Monday, September 1, 2008


Welcome to my Peruvian travel blog. Please select a post from the left side of the screen. Feel free to view my similar blog from my trip to Argentina in 2007.

I apologize that this blog is primarily a slow, regurgitation of events. The blog is primarily for me to remember all that happened during my two weeks. For more reflections, please just talk to me.

Note: A majority of the photos are taken by me. The few photos (5 or 6) not taken by me are legally taken from Flikr. All the videos are taken by me.

27 August 2008

Airports ~

It is now 4:30 AM on the 27th, and I am sitting in Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport. Being that we had to be at the airport so early, I did not go to bed last night.

It does not feel like 4:30 AM just as it does not feel like my time in Peru is over, and I will be returning to be distant other life. What is funny is that I never felt like I was in Peru at all. Whenever I stopped to contemplate my location any time on this trip, I had trouble believing that I was actually in South America, in Peru, and either in the Andes or on the Pacific Coast. The Andes are one of those geographical locations that you learn about in grade school but only memorize for a test, never making the connection that it is an actual part of the world where actual lives are lived. Never would I have expected that I’d make multiple trips to the Andes within 365 days.

Boarding is about to begin for my flight, and to me that signals the beginning of the end of another great life experience…an experience that I will draw from for all of my days. I end my travels having a better understanding how the world functions and how people live. I see everyone in the airport and am excited for their future travels and what they will learn from their experiences.


26 August 2008

Lima ~

Today is the last full day in Lima and in South America. Our flight leaves to the US early tomorrow morning. Instead of waking early and paying for a room, we decided to awake all night and perhaps catch a little sleep in the airport. To accomplish this, we planned for a lazy day bumming around the city.

After breakfast, I went to the park to read and to write. After about 5 minutes, a young Peruvian woman stroke up a conversation with me. We talked for nearly two hours. She lives a tough life, working long hours while living in cramped quarters with her family. She wants to come to the Sates, but she doesn’t know how to, either legally or illegally. We discussed the possibilities for awhile. I am uncertain if she saw me as a vehicle to enter the United States; I suppose I never will find out. Whatever her motives, she soon began to persist on giving me a personal tour of the city. After multiple refusals, she gave me her email and left me with my books on a cold, misty bench.

A few others stopped by for some brief conversations until Adam finally came by, and we picnicked in the park. By this time, I was quite cold from having sat in the misty park all day. To remedy the situation and to use up some time, we got on a tourist bus for a city tour. The tour was supposed to take 3 hours but approached close to four hours because of traffic. I felt happy to be in a bus instead of being out in the pollution during rush hour. I am quite positive that the perpetual cloudiness of Lima not only makes the city quite gloomy, but it also amplifies the effects of the pollution, keeping it close by and potent.

The content of the tour was good. First, we drove by all the sights of Miraflores that we were already intimately aware of. Then, we drove to the center of the city past the main plazas and Lima’s Plaza del Armas. After cruising around for awhile, we exited the bus and entered one of the many churches in el centro. This was one of the original churches of the city. We toured the catacombs underneath the church where over 25,000 people were buried. That’s a lot of bones.

The tour was a good way to spend nearly four hours on a day where we were trying to waste time. However, besides this, I very much disliked the concept of the tour. First off, the bus was a large, clean, touring bus with clean wide windows and viewing dock on top. The sole purpose of the bus was to serve as an observation tool. I definitely felt like I was in a zoo, but I’m not sure what role I played. At time, I felt like a caged animal in a conspicuous transparent box, allowing everyone to see me on display and to point at me and to make awkward gestures. At other times, I felt like I was watching a caged environment. It felt wrong to sit in an observation bus, observing a city as if it was an animal in captivity. I didn’t like either role and never plan on taking a tour bus again.

Before heading to the airport, we caught a late night showing of “No te metas con Zohan ”at the Cine Bar. The Cine Bar is like any other movie theater but you have a table in front of you and are served drinks during the movie. What a great idea.

Photo Credits:

1. Lima's Plaza del Arma (Photo of post card from Flickr)

25 August 2008

Lima ~

Last night after a phenomenal meal of avocados, plantains, and soy lomo, we met up with some of our crowd from Machu Picchu. We started the night by going to the highest Irish pub in the world (based on elevation). I admit that I was slightly bothered by the selection, but good people can remedy any situation. The bar was expensive (US prices) and everything was in English. While some places try to sell a fusion of Peru and the West, this place was meant to be purely Western: a reminder of where all the rich people came from. I was especially bothered that people would only speak to me in English. This is a Spanish speaking country so we should at least try to communicate initially in Spanish. I feel like I’m being racial profiled when people initially address me in English. I want to start not responding to people when they speak English. I will claim to be from some place like Iceland where you are while and speak some language that people don’t know, forcing them to communicate to me in Spanish. I will now always initially address someone (no matter what their appearance) in the country’s native tongue. I believe that any other behavior is incredibly offensive.

Anyways, after the Irish Pub, we progressed to the club next door. I’m not much of a club person, but I enjoyed myself for a few hours amidst free drinks and tourists. In the morning, we made our way to the Cuzco airport and took a very enjoyable 80 minute flight to Lima. Lima is almost perpetually overcast, and it was amazing to hit the clouds as we approached the city. For the remainder of the day, we more or less roamed around. Being a coastal city on the Pacific, we walked down to the beach. Lima stretches along the coast, but most of the coastline is occupied by squalor. There is only a small chunk that is safe during the day, and fortunately the safe place is near our neighborhood. Right on the after, we lunched at a new development that was very American suburbia. I would classify the area as Lima’s equivalent to Block E. Even though the area lacked the cultural draw of the rest of the city, the view was second to none. We lunched on a cafĂ© right on the ocean. A meal with a view like this in the states would have cost a fortune, but instead we dropped just a few bucks.

