Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Mountains and Valleys, Donkeys and Cows

On the very first day of this hike, before I even started, I had realized that the amount of weight I was carrying in my pack was too much for me. I could carry it, but I wouldn´t enjoy the hike, and I´d be really, really tired. So, when I arrived at the trail head and found a group waiting to depart with donkeys and guides, I jumped on the opportunity and negotiated with the chief guide to have them carry some of my stuff. I was more than pleased to pay a bit under $4 per day to have my tent, sleeping bag and mat and some clothing strapped to a donkey´s back. Thus relieved, I headed down the trail after the group.

Hiking in Peru is different from my experiences in Argentina and Chile, in that here, tourists that hike often do it through an agency. This group was made up of 9 people about my age; they had 6 donkeys, 2 arrieros (donkey-handlers) and two or three guides. Each person carried a small day pack, the donkeys carried the rest, as well as the tents and the food. Their tents were set up before they arrived and taken down in the mornings, and the guides prepared and served all their meals. (Luckily for me, they let me join them in their food tent to play cards at night, though I didn´t get to have any of their roast chicken or french fries.) Neither the people in the group, nor their guides, could believe that I wanted to do it myself. In Peru, if you can afford it, you pay for a donkey to carry your things. Here, manual labor is a way of life, not something to be done for sport. What a priveliged life we gringos lead that we think carrying heavy loads on our back is something to do for fun!

At the beginning of the first day, I got a tiny bit lost, and stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. This was rural, and very poor, Peru! The woman I asked first spoke no Spanish, only Quechua. When I got up to the house, the man inside had very few teeth, and had to pull himself towards the door with his hands before he could pull himself to his feet. He gave me directions as three curious children with filthy clothing and feet watched from behind the wall. Later that day I went through a field where two sisters, aged 3 and 4, were herding their family´s goats. They only knew enough Spanish to ask me for money and candy.

On the second day we had a very hard climb up to the highest point on the trail: Punta Union, at 4,750 meters, or about 15,400 feet. This is close to the highest altitude I´ve been at during my entire trip, and I did it on foot! It was very very difficult, but the view at the top was spectacular. After cooking dinner on the second night I had left my dirty cooking pot outside my tent, and woke up at 1 AM to the sounds of something licking it clean and then rooting through my bag of garbage. It was a cow! I had to repeatedly knock on the sides of the tent to get it to go away, and even then it kept coming back, even after I moved the pot and food inside the tent. The third day was very long, and although beautiful, there was a punishing wind in the valley and after nearly 8 hours my feet were crying out for rest. That night, I had a friendly donkey next to my tent as I cooked, trying to steal my food.

Today was a relatively easy day, just two hours hiking downhill to the end of the trail. I got there before the group (and before the burros with my stuff) and had time to do like the Peruvians do, washing myself and my sweaty clothing in the river. But nothing ruins the fresh feeling of having washed in a glacial river like spending 4 hours in Peruvian public transportation. At one point I was crammed into the back seat of a station wagon with three other passengers, who chattered away with the driver and two passengers in the front in very animated Quechua--although the word "gringa" appeared in their conversation more often than I would have liked. In the back of the station wagon were about 25 giant squash, on their way to the market in Caraz. I suppose I was lucky--as we traveled along the curves of the cliffside road (giving amazing views of the Huaylas canyon), we passed several other cars, one of which was a station wagon like ours, with two passengers in front, four in back, and in the way back, what appeared to be a family of five.

Friday, June 24, 2005

In the Mountains

I intended to start my hike today, but I spent too much time eating chocolate cake in Huaraz, and reading in the sun on the roof of my hostel, and didn´t rent the necessary equipment in time, so it´ll have to start tomorrow. The town of Huaraz is not exceptionally interesting, but the surrounding mountains are so rich with opportunities for hiking and climbing that it has become an international mecca for outdoorspeople. Many sporty-looking tourists wander the streets of Huaraz, and I met lots of people who came to Peru to spend weeks or months here climbing. When I arrived at my hostel at 6:45 AM Wednesday, I met a trio of Slovenians in hard core mountain climbing clothing--two in what seemed to be spandex bodysuits--with equipment to match, headed out to climb one of the many mountains. Last I heard, they were involved in a rescue operation, trying to get someone out of a crevasse. If you want to learn about the most famous climbing accident to occur here, read Joe Simpson´s book Touching the Void, or see the movie.

