Friday, November 30, 2012

Bolivia, an unrequited love: Part 2

For the first part of the Bolivia Saga, read this first.

The overnight bus ride included dinner served on the bus, but we plugged in our earphones and waved the unappetizing service away, except for the bottled water and chocolate bars. We woke up at 2:30 AM in Oruro, when the bus attendant (like a flight attendant) announced there were mechanical problems, and we’d have to switch busses. It turned out, we were swapping busses with a group heading to La Paz from Uyuni, and we strongly suspect that ‘mechanical problems’ happen every night, and they simply don’t want to take the nice new bus on the very rough, dirt roads when the pavement ends at Oruro. We got on a more cramped, dingy bus, where David’s knees pressed fairly tightly against the rigid plastic of the fully reclined seat in front of him, and drove across severe washboard for 6 hours. It was like being on a really bad, but really powerful massaging bed of the Magic Fingers ilk. At some point during the day or night (we’re losing track!) David’s right eye became very bloodshot, and started to crust over, giving us both the fear of conjunctivitis, and Lana’s sunglasses broke, just before we were going to one of the brightest spots on the planet.

A sample of the magic vibrating bus—it felt much stronger than it looks.

We arrived in Uyuni at 8:30 in the morning, and staggered to the finest hotel in town, which cost a whopping US $43 a night—we were not going with the cheap option here, in a town that has no pavement and tumbleweeds blowing in the streets. The Ritz, however, it was not. The advertised “hot shower” is provided by two insulated, but otherwise bare, wires that come out of a hole in the ceiling, and enter the shower head itself from opposite sides, powered by a 50 amp, 220 volt breaker on the wall. We were wary.  But more on that later.  First order of business was to see about getting the next train out of town (more on that in a minute).

First, however, we discussed what our options were (or Lana listed options, and David tried to look coherent). There are basically two towns that you can do the Salar tours from: Uyuni (at the north end) and Tupiza (at the south). Uyuni is closer to La Paz, and seems to be the place where tours either start and end, or in the case of tours that start in Tupiza, just end. Our plan had always been to start in Uyuni. The options we could see that were left were just two: find a day tour for the next day, or leave ASAP. We knew how horrible the bus ride had been thus far, and we also knew that if we did a day tour of the Salar de Uyuni, we would have to take another bus on that road south to Tupiza the following day.

There was another option, however. There is a train that runs from Oruro (where we changed busses in the middle of the night) to Villazon, which is the town that borders Argentina, stopping in Uyuni on the way. The train is not necessarily faster or cheaper, but it is more comfortable, and from what we heard the view was better. It runs four times a week—two fast trains (Expresso del Sur) and two slow trains (Wara Wara del Sur). The train operates on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, although it runs overnight, so which day they mean by that schedule gets a little gray. Anyway we rolled into town on Sunday morning. There was going to be a train on Sunday night (2 am Mon. morning, actually) and theoretically Tuesday, although my math again makes that 2am Wednesday morning. Want to guess when the census was? That’s right, Wednesday. We’d been assured in La Paz that the train would run on Tuesday, and that the train station was open from 8-12 and 2-5 on Sunday, and we could buy our ticket for Tuesday there. So we knew we were going to buy that ticket to get out of Dodge Uyuni on Sunday, it was just a question of whether or not that would be the Sunday/Monday or Tuesday/Wednesday train.

So we headed down to the train station only to find it locked up. In reviewing the limited signage, we discovered that the train station was open on Sundays. For an hour. From 11 to noon. It was 9:00 am. This much effort was too much for David, so he made his way back to the hotel (apparently it was more challenging than Lana realized because David just disclosed he almost got lost on the way back—it was a straight shot three blocks from the train station) and Lana ventured on into town to see about some one day tours and a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones that broke. Oh, the mystery crud on the table in this picture? That’s the table in the best hotel in town.
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Anyway, so when Lana ventured into the first travel agency she saw, she thought she might check with a local authority about the train schedule for the week rather than the travel agent in La Paz that wasn’t right about the time when the station was open. I’m sure the ensuing conversation could be translated humorously a la David Sedaris, but since only herself and the knitting grandma at the travel agency know for sure how it went down, she’ll just give you the summary: I established that the train was running tonight. Then I ventured to ask whether it would be running on Tuesday. Tren a Villazon martes? No. Solo esta noche? Si. Any other questions about day tours of the Uyuni kind of fled at that point. We were getting out of Dodge Uyuni on the (you guessed it) slow Wara-Wara del Sur train, esta noche. That is, if there were any seats left, and if I could buy two of them today between the hours of 11 and 12.

From there Lana walked around a bit, bought two extremely cheap pairs of sunglasses (this was a very good thing in hindsight) and a gatorade for her feverish husband. The whole episode was upsetting, yes, but she was glad to have some direction and purpose again. Our choices had been to either wait out the census and go on the Salar de Uyuni tour after it was over and the tours started running again, or to just abandon that idea and head for the border now. The new set of goals were simple—to get out of Bolivia as soon as possible, hopefully before Wednesday. If we could get on that train, we’d be one step closer to that goal.

