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Published: July 14th 2009
This was my room at the hotel.
It first hit me when I nestled down into my tiny window seat on LAN flight 072, bound for Lima - My time in the Amazon was over. I had conflicting emotions as the doors on the plane closed. I was definitely happy to be going home, but I was already missing the forest and all of the mysteries hidden beneath its canopy. The plane was filled to capacity with a mixture of foreign tourists and Peruvians. I was surrounded by a group of American high school students who were returning home from a week-long educational trip to Cusco and the Amazon. The students were completely self-absorbed in their odd, popularity games and their chaperones had their hands full trying to prevent an international incident - The class clown was sitting directly in front of me and one of the adults in the group was right behind me, so I was forced to participate. I took out my book and a bag of fresh brazil nuts and I prepared for take off. I was lost in the lore of Tibet’s hidden lands in the Tsangpo Gorge when the plane left the ground. I spent another five minutes trying to read the
The Gran Hotel Bolivar
This lovely old hotel is the most famous in Lima.
same paragraph. My heart wasn’t into reading at the moment, so I put the book down and stared out the window instead.
It was fitting, really. The jungle that I had hoped to see below me was not there at all, only a featureless expanse of white stretching to the horizon. Once again, the forest’s mysteries were safely hidden behind their shroud of mist and rain. I turned my attention towards my neglected journal and began writing the ending to the story of my journey to the Amazon. I wrote about the rainy boat ride down the Tambopata River from the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). I mentioned briefly the complete lack of wildlife during the journey - There were no jaguars or capybara or anything else, excepting a few lovely herons in the distance. I then wrote about my return to Refugio Amazonas, where we spent the night to break up the long journey back to Puerto Maldonado. I wrote about spending the evening reliving my experiences at TRC with all of my friends at Refugio and about making good on my promise to take some pictures with my friend Fernando. I mentioned my one last night sharing a
This circular colonnade and glass dome are the hotels most striking features.
room at Casa Tio Tom with Aldo and my regrets that I hadn’t been able to catch up with my friends Daniel and Cesar, who, as fate would have it, had passed me on the river as they went up to TRC with a large student group! I briefly mentioned the zoo of tourists that we picked up from the dock at Posada Amazonas and how I loved seeing my favorite forest again. I marveled at the ridicules lady on the packed shuttle back to Rainforest Expedition’s office who was screaming in terror at the lovely butterfly that was fluttering around her closed window trying to escape and how I effortlessly reached over and grabbed the butterfly (carefully) and released it outside. I finished my story with a quick journey back through Puerto Maldonado, including my final stay at the Tambopata Hostel and one last pizza on the square, and then my effortless journey back to the airport.
I closed my journal and looked back out of my window at the clouds that were still obstructing my view. I drifted off into thought about my time in the Amazon. I thought hard about the different forests I had explored
Many of the buildings around Lima had ornate wooden balconies.
and the qualities of each. There was no doubt in my mind that I enjoyed the giant trees and varied ecosystems around Posada Amazonas the most. I was surprised by that realization, because I had originally thought that the forest would get better as I went up river. The forests around TRC were definitely more remote and pristine, but the giant trees that I loved so much were not there. I relived my most exciting animal encounters and then I thought about all of the new friends I had made - I had gotten to know Yesenia, Cesar and Daniel very well during my long stay at Posada; Aldo, Fernando, Gustavo and Carlos had become good friends as well, though I didn’t get to spend as much time getting to know them as I would have liked. As each of their faces passed across my memory, I wondered if I would ever see any of them again - Only time would tell!
I was still wandering around the misty, ancient forests in my mind when the pilot’s voice crackled through the cabin, “Off to the left of the plane you can see the lovely snow-capped peaks of the Andes!”
Somewhere Over the Andes
This was the view from the plane window flying from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco.