I´m no match for that level of ability or enthusiasm, so I decided to do the most popular trek, the Llanganuco-Santa Cruz route (see link on the sidebar for photos). I´m loaded down with food and gear, including a rented sleeping bag--mine isn´t warm enough to withstand the below-freezing nighttime temperatures at 13,000+ feet. I´ll leave tomorrow morning, and tonight I´m staying in Yungay, near where the trail begins. Yungay has a sad history; in 1970 a huge earthquake struck the area, letting loose an avalanche of snow, ice, rocks, water and rubble, which raced down the mountains and buried the town and its 18,000 inhabitants. In total, the earthquake killed 70,000 people in the region. Yungay has been rebuilt slightly apart from the site of the original city, so everything is pretty new and orderly. I just ate some slightly sketchy mystery-meat shish-kebabs for dinner, in what seemed to be the only restaurant in the whole town which served something other than chicken. The people I asked didn´t know what animal the meat was from, and I think I insulted them completely when I asked if it was "vaca" (cow) because they thought I said "rata" (rat). Oops.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Quick Trip to Lima

I wasn´t a fan of Lima, so I left after two nights. Lima center is pretty dirty and has so much smog that at some points I couldn´t make out the details of the buildings at the end of long avenues. The pollution hangs in the air and you can feel it in your lungs, and see the dirty exhaust coming from the traffic, which is all over the place honking and jamming the intersections. The section I stayed in, Miraflores, is full of familiar chain stores and restaurants: Pizza Hut, Payless Shoes, KFC, Chili´s, Dunkin´ Donuts, Blockbuster Video, and, of course, Starbucks. The idea of a glazed donut was tempting, but I resisted and had a churro instead. I think if I lived in Lima I could find things to appreciate about it, possibly in some of the neighborhoods I didn´t visit, but I don´t plan on living there so I wanted out as soon as possible.

More than in other places in South America, in Lima I got a lot of unwanted attention on the streets. My hair and skin shout "gringa" and as a result I got honked at, whistled at, and a fairly steady barrage of "Hello!" "Where are you from?" shouted at me. I don´t mean to sound egotistical about this, it´s common for fair-haired, fair-skinned foreign women to be stared at or spoken to by strangers on the street. At some points it felt like walking through a large construction area; it´s a fairly uncomfortable feeling.

I did enjoy my visit to the Museo de Arte, which has a nice collection of art and pottery from the myriad of Peruvian pre-Colombian cultures. The museum is in a nice park with a little market area containing stalls selling handicrafts as well as typical foods and drinks. I tried a drink called emoliente, which contains uña de gato (cat´s fingernail), which I hoped was not really that. It also contains aloe vera, which makes it slightly gummy. It´s supposedly good for the liver; it was sweet, and pretty good. I also wandered in the Black Market, where all kinds of (mostly stolen or fake) things are sold. The specialties are clothing, shoes, electronics and pirate DVDs ($1 each). I went to see Batman Begins, and the next day could have bought the DVD for that or any number of recently-released films! (Real DVD versions, somehow, not blurry Camcorder versions shot in the movie theater).

Anyway, another night bus later and I´m in the mountains again, in Huaráz, the center for hiking in the Cordillera Blanca, a beautiful area of the Andes. I´m hoping to do a 3 or 4 day trek here before continuing north.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Buses and More Buses

After three weeks in Peru, I am surprised to check my map and discover that I haven´t even covered half of the north-south distance of this country. It is a big place! But I am moving at light speed now and will be making more giant steps in the next two weeks. Unfortunately for me, down here, covering lots of territory inevitably involves taking night buses.

