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Creepy Crawlies in the Jungle

For the squeamish readers, you may want to stop now. This post is about things that might make your skin crawl, like a big, hairy spider the size of a lumberjack’s hand. Personally, I loved playing hide-and-seek with the jungle insects in the Tambopata Reserve:

Hide-and-Seek with a Rainforest Insect

This guy was really beautiful, especially up close. The short focal distance of the 18-200mm VR lens definitely helped get magnified, sharp shots.

Up Close and Personal with a Rainforest Insect

I caught this stick insect in the middle of a meal, as he was munching on a leaf:

Stick Insect having a Leaf for Dinner

Another stick insect we saw was just hiding in plain sight. If I weren’t an intelligent species I really would have mistaken him for a twig:

Stick Insect Hiding in Plain Sight

Last, but not least – in fact, the largest of the night’s finds – this huge spider, which was (no exaggeration) bigger than my hand:

Giant Rainforest Spider

In case that isn’t enough to give you nightmares, here’s a close-up of the body. Mu-hahaha!

Close-up of a Giant Spider's Body

Sweet dreams! Surprisingly, I slept quite well that night at Explorer’s Inn, even knowing that I might wake up to a tarantula in my shower.

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 3:19 pm.


Otters, Monkeys, and Spiders

My full day in the Amazon rainforest at Explorer’s Inn started early, with a 5am wakeup (May 15th) just as the howler monkeys started their calls. We wanted to be on the trail by 6am to spot jungle animals on our way to Cocococha, an oxbow lake formed by a cut-off bend of a river in the Tambopata reserve.

Our guide’s strategy worked! Along the way we met a group of Saddleback Tamarin Monkeys (also known as the kissing monkey, because of the noise they make). They were quite curious and posed for us until we headed on our way. Can you see the bug in this picture?

Saddleback Tamarin Monkeys

Apparently in this species the fathers take care of the babies, who often ride on their backs.

Saddleback Tamarin Monkeys - Dad and Baby

Along the trail we spotted a lot more fauna than this, but I just can’t show everything now. There is too much for one post. At Cocococha Lake, we took to the canoes and saw a family of Giant River Otters. One of them caught a tasty meal:

Giant River Otter dining on a meal of fish

Then, we were lucky enough to see a very rare sight: another kind of otter that is almost never spotted in this area. Our guide identified it from my photo as a Neo-Tropical Otter:


Can I just say that I love my Nikon D90 and 18-200mm VR lens? Okay, an expensive 70-200 f/2.8 would be better for nature photography, but just look at this guy. Beautiful.

Here’s another interesting denizen of the jungle, the Hoatzin. It’s known locally as the “Stinky Bird,” though we weren’t quite close enough to smell it:

Hoatzin, the stinky bird

I’ve got dozens more great pictures of frogs, ants, lizards, and plants. But here’s one more for today: the Pink-Toed Tarantula. What would you do if this were waiting in your shower in the afternoon? That’s exactly what happened to one of our group!

Pink-Toed Tarantula in the shower

I’ll stop here for now, though I might do another post about this day, just to throw in a few of the amazing insects and spiders we saw on our night walk. Thanks again to Noemi for her excellent guiding and fauna spotting!

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 4:17 pm.


Into the Jungle

On May 14th, I departed by plane from Cusco, Peru to the town of Puerto Maldonado – starting point for Amazon jungle expeditions! Arrive to Puerto Maldonado via Cusco (conveniently, Cusco is the starting point for visiting Machu Picchu, Peru’s main attraction).

I was lucky in this stage of my travels. On the plane I met a nice Dutch woman, and we talked about our jungle plans. My answer: “Uhm, I have no plans. Just a list of good jungle lodges from a guidebook.” Fortunately, she already had plans with the first (and now in my opinion foremost) of the jungle lodges: Explorer’s Inn.

It is because of research done at Explorer’s Inn (see the research website at Fauna Forever) that the Tambopata National Reserve near Puerto Maldonado was created. Even now, it is the only jungle lodge in the reserve. I decided to go for it.