After lingering around the ocean for awhile, we returned to the streets of Lima. It is amazing the one block transformation from American suburbia to the activity of a major Latin city. I love the vibrancy of the streets, but part way through the walk, I encountered the worst smog of my life. It was rush hour, and all lanes of ramshackle, polluting old buses were idling to the extreme. As we walked, it became increasingly difficult to breathe. Soon, I felt pain in the back of my throat. I couldn’t believe this could be caused by bad air. It was awful. People were running with their mouths covered, trying to escape into fresh air. I couldn’t believe that even the locals were having difficulties. As we escaped into our hostel, I realized it’d be difficult for me to live in this city because of the air.

Our hostel has a cool look and feel, situated on the second floor overlooking the main plaza in Miraflores. The front part of the hostel has a large bar with a billiards table. At the bar sat a couple of guys who were swapping tales of the bounty they had conquered while traveling. Other then that, the place was dead. We visited the local supermarket, made some food, and then lounged around inside…safe from the pollution.

Photo Credits:
1. View from the Block E of Lima (Larcomar) where we ate dinner (photo from Flickr)

24 August 2008

Cuzco ~

Within the past minute the sun has fallen below one of the mountains surrounding Cuzco, plunging the temperature and dispersing the crowds of people who shared the day with me in the Plaza del Armas. Today I spent another day in the Plaza, but this day was far different from when I did so less than a week ago.

I awoke this morning after a much needed 10 hours of solid sleep. After a few hours, I planted myself in the Plaza and saw a whole different day unfold. Activity is always found in the plaza, but today saw numerous ceremonies take place in all the streets that descend from the plaza. Masses of people dressed in traditional Incan garb paraded through the streets. Being a Sunday morning, I was uncertain whether all the pomp was for religious reasons. If so, it would definitely had been a major production to repeat each Sunday. The excitement ultimately converged on the steps of the cathedral, directly across the park from where I was sitting. Throngs of people paraded past a table of dignitaries, dancing, and showing off their intricate gowns. ON the other side of the park where I sat, it was business as usual. Tourists stopped for pictures, old men fed the birds, and little children flirted with the water pouring from the Plaza’s fountain. I know I could have asked anyone what was going on around us, but I didn’t want to disturb. In fact, I’m happy I don’t know the true meaning of what I witnessed today. That gives me something to think about.

23 August 2008

Machu Picchu ~

We began hiking to the ruins of Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes at 4:30 am. The goal was to be in position at the site before sun rise. The climb up was well-traveled (today alone had a constant stream of people on the hike) and considering easier than the prior day walk. We arrived to the ruins at about 6 AM, just as the park was about to open. The site is immensely popular, so the officials have to limit the number of people who can do some of the activities. For example, climbing Huayna Picchu, the most accessible mountain peak from the ruins, is limited to 400 people a day. We had started walking at 4:30 to get to the park early, only to be met by bus loads of people who took a ten minute charter bus ride up the mountain. When the park opened, people rushed in (like on Black Friday) trying to find the best spots and to rush to the sign-up location to see Huayna Picchu. Ironically, it was far too cloudy to see the sunrise, and those who rushed to get the first tickets to climb Huayna Picchu at 7 AM encountered too much fog to see anything. I was the 333 person signed up to climb the mountain, meaning that I could start climbing it between 10 and 11 am. Due to all the fog, you couldn’t see any of the other neighboring peaks, including Putu Cosi.

From about 7 to 9, I took a tour of the ruins. The ruins themselves were not very amazing relative to other pre-Columbian ruins I have visited. However, this site is so amazing because of its location on a mountain top and because it escaped the pillage of the Spanish empire. At this time in the morning, when the fog was too thick to see anything, the ruins were fascinating but definitely not worthy of being one of the 7 wonders of the world. Machu Picchu is a huge archeological site. What’s most surprising is that you are allowed to trample over the whole site with few restrictions. Over the past few years, this gem has been greatly over trampled and is beginning to be threatened. Apparently, the site is gradually sliding off the mountaintop, among other things. At its current level of use, the site won’t be around much longer. However, due to all of the money that the attraction brings to the area, it is hard to regulate its use. Even though I contributed to the problem, I’m happy to have seen the site sooner than later.

By 10:30 the crowds had multiplied so I made my way to the trail to climb Huayna Picchu. This too was a relatively steep trail, but was by far the easiest that I have trekked yet on the trip. Even though the trail was crowded with people, I made the hour long climb in about 20 minutes. By the time I reached the top, the clouds had lifted, and I had reached my 3rd Andean summit in less than 12 months. This was the easiest climb and took only about 2 hours if you count the morning hike I made from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (this trail began at Machu Picchu). This summit offered a different angle of Machu Picchu than from Putu Cosi yesterday. Additionally, from here, I could see the railroad that I walked along the day before. Yesterday, this was just one of the many mountains that flanked the trail; today it has some connection. I enjoyed the beauty of Machu Picchu from above, far more than I enjoyed the beauty from amongst the crowds at the actual site. Despite this, the summit was still over crowded for my likes.

I began descending but the crowds were so large, I abruptly opted to take an alternative route to the far sitde of the mountain to another set of Incan ruins. The walk to these ruins took about an hour of steep declines, and I surprisingly didn’t encounter another soul on the route. Apparently it was cool to see HP but just isn’t worth the effort to hike to the other ruins, the Gran Caverna. I’ll admit, while cool, the Gran Caverna was pretty pathetic when compared to its neighbor Machu Picchu. Nevertheless, it was awesome to be alone, away from the crowds.