While waiting for the magic hour, Lana used the hotel’s stunningly slow (best hotel in town!) wifi access to research places to stay in the nearest town of any size on the other side of the border—Salta.  She also researched flights from Salta to Buenos Aires, because let’s face it:  David was a zombie who had stuff oozing out of one eye, no voice, a horrible cough, and a kleenex addiction. We were going to have to find a place to park him for a while, and soon. If he needed a doctor by the time we got to Salta, we would go there. Otherwise we would fly to Buenos Aires from Salta, and he could rest up there. Sure, it wouldn’t be cheap. But it would be done, with no more bus travel for some time. That is, after we got there. We would still need to travel for another 9 hours to get from the border of Argentina to Salta. But one step at a time. We still had to get out of Dodge Uyuni.
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Lana nervously queued up at the train station with David’s passport but not his presence, waiting with another 5 or so people until they opened the ticket office, 15 minutes or so late (hey, that’s early Bolivian time-wise). Then she looked at the price list and realized she didn’t have enough cash for two tickets, so sprinted to the nearest ATM, withdrew another 400 Bolivianos, sprinted back, hopped from foot to foot while hoping she could get back her place in “line” (who are we kidding--no one lines up in Bolivia). She managed to buy two “Ejecutivo” or first class tickets on the train leaving at 2:30 am. Here’s a travel tip: if you’re in a country where first class travel seems like a reasonable price, ALWAYS travel that way. First class doesn’t count for a whole lot in Bolivia, but we saw the second class cars when the train pulled up, and we’re here to tell you it’s not the place to save your pennies.

Flush with her success, Lana decided a shower was in order, despite her misgivings about the ‘widow maker’ flash heater shower head, as we’ve heard it referred to.  However, despite following the detailed ‘how to get hot water’ instructions, it only issued bone-chilling, cold water.  Let’s break this one down.  We’d just journeyed for eleven hours on a bus that shook like an unbalanced washing machine for six of those hours, in the hopes that we could see the one thing that we’d come to Bolivia to see. We’d just found  out that wasn’t going to happen, and that we were going to have to get up at 2am to take another 10 hour overnight journey via train (followed by a border crossing and another 9 hour bus trip) before we were going to have another chance to shower.  David was in and out of consciousness with a fever, cough, and possible conjunctivitis, and therefore absolutely incapable of helping with any of this. We’d paid $43 for a room that we weren’t going to spend the entire night in, with the knowledge that we’d be able to shower, nap, and travel plan by internet.  Lana was beyond the point of napping, her mind racing on to the next hotel she had to book and airline tickets thereafter, so napping was out.  The internet connection was painfully slow and prone to intermittent drops in service, so planning was out. And now in the ice-cold shower, the final leg of the table was being sawed out from under her sanity. 

Cue naked sobbing meltdown in the shower. 

The zombie-husband was insufficiently consoling and sympathetic. 

It took a good hour, but eventually Lana did rebound on her own, at which point she took a baby-wipe shower and we went down to what was billed as “the best restaurant/pizzeria in town,” which happened to be in the lobby of the hotel (this is how you can tell you’ve booked the best room in town, by the way).  Dinner was ok, the cookie and proper PG Tips tea after was better, and by the time we left David had rose from the dead enough to mention that the shower didn’t work to the guy at the front desk of the hotel.  After what can only be described as some MacGuyver-like repairs, the shower was once again in business.  Lana decided that the shower was dead to her, but David did venture in.  He described the experience as someone pouring water from an electric kettle through a colander. 

Eventually a hotel was booked in Salta, and plane tickets from there to Buenos Aires were purchased, and inquiries were made about potential accommodations there as well.  We set three alarms for 1:30 am, and tried to get some sleep.  At midnight, Lana woke up realizing that the front door probably locked at a certain point, and that we might not, in fact, be able to get out of our hotel (finest hotel in town!) to get to the train station.  She tiptoed down to investigate using her headlamp as the entire hotel was pitch black.  She did discover that she was able to get out, but in doing so, awoke the front desk staff, who was sleeping in a room just off the lobby.  Much can be said in praise of Lana’s midnight explicatory Spanish on the subject of egress from the hotel in order to catch the middle-of-the-night train.  Promises were made to let us out if we rang the bell.  These proved to be true, and we managed to make it to the train station in plenty of time.


While waiting for the train we started chatting with a guy who had bike panniers with him, and he told us about his travels.  He’s Dutch, and has been traveling via his bike, from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and then flying to South America, traveling down from Peru, through Bolivia and Argentina to Patagonia.  All told his trip would take him seven months.  It was lovely to learn about his trip, and trade stories about our journeys through South America, and his reflections about traveling the west coast of America. 

We also watched what appeared to be the train station dog, vigilantly looking under each car, we assume checking for rats?  He was certainly working, and he was familiar with the train conductors, and vice versa.
Train station dog on duty

The train arrived, relatively on time, and we got on in the dark. The ejecutivo cars were relatively empty, and quiet, and we curled up with heavy blankets and pillows against the chilly single pane windows and drifted off to sleep.  It had been a long, crazy, messed up day.

20121119_094339_SGP4_2012-11-19 09.43.39

The day broke to find us in traveling through the most beautiful countryside.  It reminded us very much of the American southwest, with red rock canyons and cactus.  Bolivia is beautiful, if capricious.  Our feelings for it were mixed.  There is a certain amount of difficulty that you should expect when traveling in a developing nation, and for the most part we rolled with it.  But the census really squatted in the middle of our time in Bolivia and stared us down like a game of chicken.  We knew there would be snags somewhere in our year of travel, and we specifically wondered if a Salar de Uyuni tour would be possible in the time we had available.  But we didn’t expect it to snowball like it did, or that we’d have to make a dash for the border.  We did better in Bolivia than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, at least.  We did get to Villazon before the census started, and crossed the bridge into Argentina uneventfully (we’ll save that for another post).  David’s eye cleared up completely, and his fever stopped eventually.  Lana did finally get a hot shower once we got to Salta, Argentina. 


And so we bid a fond farewell to beautiful Bolivia. We really wanted to love you, Bolivia. You just didn't love us back.  However, our Bolivian visa is valid for 5 years; we may try again.  Hasta luego!

