A Travellerspoint blog

Big Boys Don't Cry

48 hours of Colombia

Finally, we had made it to Colombia. Throughout the trip, I had heard only fantastic things like ‘It will definitely be your favorite’, ‘Once you go you will want to return’ and of course, ‘They’ve got great coke there, maaannn’. The last being from San Pedro Pete himself, a hero amoungst the Huacachina party crowd, and a hell of a madman. Nonetheless, I had high hopes for Colombia, but my faith in the transformed tourist destination (their brutal anti-crime approach over the last 4 years has more than halved their crime rates) was shaken within the first 24 hours. The story goes something like this:

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“Why are you suddenly so paranoid?” Alyssa asks, “I thought you had a guarantee from God we wouldn’t get mugged.”

"Yes, but the ONE thing I worry about is buses… remember I told you that story of the German girl in Argentina who got her bag taken right next to me while she slept. Just please, tuck the bag into the corner, so no one can reach it."

It was nighttime on a 25 hour bus heading to Bogota from the Ecuadorian border. After crossing without problem, we jumped on the first bus bound to the capital. I had a weird feeling about the bags, and wanted them tucked as far away from the aisle, and people’s reach, as possible. I had already witnessed the ever present ‘snatch and run’ technique before, so every bus I was on I was hawkish about the little backpack in which I carried all my important belongings.

She tucked it away and we fell asleep.

At 4.30 in the morning I woke to use the baño, and performed the usual check on the stuff, my paranoia high with this specific type of theft. It had happened, finally. The bags were gone. Someone had nicked them from the seat behind and left the bus at the last stop. I was strangely not surprised. Even while tearing the bus apart in search for the bags, waking Alyssa in the process, I knew they were gone. Behind the anger and frustration I felt a weird surge of relief, like when you are waiting on a deathbed for the inevitable and then it finally comes. The patient passes away, just like you knew they would.

"Well," I sighed, "There is it. That’s life I guess."

Alyssa began sobbing at the thought of her lost camera, passport, credit cards, and most bitingly, her journal.

I felt a surge of grief at the thought of Gloria gone forever, but big boys don’t cry… so I curled up in the seat, threw my sweater’s hood on over my eyes, and went back to an interrupted sleep.

We reached Bogota, filed our reports with the policia, and headed to the hostal. Armed with information about our various destinations for replacement from the helpful woman at the tourist office, we made the phone calls and arranged the times for our different embassy trips the following day.

It took me a long time to find the British Embassy, the good old colonial lady that was going to take care of her prodigal son. I cut the line due to my status of emergency and sat in front of thick bulletproof glass as an aging woman and her protégé talked to me from the other side.

They were almost too helpful, and their sympathy with my situation was constantly constricting their throats. I was given instruction, papers, forms, and photocopies through the impersonal metal grate, while I returned police reports, passport copies, and signed letters to my two angels of empathy. It felt like prison.

The older lady left to the back office while her protégé chatted with me about my travels. The woman returned just as I was explaining the joys of trying to budget for an entire continent. Her face paled as she slipped me the price for the whole affair. A temporary passport with travel documents was going to cost me 485,000 pesos… 250USD.

I wanted to cry. My head dropped and my jaw dropped further. I dared a glance at their faces and it looked like they too were on the verge of tears. Had one escaped from my eyes, I am almost sure they would have wept considerately and begged to pay the fee on my behalf.

But big boys don’t cry. I was a grown man, goddamnit… with a beautiful travel-worn beard to prove it. So instead I gave them the enchanting Chris smile, the one that rights all wrongs, and turns sour to sweet.

"If I must, I must!" I replied beamingly, "That’s life, I suppose."

They smiled back. I gave them my thanks and the promise of seeing me later in the day to drop off the last of the forms, then I got into the elevator whistling happily, having reinforced the high reputation of bearded men everywhere.

My joy lasted all of a block. The nu,ber kept banging on my head like a drum. 485,000. Holy shit. I spotted a café and stepped inside for a pick-me-up. While I sipped on my coffee I surfed the web, trying to seek alternative. Maybe I could sneak into Venezuela via fishing boat, and get the passport at the Trini embassy there? I mean, the Ven-Col border would be the worst of the bunch so far, and granted the risk would be imprisonment… but the silver lining: it would make for a great National Geographic "Locked up Abroad" episode.

I found the number for the Trini embassy in Venezuela and talked to a woman in broken Spanish. There was, she informed me, an ‘Honorary Consulate’ of Trinidad in Bogota. She gave me the number and the address, and bid me good luck.

I called the consulate and chatted with a guy about my options. He informed me he had done something similar once before, a long time ago, for a student who lost her passport.

"No trouble," he said, "Stop by after the match, and I'll see what I can do."
I hopped ona bus destined for the far northern suburbs of Bogota, and tried very hard to keep my expectations low. The dam would break with another disappointment.

I roamed the streets for a while looking for the right address, and upon finding it was escorted inside by a portly Indian man with a Spanish name and an English accent. A Trinidadian indeed. Arthur J. Fernandes took copies of the police report, my old passport and my email address while I sat in his stately office overlooking a garden with ornate water fountains and ponds. Trinidadian tax payers must have been forking over a lot for this man to watch football during working hours.

"Well Chris," he began, "I'll have to call Trinidad and work this out, but I should be able to get you the appropriate documents by next week. No charge."

Whatever they were paying, it wasn’t enough.

I wanted to cry, however, I refused to let a fellow Trinidadian down, even a non-bearded one. I filled my voice with its most masculine intonations and thanked him profusely with a long, firm, overethusiastic handshake.

