countin' the days

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Machu Picchu: The Final Frontier

After Desi left Peru, I could really hear the tick-tock of my travel clock running out. I had two weeks to go. I also had a dilemma: what to do with those two weeks. Being more or less completely broke, a little low on energy, and really sick of the touristy hell Southern Peru can sometimes be, I was debating whether or not to even go to Machu Picchu. I had heard a variety of things about it, ranging from the divine to the disastrous. My travel partner, the lovely Biggi from Germany, was in the same boat. We discussed our options and eventually decided to go for it, together, taking our time, and just doing whatever felt right. The goal would not be Machu Picchu itself but rather the journey to & from. Indeed.

First off, you have to understand that there are literally only three ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town that sits at the bottom of Machu Picchu.
1) Do what everyone else does: take the train round-trip from Cusco on a one-day tourist trap excursion that will cost anywhere from $75 to $300.
2) Take a guided trek through the mountains -- ruling out the Inca Trail because it's always booked up months and months in advance -- which will last about 3 days and cost $300-500.
3) Go the completely hairball and roundabout back way, taking overcrowded buses and shared taxis through tiny pueblitos until you reach a hydroelectric plant, at which point you & your stuff walk for 2 1/2 hours down the railroad tracks.

Take a wild guess which one we chose.

It took 9 1/2 hours of travel in 2 days to get there, but cost only $11 and the journey was actually quite fun, thanks in no small part to my superfabulous travel chica.

After a rest day of listening to loads of reggae in our room and drinking beers with locals, the big day arrived. We woke up at 5am to catch the very first bus up to Machu Picchu. We reluctantly paid the outrageous entrance fee ($42!!!) and made our way to a cozy spot high atop the site, where everyone takes that classic Machu Picchu photo... as did I. There we sat and watched the sun rise. I topped it off with a headstand. I could instantly feel the magic of the place, and laughed at myself for ever having doubted it. Looking around at the surrounding mountains and epic valley in which it sits, it is extremely clear why they chose this particular hilltop to become a site of divine worship. It is a supremely sacred spot.

We wandered through the site for a while, in complete awe at the sheer size of the place and the tangible sense of mystery that lingers in the air. But exploring was momentarily put aside as we got in line to climb the big peak that overlooks the whole thing, Wayna Picchu. They only let 500 people per day climb the mountain, and we definitely wanted to be two of them. It was a steep 45-minute climb, but was easily the highlight of my day. After reaching the summit, we found a nice spot on a sunny rock and busted out the delicious picnic we'd brought with us as we gazed down upon the splendor below. (Yet another bonus of being an experienced traveler: you always pack plenty of delicious grub.)

On the way back down, I struck up a conversation with a lovely kiwi lady named Angie. Within moments of reaching the ground, we met up with her buddies, kicked off our shoes, had a session, and spent the next couple hours lounging in the grass staring at the phenomenal beauty that surrounded us.

Eventually Biggi & I did more walking around, and our general amazement just continued to grow. I didn't realize how extremely huge the site would be, and we spent several giggly hours wandering past 10 foot high Inca walls into alleys and neighborhoods, discovering carvings & statues & even water fountains along the way. The whole thing is just so fantastically magical, sacred, and awe-inspiring all at once ... it's hard to even describe.

Truth be told, it was a bit like Inca Disneyland with the expensive entry, lines of people, tour groups, and the cheesy statues & crappy overpriced restaurants in Aguas Calientes. But so what?! It was a totally freaking awesome experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Guess I can say that about just about everything, everywhere, and everyone that graced my life for the last 18 months. I am endlessly grateful, overwhelmed, and overflowing with joy that I DID IT. And it ruled.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Muchas Chelas!