Bolivia, an unrequited love.

La Paz, Bolivia, at night

After Machu Picchu, we returned to Cusco, to collect our luggage, and move on to our next leg: Bolivia.  We planned to travel to Bolivia see the Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat.  Lana had read about it and put it on the list, and we had heard glowing reviews of it from all of the travelers we’ve met who have been through Bolivia.  We really wanted to see it, but we’d also heard amazing things about Colca Canyon and Arequipa in Peru, and we knew we had to be in Buenos Aires by the 29th of November to make our flight to Patagonia.  Our time was limited, and we debated chucking our plans that we made before we left, and heading off to places we’d heard about from other travelers.  After much hemming and hawing, we decided to go with what we knew we wanted to see.  If we bailed on Bolivia now, we would probably always wonder if we should have done it.  Plus, we planned to see Lake Titicaca along the way.  So we bought bus tickets to Puno, on the shores of lake Titicaca for the next morning, and enjoyed the remainder of our day in Cusco. 

Our bus ride was 6 hours, and was reasonably pleasant.  The semi-cama (half bed) seats were similar to coach class on an airplane, and the scenery was pretty.  Unfortunately, David was starting to get a head cold—probably the same one some of our fellow hikers had on the Inca Trail.  But we made it to our hostel, and booked a trip to a couple of the islands on Lake Titicaca for the next day through our hostel.  We were also doing the calendar math in our heads, and starting to feel some stress about getting the timing right for a three or four day tour of Salar de Uyuni, while still getting to Buenos Aires in time for the flight we needed to catch. 

It didn’t help that the wifi internet in our hostel refused to allow our laptop to connect, leaving us only with the small interface of David’s Android player to do any internet research.  Nor did it help that the bathroom smelled pretty strongly of sewer gas, and had not been cleaned very well, if at all, and the carpet was grungy enough that Lana didn’t feel comfortable going barefoot (David never does, so he’s no gauge) in the room.  Also, the paper-thin door opened onto a common room where other guests were talking and watching TV.  And the single-pane windows faced a busy street full of cabs that were apparently propelled only by the sound waves from their horns.  All of this culminated in a combination epiphany/melt-down for Lana, in which she realized that a $27 room was too cheap—or at the very least, this $27 room was too cheap.  Using only the tiny Android player, she managed to find a good looking hotel nearby.  It was around 9pm, but we headed back out to see if this hotel had any rooms available—we’d already packed our bags in the hopes that we’d find a place.  The kind gentleman at the front desk said they only had one room left, and then he wrote the price down on a piece of paper—it would cost us $70.  While $70 per room was a little more than we hoped to budget for this portion of our trip, it could have been a $700 room (ok, no, but $170).  Unfortunately we’d left our passports back with our bags at the hostel, so we couldn’t effectively check in until we’d left the hostel.  But Lana made it clear that we would be back.  We hustled back to the hostel, grabbed our bags, and negotiated our exit. In truth, the proprietress was gracious enough and refused Lana’s offer to pay for the room for the night, but she also disagreed with her about the cleanliness of the bathroom.  But we paid for our tour the next day and returned to our new hotel with our bags.

We don’t want to exaggerate, but it did feel like stepping into a different world.  The bathroom sink had hot water--a first for us since leaving Quito.  It was intensely clean, peaceful, and unscented.  We slept like dead things.  I don’t think the pictures can  do justice to the difference, but here goes:
$27 room$70 room
Despite the awkwardness of returning to a hostel where we refused to stay the previous night in order to depart for our tour, we did just that for our tour of Lake Titicaca.  Our first stop was the floating islands of Uros, which are made of peat and layers reeds, about 4 feet deep.  They are anchored in water that’s about 40 feet deep, and when larger boats pass, you can see and feel the ripples moving through the island surface.  Several families live on each island, in a collection of reed huts.  Fascinating, but also very, very tourist-oriented.  There is a different collection of floating islands  on the opposite side of the lake where the locals have no interest in tourism; more power to them!
Floating Island of Uros
Our second stop was the island Taquile, which was beautiful.  It is a self-governed island that is largely self-sufficient.  We enjoyed a brisk hike up to the main village, about 450 feet above the lake surface, where we had lunch, and then hiked down to a different bay, where our boat picked us up.  We struck up conversation with a couple from Manchester, UK, who are also travelling for a year.  She’s a teacher, and can actually arrange a leave of absence; he was in IT, and was just as burned out by 24/7 on-call as David was.  We had an hour-long boat ride back, which was a good amount of time for a nap.  We’ve gotten quite good at sleeping on boats; the rocking motion is quite lulling.