I hopped back on the southbound bus, lay back in the seat and spent an hour watching Bogota fly by. Now I was sorted (granted the magnanimous Arthur J. Fernandes could indeed sort me out) . Now I could love the country the way I was supposed to. Now it was time for a drink with Alyssa in celebration of a good, good day.

A woman chatted to me, helping me with directions when she saw me matching the street signs to my tourist map.

"Do you like Colombia?" she asked with thinly veiled pride.

"Its only been 2 days… 2 very long days," I replied, "but I think it just might be my favorite."

She smiled at me. I smiled back. No tears today.

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Posted by 4ccamacho 17:21 Comments (1)

La Mitad del Mundo

Ecuador

The (disappointing) Coastal Crawl

I got off the bus in Guayaquil, the biggest city of Ecuador, at 5AM, tired but excited for a new country. The group of gringos I had left Mancora with bid me adieu and hopped instantly on another bus bound for Montañita.
"Guayaquil is rubbish," the Aussies convinced me, "But good luck anyway... maybe we'll see you on the beaches soon."

I was adamant in my belief, despite the books warnings and the disgust of fellow travellers, that the biggest city in Ecuador HAD to hold some appeal. I was wrong.

Got onto a city bus and trudged downtown into the most industrial, grungy city yet on mySouth American tour. I booked into a hotel (that looked like it charges by the hour, if you know what I mean), watched the 6AM football, and fell asleep. By afternoon, I had walked the recommended walks, saw the recommended sights, and realised I had to get out of there ASAP. The Aussies were right. This place was rubbish.

My plans were foiled. I came down that night with the runs, again. I thought I had purged whatever parasites had latched onto my duodenum, but I appeared to have picked up a fresh equatorial breed. I lay in bed for days, frightened to stray too far from a toilet. Starting a self-prescribed dosing of antibiotics, I managed to bid the pimps who ran the joint goodbye 3 days later, 3 days after I wanted to get the hell out of there.

My next stop was Montañita, a surfing village on the coast, and my second chance to pick up some new skills. Bad news, says the weatherman, it's going to piss rain on you for the whole 2 days you stay here. No surfing for you.

I left Montañita after 2 days of rain, my stomach moving towards stability, as I moved northwards in search of better climes.

Stop 3: Puerto Lopez. The sky was grey and angry, but held back the rain while I spent a couple days strolling past (and into) beachfront bars and fishing boats. Alyssa managed to meet me here, after her stint in the interior visiting her host family (from when she volunteered with a small village several years ago). We booked a boat with some other gringos and went off in search of mating humpback whales.
Ecuador creates bizarre coastal microclimates, according to an Irish geography teacher we had with us. Out a mile or two from the coastline we had blistering sunshine. After days of rain, it was a welcome sight. As were the humpback whales we managed to find almost instantly. We followe a single guy around for a while, and after an hour of 'oooos' and 'aaahhhhhs' I was beginning to think we were a massive cockblock for his annual whoring around. I really wanted him to get laid and was going to be very disappointed if the noise of our boats engine prevented him from finding a big lady. He did, however, manage to find a comrade about halfway through the day, and we continued to follow them around, disturbing their romantic first date.

The next day we left For the north, and Canoa, hopign that the microclimates there were better.
They weren't. It stormed for the 2 days we were there, so we booked it early, hopped on the first of 5 buses that day, and began the trip to Quito.

Quito and the Quilatoa Loop

Back at altitude, back in my beloved Andes... back to the cold. Goddamnit.

The sky in Quito, thankfully, was a vast improvement of the grey, weepy depression of the coast. For that I was happy. After spending a day doing the necessary 'big-city' chores (Alyssa had lost her camera, so bought a new one, and I finally got rid of my Soles and burnt a copy of my pictures onto a DVD), we spent a quiet day patrolling the Old Town, compelte with all the appropriate visits to Governmental Palaces, Churches, Basilicas, and small good, REAL, coffee shops.
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We then stowed our backpacks in the closet of the hostal, stuffed our little daypacks with crap, and set off to the Central Highlands to go hiking a volcano... again.

The Central Highlands were beautiful. Thankfully it is rainy season, so everything was green and fresh. We hopped from bus to increasing shrinking bus as we worked our way from the big city to Quilatoa (pop. 150), to hike the crater of an extinct volcano.
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I have been hiking a lot in South America, and often Mother Nature and I are at odds. This was only too true of this attempt as well. After an hour of trekking around the crater with hurricane force wintry wind kicking up sand like bullets, Alyssa turned to me and we both silently acknowledged defeat. 4 more hours would have left us blind and frostbitten. It was an even 3-3 draw now (I was defeated at the olcan Villarrica in Pucon, The amazon in Bolivia, and now this... I persevered through Hail in Fitz Roy, Sleet in the Cordillera Blanca, and rain on the Death Road.) There is one last trek planned for Colombia, 6 days through a cloud forest, so I aim to succeed in the end! Still, We saw enough of Quilatoa (I guess i can imagine what the other angles looked like, the hour was enough)
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We trekked back to Quito boarding increasingly larger buses now, grabbed our stowed gear and moved downtown. We spent the following 2 days drinking, watching football, and generally taking it easy. June was ending, and we were getting ansty, despite the beauty of Quito. Enough of winter, we said, lets switch Hemispheres. Northward bound!

The Middle of the World and Market town of Otavalo

On the way northwards to Otavalo for their famously large, crazy and awesome Saturday markets, we realised we were going to cross the Equator. Having been in the Southern Hemisphere for months, this was a big deal. We got off at a little monument at the northern end of Quito to pay homage to the shift from south to north, from winter to summer, from clockwise to anticlockwise toilet flushes.