Covered and uncovered taxis in Puerto Maldonado

At the airport I asked the tour guide if they had space; he smiled and said “Let’s go to the office.” A short bus ride later, I met lead researcher Chris from Fauna Forever and signed up for a two night stay. We headed off through the backwater town of Puerto Maldonado toward our boat. After 1h on the bus and 1h on the boat, we would arrive at our destination.

Water Taxi taking bananas to market

Here’s where it becomes difficult. Which couple of shots do I show out of (ahem) two gigabytes of amazing photos – all wild animals spotted in their natural rainforest habitat?

I’m just going to show a few of the best photos from each day, for now. Later on (perhaps after the trip) I’ll revisit this topic and put up galleries of each kind of animal: mammals, butterflies, insects, birds, and so forth.

Here’s a spectacled caiman from our night trip up the river:

Spectacled Caiman at Explorers' Inn

And here are two choice shots of the night sky. These were both taken with my Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR lens, and 2s timer (to let the camera stabilize after my finger pressed the shutter). First one is the Milky Way! ISO 6400, f/3.5, 30s:

Milky Way over Explorers' Inn in Puerto Maldonado

Hard to believe we are just short-lived individuals of the dominant species on a single planet orbiting a mid-sized star, just like thousands of other stars in the one arm of our galaxy that you see here.

Anyway, here’s my lucky shot of the night. I was shining my headlamp on the palm to make a pretty scene when a shooting star graced my D90’s sensor with its photons (see upper right corner):

Sky over Explorers' Inn with shooting star

I feel like a big geek after those last two paragraphs, so I’m going to stop here. That’s what I did that evening, as well. I had to get some sleep, because we had an early wake-up for the morning’s jungle trek. Like Machu Picchu, I didn’t need an alarm clock. But instead of the Incas’ Revenge, I had a nice jungle native as my alarm clock at Explorer’s Inn…

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Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 4:48 pm.


Getting Into Hot Water

May 12th. Sorry we’re a bit out of order, as this is before Wayna Picchu. Traveling to the town of Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, is not easy. Especially when traveling there just a few months after devastating landslides damaged the train tracks, stranding many tourists at the town.

Well, the train track has been rebuilt, at least partly. But instead of taking the train directly from Cusco (roundabout 3h away by train), one must first ride a minibus for 2.5h along winding switchbacks and across dusty, bumpy dirt roads to Piscacucho. From there, the train takes you the last 2h beside the raging river, where you can see lovely views like this one:

Machu Picchu - damaged train tracks to Aguas Calientes

Yes, that appears to be the old track strewn across the river rocks. Very reassuring.

The town itself is nothing special. I didn’t visit the hot springs (because that’s not my thing). Frommer says they’re somewhat dirty, but refreshing for hikers fresh off the Inca Trail. I did have some tasty trout ceviche – raw trout slices with a strong lemon sauce. Either this or a Pisco Sour (a drink, probably made with some “local water” ice) led to some brief… errr… digestive issues the next morning. So, beware what you eat and drink.

I found these varied roofing tiles an interesting contrast, mirroring a lot of what I see in Peru: extreme poverty next to attempted modernity (e.g. Lima).

Contrasting roofs in Aguas Calientes

Huy (a.k.a. guinea pig) is a local specialty available in nearly every restaurant. I didn’t try it, though, and instead had a crispy pizza at Chez Maggy (a restaurant I can highly recommend!).I believe it was chorizo, egg, and plantain:

Pizza at Chez Maggy in Aguas Calientes

I went to sleep early to be ready for Machu Picchu the next day. Pirwa Hostel was… well, let’s just say the staff was friendly and nice. Otherwise I wouldn’t recommend it too highly (I had a moldy room, intermittent bathroom light, lack of lockers, just bread + butter + jam for breakfast). Disclaimer: it could be great in comparison to other hostels there… I have no idea.

Next up: one of the most amazing ancient-city-ruins on the planet, Machu Picchu. And, according to Internet vote, one of the new seven wonders of the modern world! If you’re interested to read about Machu Picchu, just subscribe via RSS or email to be notified when the article is live.

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 3:27 pm.


First up Wayna Picchu!

This post is for Scott, who will be proud that I made the hike in less than half the signposted time (just like the section up to the Höllentalangerhütte at Zugspitze).