Bringing the sheep home from drinking at the lake
The next morning, we boarded a bus headed for La Paz, Bolivia, via Copacabana.  We’d picked a tourist bus, specifically for the guidance they’d provide in navigating the border crossing.  Like a few other countries, Bolivia has decided to charge United States citizens a ‘reciprocity fee’ similar to the amount that Bolivians need to pay in order to obtain a visa to travel in the US.  They also require it in pristine US dollars—no rips or marks no matter how small—in exact change, which is a little tricky as the exact change requires both a $10 and $5 bill, which ATMs do not dispense.  They sometimes require a yellow fever vaccination card, a visa picture, a photocopy of your passport, and an application form.  Some of the former depend on the day and the person; only the cash is an absolute requirement.  We had everything but the photocopy, which hadn’t been mentioned in any of our copious research on the subject, but the guide on the bus told us about it, and where we could obtain one on the Peru side of the border.  In addition, we would also need a one Boliviano coin for an entrance tax on the bus—which we also hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere.  Unlike the fairly swift, organized border crossings we’ve seen numerous times, this one felt like a scavenger hunt, with the clues being revealed at each subsequent stop.  First we went to the Peruvian police station, and turned in our Peruvian immigration card.  Then we left that building and walked to a different one, where we got our passports stamped for exit from Peru.  Then we crossed the street to a money changer, where we tried to change US dollars to Bolivianos, but none of our spare bills were pristine enough (seriously, they have to be crisp, essentially uncirculated bills), but we were able to exchange our faded, wadded up, completely torn in half and taped with—I kid you not—packing tape, Peruvian bills for enough Bolivianos to pay our transit tax.  This is also where we were able to purchase photocopies of our passports.  Then, back across the street, up the hill, to cross the Bolivian border, and on our honor, went to the Bolivian immigration office.  Our guide had told us there would be a long line, and to simply walk past it and say “I need a visa” which sounded sort of sketchy to us, but we went with it, and sure enough, the guard directed us to a completely different desk, with no line, where we nervously watched them examine every single US bill, feeling around the edges for minute rips.  We also gave them visa photos, which we’d printed ourselves before leaving the US, and the visa application form, which we’d printed in Puno, and filled out already.  And the photocopies.   The cash was carefully placed in a till; everything else was tossed on a messy pile on the desk—they didn’t bother to attach the photos to the application forms.  They glued a 5 year visa sticker in our passports, stamped them, and we were on our way, wiping sweat from our foreheads.

There was only one other American couple on our bus, who seemed to only have a nebulous understanding that they needed a visa.  They’d read about the visa, but then read on the internet, or in a guidebook, that a visa wasn’t necessary.  They only had $150 in cash of the necessary $270 that they would need.  The guide on the bus suggested that they borrow it from us (hey thanks!) and then pay us back on the other side of the border. But we didn’t have enough (let alone pristine enough) extra cash to share.  When they mentioned that, our bus guide paled a bit, and then switched to a plan B, which involved sprinting uphill a quarter of a mile with one of the pair to the only ATM near the border, and making multiple withdrawals to get the correct amount, then sprinting back to keep on schedule.  They didn’t have visa photos or applications either; but the Bolivian immigration officer gave them applications to fill out, and there was no complaint about the lack of visa photos.  There was never even a mention of yellow fever vaccination cards.  It’s all about the cash.

After all the border excitement was over, we had a fairly short ride from the border to Copacabana, where those of us who were continuing on to La Paz had an hour layover before we changed busses. We found a café with wifi, shared a sandwich, and checked email to see if the hostel in La Paz had responded to Lana’s inquiry from yesterday. Nada, so she simply booked a different place that had an online presence. We’ve had zero response to email queries for accommodation or tours in South America; at this point, we’re done with even trying. If it can’t be booked directly online, or in person, it simply isn’t going to happen.  After getting on a different bus after lunch we were on our way to La Paz again in a couple of hours. But just as we got settled down to dozing as the bus climbed through the curves from the lakeshore, we were interrupted by a ferry crossing. Still a little groggy from the post-lunch siesta, it was initially hard to follow the instructions, which required that we exit the bus, purchase our own ferry tickets (fortunately we still had sufficient Bolivianos from changing money at the border), and then watch the empty bus cross the Tiquina straight of lake Titicaca on a flat, tippy-looking barge.  We hated to think about what kind of accident had forced this unusually (for the area) prudent precaution.

Lana had forgotten her camera on the bus, and was careful to be the first to board, which worked out well for us, as the young backpacker crowd took whatever seats they fancied, rather than the ones they’d paid for.    Our bus ride to La Paz was another 5 hours.  We were both exhausted, and David had lost his voice as part of the evolution of his head cold.  Fortunately, the hostel we booked was a block and a half away from where the bus dropped us—thank goodness our first choice was slow to respond!  It also has a pretty view.


Our first order of business was to buy the first of many, many Kleenex travel six-packs, as well as some orange juice and Sprite for David’s throat.  Later, we walked to a surprisingly trendy portion of town, and had actual tea for the first time in South America.  We don’t know what is contained in various ‘black’ tea bags we’ve tried, from Ecuador, Peru, and now Bolivia, but it produces something that is reminiscent of tea made by steeping a bad bag of tea for the fourth or fifth time.  At Blueberries Café, it was actual loose leaf tea, and was wonderful.  Unfortunately, Bolivia has zero restrictions on smoking in restaurants, and several of the tables were smoking, which was not a good combination for my sore throat and already dry eyes.  We’ve seen essentially no smoking (except by tourists) in Ecuador and Peru, so it was really surprising to see it here.  David’s fever was running around 101.5, so much of La Paz is a blur for him.  We walked a lot, and it is a pretty town, though the streets are dangerous—not the people on them, but the streets themselves.  Deep holes in the sidewalk are common, as are shards of wood or metal, and the occasional electrical line, at head height for a non-native.  Also goods and food take up a large portion of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to weave on and off the busy streets.  We saw raw trout being filleted on the sidewalk, as well as several milk crates packed with raw, plucked chickens, sitting in the sun on a hot afternoon.  We mostly ate vegetarian here.

At this point, David was little better than a zombie, following Lana and trying not to do himself an injury while navigating the sidewalks.  For this reason, and for others, we spent a good deal of the three days we were in La Paz hanging out in our hotel.  David slept for a lot of it, and Lana watched movies and looked out the window and watched the excitement of the busy streets below. Everything you could possibly want to buy was for sale on the street in front of our hotel.  Need to replace some underwear you lost when you had laundry done in Aguas Calientes? There it is on the street.  Need to replace the pen you lost somewhere between Cusco and Puno?  You can pick from three different vendors and 10 different kinds of pens.  How about a remote control for your tv that you bought off the street that didn’t come with a remote? This lady just might have one that works.  It isn’t just on the street, either.  Apparently there are scads of knock off camping gear and equipment.  While it may say North Face, and the store might have the logo up all over the place, it ain’t North Face at that price.  We actually didn’t end up buying anything off the street, but it was interesting to watch. 