We tiptoed across the equator with great reverance, then took large amounts of comical pictures straddling the world's most important line in la mitad del mundo (middle of the world). Having had our fill of silliness, we continued on to Otavalo.
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Otavalo was a nice change of pace. We wandered the streets of the market aimlessly, taking in the last bit of Ecuadorian and Quechua (indigenous Andean/Incan) culture we could.
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We bought a couple of little souveneirs (in honour of the flag of the Quechua which is a rainbow, my purchases included a bright rainbow-colored hammock that I plan on hanging on the front porch to shock the entire of Diego Martin and hopefully make Cols cringe everytime she looks up at the house from the highway) and took in the last of the fine (NOT) Ecuadorian cuisine before hitting the road the following day.

The border awaits! Onwards to the country of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Escobar, and 'booger-sugar'! Onwards to Colombia!

Posted by 4ccamacho 17:19 Comments (0)

Lads! Lads! Lads! (...and a Lassie)

Lima/Huacachina/Arequipa/Cusco(2)/Mancora

The waiter comes over with the coffee. I want to kiss him, I’m so happy.

"Thank god! I really just don’t handle the hangovers like I used to." I tell the 3 English gappies (gap-year travellers) who had accompanied me out the night before and again to breakfast in the café downstairs from our hostel. I am aware that I sound like a complete jackass for complaining about age at the age of 24, but when these 18 and 19 year olds nod sagely in understanding, I grunt a little in ironic appreciation of the continued farce.
That’s when I see the arsehole walking past.

"Eh you! Robert Guy Caldwell Browning!"
He swings around as if genuinely surprised to find me sitting in a café underneath the hostel we arranged to meet in the night before. Surprised my ass. Daft Cunt, I think, switching immediately into the language of Irvine Welsh, whom I had been reading in anticipation of a week with Scots.

"Macho Man!" he howls, as we take part in the appropriate homosocial bonding rituals of long lost friends, slapping each other on the shoulders gruffly after the slightly long hug, and talking in loud deep voices, disturbing the morning peace of half of the backpacker and local population of Lima.

He apologises for his absence the night before, blaming the airline for losing his friend’s bags, at which point he introduces me to Gee, my other Scottish comrade for the next week. Meanwhile I am apologizing for only waiting till 12, before hitting the bar with the gappies, whom I don’t introduce since I am blanking on half their names. I barely feel bad about this, and its all covered up smoothly as we go on making arrangements for the day; for the week, laughing and happy to be in each other’s company.

"I honestly thought you had missed the flight…again." I tell him, referencing his extended stay in Trinidad the previous summer after an abysmal misunderstanding of 24hour time.
"Yea, well fuck you," he says almost embarassed, "I'm here now though, aren't I?"
Indeed. He is here; I am alive (or will be after my coffee), and the world is as it should be. Onwards and upwards.

"Enseñame a Bailar, por favor!"

After wishing the gappies a pleasant return journey (they were England-bound that afternoon), the boys and I went out to hit the grey, depressing streets of Lima. Lima is always grey... its worse than London, and along with the rubbish on the ground and the insanity of the traffic, it makes for an awful tourist destination. It is however, the central hub for all the comings and goings of South American travellers, so its a must-see, or at least a must-stop, on my bizzare route around Peru.
Having started in the south, I had cut through the mountains northwards to Huaraz, and now, with the Scots, starting a return migration to the south, along the coastal deserts, to Cusco.
But before, a night out in Peru's capital!

Neither of the Scots know Spanish, so when we divvied up the various tasks of travelling, I got to play translator. Donning their kilts, which they cleverly realised was the best thing to wear out in South America, we downed some beers and headed out to the clubs. It was a free-for-all. Swarms of women came over to giggle and attempt to see what was being worn underneath. They assumed I was their local pimp and tour guide, and I fended off dozens of questions concerning their pale, Scottish bits and the reason why they liked wearing faldas (skirts) out to a club. The drinks flowed and I taught the boys the only phrase they needed to know. "Teach me to dance, please!" A sure winner.
I did not expect to have to teach them, "Are you a hooker?" although as the night went on, I suddenly realised that this was far more important.
"I don't understand what she's saying, but I think she's really into me," Gee slurs. Yes... she likes you alot. I think.
"Right boys. Its late. We've got an early bus. Let's hit the road." I manage to tear them away with the only loss of funds that which we spent on drinks.
We laughed all the way home, the boys only mildly hurt that they were used by the club manager as bait for gringo-chasers and whores. We went back to our hostel with the sunrise barely noticible through the grey haze of Lima, happy to be heading out of the grungy city and onto our travels.

"Is it...? Oh yes, its that time again! Beer o'clock!"

