So this post is QUITE overdue, seeing as it’s now February and I left for this trip exactly 2 months ago…yikes. Better late than never though, right? Alright, December 7th-December 21st Peruvian and Bolivian blog post recap: GO.
*Disclaimer: my English writing and speaking skills have noticeably deterriorated, so if you catch stupid grammar/spelling mistakes that I wouldn’t have been caught dead committing before I came, ¡perdóname!
We left early morning on Friday, December 7th. Our flight was so early that Wayne’s Chilena girlfriend’s family said we could all stay the night there, and that her dad would bring us to the airport at 5am. It definitely pays to have connections. We flew from Santiago to Lima, Peru, and had a connection to Cusco. When we landed, we met Eyner, the young man who I’d organized to come pick us up, and became friends right away. He’s studying economics at a local university and proved to be the best relationship we’d make during our trip. We checked into our hostel and relaxed for a bit. Cusqueños are incredibly hospitable and very welcoming. A woman who works at the hostel chatted with us for a bit and taught us a few words in Quechua (that we forgot pretty quickly). That night, Fidel, Wayne, and I went out looking for dinner and passed by a place that looked SUPER fancy and expensive, until we saw the menu posted outside. We were shocked to see that a plate of pasta that was incredibly delicious, fantastic service, and a beautiful restaraunt costed us only 22 soles each, which is about $8 USD. Throughout our trip, we got a bit of a rude awakening realizing that not all of Latin America has such “solid” (this is debatable) economies as Chile. Although Chile has an incredibly high poverty rate, we’re definitely spoiled living in Santiago and don’t see much of this side of the society. It made me sad to think that an $8 plate of food would warrant such incredible service and fine china in Cusco, because you’d pay about $25 USD for that kind of dinner in the States. An $8 plate of food is out of reach for the great majority of Cusqueños, and it was obvious they catered to tourists. All of Cusco is that way. We had a great time during that dinner, naming ourselves after the Seven Dwarves, and coming up with our group name: Huevos Rancheros. Fidel spit his juice out all over the table from laughing when I was trying to pour more water in my glass and ended up flooding my pasta dish. Weird memories.
After dinner, we wanted to check out the club scene in Cusco and had the GREATEST NIGHT EVER. I fit right in with the boys because we’re all so silly and love goofy dancing. We went to a club where everyone was showing off and dancing like they really meant it, and meanwhile we derped all over that dance floor and got a wide range of weird looks. We had to leave suddenly though, after Fidel had tried to dip Wayne and dropped him on a girl dancing. Poor girl, but it was HILARIOUS.
Eyner became our personal tour guide all around Cusco and the surrounding areas. He took us out for two days to show us the long list of Incan ruins inside and outside of the city. We did ALOT of driving. First, we went to the top of a big hill to get a view of the city. Then we were on our own for a few hours while he had a class, and it DUMPED on us. The entire city flooded. We walked through a crazy meat market and I almost died from the smell and how graphic it was. There were entire cow/horse/pig snouts, feet, huge slabs of bloody meat dangling, snake wine (with the snakes in there), and cuy, which are small guinea pigs and a staple in the Peruvian diet. Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I don’t know if I would’ve been brave enough to try the cuy. It comes completely intact. After lunch, Eyner took us to Koricancha, whihc is an old Incan temple the Catholics built their cathedral on top of to hide it, after the Spanish arrived. Let me tell you, although it’s over 500 years old, the Inka’s construction holds up WAY better than that of the Spanish. The Incas had a special method of construction: they split and cut granite in perfectly smooth blocks, and to build walls, they stacked these extremely heavy blocks on top of each other. Get this: THEY NEVER USED ANY SORT OF CEMENT OR GLUE OR ANYTHING. The even crazier thing was that they cut the stones so incredibly perfectly, and they were so flush together, that you cannot even stick a needle in between the cracks. They made things so perfect so they’d withhold seismic activity and have continued to stand after 500 years of earthquakes, weathering from rain, Spanish conquests, etc. They even built all of their walls at a slight angle, because they understood how it would hold better during earthquakes. One Inca would spend months shaping just one block (around 300 tons, 28 ft tall) and then as a team, they would lift them into place, and by trial and error of seeing how each block fit into the jigsaw wall, they would lower it and reshape it until perfection. WHAT. Looking at the Spanish’s architechture, it is quite obvious who’s is of better quality and who was actually more intelligent. So who conquested who, again?
