27 May 2010

My Inca Trail

Cusco and Machu Pichu were the two main points of interest for me in Peru, and I have experienced both. My Peruvian experience, however, started with Puno on Lago Titicaca.

I crossed the border and arrived in Puno late at night, expecting to spend only one night and day there. After a very cheap room, I enjoyed some fruit salad for breakfast and a naval museum; it is interesting really, because Lake Titicaca is large enough and straddles two countries, it has active navies for both Bolivia and Peru.

A short boat ride took me out on Lake Titicaca, and onto the floating islands Uros. While the indigenous tribe who lives on the islands has become a tourist destination, they have their roots in a society which subsisted entirely on fish, eggs, and that which they could grow. During my visit, I enjoyed their incredible views and started the process of purchasing all the souvenirs, etc. I need to represent 5 months of travel.

A night bus to Cusco followed, with a day of rest and planning for Machu Pichu. Cusco is incredible, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas (I believe), and it shows. The city itself is built on foundations of beautifully pieced together blocks, the roads are cobblestone, and the churches, markets, and archways all have that thick layer of oldness to them. Just outside, and actually everywhere in this region, is a couple of ruins which provided an interesting day trip during that day of planning; Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay were thus enjoyed.

The next day, My Inca Trail began. I chose to go to Machu Pichu guideless, by local buses, with some hiking, saving and allowing my own time schedules and exploration. The buses include a 7hr ride to Santa Maria, a 2 hour taxi to Santa Teresa and a different half hour taxi to the trail head, all traveling through high altitude rain forests and stopping for lunch and dinner along the way. The trail head actually consists of a cable car, or rather a single cable where a hanging car gets guided across with myself and backpack. A three and half hour hike later and I arrived at Aguas Calientes at 930pm, the staging point for Machu Pichu.

The first day in Aguas Calientes, I chose to rest with a visit to the museum and a freezing cold waterfall. I enjoyed both, but was a little cold during the latter. An early night led to an earlier morning, with a grueling uphill climb to start the day. It truly is a race, because only the first 200 people get a ticket for the Waynu Pichu mountain. I made it, and stood at the gate of the historical site of Machu Pichu.

The gates opened just before sunrise, and the mob spread out to find a locale to enjoy the coming warmth. The first thing I noticed was the incredible size; there were areas where I could enjoy with little to no interruption from the perhaps 2000 people who visitied the same day as me. I chose the pedestal at the center of the park, and got an incredible sunrise over the mountains to the east. I was a month short from the Solstice and shortest day of the year (remember, Southern Hemisphere), and the sun, pedestal, and carvings were almost aligned in the incredible way the Incas built their city so long ago.

A short nap on a precarious ledge later, and my time slot for Waynu Pichu was upon me. I made some friends with a brother/sister combination from India, and enjoyed the hike with them. It gave us the uninterrupted views of the park seen so often in pictures and postcards, as well as some neat caves to get stuck in (Incas were short).

I spent the late afternoon finishing my book (the science fiction thriller Dune, if you're wondering) and watching two female chess champions battle it out at one of the vistas. The same hike as that morning, but down followed with a very relaxing night. Another day of travel and I reached Cuzco once more, where I still am.

Since Machu Pichu, I have met up with a friend who began an apartment in Cuzco for one month. I enjoyed an incredible night of sleep in his new place and then a crazy night of dancing. I am now making plans to move on right now.

Somethings Interesting:

--Things people are not just selling, but have interrupted my stride or meal to try and sell: sunglasses (while wearing some), band aids, pens, tours, printed out pictures to fill in with colors, to take a picture with the person, drugs, soup, any article of clothing, massages, gum, shoeshines (while I wear sandals), and string bracelets.

--Machu Pichu is actually (about) 1500 meters lower in elevation than Cuzco.

--The hippie community San Blas represents the local draft dodgers who never left. I had a delicious vegetarian meal here.

20 May 2010

The Peace, Bolivia

After Uyuni, came La Paz, truly a city of extremes. Most of our time was spent recovering from the tiresome three day tour of the Salt Flats. There were, of course, some adventures around the city.

The most striking feature of the city, partly because of its location relative to our hostel (directly across the street) was the market. I have been impressed by markets before in Bolivia, the Sucre Market took up a four story building, even flooding into the streets surrounding. The market in La Paz, however, 5-6 square blocks. Enough to find anything you would need, but then get lost trying to get out. This market contained most of our adventures.

There was "tienditas" (small shops) of every greasy street food imaginable, handbags, earrings, pork, etc. Their was a street devoted to fish, one to fruit salads, another to electronics, even another to jeans. The most interesting street, however, was one called the Witches Market. Here one could purchase totems which improve fertility or cure illnesses, various herbs which can do the same, and of course, the lovely llama fetus. I still don't know how they get said fetuses, but they are put under the foundations of new houses in order to ensure good health and luck.