After a short 6 hour bus ride, complete with Nicolas Cage movies in Spanish (language is unimportant in Nick Cage films), we arrived in the oasis town of Huacachina (pron: Wa-ca-chee-na). Situated in the bosom (yes, I used the word bosom) of the southern Peruvian desert, its an ideal watering hole for the tired traveller. Or in our case, the adventure-seeking traveller. Riding out the day's good luck, we reached our hostel in JUST the right time to jump onto a sandbuggy/sandboarding tour of the surrounding dunes.
So we went, catapulting through the desert, strapped into the buggy with rollercoaster-esque fortifications, rolling around in the fine sand.
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This time, our boards were a little better (marginally) and while it was still impossible to turn or stop, we bulletted down the dunes on our feet, ass, bellies, or any other part we could gain enough balance on the wooden boards.
After watching the sunset over the desert, we returned, slightly chilly, to our hostel and grabbed a wuick bite to eat with some Dutch and Aussie boys who had joined us on our tour de la desierta.
Announcing to great surprise and greater applause that it was that time again, the ever-present 'beer o'clock' we returned to the hostel, gathered up the stray other guests, a pair of swedes and an irish lassie who was game for a laugh, and we hit the town.
Note: The town entails about 15 buildings. 4 of which were pubs... so our choices were limited.
Undeterred, we pubcrawled around town, letting the laughs get louder, and the scenery get blurrier...
I woke up at 6, completely confused as to why the boys were shouting at me.
"The tour mate! The tour!"
Right! We had booked a boat tour of the Islas Balestas, 'the Poor Man's Galapagos', which we were supposed to be meeting outside...now.
We rushed down, still drunk and met the coked up Swedes from the night before still actively raving in the streets, alone. After finding our bus, we jetted over to the bay, where I bought my coffee, and passed out in the front of the boat as it lazily took off to the Islands offshore. I woke up to 4 languages being spouted in my ear, explaining about the value of bird shit as a fertilizer in the 1800s; the mating season of sea lions; and the diet of penguins. The sun was too bright, and the smell of guano was too strong. I gazed about, took in what I could, and happily rejoiced when the boat began its return journey and I could doze again.

We arranged our belongings, gathered everything together, and departed from Huacachina that evening, accompanied by Eimear, our Irish lassie, to Arequipa.

"Deep as baaalls"

We reached the white city early in the morning and booked into our hostel and took our necessary naps. Arequipa is known as the white city since its old buildings were constructed out of the volcanic rock that is found in the area that is bright white. It makes for a pretty city, and as the second biggest in Peru, a far superior version of Lima.
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Arequipa is an important stopover for tourists for other reasons than that however. It is also situated next to the world's 2 deepest canyons. To hike down into (and back out of) one of these was the reason we had come, so after a day spent walking the sunny, white streets of downtown, we booked onto a tour and retired to sleep.

The Colca Canyon is quite impressive, and amazing and whatnot, and after walking up he mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, I felt confident that the descent into and return out of, the giant crease in the earth's crust would be easy. It wasn't.

I realised the morning of the trek that my stomach was in knots, a bad warning sign of things to come. It wasn't until after the 3 hour drive to the Cruz del Condor (a lookout on the tp of the canyon where you can se dozens of Condors flying about a foot from your head), that my bowels gave way.
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After that, it was a 4 hour hike down the cliffs with only the most serious determination to hold back the flow. Protip: Do not attempt hiking with diarrhea.

We made it to the oasis in the gorge not a moment too soon and enjoyed the luxuries of a pool, well cooked meal and toilet paper.

The following day it was all uphill, scaling the other cliff of the worlds deepest canyon at sunrise. We made it successfully, with the only shit en route that of the donkeys. After relaxing in some hot springs and another meal which I hesitantly ate, knowing I was only filling the tank to be purged again, we headed back to Arequipa, and boarded the first bus to Cusco.

This looks familiar...

Cusco. Again. Goddamnit. I had made the whole loop around the south of Peru, and come back to where I begun.
Pros: 3 more days of beer o'clock, bungee jumping, and good company.
Cons: The worst bus ride in history....repeated.
So thats what we did. The boys paid for their Inca Trail trek, Eimear and I teamed up to drink the whole hostal bar under the table with joint Trini-Irish ferocity, and we spent 3 days alternating between hungover as ass, and drunk as fuck. Luckily for us, for the boys especially, Cusco seems to have more tourists than locals in it, so chatting up people at the bar was less of a risk of losing important information in translation, such as "What's your going rate?"

The long and short of Cusco was much of this. We never made it to the bungee, as my stomach was in knots without having been suspended by rubber bands 120m in the air, and Rob was perpetually hungover, so we kept missing the times.

When the time came to bid my Gaelic comrades adios, I was overcome by great sadness and great ingeniuity. Screw the bus. I would shit myself for sure riding up and down those hills for 22 hours. Plane it would be.

So I hugged my mates goodbye (appropriate length hugs this time), paid the extra lump for a flight and took off... third time BACK to Lima.

A dip in the saaaalt

I landed, hopped in the first bus heading north, and booked it out of that grey menacing metropolis to the long, sandy beaches of Mancora.

Not much to report out of here. I finally took my first sea bath in the Pacific. Couldn't attempt the surf lessons, since I woke up only ever in time for the 1PM football match, and my balance was usually gone by the end of the second half.

Now, I have left Peru, after a long roundabout trip, and crossed into Ecuador, home of US currency, the equator and a slew of Pacific coastal surfing towns which I am currently crawling northwards on. First time the customs officers didnt even raise an eyebrow at my passport, perhaps as the German guy I was travelling with mentioned, I'm getting closer to home...

Ciao for now.
xx


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  • Some truly sad news to report as I finish this entry: My camera was lost in the deserts of Huacachina several weeks ago, and although I have backed up all the photos on a USB, the oppurtunity to take more is vanished. I am/was deeply upset by this, but travelling without the burden of taking pictures is almost a relief now. I reunite with Alyssa shorly to head north to Colombia, and the boys took enough for me when I was with them, so I am not totally destitute.

