“MIA AIRPORT CLOSING AT 3:00PM TOMORROW” was the report we read as we were in mid-Hurricane Matthew prep last week. Problem was, our flight was departing MIA at 6pm. Were we going to miss the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Machu Picchu and hunt (with a camera, of course) for giant river otters in the Amazon??? No way! After several hours on the phone, a ton of stress, and perhaps two tons of money, we had successfully cancelled our flights, and purchased new flights for 6:00am (which was in a few hours). But that 12 hours lost was supposed to be spent packing the camera gear and doing hurricane prep…..
It started over a year ago with the announcement that I was the winner of the National Audubon Society International Photo Competition with an image of a double-crested cormorant chasing a school of bream, titled, The Chase. The prize package was a Tamaron 70-200 2.8 lens (great for birders), a LowePro camera backpack, some other fun photo gear, and a luxury trip for two through three locations in Peru (all great for bird photography). But I, of course, am an underwater photographer, and while I was totally honored to have the judges choose my image, and very thankful to the Audubon Society for the resulting exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum, I was actually on the fence about taking the trip to Peru.
Regarding travel, I always say that the list of places you want to go only gets longer – for every one you check off, you discover three more. And since I’ve been to a few places, my list is loooooooooong. Many months back, I was still not seeing how this destination would be productive to my underwater portfolio, so I was leaning towards Dominica instead. I mean, yeah, the hotel and some meals are provided, but my airfare, ground transport, tips, other meals, airport parking, luggage fees, hotel before/after, taxis…. The list goes on and on, and these things all require careful budgeting to a professional traveling photographer! Anyone who ever said, “oh, but you can write all that off as a business expense”, clearly has never been self-employed and had to budget travel based on ROI! So anyway….. like I was saying, many months back, on a regular Tuesday, I get a letter from the contest. Giddy with anticipation that it would be a certificate suitable for framing, much to my surprise, I had just opened an IRS 1099 form for the full prize package value (basically adding it all as taxable income). Imagine my cringing smile…..my fingernails digging into my fisted palms…..the slight quiver of pain…..at the realization that one of my most highly awarded photos has now become the most expensive photo I’ve ever shot. But hey, you’re damn right now I’m going on this freaking trip to Peru!
So we beat Hurricane Matthew to the Airport, and split the 12 hours lost in two rather uncomfortable layovers in Mexico City and Lima, then finally boarded the original flight to Cusco, and purchased an early hotel check-in – total travel time: 30 hours. After a 4 hour power nap, it was time to begin exploring Cusco. Occupied since the 10th Century, and acting as the capital of the Incan Empire from approx. 1300-1600, Cusco has a long, rich history. The city streets of the historical district are safe & clean, and while many areas around the square are pedestrian-only, where automotive traffic intersects with tourists, police directing traffic abound (interestingly, the officers were exclusively female). We picked up two paintings from a local artist, ate a guinea pig (considered a delicacy here – a must try!!!) and spent the afternoon doing 4-6-minute exposures of the clouds streaking over the cathedrals built by the Spanish during their conquest (sidebar: why does the word “conquest” carry a positive connotation??? Shouldn’t it be more synonymous with “destruction and oppression”???) of the area in the 1500’s & 1600’s. The light and perfect fluffy clouds were totally on my side for some great images.
The next day, we took a long taxi ride to the train station where we boarded for Machu Picchu. Now it might be said, that the only real way to get to the ruins is by taking the long hike along the Inca Trail. I’m not going to agree or disagree. You can call me a wus if you want, but I am a brother on a schedule, and while I would love to have taken the time to hike 30, 60, 100 miles or more, I can also say that being served drinks and snacks while watching the mountains whiz past at 25 mph was quite refreshing…. And I was starting to get sick – battling the flu brought on by being crammed in a flying can over Central and South America with 200 other germy travelers is a biological minefield! But the real shock came upon arriving at the Machu Picchu station. We were met by immaculately uniformed staff from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, and our luggage was whisked off before they could hand us welcome drinks. All the while, it seemed like the others getting off the train were wondering what type of celebrities we must be (“hmmm, the bald one with the camera looked more like a convict than the President”). But this, I can get used to!
