Elvis has left the Jungle

Hello everyone.  How goes the world?  Mine is fine.  I’ve been deep in the Amazon these last few weeks, spending some time with friends, and fish, and serpents, not to mention Genghis Khan (don’t ask, well that is unless you really want to know).  But it’s been wonderful.  There is just so much to learn here!  I’ve had my fly line cut by piranhas, seen enormous grubs cooked over coals, watched a rooster feel sympathy for a turtle, been rained on until it seemed the sky and the river were one, traveled miles and miles and miles in a tiny wooden canoe, swam, hiked, slept, and even witnessed the unspeakable accuracy and power of Maestro Don Alberto Torres Davila’s deadly staff, as wielded against the head of a viper two meters long and sliding sideways through the grass.  But alas, now I am headed south again.  I’ll be on Lago Titicaca in two days.  Look for another update sometime soon, and in the meantime, here’s the photos that I’ve taken along the way.  In the meantime though all of you please write me back; I look forward to hearing from you soon.  

Machu Picchu, by the skin of my teeth

Machu Picchu is actually one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, with up to two thousand people per day walking its paths and photographing its grounds year round.  This may sound like a turn off, especially if you are anything like me in the sense that you generally look for the path less traveled (or for places without paths at all), but let me tell you here and now folks – this one is worth it.  The site is amazing, in practically every sense.  From its location and scenery to its history and general energy, I could hardly recommend it highly enough. 

There are some challenges associated with getting there, especially if you are not particularly wealthy, since access is basically granted either through the wallet or the leg muscles and lungs.  Those with the bucks can take a train either directly out of Cusco or from several points between there and Aguas Calientes, the small town at the park’s entrance, but as of my writing there are only two companies to choose from for this service and they seem to be in cahoots with regard to a mutual neglect of competitive pricing.  Another option is to walk the Inca trail, a several day backpacking trip along the route originally used by the Inca themselves, but this one too is pretty expensive, illegal without a licensed guide, and generally booked out two months in advance.  So what’s left is the back door: arrival at what is called the hydroelectrica on the river Urubamba, either by foot from wherever you started or via seriously harrowing taxi transfer along a one lane winding gravel road with thousand foot drops off the left side most of the time and heavy truck traffic coming the other way as you round just about every tight curve, your driver blaring his horn more or less constantly in an attempt to avoid what seems like an all too likely head on collision, then the walk (+/- 2 hours) along the railroad track from where the road ends to the entrance of the park. You might be able to guess from my description which route I chose on the way in, and also why I decided to go ahead and kick out the cash for a train on the way out.  In the end I am glad I did it the way I did, but to be honest as the taxi slid to a stop less than one meter from the grill of a tandem truck in the middle of one of the curves with the cliff edge just inches from the tires and me looking over it, head out the window, I knew it was a once in a lifetime experience for me.  I would walk back out if I had too.

Arriving at Aguas Calientes after my escape from the cab and the walk down the rail line I was very happy to find that while rooms for the night were available for $1,500+US  there were also decent places to sleep for fifteen Soles ($5.50US), and that while many of the restaurants offered “American Menu” dinners at $50US a plate, in the market I could eat better food and drink the same fresh squeezed juices while sitting amongst locals and park staff for around seven Soles ($2.50US).  I was also surprised to find that the river, which I already knew to be extremely polluted downstream of Cusco, sported spectacular looking rapids, and also held trout!  Walking along its banks downstream from town that evening I encountered fishermen pulling smallish rainbows from the pools with the same coffee can setup some of my friends in Patagonia use.

The next morning I headed up into the site itself (another choice between expensive bus, and walking a long stone stairway path) arriving to find brilliant weather and what has to be some of the most impressive topography on Earth.  It is no wonder Pachakuteq, the Inca (which actually refers just to the “king”, not to the whole culture) at the time of Machu Pichu’s construction beginning in 1438, chose this site for his masterpiece.  Too bad about his timing though; it was inhabited for less than one hundred years before Manko Inca, fighting a losing battle against the Spaniards and in the midst of repetitive outbreaks of the same European origin viral epidemics that had been decreasing his culture’s population already for decades, ordered the city’s evacuation and the closure of all its entrances.  After that the jungle took back over, and the site remained more or less undisturbed until Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of it in 1911. 