I was sitting on the left side of the plane - Excellent! I looked out expecting an obstructed view of distant, miniscule peaks. What I found was particularly spectacular. I watched as the lovely glaciers and rugged, ice-bound peaks passed just below us. As I was watching a turquoise, glacial lake pass beneath us I overheard the class-clown in front of me mention to his seatmate that he was going to be a photographer and a writer. I looked up and could only smile because his window shade was closed and he was lost in a video game on his portable game player, completely oblivious to the wonderful landscape he was missing out on - When I had been his age there was no force on Earth great enough to tear me away from watching the world go by through the window of an airplane! The snowcaps gave way to large, brown mountains and then the familiar landscape of Cusco appeared below. We spent about half an hour on the ground in Cusco and then we were away again with a new load of tourists (I still had the company of the school group though.)
Before long we were
Somewhere Over the Andes (2)
This was the view from the plane window flying from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco.
over the coastal fog. The class-clown was finally looking out of his window. He told his friend that the white expanses below us looked like how he imagined Antarctica looked from the air. I remembered that on my first journey to Peru ten years before I had made the same observation. The thought brought a big smile to my face, because I knew with certainty that it DID look like Antarctica below us, though not quite as majestic. The view out of the window disappeared when we descended into the fog. Several minutes later we popped out of the bottom of the fog. The Pacific Ocean was below us. We got closer to the boats and then the coastline appeared in front of us. A few minutes later we touched down in Lima, bringing an official end to my time in the Amazon.
I had planned one night in Lima as a buffer just incase there were any problems getting out of Puerto Maldonado, which was apparently a fairly common occurrence. As it turned out, there had not been any problems leaving the jungle. As I waited for my bags I formulated a plan to try and change my
From the Balcony
This was the view from my lovely balcony at the Gran Hotel Bolivar.
flight, so I could be home a day early. I thought I had talked myself into it, but when I walked out of the terminal I found myself saying, “Yes” to the first respectable looking taxi driver that approached me. Instead of heading to the Delta counter I was headed into Central Lima!
My driver, Manuel was his name I think, led me out of the terminal to a black taxi sitting on the curb about midway down a long row of taxis. As I put my bags into the trunk, he removed the ‘taxi’ sign from the roof and then opened the door for me. As we pulled out of the busy airport he asked me where we were going in Central Lima. A big smile crossed my face and then, with the best aristocratic tone I could muster in Spanish, I said, “Take me to the Hotel Gran Bolivar!” Manuel smiled a tentative smile and then said, “That place is very old. Don’t you want to go to a nice new place in Miaflores?” I had expected the question, so explained to him that I knew it was old and faded, but that the main reason I
Night in Lima
This is another view from my balcony.
was staying in Lima was because I wanted to experience the grandeur of the 1920’s at the most famous hotel in Peru. He then smiled an understanding smile and said, “It is a beautiful old Hotel. You will enjoy it.” We spent the rest of the half-hour drive talking about my time in the jungle and what I was planning on doing in Lima. When we pulled into the lovely, Plaza 2 de Mayo, with its blue, smog-smeared colonial buildings and circular layout, I gasped. Manuel had a surprised, questioning look on his face, so I told him that I thought the plaza was one of the loveliest I had seen in colonial America. He said, “I guess it is nice, but it is very dirty!” I couldn’t argue with that - Lima, like most cities in the developing world, is being quickly consumed by suffocating clouds of unregulated vehicular exhaust. A short while later we came to Plaza San Martin, where the hotel was located. As we entered the plaza, Manuel pointed to a grand white building, built in colonial style and said, “The Gran Hotel Bolivar.” It took us another ten minutes to work our way through the
Living in 1920's Style
This was my room at the Gran Hotel Bolivar.
snarled traffic to the front door.
We were met by the bellman, who was dressed in a suit-like uniform that fit in beautifully with the hotel’s charm. Manuel asked him to wait a moment and then he ran inside to make sure that the hotel had a room available, since I didn’t have a reservation. He came back out and said that they would have a room ready in a few minutes. Manuel helped me get the bags out of the car and then I handed him a crisp 100 soles note. The fare had been just over thirty soles and, as expected, Manuel didn’t have any change. He ran into the hotel again to get change and I followed with the help of the bellman. I walked up a small set of steps flanked by a pair of lovely ‘griffin’ lamps and then I entered the hotel’s famous colonnaded rotunda. As I was admiring the lovely painted glass dome Manuel came out of the office with a sad look on his face and said he had to go across the street to get change and that he would be right back. I liked Manuel a lot. He was
Another view of the Dome
At the Gran Hotel Bolivar
friendly and patient with my bad Spanish and he looked just like a friend of mine from my time in Antarctica. I trusted him to do the right thing, but deep down inside I didn’t expect to ever see him again. I wrote off the ‘lost’ money and turned my attention to the check-in process. I followed the bellman through a doorway into a big dark space. Inside I found a beautifully restored Model ‘T’ Ford, a few columns and a large stone and hardwood counter. It was easy to see the pomp and glory of the twenties and thirties in every well-made detail, but the years since had definitely taken their toll.