We saw a whole slew of other ruins, called Sachsaywaman (big ol’ field and HUGE walls used for winter solstice celebrations/sacrifices), Tambomachay (a traveler’s resting place where they would wash their spirit in the water of a natural fountain before continuing to their holy capital), and Q’enqo (place of sacrificing and mummification). I’ll spare you the pages upon pages of details, but you should DEFINITELY look it up for yourself. There are a TON of crazy stories behind these places with incredible details that I can’t wrap my head around, like a tunnel that leads from Sachsaywaman that goes all the way to Koricancha (a VERY long way), and two young men, probably in their 20’s, entered this pitch black tunnel, walked for 8 days, and only one exited. He left with a huge beard and looked like he was 80 years old. He didn’t know what had happened to his friend and the Spanish priest who had to move a stone to get him out of the tunnel couldn’t explain it either. CRAZY INCA MAGIC.
I would also like to point out that THE INCA EMPIRE LASTED ONLY 90 YEARS AND WAS STILL THE BIGGEST EMPIRE IN PRECOLOMBIAN AMERICA. Okay but really, how the hell did they manage to accomplish all of that in 90 years?
Anyway, day 2 of our trip with Eyner was spent traveling through the Sacred Valley, which is also called Pisaq. It’s beautiful and it’s covered by coca leaf and corn fields. It was definitely the most incredible drive I’ve ever experienced. We hiked around the Valley and saw a few ruins, including the Temple of the Sun. We ran down the main hill until we got to the town of Pisaq and did a little bit of shopping. Then, we drove out to Ollantaytambo which was used as the final gateway and fortress before Machu Picchu (even though it was still another 32 miles). It was also used for astronomical observations and dry food storage. It’s now used as the train port for tourists wanting to get into MP quickly in a 30 minute train ride. Ollantaytambo was the last ruin the Incas were working on before the Spanish arrived, and you can tell, because there are tons of “piedras cansadas” (resting rocks) scattered all over the ruin. It was a beautiful monument, and would’ve been even more incredible, if not for the Spanish. Good job, Fransisco Pizarro. We visited Moras Moray, which kind of looks like an alien crop circle, but was actually the Inca’s agricultural system. That was one of my favorite ruins. On our way back to Cusco, we stopped at the Salineras, which are massive salt pans in which the Incas mined the salt from thermal springs. Then, we saw THE MOST INCREDIBLE DOUBLE RAINBOW, and what’s more, WE SAW THE END OF THE RAINBOW. We couldn’t believe our eyes, and our cameras didn’t even come close to capturing their staggering beauty, but it happened. Of course we took our fair share of silly photos, and you should’ve seen how absolutely nuts those boys went over the rainbows.
The next day, we started our 4 day, 3 night, and 32 mile trek through the Andes mountains to Machu Picchu at an 8,000 foot elevation (which you’d think I’d be used to, living in Flagstaff at 7,000 feet). We trekked through rain, fog, more rain, and lots more rain. I ended up getting altitude sickness, despite the coca leaves I chewed and the coca tea I was constantly drinking when we were at camp, and screwed up my left knee. I also dealt with a mean cold as a result from the cold and wet the rain. All gripes and whining aside, I had an incredible time. We were a group of 12: myself and the 3 boys, a Brazilian man, a Swedish couple, 4 young Aussies, and our guide, David. The first day we hiked 6 miles, which was mainly flatland. We were lucky to start of great, sunny weather, but apparently someone forgot to knock on wood because we got DUMPED on the next three days. I was immediately taken aback by how “fancy” things were for a backpacking trip. Each company hires porters, or what I think would be a more appropriate name for how they’re treated, slaves, so they packed in all of the food, gear, and such, with the exception of our personal belongings, sleeping bags, and mats. I spent a lot of time talking with David, our native Cusqueño guide about the porter system and how unjust the system is. These men were hiking with probably 60-80 pounds of gear on their backs in sacks with absolutely no support. They also hiked, or rather I should say ran, the trail in sandals. As I mentioned earlier, this trip has been a huge sight into the injustices in South America, and how privilege is a much more obvious slapping-you-in-the-face issue here. These men basically work on tips, and make about $100 USD for backbreaking labor for the 4 days. This work is so hard they can only do it for about 10 years before their bodies quit on them. Most porters are in their 30’s, but I met incredible man who was in his late 50’s and working as a porter. They run the trail each day to get it done in less than half the time it takes the gringos, so