearing Beto’s baggy cargo pants when it got cold, and I served as Papa’s personal sherpa. Hours later we arrived at our campsite just outside a small settlement, nestled among fields of special cuy food. Made conversation with a few Quechua little girls over cookies until everyone’s Spanish was exhausted following the name and age exchange. We wandered into the village, and were offered potatoes cooked right in the ground by the farmer. The rest of the family was well into their taters by the time I started mine, and only by chance did I notice half a dozen maggots below the surface of each potato before taking a bite. Was faced with the dilemma: tell the family now and have them stop eating maggots at the expense of feeling sick because they’d know, or wait until Ecuador to share and meanwhile let them enjoy some supplemental protein. I think you all can guess which I chose. For their sakes. Mama faced a kissing attack by the drunk farmer’s wife with coca leaves pasted to her face. Dinner was eventful due to a kerosene lamp flare-up that almost took the tent, as was bed prep thanks to the magic camping toilet that didn’t flush properly, causing a rapidly accumulating pile of power bar. I preferred to poop on a hill. Between going to bed much earlier than normal, the -5°C weather, the loud donkey outside, and each Leybovich contributing in turn to the symphony of snoring, none of us slept much that night.

After enjoying fresh wild mint tea the next morning in our igloo, we continued down the valley on an Inca Trail. Not the famous part you hear of, as that was booked when I looked even months in advance, but some of the other 40,000km. The fantastic part of this “alternative trek” was that there were no tourists besides us anywhere, and I can’t imagine how it could have been any more beautiful. We trundled downhill, avoiding aca (poop). Many Quechua words are based on the associated sounds, which in English would change pig to “oink oink”, cat to “meow meow”, and, judging by the prior evening, Leybovich to “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. We arrived in Huchuyqosqo, the Inca summer palace, and reveled in the warmer and thicker air hundreds of meters down. It was remarkably well preserved for its abode construction, and the huge pool was impressive. Via Lamay and Ollantaytambo, we rolled into Aguas Calientes that evening, in the shadow of our destination.

NorthWestSouthAm – Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
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Up at 4am, we caught the first bus to Machu Picchu and topped the windy road by 6. From first glance, the complex is staggering. Only discovered in 1911, it used to serve as Inca U, where I understand they had a decent football team (Go Bears!). The pictures do more justice, and then not even, than a description. Suffice to say, it made a big impression, a testament to the power of the ancient engineers. The adventure portion of the day kicked off with climbing Huayna Picchu, the jagged peak looming over the ruins. The narrow path snaking up the rise was seriously steep and slippery, giving weight to the buzz in line about people falling off on occasion. Mama and Papa were troopers, giving it their all despite believing that all the hiking for this trip was done. The vertigo-inducing reasonably dangerous trek was worth it, with amazing views afforded at the top. You can see Machu Picchu emerging from the surrounding dense forest, and wonder how many other ruins are hidden in plain sight. The semi-controlled slide down was an intense international affair, with hikers from around the globe banding together to collectively crap our pants.

NorthWestSouthAm – Quito
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We landed the next afternoon for our only day in Quito, Ecuador, and had arranged to make the most of it. A van whisked us to the site we’d most wanted to visit in the area, the equator. An invisible line all around the world, mostly over water, and given special significance here at Mitad del Mundo. There are actually two sites marking the hemispheric border a few hundred meters apart. The newer one, determined by GPS, was accurate and where we spent most of our time. The older one was off a bit but they’d already built a big honking monument there. Oops. We were pleasantly surprised by a very cool ethnographic museum at the site, and were impressed by the spear throwers, shrunken heads, and fish that swims up your urethra and makes itself at home. The activities around the equator were a bit hokey but fun. The sun rises each day year-round at 6am and sets at 6pm, water supposedly swirls in opposite directions on either side (though my jury is still skeptical on that one), and you can actually balance an egg on its end! It was lovely to get my northern hemisphere fix for a moment, reminded me of home.