The man behind the counter told me they had two rooms available, one on the inner courtyard and one on the street. I already knew that sleeping on the street would be extremely noisy, but I wanted a nice balcony with a view. The man suggested that I take a look at both. He handed the bellman two sets of keys and asked him to show me the two rooms. As I turned to go Manuel came running back into the lobby! I could see on
his face that he had had a difficult time getting change. He had only been able to get two fifty soles notes, but I was so happy that he had returned that I took one of the fifty soles notes and told him to keep the rest - He had earned it in my book. I said farewell to Manuel and then I followed the bellman through a polished brass door into the tiny, antique elevator and up we went. We got off on the fourth floor and walked down a long, wide hallway lined with doors. We turned the corner and entered a huge room with a large window in the corner. The décor, while pleasant, was fairly plain and the window looked down on the dome support structure, which wasn’t the grand view I was hoping for. We left the room and walked down a grand staircase to the third floor and then we walked to the end of the hall, to room 318. The bellman swung open the big, hardwood door and waved me in with a sweep of his arm. I was immediately in love with the room. It was much smaller than the other room,
The 'Griffin' Lamp
These lamps flanked the hotel entrance.
but it was decorated with lovely antiques and, most importantly, it had a nice balcony. There was no contest between the rooms - I decided on the one with the balcony (and the noise). A few minutes later I was all checked in and following the bellman back into the elevator. He hefted my bag all the way down the long hall and deposited it on the floor next to the bed. I handed him a large tip for all of his help and then he handed me the key with a smile - I was doing my best to play the part of member of the 1920’s high society! I closed the door behind him and then I took a seat on my bed took a look around my room.
The first thing I noticed was the noise from the busy street below. Of course, I knew that noise was going to be an issue in that room, so I didn’t let it bother me. I walked over to the large windows that led out onto the small balcony. It took me a few minutes to get the latches loosened up and then I swung the two large
You Shall Not Pass!
The sad fate of the upper floors of the hotel.
doors open. They halted with a thud on the warped parquet floor, leaving a small gap that I was able to squeeze through. The balcony looked out over the busy road. To my left, past the front of the hotel, were Plaza San Martin and the lovely buildings that surrounded it - The view was nice, despite an unsightly, shantytown roof that had been built over an outdoor seating area just below my balcony. I took in the view for a while, but the smoggy fumes rising up from the street below obstructed the view and forced me inside. With the windows closed the traffic noise was only a minor annoyance. I stuck my head into the gleaming, white bathroom, which, sadly, had been re-decorated in 1960’s style and then I plopped down on the antique bed and took a nap.
I woke up a few hours later completely refreshed. I grabbed my camera and went out to explore the old hotel. The Gran Hotel Bolivar was built in the 1920’s in the grand style of other famous hotels of the era such as the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. It had been commissioned by the Peruvian government
I really liked the ornate door knobs.
to serve as a luxurious home away from home for visiting heads of state and foreign dignitaries. The opulent spaces of the grand old hotel had certainly hosted their fare share of famous faces. The impressive list contains countless presidents and at least one king, as well as stars such as Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway and, more recently, the Rolling Stones. I was excited when I learned that I was plying the same corridors as Hemingway, one of my favorite authors, but there was another, lesser-known name that had drawn me to the Bolivar. He was an adventurous explorer by the name of Leonard Clark. He wrote one of my favorite books, a cliché-filled story of one of his explorations in the Peruvian Amazon in the 1940’s called ‘The Rivers Ran East’. At the beginning of the book he wrote how nobody in Lima would take an American explorer seriously if they didn’t put on a proper show of wealth (exploring the jungle was and still is expensive business!) Because of that he got a room in the finest hotel in town, the Gran Hotel Bolivar, despite only having a thousand dollars to his name! He stayed in room 216.