I could have happily stayed awhile, relaxing in the caves, but I was incredibly dehydrated and was famished. Despite being on my feet for about 8 hours and having ascended and descended thousands of meters, I had hardly eaten or drank anything all day. I needed energy. The walk back to Machu Picchu offered some phenomenal alternative views of the site, but the 500 meter incline back required all of my energy, and I had trouble enjoying the climb. I arrived back to Machu Picchu in dire need of food. As I gradually carried myself across one of the 7 wonders of the world as if it were any other site, I encountered some friends who kindly gave me a much needed mandarin. This small piece of fruit gave me the sustenance to force myself partly up a small hill overlooking MP from a different angle. This was my 4th distinct overlook of the ruins. To me, seeing the ruins amidst the natural beauty was far superior to the ruins themselves. However, I needed to leave the site. I had been there multiple times longer than the typical tourist, and I needed food.

I met Adam at the park entrance—he had been reading for most of the day—and we began the descent from Machu Picchu. Nost most people bus down to town, I was determined to hike down despite my shape of little food, little sleep, and almost non-stop hiking for the past 24 hours. The descent was difficult for me due to intense aggravation in my recently broken right leg and in my historically troublesome left knee. Upon reaching the city, I was unfazed by the quick consumption of a pizza and 2.5 liters of liquids. Some friends noticed us from the street and joined us as we talked until it was time to catch our transportation back to Cuzco.

Despite being an aficionado of Latin American history and culture, I admit that I was turned off by the most famous single site of Latin America. Machu Picchu is an archeological site of enormous cultural and historical significance and indescribable natural beauty; however, to me it is being treated as an item on the to-do list of the world’s upper class. I regret only having two weeks to experience a small part of Peruvian culture. I regret only having 4 days to spend hiking through mountains near MP, witnessing the true life of the valley’s inhabitants. In fact, I only went to Machu Picchu because it was considered a “must see” and I didn’t want to have to explain to everyone why I went to Peru and didn’t see MP. Despite being overwhelmed by the site’s natural beauty, I was deeply disheartened by how it is being treated. I imagine that the typical visitor I encountered there (but no where else in South America) flew to Cuzco without spending time in any of the transfer cities, spent at most 1 night in Cuzco before taking a luxury train to Aguas Calientes, bussed from AC to MP, spending 2 hours taking photos before returning home, completing a trip to MP from anywhere in the world in less than 1 week. The visitor saw Machu Picchu, removing it from their to-do list without having experienced it.

It troubles me how much is done for the sake of being able to say you have done so and not for the sake to learn about yourself and the world we share. Today I participated in a trend, and I am confident that many people will inquire about my day because I participated in a trend, not because I experienced something amazing. I will develop a standard reply which will appease my audience. However, if you want to discuss what I got out of today—or any day for that matter—we’ll need more than a five minute conversation.

Photo Credits:
1. Movie of Machu Picchu in the morning when it was still too cloudy to see much
2. Adam cold in the morning shortly after arriving at the park
3. Llamas walking around the ruins before many tourist arrived
4. Fog hanging around the ruins, preventing any visual of the neighboring mountains
5. Lizard with ruins in background
6. Movie from Huayana Picchu which shows part of our walk from the day before
7. Me posing oddly at Huayana Picchu, giving another view of the ruins
8. View looking out of one of the caves at Gran Caverna
9. Me with the ruins and Huayana Picchu over my shoulder
10. Another unique angle of the ruins in the mountains
11. More of me at the summit of Huayana Picchu
12. A rare shot where I got no people
13. Movie while walking back from Gran Caverna
14. A condor in the rocks (the wings are the two big rocks in the background and the beak is the rock right in front)
15. Steffen going through a small crevice on the hike up Huayana Picchu

22 August 2008

Aguas Calientes ~

Last night was enjoyable despite rather unpleasant quarters. Following dinner, I was able to get everyone to go to the one happy hour in town. I felt it was the first time our guides bonded fully with the group. This enabled today to be a bunch of fun with the guides. Last night was also great for my Spanish. The native speakers all said I was very good—especially with my tenses—and our guide from Cuzco said I was developing a Peruvian accent. That definitely makes me happy considering a major reason I travel to South America is to practice my Spanish. Today was also great as I spent the entire morning walk either talking to the guide in Spanish or talking to Mauricio—the male Colombian—in Spanish.

As for the day’s itinerary, we decided to change it a bit, and I believe we are all happy we did so. The original plan was to walk all day and to finish in Aguas Calientes just at the end of the day. Instead, we decided to accelerate our trip to Aguas, allowing us to do some climbing in the afternoon. To do so, we took a bus a few miles down the road towards Aguas Calientes, saving us much time. We then joined up with a train track which runs to AC. We walked along the tracks for about three hours. At the time I didn’t realize it, but we were in fact circling around Machu Picchu Mountain. At one point, while crossing a bridge over the same river we’d been following for the past few days, our guide pointed out Machu Picchu. From our angle, you could only make one or two buildings. It was crazy to think we’d be climbing up that high (and higher) in the next 24 hours.

The walk was our easiest yet because we were going along railroad tracks, keeping the grade tolerable. Additionally, the scenery was so phenomenal. I had trouble accepting that it was real. The three hours passed quickly as I sucked on coffee beans growing along the trail while conversing in Spanish about the Simpsons and about my economic beliefs.

Ultimately, the train tracks led us right into the heart of the city of Aguas Calientes. The tracks go parallel to the river which forms the bottom point of the valley. The city then rises up the mountainsides on both sides of the river. Aguas Calientes is a purely tourist driven city. The city exists solely to serve the tourists going to Machu Picchu. This city has been practically doubling each year for the decade. Despite its beautiful backdrop, it is my least favorite city yet because of all the tourists. Everything costs multiple times more than in any other city, and everything is in English. More or less, this city isn’t Peruvian. It is operated by Peruvians trying to make the rich tourists feel like they are in the US or in Western Europe. It was so odd to come out of the woods after three days of hiking in the wilderness to see grey haired, obese senior citizens wearing fanny packs and Machu Picchu t-shirts. I suppose this is good for the local economy, but this is not real.