As it turned out, the prize package wasn’t just for staying at three different 5-star Inkaterra hotel properties, it was for the Presidential Suite at each of them! Traveling photographers are usually more accustomed to a clean-ish sheet, some water (I didn’t say drinkable – just water), and scamming Internet from any unsecured network available. But after being poured a pisco sour, we could begin the tour of our three-level suite, the private outdoor garden shower area, the other private outdoor hot tub garden area……hey, is there a map to this room? I’m lost already. Suffice to say, “luxurious” would be a drastic understatement. Meals were beyond perfect, the service was impeccable, and the short hikes through the neighboring cloud forest were full of life.
But on to Machu Picchu….The next day, our assigned private guide, Carmen, escorted us in the rain to the bus stop at 5:00am, and we were far from first in line. Of course, you may choose to continue the Inca Trail from “down here” to “up there” but after that much pampering at the hotel…..naaaaahhhh! Note to photographers: If you carry a tripod or have serious lenses, be prepared to be assessed a MAJOR “pro photographer fee”. I can normally sweet-talk my way through these situations, but Carmen was on it before I even needed to unzip my camera bag. Having a great guide has saved me more time, money, and hassle in countless locations around the world, and this was no exception.
But guides usually have a plan of things to show me, and they never work out. At the very first vantage point where we were going to wait for the fog to lift, a few snapping twigs drew our eyes town the terraced steeps of the ruins to an adult spectacled bear (listed as IUCN Threatened/Vulnerable). Unconcerned with our presence, it gorged on bamboo and bromeliads for over an hour, and although we were able to get relatively close (perhaps 20 meters), the heavy fog limited visibility quite substantially. But for that hour, we barely spoke a word and just watched. As a matter of fact, the only sound I heard was when Suzanne started yelling and chased down some dude who dared to intentionally litter in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before I could put my camera down and back her up, she already practically had the guy (3x her size) in tears, and a small mob helping her! I couldn’t be more proud! But of course, once the fog began to lift, the bear moseyed out of view. What a privilege to see something so beautiful and rare! Carmen said that she had been a guide through Machu Picchu well over 1000 times, and this is her 2nd ever sighting of this species.
Now how do you describe the indescribable? You could easily jump over to Wikipedia or any of a thousand websites to hear writers far more eloquent than myself describe Machu Picchu. And Google Image Search will no doubt provide 10,000 photos shot by talented amateur and professional actual “landscape” photographers, and I am, after all, an underwater photographer, so how can I hope to compare??? So let me share my greatest fascination: we still don’t really know why Machu Picchu was built – and history does not have the actual reason why they left. Sure, there are excellent theories, and we do understand many of their major activities here, but it’s likely that we’ll never understand what the true purpose of Machu Picchu was – and I think that mystery is just plain cool.
Machu Picchu, Day 2 started off a little rough. After fighting off a flu for the past few days, I began losing the war. Alarm was set for 4:30, and by 4:40, I was projectile vomiting. But our plan was to climb Apu Machu Picchu – an extension of the Inca Trail to a higher-altitude vista of the ruins that is a strenuous 2-hour climb up. I was determined, and got almost to the entrance to Machu Picchu, when I felt the next hurl coming on and told Suzanne and Carmen to go on without me. Not moments after the bus dropped everyone off the top and started back down carrying only me, I yak into Suzanne’s mostly empty breakfast bag. It quickly gives way, so I put it inside my full breakfast bag. It also quickly gives way, so now I’m holding a pile of wet paper bags, pastries, and about 2 lbs of my stomach contents. 5 seconds later, its all over my clothes, and the floor and seats of the bus. Need I continue??? Suzanne said it was a great (tough) climb, and told me stories of nancies who were pressed up against the trail’s vertical cliff wall, paralyzed with fear of heights, and others who were literally crying and sobbing from fear of falling. Sorry folks – this isn’t an American shopping mall with safety cones telling you to be careful of a drop of water that you might slip on….. The Incas didn’t put little “Caution, coffee may be hot” warnings on their cups!!! And they didn’t need handrails on the trails either!!!
After three nights in the most luxurious hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, the manager realized that the only way to give his six henchmen the upper-hand in pulling my ankles (as my claws remained thoroughly embedded in the door frame) was to assure me that the Presidential Suite in our next hotel in the Sacred Valley was going to be just as nice. I lightened my grip, and jumped back onto the train.