Since that date the place has been through a lot – excavations, reconstructions, tourism “development”, long drawn out fights over artifact ownership, and now, two thousand people a day walking all over it.  But still, it’s really, really cool, and I just enjoyed the hell out of it.  Check out the pictures and then come down here and see it for yourselves folks – I highly recommend the experience.

Offerings to the Pachamama

Puno, Peru – On the shore of Lake Titicaca  It is the winter solstice, and the alarm sounds at 4am waking me from a deep, dreamless sleep.  I dress as quickly and warmly as I can before preparing a tea of coca leaves and heading out the door.  The streets of the city seem abandoned except for a few fighting drunks and the usual army of bored, wandering police.  Up at the plaza the trucks are already waiting, and I help to load them with the heavy sacks of cow dung and myriad breads and other offerings for the ceremony in which we are about to participate.

We drive quickly up away from the city center and the lake, to higher ground and a small knife like overlook upon which a few people are already gathering in the darkness, appearing on foot as if from nowhere.  The ceremony’s leaders, dressed in traditional garb and communicating in Quechua, hurriedly begin arranging the dung from the bags into a large circular pyre, glancing every few minutes at the eastern horizon and placing each piece of the tower with the utmost thought and care, sometimes dismantling and reassembling whole sections that don’t pass muster, the architecture of the thing based on a system of judgment that I am totally unable to see.  By the time the pyre is complete and being lit more than a hundred people have appeared and surrounded it, and as the flames grow the orations begin being made to the Pachamama, Earth herself.  These are spoken mostly in Quechua but some are in Spanish as well, and as I listen it strikes me as wonderful that nothing is asked of her, actually nothing at all.  Appreciations are expressed, and offerings made, but all without a single entreaty for return.

Before long the fire is enormous and its circlers are preparing the physical offerings, small statues and scenes of symbolic significance, showered in coca leaves which have been kissed and pressed against our foreheads before being placed.  These are then thrown into the fire, which blazes as though writhing in its own private ecstasy, and the crowd chants and prays with hands held high, walking away to the East, the young helping the old and feeble across the boulders and through the passages along the way.  Reaching the cliff’s edge and looking out over the enormous lake, I see the first blaze of sunlight crest the mountains, and its orange and warming light begins to thaw my frozen lips.  Aromatic woods are ignited in smoke vessels, and passed from hand to hand among the participants.  Then the entire community begins to greet each other, welcoming one another to the New Year with enormous smiles and an almost visibly radiant vibe of warmth and Love.

It cannot be anything but quite clear to all of them that I am from somewhere far outside their culture, yet they have included me in the whole of this ceremony from its beginning as though I belonged there as much as any of them did; and they include me now, embracing me, kissing me, and wishing me well in the year to come.  This is community; this is communion.

Another Epic Post – Looping all the way up to Peru, through Iguazu, out for Dorado on the Parana, and back home to Patagonia

Hi Everyone.  Wow, now it really has been a long time since my last blog update.  My excuse, for what it’s worth, involves a total laptop meltdown, travel to several countries and about two thirds of the provinces here in Argentina, and the general lack of time I almost always find for writing these days as a result of having too many businesses and projects going in too many places on the planet all at once.  But oh-well; it is what it is.  And here it is!  So, once the season closed down in the south I headed north, Negra in tow (or draped across my shoulders, as the case often was) first up the ruta 40 then in towards the mountains far enough to find some deserted back-country hot springs and a blizzard, all at once, in an area not too far from Cerro Seler, the infamous site of the October 13th 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 carrying the Old Christian’s Club Rugby Union Team, whose story was later turned into the Hollywood feature film Alive.  Their story is really quite incredible.  The area was pretty remote, and although at one point I did almost get the truck stuck trying to drive it through more than a meter of loose snow luckily in the end I made it out and didn’t have to resort to eating any raw human buttock-flesh in order to stay alive.