After checking into our hostel and having a light lunch, we headed out to climb to the top of the mountain Putu Cosi (Quechuan meaning happy mountain). This is one of the many mountains that surround Machu Picchu. From its summit which lies above and across the valley from the ruins, all the ruins could be looked down upon. What makes this mountain nice is that it is free to climb and is modestly difficult for the casual hiker, making it relatively quiet in comparison to the other attractions around Machu Picchu. Additionally, the summit provides what I believe is the best view of the lost Incan City.

The trail to the top was supposed to take 2 to 2.5 hours. I made the climb in about an hour. I have definitely climbed more rugged trails in the Andes,; however, this was quite steep and difficult to be open for any tourist to climb. The mountain was too steep to be climb without good gear, and for this reason, a series of ladders (some stretching multiple stories) were installed along the trail. Throughout the entire trail, I was passing people—many who eventually turned around before the summit—who I feared would have a heart attack. Never have I see a trail of this difficulty be attempted by such a myriad of people. Upon reaching the summit, the view was fantastic. On one side, you could look down at the city far below. ON the other side, you looked out on the entire Machu Picchu compound. The ruins looked absolutely beautiful nestled on a mountain top across the valley. It looked extraordinarily beautiful because it was late in the day and we were far enough away to not see the remaining tourists at the park. Even without the ruins, the view would have been spectacular. After about 30 minutes at the top, I enjoyed a very leisurely hike down which included plenty of pictures. Dinner that night was entirely Americanized while trying to be perceived as authentic. Come on Peru.

Photo Credits:

1. Movie on top of Putu Cosi, looking at Machu Picchu

2. View of train tracks which we hiked on during the day

3. View of Aguas Calientes from train tracks at night

4. View of Putu Cosi from bottom

5. View of Aguas Calientes from part way up Putu Cosi

6. Adam climbing in the one non-steep part of Putu Cosi

7. Traffic jam of people taking ladders up Putu Cosi. Most people turned around after seeing all of the ladders.

8. Me at the top of Putu Cosi with the non-Machu Picchu direction in the background.

9. Adam at the top of Putu Cosi with Machu Picchu above his left shoulder.

21 August 2008

Santa Teresa ~

Yesterday we spent the day dropping into the Urubamba river valley. Today, we followed the valley. Even though we were tracing the valley, we sometimes were forced to climb steep inclines, getting to over 500 meters above the river. The trails were fantastic. They cut into the side of the mountain and were never more than a yard wide. On one side was a rock wall going straight up and another side was a straight cliff, going down a couple hundred meters. At times it was a straight cliff, but if there was even the slightest angle, the land was being farmed. I don’t know how the land could be cultivated without climbing gear, but sure enough, elderly women would be working the outrageously steep inclines, tending their crops.

If it wasn’t for these locals, the mountainside would probably be covered in brush. However, because the land was in use, a whole score of edible plants were being grown. We were constantly going through mandarin, coffee, cocoa, avocado, papaya, and of course coca fields. In reality, they weren’t fields, but disparate, single rows of crops wherever the landscape enabled anything to grow. It sure is odd to be walking and to encounter coca. In every other country, the crop is illegal and would be burned. In Peru, the plant is a celebrated part of the culture and is literally available everywhere. If you go into businesses, coca leaves are oftentimes sitting in the open in a candy jar for free—like free water or the give a penny take a penny jar. Plus, it has been served at all my meals during the past few days. For this reason, I am starting to enjoy coca tea. If you take it straight without tea, your mouth temporarily goes numb, like a small dose of Novocain. Now I can see this plant being beneficial for dental work, but the locals consider it a panacea, not just a dental numbing agent. Whatever the case, it is too bad that man found a way to take such a wonderful plant and produced such a danger drug. I suppose coca is the Incan form of Sudafed.

As we walked during the day, the temperature seemed to keep increasing. To combat this, we’d purchase water at every opportunity. The options for buying water though weren’t like going to the gas station. You’d be walking along the mountain side with wilderness all around and suddenly you’d encounter a small hut where the inhabitant is selling water, Gatorade, and Oreos. It would blow my mind to encounter a dwelling, especially when I tried to determine how the Oreos got to the store. Whatever the answer, we would sit on a rock outside the building, drinking water and admiring the phenomenal view of the river valley, surrounded by mountains with birds circling below us while monkeys and other exotic animals played all around us.

At one such stop, we had lunch. The lunch was amazing, and I imagine it was all produced from food within a few hundred meters from where we ate it. We started with an asparagus soup followed by some tomatoes, fruit juice, and chicken (probably killed a few hours earlier). Despite all the fresh and exotic food that we were eating straight off of the tree, nothing impressed me more than the avocados. I doubt that I have ever tasted avocado straight off the tree before. Instead, I go to Lunds and pay top dollar for a small, soft, and brown avocado. Not only were they multiple times larger than Lunds, but the taste was so superior due to the freshness and the growing behaviors (without chemicals). It made avocado my favorite food. It also makes me realize the poor quality of the food we get in Minneapolis. Here, I just ate a meal which was sustainable and grown in a natural, poly-cultural environment. The food I eat in the US has been shipped from all over the world and has been treated by who knows what to keep it looking presentable in the store. I doubt I’ve ever had a meal as fresh as this…except perhaps after catching a fish.

After lunch we continued walking, but now we declined back into the river bed. The rapids still were about 5 meters below us, but it was obvious that where we walked used to be underwater. Walking with mountains towering on all sides, it be came awe inspiring that we were relatively close to Machu Picchu—it lay somewhere beyond one of these mountains. The walk was very difficult with the heat and elevation, and I was impressed how easily the whole group made the eight hour hike. Even with lots of cigarettes, these travelers are well conditioned. Additionally, I was surprised how quiet our journey was. I was expecting a bunch of tourist traffic on these amazing trails, but besides the occasional local, I didn’t see anyone outside of our group. This was refreshing because I came with the expectation that this walk would be crowded (like the end of el Camino de Santiago); instead, it was all ours.