And yep, the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba was just as swank. A 360-degree sweeping vista of the Sacred Valley and its quinoa-farming terraced mountains was eye-candy that just wouldn’t quit. The endemic giant hummingbirds (oxymoron?) buzzed overhead like jets. The staff seemed to outnumber the guests by 10:1. And the Presidential Suite……oooh the Presidential Suite…. I’ve spent most of my life in the warmer latitudes, so heated floors and towel racks are alien to me – it was my first time rolling around on a bathroom floor while completely sober and without suffering from food-borne illness.
The next day, we flew from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado to begin the Amazon Jungle portion of the trip. Sitting on the plane, I felt like a dog who smells the kibble bag open up – I was just quivering in my seat with visions of monkeys, piranhas, stick insects, tarantulas, and the report of over 550 species of birds just on the hotel grounds! A 45-minute down-river boat ride landed us in the middle of nowhere, but the thatched roofs high up the riverbank told us we had arrived. While not as luxury-oriented as the previous two hotels, the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica is still pretty swank, considering it’s in the middle of the jungle and off the electrical and cellular grid. And while they don’t have a “Presidential Suite”, per say, they did have us set up in the largest casita on the grounds, complete with private pool (which was SUCH a welcome touch after sweating through the rainforest trails in search of varmints, bugs, and birds!).
For three days, we walked forest trails, canoed through secluded ponds, walked 10-stories up in the trees through the canopy on precarious rope bridges, and cruised the river banks in search of caimans, capybaras, and anacondas. Leaf-cutter ants turned entire swaths of forest floor into their private highway system. Ornate fungus clusters turned logs into a cacophony of colors. Birds both screamed in our ears, and daintily challenged Beethoven from afar. And then there were the giant river otters – lifetime checklist favorite animal: found. But not only did our private guide find them – since we were alone rather than in a group, and we behave like good little wildlife photographers should (no sound, no rocking of the canoe, no calling out stupid human noises that we think otters will respond to, and slow, non-threatening approaches), the otters actually swam right up to us for a close look before settling in to a fallen tree branch system to socialize and hunt for the next 25 minutes. The family of 10 would take turns diving for a fish, sometimes grabbing a small piranha, and sometime grabbing an impossibly large catfish. They would bring it to the surface, and just start tearing into it while making the craziest barking sounds to the other otters, as if to say, “MINE!”, while fending off the playful tail bites and grooming efforts of its siblings.
On another day, I was out alone with a guide when we stumbled across my first in-person (not on BBC) swarm of army ants! Late in the day with fading light, he almost stepped right into the writhing black river of tens of thousands of 3mm long monsters, but managed to hop over them just in time. He instructed me to leap over with a running start, and to NOT stop and photograph them. Clearly, he was a little concerned, and recounting from the documentaries I’ve watched, I heeded his warnings. The primary swarm was rapidly moving like a river, but you could also see scouts a few meters out, signaling back to the swarm with pheromones, should they find anything edible or threatening, and a human would be considered both!
But all good things must come to an end. 50 minutes back up the river, another taxi to the airport, a flight back to Cusco, a seven-hour layover where we got a taxi back over to the historical Cusco square, another flight to Lima, 12-hour layover in Lima spent at a nice tiny B&B, and finally back to MIA to wait in the world’s most inefficient Customs & Immigration. Man, I’ve been through countless passport control centers over the years, and I still D-R-E-A-D having to use MIA’s every time. They should seriously talk to some 2nd grade classes to help design a more efficient system….but I digress…..
So, in conclusion, how would I sum it all up? Well, I didn’t get to shoot underwater, and I dragged an underwater housing all over the country, so that was a touch disappointing, but Machu Picchu is a New Wonder of the World, and I do find Incan culture to be quite beautiful. Plus I LOVE tromping through virgin rainforest looking for bugs and poison dart frogs. And the hotels from Inkaterra were soooooo nice that we sometimes questioned whether we should just lounge in our robes all day. While Machu Picchu was stunning, we also learned that there are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of lesser-known ruins scattered throughout the area. I’d love to make a return trip split between two objectives – one week further to the northeast to photograph the botu river dolphins, and another week to find guides to explore some of the off-the-beaten-track ruins that are off the touristy radar. It’s a big, geographically diverse country, and even with the fabulous time spent there, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. Scouting trip done – focused return trip: in the planning stages now!