From there I traveled on to a pretty fascinating area of the country I was not previously familiar with at all.  First stop was a really cool limestone cave called Caverna de las Brujas (Cave of the Witches).  I hadn’t actually been in a cave since before the aneurism bleed back in 2001, but immediately upon donning the headlamp and squeezing through my first “pancake” on the descent into this dramatic cavern it all came back to me.  Exploring the system for a few hours that afternoon I found it to be amazingly reminiscent of some of the caves Steven Wright and I used to spend time in which make up the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia (TAG) system up in the states, and by the time I crawled back to the surface here in south America I was nostalgically pining for those days of youthful freedom; sleeping in the bed of a 1981 Chevy pickup (“Old Red” we called her) for weeks at a time while driving from cave to cave through the mountains, perpetually covered in mud and eating canned smoked oysters three times a day like it was all somehow normal behavior.  Youth is like that though.

After the cave I headed east a little ways then into Parque Provincial Payunia, which hosts the highest concentration of volcanic cones anywhere in the world.  Over 800 volcanoes rise from the earth within this park’s boundaries, and a rough system of four-wheel drive tracks traverse it between them.  Driving these roads is like I would imagine driving across Mars might be; the scenery is surreal to the point of being indescribable, and I’m afraid my photographs likely don’t do it too much justice either.  There are no visitor centers, rangers, or infrastructure features of any kind within the park, making it either a do-it-yourselfer or hire-a-guide type proposition, but the good old Toyota Hilux did me right yet again and I was able even to get within hiking distance of one of the higher cone-peaks in the park.  The terrain is made up of a mix of coarse volcanic ash, various types of strangely shaped rocks (some of which literally flew through the air up to several kilometers upon eruption, cooling as they fell, and landing in very odd shapes exactly where one encounters them still today), and very little plant life.  From the top of the cone I hiked to I could see where half of the mountain itself had been blasted away in its eruption, and the enormous river of lava that ensued flowed many miles before creating a strangely shaped river of liquid looking stone as it cooled.   It makes you think, standing at the top of a thing like that, and it makes you feel very, very, small as well.

Next it was off to Peru, but first by way of Santiago Chile where I enjoyed a great dinner downtown with Zachariah Tweed’s new girlfriend Marcella.  I had no idea what to expect, but she turned out to be such a wonderful person all lingering questions about my long-time bachelor friend’s sudden change of heart with regard to monogamy were immediately answered.  I only hope he is still available for a few more nice long float trips and exploratory missions this coming season before he finds his domestic responsibilities occupying a greater share of his time than does fishing, as sometimes happens to gentlemen in his position. 

Upon arriving in Iquitos, Peru, on the headwaters of the Amazon river alone, Negra-less, and a bit disoriented by the tropical climate and newness of the Peruvian Spanish dialect, I checked into a very nice local hospedaje called La Casona.  Iquitos, despite being the largest city in its region and sporting a human population of over three -hundred and seventy thousand people, has no roads whatsoever that connect it to the outside world.  Unless you happen to be coming from the small and nearby town of Nauta, you must arrive here either by boat, or by plane.  I would say you could walk, but after spending a couple of weeks wandering around the jungle in this region I certainly wouldn’t suggest it.  This was my first experience in terrain of this sort, and it was daunting and at the same time awe inspiring in many ways.  I’ve spent my share of days (and nights) in places where an attack by bear was well within the realm of possibility, and even side-stepped a few copperheads and rattlesnakes along the way.  But this place,.. this is something entirely different.  There are snakes here that can actually eat people.  Not to mention jaguars, piranhas, caiman, and a whole host of spiders that I personally have no desire to meet, least of all being the Brazilian Wandering Spider, a neurotoxin carrying terrestrial beast considered by science to the most venomous arachnid in the world.  There’s even a urethra invading catfish, if you can believe it.  But luckily I failed to encounter most of these creatures throughout the duration of my wanderings in the jungle, and apart from attracting the attention of a couple cute little Peruvian girls, managed to enjoy even a few laps across the river and back without much input from the local fauna.  I did see a lot of very cool birds, some monkeys, a few caiman, a couple tasty looking Capybara (the world’s largest rodent, and one of John’s long-time favorite members of the animal kingdom), and a whole host of the most amazing butterflies, including the ever-moving, practically impossible to photograph Blue Morpho, one of the largest and also most severely threatened butterfly species in the world.  Very cool stuff.  I also enjoyed a good deal of local food and lots and lots of fresh squeezed juices, ran up and down the river a few times in boats of various description, talked to a lot of locals, and spent some fascinating days with a group of local shamans who practice an ancient form of medicine called ayahuasca, which has a rich and fascinating history in the area.   I figure anywhere you can buy an ice-cold coconut with a whole drilled in it and a straw sticking out of it from a street vendor for less than a quarter’s got to be good, so Iquitos is likely to remain on my list of recommended places to visit for as long as it stays more or less the way it is right now.