As we walked amongst the mountains, just as it was getting dark, we did encounter a group of people because we had hit a destination. We had reached some hot springs, nestled in an Andean valley. We took about an hours break to relax in the spring, and we probably could have stayed all night. These were by far the best hot springs that I have ever experienced. Not only were the pools large, deep, and natural, but they were set upon the most beautiful landscape. The pools were built into the side of the mountains, and you could touch the rocks and feel the host water spring from the rocks. It was perfect after a day of walking and was a true oasis to encounter while roaming through the wilderness.

Photo Credits:
1. Video I took along the path in the morning
2. Some coca plants growing along the trail
3. Adam with a monkey
4. Adam with Incan face paint taken from some wild plant. The paint stained my clothing quite nicely.
5. Hot Springs that we relaxed in at the end of the day.
6. Adam crossing a bridge a la Indiana Jones.
7. Adam along the walk
8. Austin along the walk

20 August 2008

Santa Maria ~

Today was the first day of our adventure to Machu Picchu. We awoke early and were picked up by a bus at around 9 am. The van was filled with other tourists who were going to trek an alternative Incan Trail with us (in the past few years it became illegal to hike any of the Incan trails without a guide. For this reason, you have to hire a guide and go with a group if you want to walk to Machu Picchu). The trail is sometimes called the gringo trail and properly so: our group contains 2 Brits, 4 Aussies, 3 Israelis, 2 Colombians (they aren’t gringos), and us.

For three hours, we winded through the Andean countryside, becoming acquainted with the other travelers, all of whom—minus the Colombians—are on year long travels around the world. The road was absolutely breathtaking. We winded around and up and down narrow mountain passes and watched as the biomes transformed more into a tropical forest, almost becoming the jungle. Ultimately, we stopped at 4300 meters and unpacked the van. We were all given a helmet and a mountain bike. The bikes appeared to be of poor quality. The bike I initially was given had no air in the tire. Next, they gave me a “very good” bike. After a 30 second safety demo from our guide, we started to bike on the main road down the mountain. Being at such a high elevation and on a paved road, we had little reasons to pedal. We just winded down into the valley. Occasionally, the road would be flooded from a small waterfall, and we’d plough through the water. Even thought it was almost always a steep decline, I would occasionally have the need to pedal. Practically each time I pedaled, my chain would fall off. I would work my bike to the side of the road, inches from a straight cliff, and try to get my chain fixed. Other people were having similar issues, but mine initially seemed worse. After losing my chain five times, I switched bikes with our guide. Unfortunately, he advised me to not change speeds with the new bike: something you don’t want to hear when biking in the mountains. Fortunately, my inability to shift gears was a relatively minor issue compared to my fellow bikers. People had pedals fall off, chains split in half, tires puncture, and inadequate breaks which caused people to flip over their handlebars.

After about an hour of riding, the road turned to gravel, and we started to experience hotter weather and more uphill terrain. We also would go through the occasional village where people dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, living their lives, chopping wood, farming, and hauling coca. I felt like I was imposing on this lifestyle; however, all the locals were very friendly and would always smile and give a greeting. The ride provided such good insights into rural Peruvian life. I felt like I was watching a documentary, but I was actually just biking through the occasional rural community.

We biked for about five hours. Despite being an amazing experience, I was thrilled to be done. My arms and ass were so sore from the treacherous road we had traversed all day. Additionally, I was in dire need of water. We all congregated at a hostel. I conversed with the two Colombians for a solid two hours. What a great education. After we ate dinner, I had my first coca tea. Coca is the plant which produces cocaine. The coca plant is part of the culture here and is everywhere (but not in the form of cocaine). I just had some hot water with a bunch of coca leaves. To me, it tasted like any other tea. It is impossible to get the effects of cocaine from just having the tea. If so, Peru would be a nation of coke heads considering everyone (including young children) are constantly chewing on coca leaves. It is more common that chewing gum is in the US.

Now I am sitting on a patio with parrots and stray dogs. The patio is lit with bright, fluorescent lights, and we are surrounded by a wall of darkness. Beyond the darkness lies the Andes, covered in a dense, semi-tropical forest. Tomorrow we will walk these forests.

Photo Credits:
1. Adam at the start of the bike ride. We ultimately would finish at the bottom of the valley.
2. Random shot of valley after descending two hours or so.
3. Group taking a break in one of the small villages.
4. Church in one of the small villages. I don't remember why I took the photo.
5. Me along the trail near a small village.

19 August 2008

Cuzco ~

Today is a glorious day in the Andes, and I am doing what I love to do abroad, observing and trying to understand a different culture. To do so, I have spent a bulk of the day sitting on a bench in the town square, the Plaza del Armas. Now, most benches are occupied, but I am overly conspicuous based on my appearance (clothing, posture, movements, beard, and color). For this reason, rarely does two minutes pass without someone trying to sell me something. I’ve been offered clothing, cards, massages, tours, toys, candy, and even (at least Adam and I think this is what the women was selling) a cute baby alpaca. Some people will leave after a simple “no”, but many will be persistent and some think that by becoming my friend and by talking to me, I will change my mind and buy something. The people are good at doing so and on two occasions I gave in and bought a post card: they had to work for it though. So far, I have had three people sit next to me and engage in a meaningful conversation in Spanish. I enjoy this because I can practice my Spanish and learn more about the city’s people. One kid I talked to for over an hour covering all topics ranging from local politics and education policy to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I eventually purchased an over-priced post card from him. He also wanted to take me clubbing to meet local girls in the evening. I trust that he was somewhat genuine; however, I can see him trying to get money out of me somehow. Instead, I’d rather have a beer and retire early, resting up for the early excursion starting tomorrow.