Posted by 4ccamacho 13:38 Comments (1)

83 Cows, 67 Donkeys, 42 Horses and 1 Mountain Man

Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca

Leaving Lima

After promising Alyssa I would meet her again in 3 weeks (something she, and I, doubt given our combined sense of Jewish/Trinidadian time), I hopped into a taxi and headed across town to the bus stop heading to Huaraz, a little town north of Lima, hidden in the mountain range of the Cordillera Blanca, the world's highest chain outside the Himalayas, with an impressive 22 peaks over 5000m.

The bus stop was less like a bus stop and more like a bus cemetery. I had opted for economico style travel, and that was certainly what I got. I spent about 30 minutes navigating the slums of Lima looking for the 'office' of the company, which turned out to be a woman on the corner selling homemade booze of some sort....along with bus tickets. Being lost in the slums of Peru at nighttime, the only tourist in sight, brought on once again the welcome terror and exhiliration of travelling that I had been losing over the last few days. I happily stood next to the bus ticket/cane liquor woman, eating my street-cooked fried chicken and smiling happily while the grease of god-alone-knows-how-many-years dribbled down my chin.

The bus pulled up. There was chaos. I managed to find my spot, crossed my fingers my backpack was loaded safely, and settled in for the usual, awful, freezing, no-sleep overnight trip to Huaraz.

Huaraz

There is not much to say about Huaraz, other than its a fairly unimpressive town in a simply spectacular setting. The mountains of the Cordillera just sort of sit there, all snowcapped and whatnot, teasing the steady stream of tourist hikers and mountaineers.

I went for a walk along the main drag after taking a well-deserved nap in the hostel, and negotiated for various tours of various parts of the mountains. I met (shockingly) a friend from my very first hike down in Patagonia, sleeping in the bed next to mine. He was doing the trekking alone, without help, and wantde me to join him... I actively considered it, but given his longer timeline, and my own deadlines to be back in Lima by the 31st, I opted for a guided tour of the Cordillera; a 4day trek around a chunk of mountains, including: A cook, A guide, Donkeys to carry our crap, tents/sleeping bags/insulating mattresses/etc, 2 high mountain passes and many many hours of walking. Right on. I signed myself up, headed home, slept unsoundly, and waited for morning.

The Santa Cruz Trek

Day 1:
I woke up to the sound of Daniel getting ready for his 'late' 6am trek. I was supposed to have been in a bus by now. What the fuck?! Where is my wake-up call?! A knock on the open door and a head sticks its way in. Chrrris? Are you awake? Goddamn South American timing.
I sprint to the meeting spot and dive into the colectivo that had already collected the rest of the group. I apologise in between wheezing breaths, in halting Spanish. I sound like I'm having a stroke. I sit in the middle, behind aging Europeans, and in front of spry Israeli backpackers. We all trade names and languages, and settle on a communal understanging of Span-glish in which we communicate for the rest of the trip. After feeling comfortable with each other's personalities, we get comfortable with each others shoulders, and doze restlessly as the colectivo jerks its way up the mountains.
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We come down the other side of the first pass in a high altitude valley with a smattering of houses they call a village. We don our gear, load up the donkeys and hit the trail. The walking is easy, and I race ahead with the 50year old French couple, who strangely cope with the altitude better than the 21year old Israelis. The valley is mossy and damp, and the houses get further spaced the deeper and higher we climb. Soon its only a couple daring cows and donkeys who chew the boggy grass of the upper quebrada, and a handful of houses that brace themselves againt the constant presence of foggy cloud. The Misty Mountains indeed. We share our lunch with the remaining Quechua speaking children, who unabashedly approach us with snotty noses asking for chocolate and sweets.
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After 5 hours of easy strolling, we make it to the first campsite under the looming peaks of Paria. Our donkey driver is there with camp already set up, and the kettle boiled for tea (THIS is camping), and we chat in Span-glish before eating our 2 course meal and settling in for a rough night's sleep.
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Day 2:

We awoke stiff, cold and upset that the sky remained as gray as we left it. The donkey driver rushed us out of bed with calls for Desayuno! (breakfast), and we made ourselves presentable for our secnd day up the mountain pass.
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This was where things were made to get hard... apparently. I strolled happily on, admiring the surroundings and feeling alive and refreshed. Then I would turn around and find I was alone on the mountain. Everyone was lagging behind gasping the thin air and stumbling from lack of oxygen. Although I had never been bad with altitude, I had just realised that almost a month jumping up and down from 0 to 3000 regularly had immunised me to the effects of the mountains. I felt like superman and watched scornfully down the slopes at the human race clambering up the hillside. This undeserved arrogance lasted the rest of the trip, as I left my group in the dust to hike alone, which was wonderful. Alone with the sounds of glaciers creaking, and the smell of fresh crisp air was like a balm to my tired soul. I overtook other hikers and made it to the top of Punta Union pass (alt: 4,750) an hour and a half ahead of my own group.

I climbed the last bit almost at a run, feeling the strain on my chest but excited to summit this massive piece of rock. The pass is about 4 people wide, and as you come through the vista is incredible. On either side the valley spreads out with snowcapped peaks, seemingly so close that you are fooled into believing that if you could just stretch out your hands a tiny bit more, your fingers could scrape off the compacted snow. The valley drops down sharply amidst the granite slopes and its dark moss green strip is dotted with glasslike, turquoise glacier lakes. Its stunning. Spectacular. Picturesque....so I whip out my camera and press 'On'. It ceases to function. It has given out completely at this altitude. I almost cry. I try all the MacGyvering tricks I know with no success. I try to Chewbacca it into working order (banging it against a rock) with no success. I scream with equal Wookie rage. Whatever. The clouds are coming in to ruin the picture anyway, I console myself. And they do. And they are not pleased. And it begins to snow. And I shiver for 30 minutes more while I wait for my group to reach the pass and head down the slippery slopes to the verdant valley beneath for Day 2 of camping.
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The camera begins to work as we descend, much to my relief, and by the time we make it to camp, the snow has passed, the cows are back on their feeding circuit of moss, and tea is ready to warm our bodies and spirits. The French couple passes out sleeping pills for those that need (God knows I don't), and we retire again at the early hour of 9 for a long nights's sleep.