There is also a witches market in La Paz, where you can apparently buy a spell or have your fortune told, or purchase a llama fetus to bury under your new house.  It’s all there, and for a bargain to boot.   (David just asked where the pictures of the witches market were.  Lana explained that was not juju she wanted to mess with by taking pictures without permission.)

Lana checked with a couple of travel agencies for a tour of Salar de Uyuni, but discovered that the Bolivian 10-year census was going to occur on the following Wednesday, directly in the middle of our window for a tour, and it involved the entire country being on lockdown.  No transportation of any type operating, no tours; essentially, everyone is supposed to remain at home for the day, and tourists apparently are required to stay indoors as well.  We debated between giving up and booking a flight to Argentina, or pushing on to Uyuni, and attempting to book a one or two day tour from a local operator.  Eventually we decided to push on, since we knew we’d regret it if we gave up.  We didn’t realize that we’d also regret not giving up (there’s that foreshadowing again).  We booked an overnight bus to Uyuni, which left around 9:30 at night.  We just had to hope that we could book a tour from Uyuni, and that we had made the right decision to come to Bolivia after all.

Stay tuned for Bolivia, Part 2…coming soon.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Machu Picchu video

We forgot to include this video--a panoramic view of Machu Picchu on our second day there:

Machu Picchu

View from the Inca Trail checkpoint
We got up at 3:20, had a fast breakfast, and made our way to the exit checkpoint from the Inca Trail, where we waited about 40 minutes for the officials to arrive. 
It was a cloudy morning, but quite pretty.  We were all excited to finally see Machu Picchu after our four days of pilgrimage and anticipation.  Not to mention that Machu Picchu meant the end of sleeping bags and the resumption of a regular shower schedule.  The journey had been challenging, interesting, beautiful and even brutal. But we were ready to see what was at the end of the trail.
The previous night, our last on the trail, our guide mentioned that the correct pronunciation is Machu Peek’chu, not Machu Peachoo. The double ”c” indicates a syllabic stop. It’s very brief, but once he mentioned it, we could hear it when he asked one of our chaskis to pronounce the name. Apparently the Quechua word that’s pronounced ‘peachoo’ is slang for the male genitals, and he said it’s not uncommon to catch the locals chuckling softly at all the tourists talking about “old willy” instead of “old mountain.” If nothing else, it made it easy for us to remember where the double c fell in the two words.


Once we cleared the checkpoint, Lana took off at a brisk pace, and we reached the Sun Gate in about 40 minutes. While we weren’t trying to race anyone in other groups, the excitement of what was on the other side of the hike got the better of us (especially Lana) and anytime someone ahead stopped to take a photo or tie their shoe, we moved past them and hurried on. Once we arrived at the sun gate we were disappointed to find that we were completely in the clouds. We could barely see our shoes through it, let alone of Machu Picchu. As we walked down the wider path to the guard house, we could see the surrounding mountains towering over us above the cloud layer.  Our guide had us take a seat along the wall on the trail, and advised us to be patient—the postcard view would come into focus. We waited there for the clouds to clear, and we could see glimpses of different parts of Machu Picchu.  Lana is not the most patient person at the best of times, and she was anxious for the view she felt she’d earned in blood, sweat, and yes, a few tears.  David, however, was patient as always, enjoying the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains as they appeared and disappeared in and out of the clouds.

Wait for it…

Wait for it…20121110_062422_310HS_IMG_2280
Here it comes…
Any minute now…
Get your camera ready…

Finally, the clouds parted completely, and we could see our destination.  We made it.

Even Mr. Bee made it with us!  Of course he was dead weight in Lana’s backpack, but he helped pad her fall so I guess he earned it too.

After we got to Machu Picchu we headed down to the entrance to collect our fellow hikers who had gone back down the mountain after the first day.  We had time to store our bags, grab a drink and clean up a little bit in the bathrooms.  Then, after reunions and refreshments, we went back into the park for a two hour tour with our guide.  This was not our favorite part of the trip, as it felt more like a lecture than a tour, and it seemed as if our guide gave speeches about what he knew. When Lana tried to ask him about something—what looked to be a grinding stone—he sort of shrugged her off.  Not quite the same experience we’d had on the trail.  After a tour of the general areas, we were free to explore on our own.  The group was meeting down in the town, Aguas Calientes, for lunch and eventually everyone else would ride the train back to Ollyantaytambo that night.  After four days to get there, it takes less than 2 hours on the train.

We had opted to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes, however, and spend the next day at Machu Picchu and climb the peak behind it, which is known as Huayna Picchu (which means new mountain, or if your pronounce it wrong, “New Willy”).  Given the fact that we were tired, stinky, and hot (the sun had come out eventually, and in force), we chose to curtail our visit and headed down the mountain by bus early, around noon.  Plus, we knew there was a shower with our names on it down in Aguas Calientes (hot shower in a town called Hot Water, yes). And that had more attraction to us at that moment.   Before leaving for the day, we got our passports stamped (the upper stamp is the one we got when we passed the first checkpoint, at the beginning of the Inca Trail).  It may be campy, but we felt like we earned those stamps as much as any of the others.
The shower was glorious. I’m pretty sure choirs of angels sang.  Using an actual toilet (with a seat! and a lid!) was pretty nice too.  We spent the afternoon having lunch with our fellow hikers, mainly just sitting around getting to know each other a bit better and enjoying the camaraderie of a group of people with whom we shared something pretty special.  We walked to the train station with them to say goodbye, and also to change our train tickets for the next day, as we planned on coming back earlier than they were.  We were able to get them changed to a Vistadome train leaving around 1:30, which meant not only would we see the river valley in the day time, we’d see it in style.