Just this moment a little boy sat next to me and started to cry for his mom. I imagine if I ignore him a few minutes the crying will end, and he will seek out some other Western tourist.

It sure is amazing to think that I have been sitting in the square of what used to be the primary plaza of the Incan empire. Who knows how many years people have been congregating here? Has anything much change? Did people come from all around to marvel at the splendor of the city and to take in the activities surrounding the square? I imagine so. I imagine that I am nothing special in this aspect. It sure is humbling to realize.

In the evening I returned to the park and met a young tourist from Lima named Joel. We had a great talk about Lima in Spanish, talking as the sun set behind the mountains surrounding Cuzco. After about an hour or so, Adam joined up with us and we went for a drink with Joel. Later, without Joel we had dinner and had a rather perverted waiter. We tolerated him, and it caused him to invite us out for some illegal activities when we next returned to Cuzco. I have heard similar invites but never from such an old person. We kindly declined and retired for the night. Actually, before we left, he gave me a glass of his homemade moonshine. It was absolutely awful and gave me some intense heartburn.

18 August 2008

Cuzco ~

We arrived in Cuzco this morning after what ended up being a 17 hour bus experience. Now, I have taken many bus rides longer than this, but I would definitely label this an epic bus journey. From Ica, we joined an already near capacity bus heading towards Cuzco. We even paid an extra few bucks to take the luxury bus. I started the ride very enthusiastic to read and to write and to ultimately sleep. However, this bus felt obligated to entertain. After some music, bingo, and then a movie, it was past midnight and the whole bus decided to retire. Not wanting to disturb our fellow passengers, Adam and I turned off our lights. Now Cuzco is situated at over 3300 meters in a valley. To get to this valley, you need to cross many large Andean peaks. In a straight line, Ica and Cuzco can’t be separated by more than 300 miles. However, on Andean roads, that equals 17 hours. It was hard to see much out our window due to the darkness of night, but it was obvious that by midnight, we were traveling in a large bus on a small, extremely curvy, shoulder-less road with shear cliffs just a few feet from where we drove. Most of the curves were too tight, so we’d come to a nearly complete stop, allowing the driver to verify both lanes were free of cattle or of other vehicles. If other things obstructed the curve, we’d just sit and wait. Fortunately, rides through the Andes in the middle of the night don’t encounter much traffic. So most of the night we were constantly swerving and when I say constantly, I’d say we were completely changing our bearings at least 90 degrees (sometimes 180 degrees) every minute while accelerating and decelerating between turns. This makes the already difficult task of sleeping on a crowded bus much more impossible. Neither Adam nor I know how much we were able to sleep; however, we never slept for long durations without being violently jerked or being startled awake by a crying baby or by a cell phone.

In the morning as the sun rose, I gave up my desire to sleep and instead took in some of the most beautiful scenery that I have ever seen. The road and the ride continued to behave the same; however, now I could see the glorious scenery. Despite being extremely steep, most of the land was being cultivated by very indigenous looking Peruvians, wearing their traditional brilliant colors and walking alongside their dromedary. Legend has it that this was the original site of the Incan civilization because of the extremely fertile land. Now 100s (if not 1000s) of years later, the Incan and pre-Incan descendents are still working this land using probably quite similar methods. I kept my eyes glued out the window but with about an hour to go, I started to get sick—not stomach sick but allergy like sickness. I think the combination of the bus ride without sleep and the high altitudes (we had easily surpassed 4000m for parts of the ride) was doing me in. Upon arriving in Cuzco I was a sneezing machine.

Now, a vast majority of Cuzco tourists arrive via air, and I believe miss out on the amazing arrival. Via bus, you curve around a mountain top to see a valley below filled with the city of Cuzco. The walls of the valley are completely filled with houses (but there are no roads because it is too steep). On the bus, we spent a good 30 minutes zig zagging down into the valley and into the heart of the city. The city is truly amazing, and I can see why it is probably the oldest major city in the western hemisphere.

Now our plan for the day was to take a cab to the town center and to walk from hostel to hostel until we found a place. At all the bus stations, people try to get you to go to particular hostels, and by getting you there, they get a chunk of the money. When I picked up my luggage, I found Adam engaged in an intense conversation with two women about where to stay. They were suggesting locations farther than our desired location for slightly higher prices than we expected. Ultimately, we did get into a cab with one of the women and drove to two hostels. We picked one about a block from the center for about $1 more than our book recommended; I guess I can survive the extra dollar. We ended up with a private room with bath, tv, and balcony for about $10 each. The room is very cold, but it sounds like all the rooms are about the same as the outside air temperature here. Fortunately, the beds all have multiple layers of alpaca blankets.

After a small lunch, we spent most of the day roaming the ancient streets surrounding the plaza del armas where we ultimately invested in the entry fee to tour the cathedral. The cathedral is probably the biggest tourist destination within the city. It was built shortly after Pizarro conquered the city. This is the pride of Peru, and I was excited to compare it to the many other cathedrals that I have toured around the world. First, I found it ironic that the Catholic Church charged admission and allowed vendors to sell trinkets inside the cathedral doors (Jesus wouldn’t like that). Upon paying, we were instantly approached by guides who wanted to show us around for a fee. We declined considering the entry fee covered an audio tour. The structure itself was large with a distinctly Baroque design; however, it was quite basic compared to most European cathedrals. This city frequently encounters earthquakes, including some major ones which have leveled the city. For this reason, they probably constructed a solid church, absent from stain glass windows which are standard fixtures of Catholic cathedrals. While no Old World Church, I imagine this to be the most imposing structure that the Incan population had ever seen.