The actual trip from Lake Titicaca to Cusco was a bit of a nightmare. It was another one of those classic Third World bus journeys, where the aisles are so crowded that some stranger's ass is shoved in your face, the police hop onboard and start searching around for suspicious cargo (which they find), you take a pee break during the raid and end up running down the highway with your pants down thinking the bus is leaving without you, then once back onboard you'd bet the farm that you could run faster than the bus was chugging along. Aaaaaaah, South America. Not really anything new for me, but a whole new world for Desi. Nevertheless, we made it, many hours after our tickets promised.

After our first night in town, spent frantically searching for food at midnight and feeling uncomfortable in our cattle-call of a hostel, things started picking up for the better, and quick. We found our new home in Hospedaje Inka, a converted old farmhouse on top of a hill in the charming little artsy neighborhood of San Blas. The view down to Cusco below was reason enough to make the big breathless hike all the way up to the joint, but combined with free breakfast, amazing hospitality, peace & quiet, and the fantastic roster of other travelers also staying there, it instantly ranked as one of the best hostels I've ever shacked up at.

Within minutes we met Biggi, a German girl traveling solo through South America. Free-spirited, easy going, and tons of fun, Biggi would become our partner in crime for the next week, and my travel partner & kindred spirit for my final three weeks in Peru.

Desi & I had some mighty big plans when we got to Cusco, but things didn't exactly play out quite as we'd imagined. Machu Picchu was high on the list for her, as it is for most visitors to Peru, and all those who go to Cusco. Somehow, we'd mixed things up in our heads a little bit and hadn't realized that the ONLY way to get there would cost either hundreds of dollars or many days' worth of time. Sadly, Desi didn't have the time to spare, and by the time we figured all that out, it was too late to get it together. But in true Desi fashion, she just shrugged, laughed, and was over it.

Fortunately, over the course of several days in Cusco we'd discovered something else that would more than adequately bide the time: Chelas!! That's Peruvian slang for BEER.

Now, Desi & I are no slouches when it comes to the fine art of late-night alcoholic escapades, but partying in Cusco took things to a whole new level. Cusco boasts a thriving international nightlife where every single night of the week you can find spectacular live bands playing for free and hip bars throwing huge dance parties. Those Chelas are each over a liter in volume, and they hand them out for around $3 a pop at the bar. Add to this an eclectic group of travelers from around the world and the ever-present friendly locals (who will inevitably stay out later than you, every time) ... and you've got yourself one hell of a party.

My favorite night? The one where we started out with happy hour at Ukuku's, jumped back over to Siete Angelitos for some live reggae, then ran back across town to Ukuku's, where we spent so many hours shaking it down to the DJ's manic shuffle of salsa & American pop songs that we failed to notice the time ... until the bartender Cesar finally pulled us outside onto the balcony at 5:30am to prove that yes indeed, the sun was up. And the party was still going.

Man, there's nothing quite like having one of your favorite people in the world come meet you in one of the greatest countries in the world, where in one of the coolest cities in the world you finish off your 9 straight days of fun, laughter & antics with an endless stream of libations & celebrations.

Des: it was so awesome. Can't wait to do it again.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Surreal World

Next stop on our saucy Southern Peru trail was Lake Titicaca (and yes, that is in fact its real name). The lake sits way up at 3,812m (12,507 ft) and aside from being the largest lake in South America, is also the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake is teeming with islands where indigenous people still live mostly traditional lives, but the main attraction is a group of 42 "floating" islands.

Called the Uros islands for the people who live there, these islands are a very surreal sight to see. In attempting to escape from the wrath of the Incas, the Uros created islands to inhabit by hand using only totora plants (reeds), which grow readily in the lake. The islands are anywhere from 3 to 5 meters deep, and every last thing on them is made of these reeds. The ground, the homes, the boats, benches, observation towers, and of course plenty of kitchy tourist souvenirs. Truth be told, these islands are a bit of a tourist trap, but it was spectacular to witness nonetheless. Walking around on the islands feels a bit like tramping on a waterbed, and you have to keep an eye out for the occasional sinkhole. Obviously, Desi and I avoided the souvenir stands and restaurants like the plague, and instead sat in the sunshine on the shores of the islands contemplating how something so spectacularly surreal could be possible.