Day 3 (And 'Day 4'):

We have realised by this point that the guides have no sense of time. Either that, or as the French point out, they have lied to us to convince us to pay for a 4 day tour when 3 is perfectly fine. The Israelis opt to do the 3, and head the '9 hour' trek down the Santa Cruz valley to the village at the mouth. Day 2 was meant t be 8 and we made it in 6 (I could have done it in 5 with my newly discovered Mountain Man abilities), so we take this 9 hour threat very, very lightly. I argue with the guide to do both the hike up to the Mirador (apparently 2 hours) and THEN join the slow Israelis down to the village. I dont want to be stuck at camp at 1 in the afternoon and twiddle my thumbs for 8 hours before bed. He begrugedly accepts, and we set off for Our last day of the stunning Santa Cruz hike.
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The weather is fantastic today, something we all appreciate. I join the Europeans to the mirador, where we will have a 360 view of the mountains of the valley. We do. Its fantastic. Pictures are useless here, despite the fact that I took alot with my freshly working camera. (also, 2 hours my ass... it took 20 minutes to get up, and 15 to get down. My GOD! the Peruvians have NO concept of time)
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I bid farewell to the Germans and the French in our shared Spanglish, and set off joggin down the track. "Aha. Look at 'eem. A troo Tobagonian runnurrr" waves the French couple, adamant about the fact that Tobago is where we breed our athletes, and assuming that I am one of them.
I reach the valley bottom and begin my long, beautiful solitary walk back to the village, overtaking the Israelis almost immediately, and clicking away at the beautiful scenery, while dogdging fresh lumps of cow/horse/donkey poo along the way. (See Photo Gallery for more)
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The hike, as anticipated, was much shorter than 9 hours, and I reached Cashapampa with enough time to have a cold beer with the locals and chat about the difference between sheep and llama wool, before my Israeli companions pantingly made it down to the mouth of the valley.
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4 hours, and 2 colectivo death-drives along the roots of the Cordillera and we were back in Huaraz, with the dreams of hot showers and soft beds. To the hostel we went, and slept like the dead.

Return to Lima

I have taken my extra day here in Huaraz like I take all my extra days: eating well, reading lots, drinking some, and doing nothing. Its wonderful.
I head back to Lima on a luxury bus (barely luxury...but worth the extra 8US for my leg room), and there trade in my serious female travelling buddy for a pair of very silly Scottish lads, whom I expect to travel back south for a week of laughs. Along with my week in Huaraz, I expect this to help cleanse the cobwebby feelings of post-Machu Picchu and to put me excitedly onto the second half of my trip: northwards to Colombia.

I have broken my rule against too many pictures in blogs this time as revenge against my camera for failing half-way. I hope its not too distracting a post and I think it will be a long time till the next one, so maybe the large amount of pictures will be a good distraction till next time.

Ciao for now!

Posted by 4ccamacho 16:40 Comments (0)

"Are You Incan what I'm Incan..."

... I say with a look of deep contemplation, gazing out over the gorge.
"What?" says Alyssa. After a moment of both catching her breath and catching the joke, "Oh wow, Chris. That was awful."
I think I see the hint of a smile flash across the faces of the Swedes though.

"C'mon. Let's see who can get a rock all the way to the river."
We all pick up stones and launch them, pathetically, into the valley, leaning over the edge to watch them plummet 300m down to the bottom. We are all frightened to lose our balance and thus our lives, so no one gives it their all, and ultimately, no one manages to reach the river. They bounce down the sides of the cliff until we can't see or hear them anymore.
"God! We all throw like a bunch of girls," I say. This is offensive only to me, the sole guy in our 5 person group, and this time, I am almost positive I see a smirk.

We dust our hands off inefficiently on our dirty pants and take one last glance back at the 700 year old Inca trail we've just hiked into the steep sided canyon of the Sacred Valley. 2 more days of this and we'll reach Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.
"Right then," I grunt, throwing my backpack over my shoulders, "Let's rock."
Alyssa just shakes her head and sighs.
"Aha. That was funny!" laughs one of the Swedes.

Third time's a charm.

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Lago Titicaca

After scratching the little red spots on her legs until they bled, Alyssa looked up and heaved a sigh of relief. The plane had finally landed on the dirt track of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, where we were waiting to leave the Amazon to head off to begin our Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Wednesday the 12th of May... and we needed to be in Lima by the 23rd for the latest. It was time to begin our mad race across the former Incan Empire.

The flight back to La Paz was as stunning as the flight down, and we managed to catch our first glimpse of the flat blue patch of the altiplano that was Lake Titicaca, one of the world's highest navigable lakes, and the birthplance of the Inca Gods.

We got into La Paz and hurried downhill (thankfully) panting while we re-adjusted to the high altitude, hopped into a colectivo (maxi-taxi) that was headed up to the Lake and took off. Thanks to being stuck in Rurre because of the strike, we were behind schedule, so it was imperative to rush.