Schedule for May 13th:

  • Wake up at 3:45 (15 minutes before the alarm is due to ring) because the Incas want revenge on my digestive system. Immodium: check.
  • Eat a quick breakfast of bread and jam, while meeting a cool Argentinian named Laura.
  • Get in line at 4:30am to buy a bus ticket; hop on a bus around 5:30.
  • Receive a stamp allowing me to hike up Wayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking Machu Picchu (a privilege accorded to only 400 people per day: 200 starting at 7am and 200 starting at 10am).
  • Start up Wayna Picchu at 7:00, 8th person in line; each person signs in for safety.

Wayna Picchu as seen from the entrance gate

  • Pass the other 7 people ahead of me, booking up the trail (which is about 360m-vertical of stone staircase, straight up with NO flat sections).
  • Arrive at the top 10 minutes before the next hiker! Enjoy peace, solitude, and a slight hypoxic bliss after climbing 360m of uneven, ankle-wrenching stairs in 29 minutes.

Dave self-portrait at the top of Wayna Picchu

  • Did I mention peace and solitude at the top of the world?

Shadow self-portrait on Wayna Picchu

  • Enjoy this beautiful view of the ancient Inca city:

Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu

  • Don’t forget about peace and solitude, and beautiful sunrise views.


If you have the chance to visit Machu Picchu, do not think you can do it in one day from Cusco. You must stay overnight in Aguas Calientes the night before to do this right. Some people will even want to take two days to visit Machu Picchu (which means two $40 entry tickets – but you DID come all this way!).

For those in good shape who don’t mind walking up a lot of (somewhat sketchy) stone stairs, DO get up super early and go for Wayna Picchu (also spelled Huayna Picchu). If you’re lucky like me, your jet lag (from points east) will have you waking up early anyway.

If you’re a fast hiker, make sure you’re at the front of the line of people at the Wayna Picchu gate (starting at 7am). Alone at the top, you’ll experience a peacefulness you won’t soon forget.

If you have serious hiking cojones, take the alternate route down to the Temple of the Moon, on the back side of the mountain. The trail has some hairy sections with cables/ladders, and I would NOT recommend it for those afraid of heights. It descends below the level of Machu Picchu, then climbs back up and rejoins the Wayna Picchu trail somewhere in the middle. The hike back up from the Temple feels like as much climbing as Wayna was in the first place.

A fellow blogger has his impressions here: Streets of Lima Post.

p.s. Laura, if you’re reading (and if I’ve remembered your name right), hope all is OK? Never saw you again during the day, or at the hostel before I left for a pre-train dinner of pollo a la plancha. Hope you didn’t sprain an ankle on those d*mn stairs. Incas’ revenge indeed!

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 2:11 pm.


Fire in the Sky

May 12th brought me to Cusco, albeit a bit late because of (supposedly) bad weather. When we arrived the weather was beautiful, but I understand there is often fog in the morning – and no pilot in his right mind would attempt this landing on instruments.

For my skydiving friends, landing in Cusco is about like this: you fly in about a thousand feet above the mountains, which are around 12k’. Descend about a thousand feet to mountaintop level, then do a 180° hook turn into the valley and land. Considering the cruising altitude was probably 15-18k’, there was almost no descent – just one high-performance turn!

The view from my hotel room at Hostal Buena Vista

Hostal Buena Vista Cusco View

Yours truly at the Sacsayhuaman ruins at 3,701m, which have truly amazing stonework

Dave at the ruins in Cusco

A choice sunset shot (out of about 50 I took) – flaming hot

Fiery Sunset over the Ruins at Cusco

I wrapped up the day at the Inka Grill, where I had alpaca steak. But those details will have to wait, as it’s time for bed – I get up around 4am tomorrow to climb the mountain next to Machu Picchu. Will let you know how that goes in a couple of days, if I don’t fall off Huayna Picchu – hah!

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 4:00 pm.


The Finest Peruvian Restaurant

I dined out in style on Monday night in the Miraflores district of Peru. A fellow blogger recommended Astrid y Gaston, so I gave it a try – and was not disappointed! My bill wasn’t cheap (about $55 USD), but considering the gourmet feast I had, it’s 1/2 or 1/3 the price of a similar meal in the States or in Europe.