Various museums were enjoyed as well during our time in La Paz; I use "our" because I was still with the British Couple and Aussies. The first museum was just off the main plaza, in Cathedral San Francisco, and gave an account of religion in La Paz. The coolest part was the ability to get to the top of this magnificent cathedral, looking down on the market below. Another museum enjoyed by us Gringos was the Museum of Musical Instruments. Standard old artifacts (obviously music related), all behind glass. The real treat came at the end, where sample instruments were available for play, and play we did.

All these daytime adventures were surrounded by a couple of exciting nights in the city; drinking, dancing, and comparing countries occurred in force. After the last night, I awoke early to catch a bus to Copacabana, a town on Lake Titicaca and the last one before crossing into Peru. I hiked to the top of a hill overlooking both the town and the Lake and simply caught up on Journaling; at this point, my journal was still back in Santa Cruz. I am caught up now though.

After enjoying the sunset from atop my hill, I crossed into Peru.

Somethings Interesting;

--At one point, the monks of Cathedral San Francisco made fabulous wine.

--The main purchase from the Witches Market for us was some legal psychedelic tea. It is made from the San Pedro cactus, similar to Peyote. We indulged, used twice the suggested amount, and felt nothing.

--In our excitement to find said tea, we believed a woman who told us her potato-like roots were what we were looking for. She was later nowhere to be found, but we used the roots in a curry that was delicious.

--Two and half weeks left! I don't know what to feel.

15 May 2010

Otherwordly Uyuni

The area now known as Uyuni used to be a large bay of the Atlantic Ocean; the same geologic shift that created the Andes saw to the split. This, however, left a collection of incredible terrain including unending salt flats, large rock formations, hot springs, geysers, multicolored lakes, and flamingos. The geologic shift didn't exactly cause the flamingos, but they were a neat part of our adventure in Uyuni.

We arrived at night, with minimal adventures because of Bolivian water issues. After collecting our group together--two Aussies, a British Couple, a Dutch Girl, and a Californian, we took off the following morning. Our SUV also held our driver and our cook. Adventures were fast and furious on this three day tour of the largest salt flats in the world, with plenty of road trip games in between.

The cool (but not super cool) adventures included a railroad graveyard, a (small) series of caves, three separate but similar rock outcroppings, and the multicolored lakes. The railroad graveyard is a throwback to when Uyuni and Bolivia saw times of great prosperity; they are now rusting piles of scrap metal inviting exploration and climbing. Algal blooms caused the various colored lakes; two in red, one in pink, and one in green. The caves and rocks saw some excellent scrambling and climbing; one of the caves, too, held pre-Incan tombs with creepy skulls.

One of the super cool adventures was had out on the salt flats, but requires a little explanation of what the salt flats are. As the salt flats rose, their water supply was cut off allowing the water to evaporate over time. The result is a perfectly flat, white, barren landscape in every direction, messing with our senses. It felt like flying in the SUV as we zipped along at 70mph. During a hike on an island in the middle, our depth perception was tested. And finally, at sunset over the flats, colors changed every-which-way. This terrain is the main draw of the salt flat tour, and for obvious reason.

Another high point came morning of the last day. We awoke at 5am to get to some hot springs for sunrise. Our SUV got there first and we broke the surface on the naturally piping hot water. Sunrise came and went, giving beautiful coloration to the sky. Breakfast was served, allowing time for our suits to freeze rather than dry in the early morning cold. It was a great way to loosen up before beng cramped in the SUV for the 8 hour return journey to Uyuni, and then the overnight bus journey to La Paz, where I am now.

Between all this, we realized how lucky we were to be with friends we had made before the tour. Time between stops was spent testing movie trivia, discussing life stories and future plans, and plenty of road trip games. During the nights, we drank, hackey-sacked, and played cards. You meet amazing people while traveling, and get to do amazing things with them.

Somethings Interesting

--The salt has an average depth of 15 meters, and covers an area of 10,582 km. They have recently discovered an entire network of valleys, ridges, and mountains in the Salar, with variations on the order of millimeters.

--That second morning, I sat in hotsprings above 5000 meters. That is higher than any point in the Continental States.

--We were all under 25 and made up a rather hodgepodge collection of professions (all of which are hopefull at this point); professional musician, educational reformer, tourism operator, nutritionist, teacher, and oceanographer.

10 May 2010

Dinosaurs and Mines

The over night bus from Samaipata to Sucre was a little much. A combination of the altitude, the windy roads, and the chickens lining the overhead luggage holders kept us awake all night. We arrived, however, no worse for wear; I am now with a Dutch girl and an English couple.

Sucre is a pretty standard city. I started my adventures with dinosaur footprints found just outside of town. It was a pretty standard Museum, and then a viewing area for the uplifted footprints across the way. A siesta followed, with some hanging in the plaza for the afternoon; the pleasantness was broken by children trying to shine my sandals, women selling bits of string, and general beggars. I unloaded some of my currency from other countries (i.e. pesos, Guaranis, etc) on the children. Despite the altitude (about 9000 feet) I was able to get some excellent sleep that night.