Naturally, we also went out to the bars the night before. Lured by free drink coupons, we ended up in a random bar getting happy hour specials on Pisco Sours long after happy hour ended. What was originally some decent music with a few people swaying around turned into a huge bumpin' dance party with a bunch of college buddies from Georgia. We were reminded of many a fun college night with our fun college homies, many years ago ...

Our original plan was to go further out into the lake and do an overnight homestay with an indigenous family, but unfortunately Desi was battling with a nasty bout of altitude sickness (the town of Puno resides at a hefty 3800m). So, in true travel form, we spontaneously completely changed our plans and headed out on the next bus to Cusco.

Sauced Down South

I had fully been planning on avoiding Lima altogether, but nevertheless found myself there briefly a couple weeks ago. But no matter... I had a special agenda: to pick up my friend Desiree from the airport! Desi is one of my best friends from my UC Davis days, and somewhere around mid April, needing desperately to get off her Island (aka NYC), she suddenly decided to come visit me in Peru. Desi is the kind of person that I have tons of fun with when we're doing nothing at all, and we've always dreamed and talked about how ridiculously awesome it would be to travel together. I couldn't have been more excited.

Before we even put her bags in the room at the hostel, we stopped for a beer at the bar. This was a particularly appropriate kick-off to our journey, since the next 9 days together would involve quite a bit of happy hours, bar-hopping, beer sampling, general silliness, and nonstop laughter. Naturally, we went out that night in Lima and were lucky to find a cool little reggae bar nearby. The next day we walked around a bit, but were highly disappointed at how closely parts of Lima resemble Southern California, what with the ginormous shopping malls, ritzy cliffside apartment buildings, and McDonald's, KFC, even a Tony Roma's. We didn't stay long.

After a short flight, with 2 free Cusqueña beers onboard, we happily arrived in Arequipa. Known as the White City, Arequipa is a dazzling gem of a town, especially at night. We found a fantastically cozy little hostel right in the center of town, and got to business straight away. Luckily we'd arrived on a Friday night, so the bars were going off in a big way. We took advantage of the abudance of drink specials going on, and Desi & I tried our first Pisco Sours, the national drink of Peru. We were also pleased to discover that every region of Peru seems to have its own variety of beer; here, we were tossing back nice, grande Arequipeñas.

The next day we explored a little neighborhood called Yanahuara. It reminded me a lot of southern Spain, which isn't all too surprising considering the Spaniards themselves are responsible for the architecture around here. It was a lovely, peaceful stroll away from the tour groups and touts in the city center. But the best part came afterward ... ceviche! We stopped into this tiny cevichería and almost thought we´d been completely jipped, when all of a sudden two plates of the most incredible ceviche arrived. It was Desi's first ceviche ever, but it was also the best one I've ever had. And it cost us about $2 each.

Clearly, we were off to a good start.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back in the Harness Again

Once I was safely back down from the mountains, the agenda was clear: time to go climbing. Though I climbed briefly in Quito (Ecuador) on a fake rock wall, I hadn´t been on real rock since November, and hadn´t done any outdoor climbing thus far in South America... Ridiculous! I had about a week left in Huaraz to see what I could pull together.

I had been searching hard for other climbers for a few days, but nothing was turning up. Finally, when I had just about given up hope, I found not one but two awesome partners. I overhead Jo, from Britain, talking about cilmbing over breakfast, and though she had other plans to go trekking, she changed them rapidly as soon as I pitched the climbing plan. She couldn´t have been a nicer or more pleasant person to spend a few days with, not to mention a great and supportive climber. Tom is a climbing guide from Colorado, who I´d heard about and had been searching for for days. I finally found him when I wandered into a dorm room and saw an enormous Black Diamond backpack and climbing gear spilled all over the room. He only had a couple days left in Peru but was up for a last minute change of plan to head for the rock. Like Jo, he was an easygoing, super fun person, and needless to say an excellent climber. Go team.