First course: potato bread, spicy pepper bread, cheese bread, chocolate bread, plain white bread (already eaten), and some cheesy tomato pepper sticks. With butter, pesto, salt, and olive oil! Now that’s a lot of bread for one person. A few types I only sampled, and I must say, the spicy pepper bread was the best.

Bread at Astrid y Gaston

Complimentary appetizer, because I didn’t order one (was saving room for dessert): a shot of something starchy with green foam, a fried thing whose contents I don’t remember, and a sweet potato chip with tuna tartare.

Appetizer at Astrid y Gaston

I went with a mixed Peruvian shellfish main course. Lots of delightful flavors that mixed well together. I believe the green foam is cilantro-flavored… how does one do that?

Mixed shellfish at Astrid y Gaston

Finally, dessert: a fruit souffle with coconut crisp on the side, and a Pisco (similar to grappa).


Normally, I would say a tasty dessert like this would be the grand finale to a fantastic meal. However, the chefs weren’t done yet! They presented this artsy set of drawers, loaded with several small confections which shot my taste buds out of the stratosphere and into low-earth-orbit.


In closing, I’ll just say: I love this kind of unique culinary experience. But I can’t really justify spending $100+ on a meal. So if you want to taste real, high-end gourmet food and not break your wallet, visit Astrid y Gaston in Miraflores. Make sure to reserve in advance in case they fill up. You won’t regret it, and it will be an experience you’ll never forget.

Even with 3 drinks (Pisco Sour, Chardonnay, and a straight Pisco) my bill came to $55… easily in the realm of a “once per year” treat to yourself. I might even visit twice a year, if Peru weren’t so d*mn far from Munich!

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 4:00 pm.


Cats & Pigeons in the Park

May 10th brought a day of adventure in Lima! My favorite photos of the day were these three (so far… dinner at Astrid y Gaston is still upcoming!).

Cats in the park at Miraflores

Miraflores cats

Pigeons by Cathedrale San Francisco

Father and Son with Pigeon

Churros are fantastic – caramel mixed with chewy/crunchy goodness!

Real Churros Officially Rock

Let’s see if I end up paragliding on the cliffs of Miraflores next week, on my last day in Peru! With about 200 photos for the day, more Lima posts will be upcoming… eventually… but now it’s time to find a Peruvian beer before hitting up the most famous Peruvian restaurant in the world, Astrid y Gaston!

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 12:37 pm.


Mugged by a Camel

By the time you read this, I’ll probably be in Machu Picchu! So I may be slow responding to comments.

Okay, I’m not usually one to complain about prices when it comes to gear, because one pays for quality. But I just had to buy a replacement part for my Camelbak hydration reservoir – the Big Bite valve, which I somehow lost while snowboard carving this past weekend. Let’s just say I was a little shocked by the price:


You read it right. Eight euros (or about $11) for a tiny piece of molded rubber with no moving parts.

So, that brings me to my question for all of you hikers, trekkers, and backpackers:

What’s the best hydration pack system?

  • Pricing that doesn’t make you feel like your wallet has been violated
  • Long-lasting materials and parts which are high quality
  • Usable bite valve with an easy-to-operate lock

I’ve tried a couple brands of hydration bladders over the years, and so far Camelbak is the only hydration system that I liked. But today I’ve seen there are several new ones out there that I hadn’t seen before (Deuter, Platypus, etc). Does anyone have an experience with a hydration reservoir that compares well to Camelbak?

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 1:00 pm.

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A Simple Bed

Sometimes all you need is a simple bed. And wifi. After 2 days of 8h+ long-haul flights, Hostal Buena Vista had everything I needed on May 9th, for the reasonable price of $35 a night.

Hostal Buena Vista room

My taxi ride was happily uneventful. I think it’s rare for something to happen to you in Lima taxis, but it’s not unheard of to be robbed (or for the taxi to drive off with your bag in the trunk). Great advice from Ben at Streets of Lima about taking taxis in Lima. I was lazy and tired, so just bargained to 30 Soles on the price from the airport, but that’s a lot better than the $30 (almost 90 Soles)  the “official” taxis were asking for.

Finally, I’ve arrived in South America!

Posted 7 years, 10 months ago at 11:23 pm.