When I left Peru I headed south again and ended up at Iguazu Falls, on the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.  There I picked up my entire family, who I had not seen hide nor hair of for almost an entire year.  For the first part of their trip we stayed in the town of Iguazu, in a place along the river just outside the park itself, and visited the falls and its trails and overlooks for several days.  I had been wanting to see this area for many years, ever since first laying eyes on it in the 1986 film by director Roland Joffé called The Mission.  The film is actually based on the true story of the Jesuit missionaries and the end of their period of work in that area back in the 18th century, with a sort of side-story thread in which Robert De Niro transforms himself from being a slave-trader into a protector of indigenous Guarani culture as the result of having murdered his brother over (you guessed it) a woman.  But to get back to my point, near the beginning of the film Jeremy Irons (or rather, I should say, his stunt-double) playing one of the Jesuit priests actually free-climbs the falls at Iguazu, making the first European ascent to the river above.  The cinematography is rather incredible, but after having seen the falls with my own two eyes I can relate to what must have been a serious frustration on the part of the camera crew making that film – there is just no way to capture the scale and majesty of this place with mere photographic equipment.  Standing on one of the overlooks hearing the roar of the water and feeling the mist on your face you can connect with the power of the place, and it is breathtaking, but having been there now I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any photo or film which succeeded in coming anywhere close to portraying the true scale and beauty of Iguazu.  I certainly don’t expect my words to get the job done either; you’ll just have to go and see it for yourselves.  Anyone interested can send me an email and I’ll be happy to set up the trip.  Apart from the falls themselves the park also has a really nice system of trails which traverse the jungle and lead to sightings of the area’s unbelievable quantity of bird species, as well as plenty of playful coatis (a sort of cross between a raccoon and an anteater, at least in my book), and the small variety of monkeys which mostly stay high in the treetops where they are somewhat difficult to photograph.

