Editor's note: Beverly Rolfe, a well-traveled Seaview resident who has visited many parts of the world, chose the South American country of Peru for her latest journey. As it happened, her trip early last April was less than two weeks after insurgents bombed the U.S. Embassy in Lima and shortly after President Bush's goodwill trip to Peru. She joined an Overseas Adventure Travel group for a three-week tour, highlighted by an adventurous canoe trip on the Amazon River and a trip to world-famous Inca ruins. This is her story:
"Ataque! Ataque!" (Attack! Attack!) The shouted warning got our immediate attention as the beautiful reddish-brown snake with gray stripes slithered past our small canoe and now, suddenly, is trying to get in with us. Raul, our guide, jumped up, screaming to our "pilot" standing in the stern, with an oar in his hand to attack the three-foot-long snake and keep it in the water.
The five tourists in the canoe sit strangely still, afraid to move lest we distract Raul and Carlos who are trying to keep the snake out of the boat. Seconds before, Raul had pointed it out as it swam nearby. He identified it as a juvenile fer-de-lance, one of the world's most venomous and most aggressive snakes. Fortunately it did not get in our canoe. Amazon locals call it the "two-step" snake - once bitten you can take about two steps before you collapse. (Thankfully, we didn't find that out until later.)
That canoe trip on the Amazon River was an unforgettable highlight of a three-week tour of Peru and the Amazon jungle. The Amazon trip and the snake episode came near the end of a journey that started early on a cool and clear April morning at Sea-Tac airport.
It isn't difficult to set out from Seattle at 4:15 a.m. because the day ahead promises to be one of new sights, the beginning of new friendships, a much anticipated return to a Latin culture and a first glimpse of an as-yet unknown city - Lima, Peru. The 11-hour flight from Seattle to Lima, via a connection in Dallas, was uneventful and rather comfortable, because of a more spacious seat configuration. We arrive at our hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima at 12:20 a.m.
The 15 Americans in our group begin this Peruvian sojourn with a tour of Lima. This city of eight million residents is divided into 43 districts, each with its own mayor or "sub-mayor" - all of whom then answer to the head mayor of the entire city. Lima is perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and our hotel is a ten-minute walk from a magnificent view of the shoreline and the surf.
Unlike the coast of Washington, where clouds carried by prevailing westerlies dump their moisture on the west side of the mountains, the reverse is true in Peru. The rain clouds in that part of the world are driven from the east and drop all their rain on the eastern side of the Andes; thus it never rains in Lima - well, hardly ever. That is not to say it's a desert. There are many gardens and parks and a variety of spectacular tropical flowers, kept green by frequent morning mists.
From Lima we fly to Cusco, stopping only long enough in the courtyard of the hotel where we will stay later, to relax over a cup of coca tea, made from the same leaf as cocaine. Coca tea is supposed to help visitors get used to the high altitude. Cusco is at an elevation of 11,000 feet, so we try to acclimate ourselves with this brief stop and then a descent later in the morning to the Urubamba Valley (7,000 feet) where we will spend a few days in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The centerpiece of the sacred valley, Machu Picchu, is the most valuable archeological site in Peru and one of the world's architectural treasures. It was discovered by archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911 on the top of a remote 7,000-foot mountain shrouded in a nearly perpetual rainforest cloud cover. Many of its treasures had been looted by locals and after 1911 many more were transported to Yale University, where Bingham was a professor.
Aside from this disturbance, Machu Picchu has survived inviolate in its remote location for more than five centuries, its buildings losing only their thatch roofs to time. The Inca community dates to 1450. When the Spaniards entered Peru in 1532 the Incan empire rapidly collapsed.
The natural setting of Machu Picchu is absolutely stunning and ethereal. Wispy clouds part and the sun streaks through to reveal breathtaking staircase terraces and massive stone retaining walls, which have kept the city from washing off its cliff-side perch for more than 500 years.
Houses, temples and agricultural and hydraulic systems attest to the advanced knowledge and urban planning of the Incas. They were noted for their stone work, road systems and advanced farming techniques.
We spend most of two days here, wandering through the labyrinth of terraces and marveling at the enormous skill involved in building this imperial outpost in such a spectacular setting by members of a culture who possessed only wooden, stone and bronze tools.