The floor in my room was so warped that I couldn't open the balcony doors all the way, but it was still lovely.
I walked through each corridor on my floor and then on the next floor up. There was nothing special in the halls, other than a few nice seating areas with old, water-stained lithographs on the walls. When I started up the grand staircase to the fifth floor I was stopped in my tracks by a large, ugly barrier that had been erected in the stairway. The floors above were shrouded in darkness. For the first time I realized how dire the situation had become for the Gran Hotel Bolivar. Only two floors of the hotel were still open to guests. I turned around and headed back down the stairs to the ground floor. As I walked my mind drifted up to the closed floors of the hotel. I wondered if they were actively being restored, or if the furniture was covered with white sheets and thick layers of dust and cobwebs like a haunted house. The top floors would be fairly removed from the street noise, so I suppose it is possible that the upper floors were still open, but reserved for the occasional famous patron. Most likely, though, it was uneconomical to keep the upper floors open in
The Masked Procession
I was unable to figure out the significance of the masks, but this group had them on as they marched.
a time when most tourists were flocking to the cleaner, more modern Miraflores neighborhood. Hopefully the hotel can survive until we have finally found a way to leave the internal combustion engine to the history books and Lima is clean and quiet again. I am sure that, once the smog and noise is gone, people would flock back to the grand old buildings of Central Lima.
When I reached the ground floor I walked around the lobby and the rotunda and I stuck my head inside the famous hotel bar and then took a look in the different dining rooms. Everything was done on a grand scale with extremely high ceilings and ornate decorations. The star of the show was the hotel’s famous rotunda. It is a circular room with a colonnade of lovely faux-marble columns. The columns supported the large, colorful, glass dome, which was done in the famous style of Tiffany. I sat in one of the blue chairs beneath the dome and I flipped through my guidebook looking for dinner options in the area. I had looked everywhere for room 216, but it was being elusive and I was getting hungry. I called off the search
San Francisco Monastery
Photography inside the church and catacombs was not allowed, so this is the best I could do.
and walked back up to my room. I locked up my camera gear in the bathroom and then I headed out to explore a bit of Central Lima.
It was already dark when I left the hotel. I had heard lots of bad stories regarding the safety of Lima at night. Stories of scam artists, drugged drinks, muggings… The list goes on, but the streets were crowded and full of life. I turned left out of the hotel and followed a pedestrian thoroughfare towards the Plaza del Armas. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to eat for dinner, but I was fairly sure I would have ample choices along the well-lit alley. Bright storefronts and neon lit the way. There were bright movie theaters playing all of the newest Hollywood creations, clothing stores packed with the latest fashions, seedy nightclubs, Internet cafes, smoky casinos and lots of fast food. It was actually a very pleasant walk, because, unlike many places in Peru, there were not many tourists around - I may have been the only one! The lack of tourists meant that the touts and the cheesy tourist shops were not there. There was no pressure to buy things,
The Archbishop's Palace
On the Plaza del Armas.
or to even go into the stores. I only came across two touts during my walk. One, a dreadlocked Peruvian man, wanted to sell me an illegal substance or two, or a tattoo - I thought it was a strange mix. The other guy was trying to get me into one of the seedier of the nightclubs - The place was apparently so seedy that they couldn’t even have a sign. Other than that, everybody left me alone. All around me Peruvian families walked hand in hand, some pushing strollers, many of them captivated by all of the lights and shopping opportunities. There was also a large contingent of well-dressed Peruvian teenagers out on the town for Saturday night. The scene was very much like it would be at any busy mall in the US, but a lot more festive. I walked for a long time without finding anything that fit my appetite. At one point I passed a beautifully carved colonial church that was nestled in amongst the slightly newer buildings that lined the street.