After riding 1 colectivo, 1 cargo barge, and 1 trunk of a station wagon, we reached Copacabana, a small town on the edge of the Lake, having raced from Jungle to Titicaca in under a day. It was impressive. (the timing and the lake itself)

We sat down in a cafe on the beach and watched the sun set over the reed boats pulling into mossy jetties. I whipped out the Bible and Gloria and began planning.
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Sketching a makeshift calendar on the back pages, we counted off our days, averaged out times for buses and plotted sights we wanted to see. It was going to be a tight fit. We had to do the whole of Isla del Sol (The island in the middle of the Lake where the Inca Gods were born), in one day, PLUS catch an overnight to Cusco, Peru.
"Righto," I said, "Let's eat, sleep, and buy the first tickets for tomorrow's boat. The pace-race is on!"
So thats what we did.

We got onto the first boat, leaving at 8, and made it to the Isla del Sol for 10.
It was warm and sunny, the Lake was beautiful and cool... and the ruins were... well... disappointing. Granted the pre-Incan civilsation that lived there was, well, PRE-Incan. We still thought that there would be more to see than a Sacred Rock that is supposed to look like a puma roaring (which gives Titicaca its name in Quechua Titi-Lion, Caca-Rock) and a Stone altar from which the Gods birthed the first Incan leaders.
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We set sail from Isla while the sun was low, and reached Copacabana by sunset. We took our sweaty selves straight to the bus terminal (a corner store on the plaza), and set off for Cusco with what felt like a high-school reunion of travellers we had met along the way from BsAs to Bolivia.

The Peruvian border control was easy. The guy asked me whether I needed a Visa, and how long I was supposed to stay for.
No I didn't, and I think 60 days?
He shrugs and stamps me in. Peruvians clearly just don't care. I bid farewell to my Bolivianos, stocked up on Soles (Peruvian currency) and headed into the cultural heart of Peru.

Cusco

We arrived in Cusco at 5 in the morning, bleary eyed and reeking of bus (there is a peculiar aroma that develops in buses when they are full of travellers who rush from 9km hikes straight to overnight trips in sealed tin cans). We were accosted by the regular medely of locals handing out pamphlets to their hostels. "Agua caliente! Matrimonial? Only 30 Soles!" etc etc. We foudn the first cheap place we could that would put us up that late/early in the morning and crashed... hard.

When we eventually did wake up and clean up, we explored the ancient city of Cusco. Some interesting facts about Cusco: It was originally founded as the Incan capital; it's shaped like a Puma (all major Incan cities are shaped like something...Machu Pichhu is shaped like a Condor, for example); it suffered several horrific earthquakes that leveled the later colonial buildings, leaving the Incan ones standing (they developed earthquake proof engineering early on); The colonial buildings that were spared (the Churches) are just magnificently ornate--easily comparable to those in Europe. Easily.
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We patrolled the cobblestoned streets amidst the churches and the plazas, remarking about how clean and pretty a city it was (easily the nicest so far), and uncomfortably rubbing shoulders with the massive quantity of other tourist that were milling around. Strangely, after spending so long travelling with backpackers, the sight of a tour group of 20, 50+year old Americans with their straw hats, straw accents, and socks/sandals combo was more of a culture shock than I've had being in the whole of South America. We survived to book a trek to Machu Picchu two days later, through the jungles of the lower Urubamba (the river that cuts through the Sacred Valley and winds its way around Machu Picchu), smoked some Arabic hookah in a French restaurant run by Peruvian locals, and packed it in for another good night sleep.

The Sacred Valley

Deciding that Machu Picchu wasn't enough of an Incan education, we decided to spend two days hitchhking through the Sacred Valley (a gorge along the Urubamba river that was home to dozens of Incan towns/forts/cities/etc). The trip was a great success.

Some highlights: Alyssa's first, mega-excited, successful attempt at hitchiking; Playing in Moray, a former Incan Agricultural Laboratory; Best pizza of all time after a day without food (maybe a biased opinion); almost dying while climbing the ruins of Pisaq from only the second asthma attack of my life; etc.

Our route via pictures:
Chinchero: Nothing special, but as it was our first, we oooh-ed and aah-ed a lot.
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Moray: the most interesting of the bunch. Giant pits terraced to allow for different soil, water, and seed experimentation with agriculture. Also, it looks really cool.
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Ollantaytambo: Built in the shape of a mother and baby llama (which I couldnt see given its been built on since the 1200s...) and home of another sacred rock (lots of Sacred Rocks)
Pisac: High mountain fortress. Beautiful views we saw going the wrong way (Option 1: drive up, hike down, or Option 2: Hike up drive down.... we didn't know about Option 1, so we didthe climb up and almost blew my lungs out)
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Saqsaywaman: The head of the Puma of Cusco, stripped down to build the cathedrals of the Spanish invaders, so that only the foundation rocks remain (These mofos are GIGANTIC!)

We reached back to Cusco just in time for our briefing from our Inca-Jungle tour to M.P. This is where things went wrong. We waited for an hour for the guide/group to show up, adn they never did. Remembering our difficulties in the jungles of Bolivia, we were adamant to have a guide that was not only worthwhile, but actually existed.
This is where Alyssa whipped out the most vicious North American indignation in the most beautiful South American spanish I had ever heard come out her mouth. Police were called, threats were issued, grown men were made to cry. I sat there, occasionally adding a "Si!" to the mix, but otherwise stunned to silence. In the end, our money was returned, we ran across the street and booked with another agency, and went to get drinks to celebrate our victory over the corruption of the Peruvian tourist trade.