they can set up camp, (all of the tents, cooking tent, and dining tent, complete with table cloths) for it all to be ready by the time we arrived. Each day we woke up around 6am, which meant they were up at 5 to start breakfast and to bring each of us a morning cup of tea to our tent. I have more respect for those porters than anyone, and felt more comfortable conversing with each of them rather than my fellow trekkers each evening. I could tell that wasn’t something they were used to, and it took a day or so for them to get accustomed to the idea of talking and befriending one of the people they’re supposed to be serving. We sang, talked, and laughed, and I experienced some of the most incredible humility and genuine kindness I have ever come across. Day 2, we hiked about 8 miles, and it was all uphill. I hiked slower than most everybody in my group and spent some good alone time hiking with my thoughts in the amazing jungle. There are about 50 companies who trek the Inka Trail, at a 500 maximum capacity each day (it is always full), so I certainly wasn’t alone. I actually met a girl also from Phoenix who went to Xavier, and with whom I share mutual friends. Small world! The rest of the day, I enjoyed the company of my good friend Fidel, and we shared some great conversation. Just as we made it up to Dead Woman’s Pass (named so because apparently a handful of women have kicked the bucket at the top), it began to rain. We still had about an hour’s worth of descent before we made it to camp, and we basically slid down the side of the mountain that quickly became a rushing river. We had no choice but to continue, though risk of seriously hurting ourselves was frighteningly high. Each of us only slipped and fell once, which is an amazing feat. This is starting to sound like a bad drama tv program, and I swear I’m not exaggerating. Day 3 was a day of 9.5 miles of pure downhill, which I was looking forward to, until the constant impact started wearing on my knees. We descended the mountain for 6 hours in the rain, convinced the trail would never end. In the last hour, when I was past the point of exhaustion and unbearable pain from my knee, I had the strangest out of body experience. I was present, but not at the same time. I felt like my spirit was walking beside my physical body, and my mind went to another planet, and I had the most intensely immaginative thoughts. When I spoke, I swore I was listening to someone else. Although I’ve never experienced narcotics, that is exactly how I imagine being on a crazy drug trip would feel. I don’t understand it either. Our last day began at 4am. By this time, I had an awesome combination of shakes and a nausious somach from the altitudesickness and my cold, and a throbbing knee. We only had 3 miles to go on the last day, but it was raining again and we were exhausted by this point. When we finally got to the Sun Gate, which is supposed to be the “classic Machu Picchu photo” and the best sight of the sanctuary, all we could see was a thick blanket of fog. We had about another mile until we were actually there, and fortunately we were able to see it better. Everyone was already down at the bottom, huddling for warmth under the poor excuse for a ramada. David was supposed to give us a two hour tour of the monument, but decided to shorten it to a very cold, windy, and miserable 45 minutes. We walked around Machu Picchu, seeing all of the main rooms where the priests stayed, prayed, where crops were grown (Machu Picchu is 70% agricultural), and lots of other fascinating places that we had a very hard time focusing our minds on. We quickly snapped our “we made it!” photos, and called it a day. At first I was disappointed I didn’t get the breathtaking and classic MP photo, with unimaginably blue skies, the greenest grass you’ve ever seen, and the cutest llamas frolicking in the background. Then, I realized (warning: cliché moment) that it really was about the journey rather than the destination. I am different after that trek. This was by far the most physically demanding 4 days of my life, and although my body was screaming at me the majority of the trek, I had the time of my life. I am thankful a million times over for this experience.
We had about 6 hours before our train departed, so we spent it relaxing in a cozy restaraunt, drying our boots out in the fireplace, eating pizzas, and resting our tired bodies. The Aussies and the Swedish enjoyed enough alcohol to sustain a small army, but I stuck to my water and pain killers. We enjoyed great conversation and silly (very drunken) humor. It was great to see everyone relaxed and comfortable, and to finally get to know them. We finally borded the train, and I had a conversation with two of the Aussies about their politics, social programs, etc on what felt like the quickest 30 minutes of my life. As soon as we got in the van back to Cusco, we all passed out for the hour-long ride back to the city.