The next morning, we took the bus up to Machu Picchu, which is how most of the 2500 people who can visit in a day arrive; it felt a bit odd after having arrived on foot the day before, but it didn’t feel like cheating.  Just very different.  We explored the areas we’d skipped previously; it was still early, so there were  a lot fewer people, which was great.  The site is much larger than either of us expected, from reading about it.  The aqueduct system that routes fresh spring water throughout the city still works, and it was neat to see running water popping up in unexpected places.  At 10, we started the hike up Huayna Picchu, which is 360 meters or 1200 feet higher than Machu Picchu.  Some sections were about as steep as a ladder, with stone steps.
Up was a little tricky, and down was fairly exciting. 
However, the view of Machu Picchu is stunning, and the ruins on Huayna are pretty amazing on their own.

Eventually, we headed back to town, caught our train, and enjoyed a scenic ride through the sacred valley.  We also got an unexpected dance and fashion show, as one of the train conductors first changed into a colorful, traditional dancing costume, and cavorted up and down the aisle, and then all three took turns changing into different alpaca wool garments (conveniently for sale), and walked the aisle as if it were a fashion runway.  It may have been the oddest thing we saw in Peru, and the bar was not low. 

The train ride was beautiful though, and when we got to Ollantaytambo, we were pondering taking a taxi back to Cusco or trying to figure out the next bus when we came upon a couple of guides who had taken the train with us, who were also getting a taxi back to Cusco.  They asked us if we wanted to share, and it ended up being a really good deal, about 12 soles each.  All told it ended up being a two hour $8 ride through some beautiful landscapes.  And we got the inside scoop on the various tour companies in Cusco—their practices, their treatment of the chaskis, and why none of the tour companies are owned by Peruvians—basically for the same reason you can take such an inexpensive taxi ride.
20121111_141735_SGP4_2012-11-11 14.17.35

We’d like to say something prosaic here about how the trip changed us, but we’re still thinking about that. We know a little more about ourselves than we did when we started.  I think we’ve evaluated our needs and we’re not interested in being that far from a bathroom anytime soon.  We know that we can do whatever we have to, and even enjoy it along the way (sometimes).  We know that (and this bears capitalizing) We Are Not Campers.  This was a pretty special reason to camp, and we decided to do it despite our reservations.  Seeing Machu Picchu is a trip of a lifetime, and just the train trip and day or two spent on the mountain are totally worth it.  But hiking the trail was a very different experience.  There are so many things you see that you would never see otherwise, whether that’s a soccer game played at 3800 meters, or the most delicate orchid hiding in the cloud-forest, or even a train of mules picking their way carefully down a set of stone steps.  Hidden lakes, Inca ruins, a plant that makes boys abstinent, trout caught from the stream an hour ago and cooked for your dinner.

If you’re thinking about a trip, or dreaming about it on your “someday” bucket list, we would tell you to go to Machu Picchu. Go however you can, whenever you can.  But if you have the time and inclination, you should hike the Inca Trail. If we can do it, then maybe we can inspire you to do it someday too!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Inca Trail, Peru: Day 3, a/k/a “The Gringo Killer”

To recap, by the end of Day 2 we were both totally soaked from rain, and Lana was battered up and down her right side, from eyebrow to shin. The night had been freezing cold, and we were at the bottom of another steep valley.  However, after a fitful night of sleep, in which eventually hats and jackets were pulled on in sleeping bags, we were ready to get some blood flowing by hiking up that hill.  The skies had cleared by morning, and we could see that it was going to be a beautiful day. Our guide David was emphatic that the only way the clouds could clear was for the rain to empty them. At breakfast, he was hopeful that the weather would be nice until at least afternoon. 
We were happy about the morning of climbing, since we’d done quite well with the previous climbs, but were a little nervous about the afternoon, which was all descent, mostly in the form of more than 2000 stone steps, charmingly referred to as the ‘gringo killers.’  As expected, the climb up to the second pass, peaking at 3950 m, or 12,916 feet, went very well.  Lana’s banged-up knee was working great.  We had a sharp descent afterwards to lunch, and once again fell to the rear of the group.  After lunch, we were free to walk at our own pace, to meet again at the third pass on the trail.  We left early, thinking we might need the time, but we had nothing to worry about.  The afternoon hike was mostly gentle climbing and rolling hills, all well paved in the original stonework.  This section offered some of the most amazing views and plant life of the entire trail, and for most of it, we were completely alone.
Well, mostly alone.
There were several tunnels along the way, which required some careful maneuvering. At times, it felt like we were walking in a very quiet section of an Indiana Jones movie set (there are some reasonable arguments that Hiram Bingham, the ‘re-discoverer’ of Machu Picchu, was the inspiration behind that character).  The jungle was hairy and thick, but the stone path carved though it, sometimes becoming a shelf road, with mortar-less rock walls disappearing in the jungle 20 or 30 feet below the surface of the path.  The Inca Trail does not follow the easiest or most direct route to Machu Picchu, and some suggest that it was designed to be challenging for the people who would have originally come this way, given that most of the Quechua people (the Incas’ subjects) were not over five feet tall.
20121109_114855_310HS_IMG_2256By the time we got to the third pass (and the end of all climbing for the day), we’d relaxed a bit into the downhills, having had some practice with them throughout the day.  Lana’s knee was still giving her problems with lateral movement, however.  At the pass, we stopped to talk with another hiker we’d seen a few times during the afternoon, and after mentioning Lana’s knee, she gave us some K-tape (there was some runner lingo talk here, which went over David’s head), which was very kind, and it really helped to stabilize the joint.  Once the rest of our group arrived, we began the serious descent: 1000 meters (3280 feet), mostly in very steep stairs.  The poles and the tape helped a lot, but also the weather was kind, and we were lucky to have dry stairs, not rain-slicked ones.  We took our time, and generally appreciated the scenery and flowers, including orchids, fuchsia, and cantuta.