Eventually I emerged into the impressive Plaza del Armas, which was Lima’s main plaza and home to the country’s president. At about the
The Presidential Palace
This is the view across the Plaza del Armas to the presidential palace. The fountain is the oldest part of the plaza dating from the 1600's.
same time the plaza came into view I met an older man from ‘Bolivia.’ He spoke flawless English and wanted to talk, so I stopped for a while. He told me that he was a musician that was in town to play a few shows. He was being too friendly, which put my ‘spidy-sense’, as one of my friends calls it, on alert. I suppose it is possible that he was genuinely friendly, which is why I took the time to talk to him, but the scam artists commonly use the same line of questioning. I refused, still being polite, when he tried to drag me into a certain bar on the plaza and then I went on my way - Basically the famous scam works like this: the ‘friend’ asks you to go with him to a certain bar for drinks; once there it can go two ways, either your drink is drugged and you are relieved of your belongings, or the drink your ‘poor’ friend shames you into buying for him ends up costing an absurd amount of money; generally the bar, or bartender is in on the scam and shares the proceeds. A few minutes later I
A LLama Crown
If the guide book is to be believed then the lama sitting on the ladies head was supposed to be a crown of flames, but apparently the words for 'flames' and 'llama' were very similar.
met another ‘Bolivian’ musician who wanted to take me to the same bar. Were they playing in the same band? I think not! It was too dark to consider exploring the plaza, so I turned around and headed back towards the hotel. Along the way I passed the first Bolivian man I had met who was engrossed with a conversation with another Peruvian man. One block before I reached the hotel I had another potential brush with the scammers. A couple, about my age, grabbed my arm and asked, in flawless English, if I would be willing to go to a bar and practice English with them. I declined their offer as well, which prompted the man, who had a grip on my arm, to squeeze harder and try to drag me along with them. I broke his grip with a quick twist of my arm and then I continued towards the hotel. He followed me, pleading with me to come with them, but eventually he got tired of being ignored and left me alone. Perhaps walking around by myself had my guard up too strongly and they had all been sincere people, but they need to educate themselves on
Plaza San Martin
This plaza was named after me - OK, maybe there was another Martin that it was named after.
what the common scams are and avoid those kinds of behavior if they expect to be taken seriously by travelers.
I had not had any luck finding dinner, so I asked the bellman at the hotel if he knew of a good restaurant nearby. He directed me around the corner to a chicken place just across from my room. I ate a delicious meal there and then I headed back to the hotel. As I was walking up the stairs I noticed another staircase off to the right that led up to a floor I had not seen earlier - Most of the banquet halls and public spaces on the ground floor had two story high ceilings, but the high ceilings didn’t completely eliminate the second floor! I walked back down the steps and then climbed the other staircase. The first thick wooden door had the number 240, or something like that, on it. I walked from door to door watching the numbers fall until I was staring at Room 216. I had found it! Explorer Leonard Clark, the author of one of my favorite books, had stayed in that room at the beginning of his expedition into the
Amazon, more than sixty years before, and now I was there at the end of mine! It didn’t look like the room was still used as a guest room, but it was there. I walked back up to my room happy, but still a little sad that such a hotel could fade to such a state of disuse. It was still a little early to go to sleep, so I turned on the TV and searched for a movie to watch - I settled on ‘Finding Forester’, one of my favorites.
I woke up in the morning, surprisingly well rested. I remembered waking up several times due to the noise, but I slept well for the most part. I quickly showered and got my things cleaned up a bit and then I headed down to the bar area for breakfast. The bar had a 1960’s Las Vegas feel to it with lots of dark, hardwood paneling and blue tablecloths. One entire wall served as the bar and another wall had several lighted display cases that had some odd looking antiquities from Peru on display. I sat down at one of the tables and a well-dressed waiter brought me my breakfast of eggs and cheese, a few pieces of toast, some orange juice and some coffee. I sat for a while and watched the procession of people come through for breakfast. I also perused my guidebook looking for some entertaining ways to spend my day. I settled on a few options and then I headed back up to the room. At precisely 1:00 I brought my bags down and stashed them behind the counter, I paid for my room and then I set off to explore.