The next day only saw some early morning market-going, a siesta, and some more fighting off panhandlers in the plaza. A nice view of the city was found for the sunset, and we met up with some Aussies to party in the night. The next morning, I fought off a hangover with a giant Chipotle sausage, alongside locals enjoying soup, etc. A bus ride followed to Potosi, the highest city in the world.

Potosi entire economy is based on a giant mining complex looking for lead, silver, and zinc, and is arguably the most dangerous in the world. The dust and other is supposed to kill miners in 15 years, if they survive the frequent cave-ins, fall-outs, runaway carts.

I took a tour of the mine, and it was truly something else. A combination of the dust, altitude, and heat made the scrambling, ducking, and crawling very difficult. An hour and a half later, and we were ready to leave; people spend up to 20 hours a day there. Outside, we got to blow some dynamite up, which was AWESOME. Don't worry though, I still have all my limbs.

Next is Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. I get on a bus in an hour.

Somethings Interesting:

--An estimated 8 million people have died in the Potosi mines.

--The area I am in now, with the highest city in the world, the dinosaur footprints, and the salt flats, used to be connected to the Atlantic Ocean. The creation of the Andies saw to the split.

--I thought it would be smart to slowly drink the water, to let myself become acclamated to the bacteria in Bolivian tap water. I was sadly mistaken, and am paying for it dearly now.

05 May 2010

Leaving Paraguay, Entering Bolivia

Filadelfia and Loma Plata were the last pieces of Paraguay for me before Bolivia, and were truly a surreal experience to have in South America. After leaving the small town of Puerto Casado, a place with only sporadic running water (6-8am, 5:30-9pm), we arrived in a bustling city filled with blond-haired, blue-eyed Germans. To make it even crazier, we ran into the only person we knew in the town, 2 minutes after getting off the bus in Loma Plata. This man became our tour guide for the city, and we enjoyed a few terere sessions with him.

The most interesting part about these areas is the social commune the members have formed. They are Mennonites displaced from various regions (primarily Canada for Loma Plata and Russia for Filadelfia). When they arrived in Paraguay, the government gave them a section of essentially desert that appeared unfarmable. In the tradition of hard work, they built their community up, realizing that working together was the only way to survive. They have now a central "collective", with 10% of each person's salary going towards everything that is required; roads, health care, schools, etc. These two communities, especially Loma Plata, are easily the most built up part of Paraguay we experienced.

Anyways, after some small adventures primarily involving terere or the GIANT supermarket, we got on a bus and crossed into Bolivia. The borders were incredibly efficient, even in Bolivia where I needed to file for and purchase a Visa, but were what you would expect after traveling on a dirt road for 6 hours, with another 8 to go. This crossing, perhaps between the two poorest countries in South America, is marked by open air migration offices and dilapidated buildings.

Santa Cruz was the first city in Bolivia for us, and it also happens to be the richest. Vegan restaurants satisfied my travel buddy, and we used the cities opulence as a chance to do laundry, Internet, and recharge. We showed up on a holiday weekend (we still don't know what for, but it involves early morning fireworks), so everything was closed. Most of our time was spent in the plaza, reading and challenging the locals to chess. Samaipata was next, and is where I currently am.

The region of Samaipata is known for its opportunities for jungle trekking and waterfalls. We did a little of everything, with various adventures followed always by a siesta. The first was El Fuerte, a pre-Incan (they believe) establishment on a hill overlooking the valley. The Incans were simply the last indigenous people in the region, and gained fame because they "greeted" the Spanish upon arrival; there were many peoples before the Incans with comparable wealth and this Fort is proof positive of that.

The next adventure, yesterday's adventure, was a series of waterfalls. It is sad, what happens when you travel; I have grown callous towards new places. I mean seriously, I couldn't even swim at this waterfall. It still, however, was beautiful and was enjoyed in the presence of an English couple, a Swiss, an Israeli couple, and us two Statesman. This same group enjoyed drinks later, with the addition of a few more nations.

Today I head to Sucre, but don't know how long I will spend there. I am running out of time. I have the rest of Bolivia, Peru (though I have narrowed it down to simply the Cuzco region), Northern Chile, and Santiago in one month!! I have had too much fun for too much time at each new place I visit.

Somethings Interesting

--Supposedly there is a lost city, similar to Machu Pichu, believed to be somewhere in Bolivia. It is overgrown and unviewable by air, leaving it still undiscovered (thus the lost city title).

--They have estimated that there are more uncontacted tribes in the Amazon Basin than everywhere else in the world put together. It was news to me that uncontacted tribes still exist.

--I am growing tired. Every day is a something completely new, and that is amazing. I miss, however, regularity. If this trip were longer, and I wish it was, I would settle down in a city for at least a month, if for no other reason than to have a few days which were the same. Most likely, Puerto Varas, Chile, or anywhere in Paraguay.