I had heard about the climbing area, called Jatun Machay ("big cave" in Quechua... what caves??), from a helpful German tour guide in Huaraz. I saw pictures of the place and was immediately sold. It has a very space-age, surreal quality to it: it´s located at an altitude of about 4100m, and the funky-looking rocks themselves seem to sprout out of nowhere. There´s a great refuge there, built and run by an incredibly friendly Argentinian man named Andrés, with a huge communal kitchen and a cozy fireplace around which I spent every evening.

The rock itself is a unique mix of granite and something else (no one could quite tell me what), that is found only in the Cordillera Blanca here in Peru. It wasn´t the friendliest of rocks -- my hands are recovering from a mix of cuts, scrapes, shreds, and general abuse: a sure sign of a few great days of climbing. But it was great fun to climb on. I had to build up my confidence a bit since it had been a while, but by the third day I was leading some really fun routes. (yup, that´s me on the rock in that photo, looking a lot more hardcore than I really am)

Despite my aching arms, bruised legs, and cut-up hands, it was a fantastic climbing adventure. Even getting there via cramped minibuses and shared taxis was fun. Most importantly, I finally got on some rock in South America, in an area that is mostly unknown and absolutely spectacular. And after pumping out on crazy cracks and thin faces, we were rewarded with technicolor sunsets and sparkling starry nights. What more could I possibly ask for?!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

High on Life (and Altitude)

Huaraz was my top Peruvian destination before I even got here, and I set aside two weeks to explore the surrounding area. As a city, it´s not much to look at, but it wasn´t the city I came for; it was the mountains. The Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) are an epic range of snow-capped peaks that are the second highest mountain range in the world next to the Himalayas. Huaraz sits in a valley in the middle of it all, and is surrounded by huge, looming peaks as far as the eye can see. I arrived my first morning to find the sunrise painting so many peaks orange and pink that I couldn´t even count them, and I knew immediately this was going to be an amazing stop.

It didn´t take long to meet the right people and get a trek together. Within two days of my arrival, I´d met 4 other people that were up for exploring the mountains, and we were off. Altogether, we were 2 Americans, 1 Irishman, 1 Brit, and 1 Norweigan. Since our plan was to go up one valley and down another, we opted out of hiring a guide and doing the trek with an agency, and instead carried all our own gear & food for the 4-day journey.

Day one we mosied up Valley Quilcayhuanca, an absolutely textbook glacial valley that just got better with every step. On either side of the steep valley walls, you could see some serious snow-capped peaks peeking out, and at the very end of the valley was an enormous snow-covered mountain with a massive glacier creeping down its center. The weather was pleasant, and the sun made for a bluebird day. The going was slow but steady, with plenty of curious, horn-clad cows blocking the trail and bright purple wildflowers to admire.

We had a lovely evening where we cooked a delicious pasta & soup dinner, and sat around a small campfire enjoying the peace and quiet. The night, however, was not so lovely. It started seriously raining when we went to bed, and didn´t let up until about 2am. There were 3 of us sharing what should have been a 2-man tent, and a tent that would have been better suited for the desert and not the mountains. The rain came in, in a big way. I woke up in the middle of the night to find pools of water inside of my sleeping bag, and my feet and legs were so cold that I couldn´t fall back asleep. The tent itself seemed to be collapsing, and it wasn´t long before my 2 other tentmates found themselves in the same position.

Come morning (at long last), it was time for some changes. The other American chica, Carisa, had suffered from a nasty bout of altitude sickness the day before, and not feeling 100% better was hesitant to go on and UPwards. The two of us decided we would head back and change our plans a bit, and leave the rest of the trek to the remaining threesome.