The Inka-Jungle trek

Day 1: 2 Swedes, an Americans, a Trini, and a Brazillian meet in a gas station atop Cusco at 7AM. (sounds like the beginning of a bad joke). We climb up the mountain passes of the Andes in a little collectivo, moaning about the lack of oxygen, and more importantly, coffee. When we feel sufficiently high (4500M) we jump out and don our biking gear and hop atop our rented mountain bikes. Downhill biking is day 1. I pop in my iPod headphones, choose an appropriate playlist I had made the night before and followed the train of bicycles lazily down the mountain to the jungles below.
Unlike the Death Road in Bolivia, this one was paved the whole way and a pleasure to ride. After the break neck pace of the previous couple days, feeling like my mind and body were wearing down with over-saturation, 3 hours of wind in the face, glaciers in the background, riding was exactly what I needed. 3 hours later we dropped our bikes in another gas station, jumped into a raft and went whitewater rafting for an hour... just to make sure that we really got the point that day one was all about going with the flow. Gravity was our boss and that was the way we all liked it.
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Day 2: Things changed pretty quickly. We had reached the nadir of our trip. It was ALL uphill from here. Day 2 was 7 hours of scaling precarious Incan trails along the gorge of the Sacred Valley. We traipsed through jungles of coca cocoa, and coffee plantations, arriving bug-bitten and exhausted at a small town precariously perched atop the buried mudslide of a former town (The Sacred Valley has massive landslides every 10 years of so--El Niño. For example, from January-April this year, Machu Picchu was closed due to landslides).
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Day 3: As if we didn't have enough of walking (the girls were wailing about sore ankles by this point), we spent the third day walking along the Urubamba river, uphill, to Machu Picchu Pueblo. The walk was pretty, along the old train tracks of the village, but when afternoon came and the sun set, we were all overjoyed to see the welcome sign under the looming mountain of Machu Picchu. We mingled with the other tourists who had walked the 3day trail, or who had taken the more confortable route of cushioned train over 5 for 1 drinks. After a couple rounds, the tiredness overran the adrenaline of Machu Picchu and we knocked out, after setting the alarm for 3AM.
(Note: Picchu means mountain in Quechua. The lost city's true name is unknown, but it is built on Machu Pichhu--Old Mountain--so from that it bears its current name)
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Day 4: 3AM we woke up like it was Christmas. We set off to the base of the mountain and found in the dark the ancient Incan-built staircase up the mountain. ALong with the other keen trekkers who wanted a view of the lost city at sunrise, we slugged upwards for an hour, piercing through the clouds to reach the entrance to the site while the light was now breaking.
We got out tickets for WaynaPicchu (The mountain in the backgrund of all the pictures, that only 200 people a day are allowed to climb) and gleefully entered the park.
There are few things like turning the corner along a cliff on a mountain and seeing Machu Picchu open up before you. It was spectacular. The morning mist covered the city in a quiet sleep, and the terraced grasslands were moist with dew. Then as the vista opened up and we breathed in the cool air, the sun rose over the mountains to hit the city built in his honour. The mist lifted, the stones began to warm and everyone shut up... and drank it in.
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Soon the spell was broken by our tour guide showing up, and he began to lead us through the ruins, amazing the Brazilian engineer amoung us by explaining the Incan techniques for earthquake-proof building (the same techniques, she told me, were only implemented in the last 50 years by contemporary builders), or shocking the amateur astronomers amung us with the precision of the buildings in reference to the solstices.
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No one knows what Machu Picchu really is, or what it really was. It was lost to record after the spanish conquest of the Incas in the 1500's, and only rediscovered by an American archeologist in the 30's. It is theorised to be a spiritual retreat for the nobility; a cultural nerve centre for learning (Incan University); a fortified citadel of last recourse; the kings summer home; etc, etc. Regardless as to its actual purpose, it is a true Wonder fo the World. It is magnificently situated in the middle of the mountains and has a feeling of... depth... that is rare outside its walls. (Even with the 20, 50+year old sandaled Americans running around with their straw hats and straw accents).

We mulled around the ruins for a while before climbing WaynaPicchu (Young Mountain), to catch a glimpse of the city from above to see if it really IS shaped like a condor. (You be the judge... i believe this one).
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Then for the remainder of the day we lay in the grass on the terraces, watching the sun move across his valley lighting up his city.
The clouds brewed, the rain came, and we left content and fulfilled.
After soaking in some hot springs in the small village at the base, we boarded a train back to Cusco, glanced back at the mountain, re-dressed in her satin cloud nightgown, and nodded off to a well deserved sleep.

Onwards to Lima!

After spending one last day (and one epic night) roaming the streets of Cusco, Alyssa and I boarded a 22hour bus, hungover as shit, to Lima.
22 hours upping and downing over the Andes in a Peruvian bus is awful. If you ever have the chance to do it, don't. We arrived in Lima with our edges frayed. A night of sleep later and here I am. Made it. The 24th of May. The wild ride from Rurrenabaque to Lima in 11 days a success.
My body is drained, and my mind is fragile, so I am heading northwards for a while to spend some time 'relaxing' in the natural wonder of this country, climbing what the Bible refers to as "one of the most spectacular areas on earth": The Cordillera Blanca... the world's highest mountain range (outside the Himalayas) with 22 peaks over 5000m.
I will let you know if the Bible got it right.

All in all, my trip through the Incan Empire was a fantastic experience. Yes, Machu Picchu is what you think it is. It IS a fantastic place, and deservedly one of the new Wonders of the World. Go see it.

Thats all for now folks.
Until next time... enjoy the pictures. (I attached quite a few to the Photo Gallery this time)
xx

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Posted by 4ccamacho 14:18 Comments (1)

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