As we walked, mostly by ourselves but occasionally joining other hikers at tunnels or tricky stairs, or just at some bit of beautiful scenery, you could feel that the mood had changed: people were looking around them at the view, or the flowers, laughing and chatting. We all felt like we’d bonded a bit—many people we’d seen or chatted with over the last couple of days would reappear, and we’d recognize them and wave or chat a minute. We might catch someone in our group, or they might breeze past, but it was ok. It really wasn’t a race today. This was to be our last real day on the trail. Tomorrow morning we’d get up very, very early, and hike for a couple of hours to the Sun Gate, and then we would be there.  We weren’t that close to finishing, but we could see it in our mind’s eye already. At one point we came upon a couple and a guide, who we had passed on an uphill a day or two before. They were standing looking at something, and so we asked what they saw.  “Just that,” the woman said, waving her hand at the mountain (the same mountain Lana tumbled down) in the distance, once again clearing out of the clouds.  Oh yes, that, we nodded.
We fell in with her as we headed down another slope, chatting about where we were from, and where they were from (Australia), and a little bit about our year and our journey.  We told her we would be heading for Australia, and she told us a little about where they lived and where we should visit.  As we caught up with her husband and their guide, she caught her husband up on our conversation and poked him in the ribs. “They should come and stay with us. Give them your card.”  We got their card, and chatted some more with The Moons (their last name) and then moved on to catch up with our guide.  They were lovely folks, and I do hope we see them again when we’re in Australia.  A free place to stay wouldn’t be so bad, either.

We headed down, down and more down. At a certain point in the trail we could either branch off to a set of terraces, which would take us about another hour, or we could just head down to camp.  When you’ve come this far, it seems unreasonable not to see everything you can, even if it takes you a bit longer. So we headed off to see the terraces with our guide in tow.  We were, as anticipated, bringing up the rear, but we really didn’t care. We realized that it made no sense to rush down.  We knew what we would have missed if we did.  Along the way we chatted about tourism in Peru, and how none of the companies that run the treks are owned by Peruvians—they are all owned by foreigners or foreign companies.  Lana shared her brilliant idea with him about importing energy bars and electrolyte drinks (there were a few granola bars and a lot of candy bars, but no Clif bars. No Luna bars. No Balance bars.  We saw people who had brought those, and sport chews with them from home. Now if you’re going to bring something all the way from home, you should be able to buy it in Cusco or on the trail. He didn’t seem too enthusiastic about my idea, but I know someone could make a killing.

Anyway we chatted the whole way down, and Lana finally was able to just walk and talk, without having to pause and think about where to put her foot, or if her knee was going to give out. Yes, we were last to camp, but the last camp is a crowded place, with lots of noise and some fairly rank-smelling toilets, so spending less time there, and more time out on the trail with beautiful orchids and interesting plants, was a much better day.

After dinner, the camp cook revealed a large cake, with “Buen Viaje” iced on it.  We don’t know if they carried the cake the entire way, or somehow baked it at camp, but it was very good—a tremendous surprise.
Each tour group has some kind of grand finale on the last night, and we could hear the sounds of those from other nearby camps.  In ours, we were supposed to sing a song (in Spanish) to our group of 19 chaskis, and in turn, they would sing one to us.  Our un-official team leader, Orlando (pictured above, cutting the cake), is a Puerto Rican economics professor with a wonderful sense of humor.  He led us in the refrain portion of “Guantanamera” which I think he picked specifically because we only needed to remember two Spanish lyrics for it.  He carried the rest, along with our guide, David.  The chaskis sang first in Quechua, and then translated in Spanish, a song about a woman tricking a lover.  It’s hard to describe 19 tough-as-nails farmers, who take a week every month to earn some extra money hauling massive loads on the trail softly singing together, but they clearly enjoy singing, and are very good at it.
We went to bed even earlier than normal.  Tomorrow we rise at 3:20.  Our guide David explained it wasn’t so much so that we could be “first” at the sun gate, but more because we needed to give the chaskis time to get everything packed up so they could hike down the hill and catch the train back to their villages.  Out of respect for them, we should be up and out of their way so they could break everything down quickly.  It was our last night in a tent. We were ready to go to bed to be done with tents.
Here are the rest of our pictures from Day 3, which was without a doubt the most photogenic day. Well, except for Day 4. Machu Picchu is pretty photogenic too.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Inca Trail, Peru: Day 2