When our time was up at the falls we headed south through the province of Misiones (named after the Jesuit missions I talked about above), which is now the leading producer of yerba mate and teas in the region.  This afforded an opportunity to familiarize myself with the production of a product I use daily, and so I was very happy to stop and take a tour of the Amanda yerba processing facility, which just to happened to sit along the road we needed to take.  Amanda also happens to even be my brand, so that worked out well.  It has surprised me over and over again throughout Argentina that when I would ask a person taking mate what the plant looked like hardly any of them knew.  I suppose it’s not that strange; most of the Coca-Cola drinkers in the states probably couldn’t pick a coca leaf out of a line-up either, and I certainly couldn’t; but since mate is such a foundational block in the culture down here and the ritual that surrounds its drinking on a daily basis is so defined and intricate in its specificity, the lack of general knowledge about the plant itself still surprises me nonetheless.  Misiones is chock full of plantations growing mate, which is a bush of sorts it turns out (part of the holly family) that can grow into a tree if it is allowed to but is instead kept at about a meter or so’s height on the plantations so as to facilitate easy harvest.  Once a year each plant is trimmed of all its smaller branches , and these trimmings are bailed into big burlap sacks and loaded onto trucks to be driven the drying facility.  There the trucks are weighed before being unloaded, then weighed again just after being unloaded so as to determine the amount of yerba they delivered, and the product gets moved into a big grinder that breaks it down into more manageable sizes for drying. It then travels through a system of conveyor belts and tumblers over the course of around three and a half hours span, being dried by, get this, wood-fire produced heat.  The region is apparently without any reserves of natural gas, and so most of the logging in the province provides fuel for the drying of yerba mate in these facilities.  When the yerba comes out the far end of the facility it is almost ready to be packaged, but must first be cured in these big white bags for almost a year.  I, for one, thought it was really neat stuff to see in person how it all gets produced, and was actually pleasantly surprised to find that this was all there was too it – no chemicals, no preservatives, no real processing; it’s just a dried out, chopped up plant that gets put in a bag and hangs out there until I pour it into my mate and add hot water in my kitchen or sitting by the pool (as was the case here in Misiones) or on a break from the fishing out on the banks of a stream with my clients.  Good stuff indeed.

From the middle of the province we headed yet further south, to a small town in Corrientes province on the banks of the Rio Parana, called Itá Ibaté (say that three times real fast after a couple of beers) to fish for Golden Dorado.  The river was really high due to a deluge of recent rains; the weather was unseasonably cold; and we were about a month early for the spring bite; but we managed to catch a few fish anyway.  The river here is a tail-water of sorts, though you would never know it, and spread out amongst a virtual archipelago of islands that had even me confused as to how to get back to the lodge by the end of our first day out on the water.  From a technique standpoint this fishery is a lot like the lower Etowah back home when you float it for stripers; lots of casting at blow-downs and rock-eddies with enormous colorful streamers until your arms feel like they are about to fall off, then suddenly a big toothy fish slams the fly when you least expect it, and if you are lucky enough to remember to strip-set then you’re on for the ride of your life.  For a couple of minutes anyway: until the five-kilo cross between a goldfish and a piranha flailing around on the end of your thin little wire bite-tippet decides to quit thinking it can fly and instead dives deep enough to wrap your fly line around a submerged log-jam or two.  Then it’s all over.  We boated some nice fish though and had a great time doing it, and I must say I really enjoyed being out on the water with my family again.  We also had some really nice meals in town, eating a whole bunch of surubí, which is a sort of giant catfish that gets to be well over a hundred pounds in the river there, and generally enjoyed our time together just hanging around and talking in order to catch up on all that had been mutually missed over eleven-plus months of continental separation.  It was a great time.

Like all great times though it eventually came to its conclusion, and after dropping the family off at the airport in Posadas I headed south yet again soon arriving Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, which sits inside the Ibera Nature Reserve, one of the largest, and luckily most well protected wetlands areas in all of Argentina.  I’m kind of into swamps these days, and this one was no exception.  Over the course of a couple days worth of boat trips and hiking trails I saw quite a few interesting things while learning a lot about the eco-system, and even accidentally happened upon one of the many houses in the world owned by Douglas Tompkins, who now owns most of the wetlands surrounding the park.  The place is just slap-full of birds and capybaras and caiman and deer, but from what I hear the only fish to be found are stunted little piranhas that don’t put up any real fight even on a fly rod.   From there it was down to Rosario for a series of business related meetings and then the long road home to Patagonia, driving south for what seemed like forever before eventually pulling up to the front door, some months by that time after having driven away from it initially headed north.  Another long road trip completed, and time to get myself back to work!  On that note, the season is shaping up nicely down here already; anyone looking to put a trip together should contact me as soon as possible so we can get the dates secured.  The rest of you just send me a good old fashioned email when you have the chance, and let me know how you’re doing and what the news is from wherever you live now in the world.  I’ll look forward to hearing from you then!