As it turned out, Carisa & I had an amazing time. We spent the night at a cozy mountain lodge called The Way Inn, taking utmost advantage of their adobe sauna and duvet-clad beds. The next day, we went on a 30 kilometer round-trip hike up and down Valley Cojup, the one we would have been in on the trek anyway. The end goal of the hike was Laguna Pachacocha (4560m), a lake that sits at the bottom of the incredibe glacier we´d been staring at all day long. It is hard to describe the feeling of hiking up a valley towards an epic mountain glacier all day, but it sure is a good one. The lake was quite literally breathtaking. Even though the sky was completely full of clouds (in fact, it started snowing the moment we arrived), the lake was radiating a pure, crystal blue. Far off in the distance, I could even see an iceberg floating in the middle of it. It was a long day, and the hike completely kicked our asses, but in the best possible way.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Exploring the North

Once safely in Peru, I spent a few days in Chachapoyas, more than happy to not be sitting on some form of transportation all day long. But Northern Peru has more than just great vibes and a lack of tourists to enjoy; one of the main attractions are scores of ruins that are rarely visited. The biggest set of ruins is an amazing pre-Incan fortress high atop a mountain called Kuelap. It was an amazing place that really blew me away. After entering the narrow passageway through the immense fortress walls, I could see ruins of the round houses everywhere. They have discovered 420 such houses, so far, and an archeologist working on the site reconstructed one house to represent what the village might once have looked like. One of my favorite things at Kuelap was what first appeared to be a pile of rocks, but in fact was an ancient compass designating north, south, east, and west. In addition to admiring
the ruins, I was really loving the dense vegetation of trees, vines, and orchids that covered the stones, and really added to the whole mysterious aura of the place. Quite an experience for my first set of South American ruins.

One of the best things about traveling by myself -- and there are many -- is being able to change my plans spontaneously, whenever I feel like it. Originally I´d planned on going through the mountains on another multi-day hairball journey to get to Cajamarca, but after looking at maps and a calendar, I changed my mind. I hopped on a night bus, and made it all the way down to the coastal city of Trujillo by morning. Done.

Trujillo wasn´t very exciting, despite some colorful buildings and very colonial architecture. But nearby was another set of interesting pre-Incan ruins called Chan Chan that I set out to explore. Originally I planned on doing it completely on my own, but was met outside the ruins by a guide named Moses, and mostly just wanting an excuse to think in nothing but Spanish for an hour, hired him for $4. Chan Chan used to be a completely adobe city, the largest one ever known to the world. In fact, they estimate that some 60,000 people used to live there! Much of it is understandably eroded, but the main palace is still pretty much in tact. Most interesting to me were places for their worship of the sun and the moon, including huge pools of water that they´d collected via underground passageways. It was a strange place, to tell the truth -- something about seeing nothing but neutral, sepia tones in all directions. But fun to imagine what it might have been like hundreds of years ago.

After the ruins, I jumped on a minibus for 5 minutes and found myself back at the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 3 months. The little village of Huanchaco was a
nice little mid-afternoon stopover, and I spent a couple hours eating a huge plate of ceviche, and admiring the collection of totora (reed) boats strewn along the shore.

Monday, April 21, 2008

One, Two, Cha Cha Cha

After over 1,000km and way too many delays in buses, I needed a quick break before I continued my journey south. I stopped to spend my last few Ecuadorian days in Vilcabamba, a beautiful little town nestled into the Valley of Longevity that´s famous for its supreme mellowness. It was the perfect rest stop. Although I debated indulging myself with a massage or a horseback ride through the mountains, in the end I decided to save my money and instead spent my days hiking and seriously chilling.

It would have been easy to get stuck in this peaceful haven of good vibes and the easygoing lifestyle, but I was anxious to get to Peru. My last afternoon in Vilcabamba, I looked out over the valley to find a beautiful rainbow. I took it as a sign that my journey to Peru the next day was going to be a good one. I was right.