Mr Bee, indicating our morning position
Day 2 of the Inca Trail is supposed to be the hardest.  Over the entire four days, we will climb 1,800 meters (5,900 feet), and descend 2,000 meters (6,500 feet).  Today, we will climb 1,100 m (3,600 feet) and descend 600 m (2,000 feet) of that.  Prior to arriving in Cusco, we’ve been near sea level for weeks, and we’re concerned that we’ve completely lost any high-altitude acclimation from Colorado.  One of the other hikers was throwing up all night, and she is going back to Ollamtaytambo on a horse with our assistant guide, and another hiker who decided turning back now was the wisest course after getting winded on the hill climb out of our campsite.  I think it made the rest of us a little more sober about what we were facing.
Fortunately, the day started out cool and cloudy, and we had several hours of pleasant hiking before the sun came out and it got muggy and hot.  It still rained on and off, and the chaskis (Quechua for ‘fleet feet’, a name the porters prefer for themselves over the more colonial ‘porter’) had their loads covered with tarps and ponchos.  You can’t see it in these pictures but they’re also either wearing rubber sandals or regular tennis shoes.  Lana wishes that she’d followed their advice rather than the Peru Treks people’s to rent hiking boots (again, FORESHADOWING).
By the time we reached our next stop, for second breakfast consisting of crackers, ham sandwiches and some damn good popcorn (they seemed to think we needed a lot more food than we thought we did), the rain had retreated up the mountains.  This was our last opportunity to buy water, though we will be able to fill our bottles from boiled stream water at each meal, if we want.  We’ve been drinking closer to 1 liter a day than the 2.5 recommended, but we feel well hydrated, so we stuck with our comfort level as a guide.
After second breakfast, we were allowed to walk at our own pace (rather than staying roughly together, regrouping every 20-30 minutes for visiting an Inca site, or just to make sure everyone was still ok).  Our next meeting point was camp, which is where we’d have lunch and dinner—no more hiking once we reach that, around 2-3 pm.  Between us and that is Dead Woman’s Pass (called that because it resembles the profile of a woman on her back, from the other side—although FORESHADOWNG, again), with a saddle at 4,200 m (13,776 feet).
 This is where we finally hit our stride.  A cool, dry breeze drifted down the valley, and it began to feel more like Leadville than a rain forest.  While we were stopping to take pictures and appreciate the scenery (and to breathe), we soon outstripped the rest of our group. 20121108_102711_7D_IMG_13405
We passed fields full of llama and alpaca, wildflowers, and a consistent view behind us of exactly where we’d climbed from.  Lana decided given the toughness of the day’s climb, that she was only going to take pictures of what we’d already done, rather than what we still had to do.  We met quite a few other climbers from other trekking groups, and chatted with a bunch of them. We managed to even relay the news of the presidential election to a couple of people who had missed that information before they left Cusco.
I’d joked with Lana that I was strangely tempted to sprint to the top.  About 200 feet from the saddle, I thought why not, and took the rest at a clip—it was a blast!  Lana was amused, but wasn’t interested in pursuit, and continued at her constant rate, and soon joined me.  She wasn’t amused at the fact that I spent the time between when I got to the top and when she did in snapping a few photos of her, either. 
20121108_113324_7D_IMG_1341320121108_113420_7D_IMG_1341720121108_113553_310HS_IMG_2214Yes, we hiked the Inca Trail with Mr. Bee.  He's light!
The clouds had rolled in, so there wasn’t much of a view from the top, and after snapping a few pictures and swigging some water, we headed on down, knowing that the descent would be harder on us than the climb.  We just didn’t know how much harder.
We felt really good, and were still in great spirits, dampened only a bit when it started to rain. Then we realized how slippery the entirely stone trail was, and how poor the tread was on Lana’s rented boots. Ironically, we’d rented them expressly for rain, so she wouldn’t have wet feet for days, but in retrospect, wet feet in grippy shoes would have been better. She was using her poles for additional balance and traction, but one of the poles slipped, then her feet slipped, and before either of us knew it she was rolling down the stone road. Fortunately, some springy brush at the edge of the trail broke some of her fall, but she had a huge bruise on her shin, a few cuts on her right knee, a goose egg on the right side of her face, and was soaked.  At first she just lay there a little like a turtle on her backpack, staring up at the sky and checking to see what hurt. A kind guide from another tour company saw the fall and sprinted over (his shoes had grip!) and made sure we were both ok.   We slowed way down, and managed to limp into camp near 5.  We’d been the first to the top of the pass, but were the last to arrive at camp.  At one point, she could see the trail climbing up out of the valley we were dropping into, and people hiking upwards.  She thought we had to follow them, and didn’t think she could make it, though I pointed out the tents that she couldn’t see over the undergrowth at the edge of the trail.  This was, without a doubt, the low point of the whole trip. Soaked to the skin, taking what seemed to be endless stone steps one at a time, and being enough in the clouds to be unable to tell where the road ended.  Aside from being bruised and wet, something in Lana’s knee was really hurting with any lateral movement, so each time her right leg moved to descend a step, it hurt. More than the actual pain was the fear that she wasn’t going to be able to finish the hike.
In our only vaguely dry tent, Lana took a picture of herself to see how bad her face was—but it’s a pretty good indicator of her mood, too.  She was disappointed that it had happened, very angry that she hadn’t trusted her instincts about her shoes, and worried about what the next day might hold. As you can tell, our interest in photography and storytelling ended fairly abruptly with the fall. We were pretty cold, and fairly miserable, and dinner was not enough to make anyone warm enough or dry enough.  Most of our gear was damp, and it was a long, cold night.  It rained most of the night, and when it stopped, the temperature dropped to a few degrees above freezing.  Novice campers that we were, we didn’t zip up the inner flap of our tent (the fly was zipped and the mesh flap was zipped), and Lana woke up shivering pretty bady at one point. A hat, and a jacket later, and she warmed up enough to drift off again. 
By the end of day two we we knew we would probably finish (there was no one to take us back down the mountain and the nearest way down at this point was Machu Picchu anyway), but were worried about how miserable day three would be, given that we knew it was almost all descent with over 2,000 steps, which they lovingly call the “gringo killers.”