The inside of the church was extremely cold—literally and figuratively. However, the attraction to the church was all the riches. Never have I seen any place adorned with so much pure gold and silver. The gold was mind blowing. There was probably more gold in this church than in all the Catholic cathedrals I have been in combined. I found the display of gold extremely frustrating. Here was a huge display of wealth that the church stole from the native population and then forced the surviving natives (those who weren’t slaughtered) to mine additional riches and to accept their god. It’s painful to walk through room after room of gold while knowing how many people died to create such an intimidating structure. Perhaps the conquerors and the papacy did so with good intentions, but it sure is ironic and shameful that the same institution which claims to be on higher moral grounds could impose such destruction and evilness on the locals. In terms of wealth, Cuzco is in much better shape than most South American rural communities. But by US standards, the city would be condemned. If the wealth in the cathedral was redistributed to the citizens of Peru, the same people whose ancestors were sacrificed for the church to have such wealth, many people could be lifted out of poverty. What good have these icons done for the people here?

Photo Credits:
1. Windy Andean road. We didn't travel this one, but it is characteristic of all the curves we took (Flickr)
2. Woman and her Alpaca. All of the farmers we passed were dressed like this (Flickr)
3. Cathedral that we toured in Plaza del Armas (Flickr)
4. Quick video of Plaza del Armas

17 August 2008

Ica and beyond ~

Last night in an effort to find some variety in the night life which is non-existent in Ica, we invested in the $1 cab ride to the oasis city of Huacachina, the site of our previous day’s sand dune excursion. Huacachina had a completely different feel than our prior experience where we spent our time as I’d envision at an oasis, under a scorching sun, amidst sand dunes. This time the sun had already fallen below the horizon and the cool landscape was unrecognizable in the darkness. Now, the oasis served as the one center of light in a world of darkness. We entered a compound which fit my stereotype of a desert locale. Upon entering the gate, there was an open field with palm trees and hammocks. At this hour, the plaza was vacant, occupied only by some stray dogs and a turtle. Across the plaza from the entrance stood a restaurant/bar, painted with bright colors and covered by a straw thatched roof. The inside of the restaurant was even more colorful and was modestly filled with travelers of all types, bundled up in defense of the cool night. Marijuana held a presence in the room, but not as much as I’d expect at a traveler’s oasis. We casually drank a few very cheap local beers but kept to ourselves. All the tables appeared to be keeping to themselves, a completely unexpected phenomenon. For this reason, we left before midnight and had another relatively early night.

In the morning, I got treated with my second consecutive solar shower experience. As is the case with much of Peru and Latin America, hot water is a luxury and is always a welcomed surprise when it comes to showering. Being that Ica is in the desert, it boasts the ability to offer solar showers. My initial perception was that a solar shower was an all around great concept. I assumed that the name was derived by the process of creating warm water via solar power, a green solution. Now after multiple solar shower experiences, I’m uncertain of its significance. Imagine turning on a power source before entering the shower. This power source then has a number of shoddy, electrical wires running into the shower head. If at any time you touch the shower head, you feel a numbing sensation from the electricity running through your body. I’m no electrician, but I doubt it is wise to have an unreliable electrical power source running into a shower. I wonder how many people die each year from solar showers.

Today was another relaxing day which included two casual stops to restaurants where we loitered around and did some reading. We also booked a plane ticket from Cuzco to Lima as a safety precaution. You could never tell from our time in Ica, but it is currently prime tourist season, and we have been told that it may be difficult to find a way back to Lima because of booked flights. By buying some tickets, we solidified the remainder of our trip. We will have to stay around the Cuzco area for a week. We’d then arrive in Lima with a full day to experience the city.

In the afternoon, we boarded an overnight bus to Cuzco. We have no reservations in Cuzco which I hope means that we can pick and choose where to stay. I hope it doesn’t mean that we’ll be outside every night, especially considering it gets very cold in Cuzco and people even complain about the coldness inside of the hostels. For this reason, I hope to buy some alpaca wool upon our arrival. Right now, I’m sitting on a bus somewhere in Peru. It is pitch dark, and I imagine that we are traveling uphill as Ica is at sea level and Cuzco is over twice as high as Denver. I did find a bookstore and got my first of hopefully many Spanish language books for the trip.

16 August 2008

Ica ~

Today was an ideal vacation day. After getting my best night of sleep in weeks, we casually got ready and made our way to the Plaza del Armas where we had a very casual desayuno Americano. After bumming around town, we caught a taxi to one of the many bodegas (wineries) which surround the town. We arrived at the bodega Catador where a group of tour guides were waiting for us at the door. Marco to the initiative and began showing us around the vineyard. He spoke very clearly and slowly while giving Adam and me a tour of the step by step process of creating their pisco. The tour was free and the samples were free, but I elected to give a tip and buy some nectar. We then passed the next two hours or so at the vineyard restaurant eating and drinking some pisco straight. We figured it best to do some relaxing before going to Cuzco.

The longer that I’m in Ica, the more I appreciate it. I love how each city “works” differently, and it is fascinating to try to understand Ica. One aspect I love is the taxi system. There really aren’t buses here and few people own cars, so almost all the transportation is via taxi. The taxis though aren’t your typical yellow cabs. Instead, they are small three-wheeled booths with an engine. These three wheelers engulf the street and seem to follow no rules, going against traffic, forcing their way through uncontrolled intersections. If a road is wide enough for two cars to go side by side, four will race through the intersection, hoping to force their way into one of the two slots. Additionally, all the cabs are always honking their horns. When empty, the cabs honk to signal they can pick up a rider, creating an urban cacophony. Apparently lights on the tops of the taxis, signaling vacancy, just aren’t as cool.