On Monday night I took a bus from Cuzco to Ica, a city near the coast, and at 400 meters, the lowest altitude I have been at in nearly three months, by a margin of almost 2000 meters. As some of you may know, I have a very difficult time sleeping if I´m not totally reclined, so I spent most of those 17 hours reading, listening to music or trying to watch the stupid movie they showed--an action movie with lots of explosions and shooting, like in almost all the bus movies I´ve seen. And of course (Murphy´s law) I was sitting across from a very loud snorer, who fell asleep basically as soon as the bus started moving and didn´t wake up until we arrived.

Anyway, at Ica I went directly to Huacachina, a tiny oasis in the middle of the desert, where the specialty is dune buggy rides and learning to sandboard! Fun fun fun! I met some other travellers, and had some time to read in the sun and climb the dunes. But after only one night it was time for another bus. This time it was only 9 hours, and actually, I´m getting much better at this. I manage to put myself into a sort of trance, where I´m not exactly sleeping but where I don´t go crazy from being in a confined and uncomfortable space like I used to. Anyway, this bus took me to Ayacucho, where I am now. Oh yeah, but before the bus I also saw "Mr. & Mrs (Sr. y Sra.) Smith" which I enjoyed more than I expected, and it was only $3 for entrance, popcorn and a drink!

Ayacucho is a welcome escape from the "Gringo Trail" as it´s not a highly touristed place, despite being a nice little city. In fact, one of the major draws for me was that 15 years ago, it would have been impossible for me to visit it. Ayacucho´s University was the breeding ground for the Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path"), a terrorist group which was at work in Peru in the ´80s. This was a very dangerous place to be at that time, and foreigners were not welcome. The Sendero´s leader was captured in 1992 and while the group still exists, it is small and located in other regions. Ayacucho is also where a decisive battle was fought for independence from Spain. So, all in all, a very historic place! It´s also refreshingly normal. I´ve seen only about 10 other tourists, and I attract a little bit of attention, mostly from older women and schoolchildren who seem very interested in the "gringita". They want to talk to me and ask me about where I´m from, and if I´m travelling alone (they all seem so concerned when I say I am, so sometimes I invent friends or a boyfriend waiting for me in Lima). So I´ve been just hanging out, walking around, checking out the crafts, and having the $1 lunch menu (yesterday I ate at a place called "Kevin Chicken´s").

Actually, today I had to visit a doctor, because it seems I picked up a case of pinkeye--probably from someone on the bus. I completely blanked on the name "conjunctivitis", which is the same in Spanish, and I kept calling it "Ojo Rosado" ("pink eye"), which made the doctor´s receptionist think I couldn´t speak or understand Spanish at all (apparently they just call it "ojo rojo"--red eye). As a result, when I went in to see the doctor she spoke extremely slowly and loudly, as if I was an idiotic, deaf child. But anyway, in the end we understood each other just fine and now I have eyedrops to cure me. Which means hopefully I won´t pass it on to too many other people when I get on my next bus, tomorrow night, to Lima.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu (pre-sunrise)

I´ll be honest, I had been feeling kind of cynical about my visit to Machu Picchu. When I left for South America, I was sure it would be one of the highlights; in fact I´d probably have put it at #1 on the list of things I was looking forward to. But as I got closer, I started to grow wary. I learned how expensive it is (entry is about $24, cheapest available train ticket $20 one-way from Ollantaytambo, bus to the ruins $6...in Peru that´s extortionately expensive) and heard stories of the hoards of tourists in Cuzco and at the ruins. I started to think that I was overexcited for something that was surely going to be underwhelming when I actually got there. But I am glad to say I was wrong.

I took the cheap train (the "backpacker service", the last train of the day) from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, and my arrival there did not instil me with much confidence: descending from the train I was instantly surrounded: "hostel miss? hotel lady? you need hotel amiga?" I pretended like I knew where I was going and walked past them up the main street, only to be approached every ten seconds: "restaurant miss? we have good menu lady! ok, maybe later amiga". But I had an early-morning itinerary, so I found myself a room and went to bed.