The next few days were a whirlwind of dealing with wet, smelly clothes, trying to get bus tickets, traveling, crossing borders, dealing with a very ill Brielle, and sightseeing. Eyner helped us the next afternoon zip off to Puno, Peru on the last bus possible. We were sad to say “hasta luego” because he’d become such an incredible friend. We are not forgetting our promise. We made it into Puno in the evening, had supper, and called it a day. Saturday, we did an early tour of las Islas Flotantes (Floating Islands) on the famous Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca holds the title of being the largest lake in South America, as well as at the highest elevation of all the lakes on the planet at 12,000 feet. We took a boat tour of the islands called Urus, which is a clump of about 44 floating islands, and a total of around 2,000 inhabitants. Each individual island houses about 3 families and each elects their own president. We took a tour of one of the islands and they showed us how they construct their islands (LOTS of layered reeds), showed us some of their traditional trading practices, and their individual homes where they lead a very modest life. They make their livelihood on tourism and depend on us buying their beautiful handwoven tapestries and toy boats and such woven out of reeds. The people were incredible, and I was thankful for the beautiful weather (CHECK OUT THE SKY IN THESE PHOTOS. UNBELIEVABLE!). That afternoon, we hopped on a bus to Copacabana, Bolivia and things got crazy. Because the United States makes it excrutiatingly difficult for people to travel there, many other countries make it difficult for US citizens to enter their countries, too. We encountered the essence of this leaving Peru and entering Bolivia. I experienced, for the first time in my life, blatant racial discrimination. Sure, in South Africa I was in the minority being a white person, and the same visiting Mexican border towns, but never have I been made to feel ashamed and dirty based on the color of my skin. I’ve felt discrimination before for being young, for being a woman, but never for being white. I have always been one to empathize with minority populations, and of course I am not going to say now I “get” their experience after only 30 minutes of discomfort when they experience a lifetime and beyond of it, but I have a newfound and much deeper understanding and appreciation for the minority experience. Shannon and I got through the Peruvian border just fine, but Wayne encountered problems when the border patrol discovered he didn’t have a stamp in his passport saying he entered the country (he’d used his Chilean ID). Fidel also had difficulties because he’d entered with his US passport, and was trying to leave with his Mexican one, to try to avoid the Bolivian reciprocity (entrance) fee. Long story short, the bus driver was an asshole and although we were all (everyone on the bus) pleading desperately for him to stop and wait 5 more minutes, or at least let Shannon and I off of the bus, he ignored us, telling me that unless I wanted to pay for everyone who had a connection to catch to buy a new ticket, we couldn’t wait. We left Wayne and Fidel at the border without an explanation. We ended up driving the 10 minutes into town, dropping our stuff off at the hotel, finding an ATM to take out Bolivianos, grabbing a taxi to take us to the border patrol, only to find out we had JUST missed them by 5 minutes; they’d already made it back to town. They told us that they had to pay off the Peruvian police to let them out of the country (around $150 USD), and then Wayne had to pay another $140 USD to enter Bolivia. They didn’t have enough cash for Wayne to enter after having given it all to the corrupt police who pocketed it, so they grabbed a taxi into town, found an ATM, went back to the border, only to discover Wayne hadn’t taken out enough. They left Wayne’s passport with them and the officers let him go, because they were closing, with the promise of returning to pay them and pick up his passport in the morning. I was already in bad shape from being sick, and then worrying about the boys and runing around for 45 minutes trying to rescue them at the border didn’t help anything. We made a consecutive decision to cancel our plans to go to southern Bolivia to see the salt plains and Sucree, one because I was too ill to keep moving without giving my body any chance to recouperate, and two, Wayne had basically used up his money with the border fiasco. We spent three days in Copacabana, relaxing and resting. It definitely helped, but I was disappointed to be holding the group back and that we weren’t going to get to see everything we’d set out to. We finally left Copacabana and headed to La Paz, one of the two capitals of Bolivia with a population of 2.5 million residents within city limits. We did some sightseeing, shopping, and exploring with the two days we had there. On our last full day of the trip, we took a trip out to Tiwanaku, which is Bolivia’s Machu Picchu and big brother, boasting a history of inhabitants as early as 1500 BC, although the main periods of the empire began in 300 AD and lasted 700 years. Unfortunately, the combination of the Spanish doing more damage to the Tiwanaku ruins than they did to those of the Inca, and with it being so much older, not very much is left. They had similar architechtural techniques, though the Inca were slightly more advanced. Like the Inca, they lacked a written language (which is mind blowing to me). We spent the afternoon touring the Tiwanaku capital, had lunch, and headed back to La Paz. Bolivia has an even higher poverty rate than does Peru, and it shows. La Paz was much more overcrowded, dirty, and riddled with crime. My favorite part of Bolivia was that in the women’s traditional outfit, they wear tiny hats on their heads that serve absolutely no purpose of shading their face nor providing warmth. I have no information or facts about these hats other than that they were awesomely adorable. I wish I could’ve seen more of Bolivia, and in better health. Fortunately, my Bolivian tourist visa is good for 10 years, so I’ll definitely be going back before then.
We flew back early afternoon on the 21st, and after dealing with LAN being late for both of our flights, we finally made it back to Santiago. I enjoyed the adventure, but I was nearly kissing the ground to be back in my home base of Santiago when we landed at midnight. Gina was very happy to see that I’d survived, too, and greeted me with a ferocious kiss on both of my cheeks to prove it. I’d missed her, too.
Right, so if you’d made it through that 4,000 word count on my two week adventure, I commend you. This isn’t even comprehensive, haha. I kept a journal, too. Enjoy the photos!