NorthWestSouthAm – Galapagos Islands
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The second pillar of our trip was the Galapagos Islands. Prior to the flight we were much more extensively screened for illness lest an iguana should catch chicken pox. Whisked out to our boat, Galapagos Explorer II, by inflatable motorboat, we soon set sail. The first stop was Wizard Hill, where we were met on the beach by dozens of lounging sea lions. They are distinguishable from seals by protruding ears. Don’t mix it up, it hurts their feelings. Immediately apparent was their relative indifference to people. They weren’t afraid of us nor did they seek treats. The Ecuadorian government does a pretty good job limiting access to the islands, balancing sustainable and educational tourism with preserving the natural ecosystem. Our group made a friend: a teenage punk sea lion who would swim right up to people walking near the shoreline, burst out a-flappin’ and a-barkin’, and crack up when the startled folks would trip all over themselves. The variety of wildlife was also staggering, from the sea lions to long-beaked birds to Rama-like crabs to lava-colored iguanas right at home on the volcanic rocks. That evening we were treated to a magnificent sunset, exactly at 6pm.

The next day was devoted to Española Island: one of the oldest, smallest, and home to roughly 50% of the wildlife of the archipelago. As expected, the animals made this a very special place. Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks, marine iguanas, albatross, blue-footed boobies (stop snickering), and many more abound at Punta Suarez. Later that afternoon at Gardner Bay we couldn’t stop smiling at the genuine paradise we found ourselves in. The snorkeling was beautiful and at one point I found myself swimming next to a giant sea turtle while a woman down the beach splashed around with a shark. The beauty of the natural setting was only perhaps eclipsed by Papa’s karaoke rendition that evening of ABBA’s “I Have A Dream”.

Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island was our main educational stop. Learning more about the history of the islands, we also encountered the famous Galapagos tortoises. Two in particular are famous, a study in contrasts really: Diego and Lonesome George. The story goes that pirates used to use parts of Galapagos as a base of operations, to recuperate from scurvy or some such. They would make use of the wildly abundant turtles, either for food, animal oil, or gifts for their wenches. On one island, the poaching was so great that when researchers did a survey they found only 6 females and 2 juvenile males still years from mating. Remember that Galapagos is where Darwin first considered evolution, based on observations that each island featured its own related but distinct species of each animal. These scientists put out a call around the world to see if anyone had a male tortoise of this species, and found just one, at the San Diego Zoo. They brought Diego to Galapagos to see if he might help jumpstart his species’ population. Fortunately for the species (and for the lady tortoises) Diego … was a sex maniac. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but without the mutant and ninja parts. This tortoise could not get enough, and single”handed”ly increased the population from 9 to roughly 1,000. Now, as a corollary, take the case of Lonesome George. Similar story, except he was the only one of his species left, making him the Guinness Book of World Records’ “rarest living creature”. Willing to slightly compromise the genetic line in order to keep it from going entirely extinct, the researchers put 2 lady tortoises of a very similar variety to his Pinta Island breed in with George. Sadly, George is Just Not That Into these two, and the one time they thought magic might have happened, the eggs turned out to be infertile. This begs the question why not have Diego teach Lonesome George how it works, but perhaps they are afraid that the resulting offspring of George would bear resemblance to a certain shelled Lothario. Our last stop of the day was on Rábida Island, which with its crimson sands was like Mars on Earth, except for with cactuses and sea lions. In the same theme of animal procreation, we witnessed a fight between two bulls (males). Sea lions live in harems, with only one male for 6-8 females and their pups. The job is not easy, as the male is constantly tiring himself patrolling the area and “doing the Diego”. When another bull sees him wearing thin, he challenges the current harem leader, sometimes to the death, and typically wins. The defeated bull then sulks off to rest and regain his energy to try to win another harem. Average time with harem before being challenged and defeated: two weeks.

Far too soon it was time to say goodbye to both the Galapagos Islands, and then to my family. The destination ranks as one the most beautiful I have had the privilege of visiting, and the vacation as one of our top family experiences. Sad to say goodbye, but I know I will see them back in the US before too long. On the way home I managed to finagle my flights to allow for a daytrip layover in Santiago, Chile, and had a great time exploring the beautiful cityscapes, the Bellavista neighborhood, Pablo Neruda’s house, and one of the best lunches in recent memory. By the end of the day I was back in Buenos Aires, where my quests continue.

NorthWestSouthAm Addendum – Santiago
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