I followed the same busy route along the pedestrian walkway back to the Plaza del Armas. I walked around the plaza for nearly an hour taking in the grand buildings and watching a parade in front of the presidential palace. When I started getting hungry I headed several blocks down a side street to Lima’s Chinatown. There I walked around and took in the odd sites that seem to define ‘Chinatowns’ everywhere. Eventually I found a restaurant that looked good. I got a table in the middle of the crowded main dining room and then I ordered a vegetable rich meal. When the waiter brought out my food I was shocked. It was enough to feed a family! I looked at the plate of food with mixed feelings. It looked delicious, but the quantity worried me - I have a strange problem that will not allow me to waste food, so I either have to eat it all or take some with me; the latter was not an option! After a half-hour glutton-fest I rolled myself out of the restaurant.
I had four hours left before I needed to go to the airport, so I headed over to the San Francisco monastery. I had the choice of waiting a half hour for an English tour, or joining a tour in Spanish that had just started - I chose to practice my Spanish even more. I spent the next hour or so wandering around the lovely inner spaces of the lovely old monastery. I admired halls filled with creepy religious paintings from the 1600’s and I marveled at the ornate woodwork and stone carvings that covered most surfaces. The choir loft was particularly spectacular, but the star of the show was a huge, carved, wooden dome that was above the main staircase - It is one of the loveliest architectural features I have seen in a building! We eventually worked our way around the beautiful central courtyard and the many rooms around it. One of those rooms was the eating room, which had long hardwood tables and a giant painting of the last supper, but with a Peruvian flare - The table they were sitting at was round and there was a guinea pig (cuy) on one of the plates in front of Jesus. The reason most people visit the monastery was to tour the catacombs. I spent a long time wandering through the claustrophobic passages and rooms below the church. It was really quite macabre with huge piles of human bones in hundreds of different stone basins - Some of them were organized in artful presentations like circles of skulls and such. Archaeologists think there are around seventy thousand people buried down there. My favorite part of the catacomb tour was watching the reactions of some of the Peruvians when they saw their first human bones - Some of them were terrified! When the tour was over I walked away happy - I had understood nearly everything our guide had said! My Spanish was getting better.
When I left the monastery I wandered around for a while, ducking my head into a few shops as I went. I ended up back at the Plaza del Armas. I took a seat on the steps in front of the church and just watched the people go by. I spotted a man milling about behind me. I wasn’t surprised when he sat down next to me and said, “Hello, my name is Pedro. Where are you from?” I was in a festive mood, so I humored him and actually had an excellent conversation with him. He spoke flawless English and told me that he had been studying it for just over a year. We must have talked for half an hour before he finally decided to try and speed things up. He said, “You must be thirsty.” I showed him my water bottle and told him I had plenty of water. He looked surprised and asked where I found clean water. I told him that I cleaned it myself at the hotel. He had a sad look on his face when he said, “So you only drink ‘that’ water?” I said yes and then we talked for a little while longer. He then came up with a new approach and said, “I would like to give you my e-mail address so we can stay in touch.” I agreed and produced the page in my journal reserved for such things and a pen. He then told me he would only give it to me if I went to a bar with him and he pointed to the same bar the Bolivian musicians had tried to get me into the night before. I smiled and said, “I don’t want to go to the bar, here is fine.” He then gave up and said, “OK, I won’t give you the e-mail address then.” I put away my journal and told him it was time for me to leave. He said he would walk with me, so we headed back towards the hotel. When we got adjacent to the bar he said, “You are sure that you don’t want to have a drink?” I said, “Yes” and continued walking. He then said, “Well then can you at least give me some money, things are hard now in Peru.” I shook my head and said good-bye and then we parted ways. I was disappointed that Pedro was nothing more than a scammer, but I kind of expected it. I found it a little sad that all of the scammers I had met in Lima were smart enough to learn how to speak flawless English, yet they resigned themselves to a lowly existence as a scamming beggar.
I made my way back to the hotel about an hour earlier than I had planned. I had wanted to find a coffee shop to sit and read in until it was time to leave, but they were proving elusive. Instead, I decided to go to the airport early - Everything I needed could be found there. I got my bags and I went to the door. The Bellman helped me find a ‘good’ taxi and negotiated an excellent rate back to the airport with the driver. Half an hour later I was at the airport. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time as part of the 1920’s high society at the Gran Hotel Bolivar, but it was time to go home! Several hours later I boarded my plane, nestled down into my seat and drifted off to sleep. I was homeward bound again!
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