At 4:45 AM, in the dark, I left my hotel for the 1 1/2 hour walk to the ruins. Lots of backpackers do this, so soon enough I met up with another group, so I didn´t have to walk by myself in the dark. Somehow I was uninformed about this walk on two very important points. First, I just did not realize that it was uphill almost the entire way! The difference in altitude between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu is 400 meters, or 1300 feet. And it´s not just uphill, but up stone stairs built into the side of the hill. My legs and lungs were absolutely burning by the time I got to the top, and I was cursing the whole way. Second, I was under the assumption that one walked up to the ruins because the first bus did not get there in time for the sunrise. Wrong. The first bus arrived 5 minutes after I did. One walks up to save $6. But also, as I discovered, the walk up lets the endorphins carry you into the ruins on a natural high which makes your first view of them even more spectacular.

Arriving at Machu Picchu is exciting because you don´t see them bit by bit as you approach, but all at once when you turn a corner. It is the traditional view, that you see on all the posters and postcards, and it´s literally breathtaking (or maybe I was still out of breath from the hike up). At that hour (6:15 AM) it was also incredibly peaceful and still. The most beautiful part of it is not the ruins themselves. Yes, they are large and for the most part well-preserved, and they have some interesting features. However, it is the setting for the site which is the most incredible. The most recent theory about Machu Picchu is that it was built as a vacation or country retreat for an Inca leader, the Versailles of Peru, if you will, and if I was building myself a palace, this is certainly where I would put it--although outside of Paris is also a good choice. Machu Picchu (which means "old peak") is surrounded by mountains covered in lush green forests, with deep valleys in between. I could have stared at the scenery for days.

Soon after I arrived, I looked around and realized that there were already at least 100 people there, mostly up on a hill waiting for the sunrise by a building called the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock. Many had walked, some had come on the first bus, and some had shelled out upwards of $450 a night to sleep next to the ruins at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. I realized that the sunrise would be gradual and would hit the ruins sort of from behind, so I didn´t wait for it but instead took advantage of the relative emptiness of the ruins to wander around in the various temples and rooms, and up and down the many staircases. I saw the "Hitching Post of the Sun" where on the June (winter) solstice the sun´s rays hit right on the eye of the puma carved on the stone floor, and the corner of the same stone which was broken off by a crane that accidentally fell while filming a beer commercial a few years back. Then I undertook the hike (even steeper, if you can believe it, and fitted with ropes and cables to hold onto as you climb up the tall rocky stairs) up to the top of Huayna Picchu, the rounded mountain you see in the photo. I did it in 45 minutes, which made me happy as the signpost said it would take an hour. I lounged on the rocks in the sun at the top, nurturing a sense of accomplishment, admiring the panorama and watching through my binoculars as the ruins below slowly filled up with tourists. By the time I got down at around 10, the first train from Cuzco had arrived and it was beginning to swarm. When I had signed in for the hike to Huayna Picchu I was the 19th person of the day to do it, and by the time I got down they were signing in number 125.

I found an isolated terrace with a view of the ruins, and lay in the grass in the sun for a couple of hours admiring the view. But the hum of the voices of the families and tour groups threatened to disturb my reflection, and I wanted to hang on to the stillness I had felt that morning, so I left. (I took the bus back.) Anyway, I am glad that my original expectations were met. It was really expensive and touristy--although thanks to one week of Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires I´m officially a student, and got in half-price--but worth it nonetheless. If you are considering a spot for your next vacation, I´d highly recommend coming here.

See all my pictures here.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


In the past couple of days, I checked out the agricultural terracing at Pisac and "fortress temple" at Ollantaytambo. Unfortunately, my visits were brief, as my ambitious plans for the Sacred Valley were somewhat curtailed as a result of Tuesday´s dinner, Lomo Saltado (a Peruvian specialty, kind of like a beef stir fry with french fries, but obviously not the forté of the restaurant where I ate it). I wasn´t extremely sick, but felt ill enough to want to take it easy for a couple of days and save up my energy for the Mother Of All Ruins. But my goodness, those Incas did like to build their fortresses and temples (and agricultural terracing, obviously) on the sides of hills, and they were fond of long, tiring staircases! So my visits were brief and I didn´t explore them entirely (I was afraid in my weakened condition I might take a nasty spill down the stairs...)