Feeling ambitious and confident, I opted to take the rural La Balsa border crossing from Ecuador to Peru that foreigners rarely go for. I was slightly hesitant at first, finding myself trapped in that cycle of negative thought that can make almost anything seem like a bad idea. Not wanting to submit myself to that kind of thought process -- and trusting my gut instincts -- I went for it. It was one of the best journeys I´ve had so far.

I started out with a 6am bus ride through foggy mountains that descended into incredible hills covered in jungle foliage with tiny villages emerging out of the dense vegetation. I arrived in the small town of Zumba, where I killed a couple hours sitting at a table at the bus
terminal at a local family´s very basic restaurant. They asked me plenty of questions about my traveling, including of course the normal inquiries as to my age, my marital status, and why in the world I am traveling by myself. Mostly I spent my time with 8-year-old Carol, who after drawing several beautiful pictures in my journal decided to try on both of my backpacks. Could she be a future world traveler? I hope so.

I was excited to discover that my next form of transport was the "ranchera," open-air rows of benches mounted on the flatbed of a heavy-duty truck (you can see it in the background of the first photo of Carol). It felt like an adventure ride at an amusement park, and was equally as fun as riding around in huge Land Rovers in the Masai Mara in Kenya. We bumped along for 2 hours, stopping twice to deal with some serious mud that stood in our way. I wasn´t nervous at all though... by this point, I´ve seen the crappiest of vehicles make it through the worst of situations, so I knew this huge beast of a truck wasn´t going to be a problem. Naturally, there were guys carrying several chickens seated behind me, a few people sleeping (which seems to defy the laws of existence), and an old guy with his dogs practically sitting on my backpack (which I was grateful for because at least it meant my bag wouldn´t go flying out of the truck).

The scenery was absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful, enhanced further by the perfect weather and the excitement of the ride. We made it to the rushing river that marks the Ecuador-Peru La Balsa border and seeing nothing of importance on the Ecuador side, I walked over the bridge into Peru. A few minutes later I had it pointed out to me that I had neglected to get my exit stamp from Ecuador, so back across the bridge I went. I entered the police office and found 3 immigration officers in shorts and flip-flops engaged in a riotous card game. I interrupted the game to have my passport stamped by one of the "officers," but the other two were impatient and kept prodding him to make a move all the while. It was an easy ordeal, and I promised to return soon to Ecuador on my way out... they said they´d be waiting for me.

Back over in Peru, my immigration officer was a mullet-clad, jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing young man, who was listening to salsa so loud that I had to shout at him to be heard. I filled out a piece of paper, got a stamp, and then he invited me to drink a beer with him while I waited for my shared taxi to depart. I would have done it, too, but my ride was ready to go as soon as I was, so I bid the border farewell and kept on moving.

My shared taxi was an old, white, Toyota station wagon with a cracked windshield and a friendly driver who sang along to sappy Peruvian love songs. I was joined by the two guys from the ranchera and their squawking chickens, as well as a couple bottles of pure cane alcohol they´d brewed up at home which they spent the whole ride drinking. We slowly traveled along a particularly crappy road, but somehow made it to San Ignacio right after sunset, where I took a cold but divine shower and crashed out early.

Day two of the journey involved a bit more coordination and stamina. I took a
minibus to Jáen (where the inevitable chicken rode right next to me), another minibus to Bagua Grande, and finally another piece of shit shared taxi all the way to Chachapoyas (or simply "Chacha") -- with rides in crappy Asia-esque motorbike taxis across town shoved in between, since there don´t appear to be many central bus terminals here in northern Peru.

The journey was totally nutty and at times completely illogical, but tons of fun. Truthfully, it was easier than I expected; the biggest challenge arose from possessing enough stamina, patience, and good faith to make it through the day. The scenery was some of the best and most diverse that I´ve seen, particularly in such a short time span. And there came a certain secret pleasure from knowing that I was the only gringo around for miles...