From the Sacred Valley we travel back to Cusco, then to Iquitos and the Amazon where we meet the fer-de-lance. At the end of our tour to Lima, Cusco and the Machu Picchu ruins, five of us have chosen to continue on to Iquitos and five nights in the Amazon jungle. The excitement of the snake encounter is a grand taste of travel adventure in this remote part of the world.
It is the beginning of April, still the rainy season, and as the Amazon level rises, dry ground becomes scarce. Snakes and other wildlife are desperately looking for a piece of dry ground and safety. Even though we are 2,300 miles upstream from its mouth, the Amazon rises and falls with the seasons as much as 45 to 50 feet.
At the village of Iquitos we board a river boat on the Amazon River, traveling downstream to the Napo River and Explorama Lodge, a primitive camp on stilts hidden beneath giant leaves of jungle plants and without electricity or running water. Our rooms are lighted with kerosene lamps and our beds are small cots covered with mosquito netting. There is a basin and pitcher on a small wooden table, the floor is wide-plank boards, and the walls are half walls, the top half open and curtained off with cafe-style curtains. Pet tapirs, monkeys and macaws wander through the common areas at will.
Since one can become dangerously lost by walking only a short distance into the jungle alone, Raul cautions us not to explore without his guidance. On our first day we walk single file on a damp, muddy leaf-strewn path past vines, hanging tendrils of huge philodendrons, brilliant red bromeliads six feet tall, and ant hills the size of two footballs. After two hours of wending our way along the jungle floor, we suddenly step into a clearing surrounded by cone-shaped grass huts and bowered lean-tos.
Ten or fifteen adults and a handful of children, dressed in grass skirts, are absorbed in various tasks - weaving raffia bags, cleaning blowguns, making seed necklaces. One young man is sleeping in the dark corner of a grass hut on what appear to be rocks. This small group of natives is the major part of the Yagua tribe, and the clearing is a little "shopping mall" for tourists.
The Yagua's only weapon for hunting is the blowgun. We each take a turn at trying to hit a bull's eye and find that balancing a heavy nine-foot blowgun steady enough to hit a target 100 feet away is more difficult than it appears.
Each evening we ply the small tributaries of the Amazon River in our canoe, under the magical light of the Milky Way. We listen to the raucous jungle sounds and occasionally turn on our small flashlights to gaze in wide-eyed wonder (and a little fear sometimes) at a boa constrictor coiled and sleeping in a tree above our heads, a tarantula resting on the trunk of a swamp tree two feet away. A hummingbird sleeps in the foliage of a nearby bush and we duck our heads down into the boat, trying not to disturb it.
Our Peruvian tour comes to an end too soon, and it's back to Lima where three in our group board an American Airlines flight for Dallas at 1:30 in the morning. Five minutes into the flight, while the flight attendants are still belted in, there is a slight shudder of the plane, a strange noise, and I notice one attendant turning to the other in alarm and asking: "What's that?"
The plane seems to be laboring to gain altitude. The pilot then announces over the intercom that we are returning to the airport because of a strange noise in the right engine. I'm wondering what would happen if one engine is lost; this is a Boeing 767 which has only two. I am sitting over the right wing and near the troubled engine. I peer down into the night blackness and see only a few small dimly lit fishing boats in a vast sea. Where is the airport?
After a wide turn, a bumpy slow descent and what seems to be a very long time, a lighted runway comes into view. I notice that I'm clutching with both hands the book I had been reading on takeoff. Now I can finally let go - we're on the ground.
We remain on the plane for 20 minutes or so and I watch the pilot and several others inspecting the engine. At 5:30 a.m. those passengers who are not in any rush to get back to the states are taken to a beautiful hotel for the day. The others wait for the next flight. I welcome another day in Lima to take one more close look. I board a bus and lose myself in the throngs of local residents, feeling, in a small way, like a part of this vibrant city for a few hours.
The next night the same pilot returns to the airport and we board the same flight, only 24 hours later. I ask the pilot about the problem. He tells me birds had flown into the engine and bent the housing, making the compressor blades hit the side.
I settle in my seat and pick up the same book I had been reading the night before, the one I had clutched so tightly as we circled back to the airport. The title is "The Zen of Travel."