Upon returning from the bodega, Adam wanted to make a phone call. For this reason, we returned to a shop near Plaza del Armas. While Adam made his call, I stood out on the street where I was overly conspicuous. Not only was I the only white person on the street, but I was the only person wearing shorts. Despite being in a desert, shorts aren’t always culturally acceptable. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my physical characteristics or because of my shorts, but I definitely was getting dirty looks while loitering in front of the phone shop. With time, the awkwardness only increased and reached a climax when a funeral procession proceeded down my road, engulfing me and my shorts. The pallbearers lead the procession carrying the casket at their shoulders. Behind them a band marched amidst at least 100 mourners. I couldn’t go anywhere. I just stood there letting the procession flow by me. I got some dirty looks and some scandalous ones. However, I determined that I was too much of a target for too many things, so I left Adam at the phone booth.

Photo Credits:
1. Adam drinking straight Pisco at the bodega
2. Taxis on a street in Ica (from Flickr)

15 August 2008

Ica ~

The last night was fairly relaxing. Tired out and needing an earlier wake-up the next day, we planned a simple night. Wanting just a few drinks, we were personally escorted by the hostel worker to his favorite restaurant. At the restaurant we took a booth in the corner and became further familiar with a phenomenon that I’d heard about but didn’t believe. The local Peruvian women are fantastically gorgeous; this is a country of beautiful women. Anyways, these beautiful women are just crazy for white males. I think for reasons discussed earlier, whites are very popular here. This restaurant provided great evidence of this. From my seat in the corner, I watched as three different sets of couples arrived. Each couple contained a jaw-dropping Peruvian beauty who was partnered with an overweight, balding white guy. It blew my mind. Despite this new found evidence of my popularity, I retired early.

In the morning, we caught a cab to the bus station, a bus station that the cab driver couldn’t find. Finally when he found it from the highway, he pulled over on the highway, and we exited the cab on the highway, and then walked to the bus station from the highway. The bus ride to Ica took about four hours, and it very much reminded me of my bus touring of Argentina from last year. Fortunately, the ride was four hours, not sixty.

Ultimately, we arrived in Ica around noon. None of the cab drivers had heard of our hostel, so some random lady took the initiative to call the hostel, get directions, and communicate the directions to our cab driver…what nice people. Upon arriving at our hostel, it was obvious that it was far nicer than our previous one (this was done intentionally by Adam and me). In reality, I think we were the only people at the hostel. Apparently most people stay at the next town over. We are missing the excitement there, but I’m thankful for this place for many reasons.

After checking in, we left to go and roam around the city. Apparently, the town over (that we aren’t staying in) is famous for desert recreation, and everyone stays there. For this reason, we hired two guys to take us on a desert excursion. For $20 these guys picked us up at our hostel, drove us to the neighboring town, set us up with gear and a group, and then waited over 2 hours for us to finish in order to take us back to our hostel.

The town over—Huacachina—isn’t much of a town. It is a desert oasis with a hostel and some bars. The oasis is surrounded by sand dunes for 100s of miles (it’s a desert). The popular attraction is to sandboard, using a snowboard in the sand dunes. For this activity, a dune buggy with about 6 other people picks you up. You are tightly belted in and then taken on a fast, intense (and probably dangerous) trip up, down, and around some sand dunes. Without signing any release forms or even identifying who we were, we were blazing through random sand dunes in Peru. The event really caused my heart to pound, what a thrill.

After the buggy ride, we all strapped on snowboards and boarded down the sand dunes. At the bottom of each hill, they’d pick us up in the buggy and take us to a higher set of dunes. After about 5 dunes we were all tired and dehydrated, but they had one more dune for us. The final hill was very intimidating. The first two guys had mammoth falls. One of the guys hit his head and had blood all over his clothing. Adam went next and also enjoyed a wonderful fall. I then went but took it easy because this was probably the worst possible thing to do with a recently broken leg. We made it to the bottom, but the remainder of the group stood at the top of the dunes, vulnerable and scared shitless. Our drivers wanted to leave but most of the group was afraid to come down…rightly so. For this reason the drivers started yelling at the remaining to hurry up, causing the little specks at the top of the huge, steep sand dune to gradually walk down the hill. As an active skier for the past 20 years, I wasn’t intimidated by the hill, but I definitely realize the cruelty of making some first time skiers go off a double black diamond without protection. I had immense fun, but it definitely was not safe.

On the ride back, the sun disappeared behind the horizon and was replaced by a full moon. What a perfect ending to my first day in the sand. I love all of earth’s biomes but have always been negative towards the desert. Today I appreciated the beauty of the desert and now have immense respect for its beauty.

On the cab ride back to town, we discussed the earthquake that struck Peru a year ago. I remember the earthquake being world news, but I don’t remember it having its epicenter near Ica—right where we were staying. Actually, this earthquake reduced the city to rubble while killing 500 of the city denizens. It was all over world news and here I was in the city. Not only were we in the same city, but it was the one year anniversary…the anniversary to the exact second. As we arrived in the center, a PA was announcing the names of each person killed in the earthquake. By the time he finished, the town square was packed with people. We all gave a moment of silence and then listened to taps followed by sirens. Chills were racing through my body throughout the experience. Here we are, some of the few tourists (I saw no other white people that night) sharing in the sadness from 1 year ago. As I write this, 1 year ago exactly, this city was pure pandemonium: 500 people had just died and the homes people had spent their lives building were destroyed. It is very special to be part of this and to experience this. My own community suffered the bridge collapse last year, an event which completely affected me as a person. However, this earthquake was on a completely different level, and it is truly indescribable to be with the city exactly one year later. Adam and I originally regretted staying in Ica, but the events of the evening were so influential, I couldn’t imagine partying at an oasis right now.

Photo Credits:
1. Shot of Huacachina from sand dune (From Flickr)
2. Me after wiping out on sandboard
3. Final hill we boarded down. You can see the people at the top afraid to go down.
4. Adam and I with the moon.
5. Movie of Ica during minute of silence for victims of earthquake