In Pisac I was approached by an extremely persistent guide who wanted to show me around, and despite the fact that I told him repeatedly that I wanted to be alone he kept following me until I got mad and yelled at him. Basically, I´m too cheap to pay for a guide and I get bored with guided tours. So when I visit these ruins I really have no idea what they´re about, besides the bits of information I can glean from my guidebooks. But I find it more fun to invent it. On my own, I can decide where the bathrooms are, where the leaders got to sleep and the best locations for the conservatory and ball room. I like to imagine small Inca children running around the various passageways and staircases, and the effect would be ruined by learning that these areas were for ceremonial slaughtering of llamas (or small children, for that matter--the Incas greatly feared the gods of the mountains, and honored Pachamama, Mother Earth, and out of fear of volcanos and crop-ruining weather they practiced ceremonial human sacrifice).

My guidebook (Lonely Planet: Peru) tells me two interesting facts about Ollantaytambo. First, this is one of the only places where the Incas defeated the invading Spanish; guided by one of their most famous leaders, Manco Inca and they did this by ingeniously redirecting the flow of water from their canals to flood the valley and force Pizzaro´s troops into retreat. And second, in order to build the fortress, they needed to move stones from one side of the valley to the other, and in order to get them from one side to the other, and so they brought the stones to one side of the river and then redirected its course (granted, it´s a small river) so that the stones were on the other side, before moving them up to the building site. Amazing, huh? They were certainly very intelligent architects, with a gift for using water to their advantage.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

I´m ruined!

Today began what will probably be a few very busy days of ruin-visiting. I spent two days in Cuzco, which is very pretty, but extremely touristy. It´s also well-known for its nightlife, and when I went out with some people from my hotel the other night (one guys was celebrating his 21st birthday-!) this became apparent. At dinner the birthday boy ordered the Peruvian specialty, guinea pig, served whole, in its skin, with teeth and claws and everything! Afterwards we headed to the main square where we were flocked by bar employees offering free drinks in their establishments. Basically, if you don´t mind changing bars every so often, it´s possible to drink for free all night, with the added benefit of feeling like a celebrity surrounded by adoring fans every time you step into the street. It was completely crazy, but it was fun, and in one place I ran into two Israeli friends I had met in Ushuaia nearly four months ago!

Anyway, time for some culture and history: I bought the "Tourist Ticket" which allows me to visit about 16 different museums or Inca sites in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, which is the name for the Urubamba Valley between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Today I saw several ruins near Cuzco, the most important of which is Sacsayhuaman. Pronounce that carefully and you´ll get one of the reasons it´s a big hit with the tourists. It´s also a large and well-preserved Inca structure. I went with two American guys who enjoyed checking out the front of Sacsayhuaman, and then we climbed over a hill to see if Sacsayhuaman had a nice backside. Then we ran out of Sacsayhuaman jokes and walked back to town. After catching a bus, I´m now in the small market town of Pisac, where I´ll check out some more ruins and then head to the unpronounceable towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, before heading to Machu Picchu on Friday.

Speaking of being ruined, I have a little dilemma. The other day in a restaurant a very devious and sneaky cashier managed to switch my 100 sole ($30) note for a fake one. I didn´t realize she had made the switch until the next day. I have since tried to pass it off in several other establishments, and my "oh no, ¿está falso?" and incredulous look are getting less and less convincing each time I have to use them. The most discerning Peruvians can tell it´s fake right away although it is extremely well-done. Others take only 30 seconds or so to figure it out. My dilemma is: should I continue to try to give it away, knowing that the less-savvy business owners or market keepers (the ones least likely to realize it´s fake) are the ones who need the money the most, or do I give up, keep the bill as a souvenir and count it as a contribution to the "corrupt Peru fund"? Keeping in mind that $30 is about equivalent to my budget for a day and a half or more, what would you do if you were in my situation?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

El Condor Pasa

I have just spent about five days in Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. In fact, it was the deepest canyon in the world until just a few years ago, when they did some re-measuring and found that Cotahuasi Canyon, just a bit east of here, is a little deeper. I hadn´t met anyone to go with, so I signed up for a two-day tour. Luckily, another American guy in my hotel, Rick, also wanted to go hiking in the canyon, so he came along on the tour as well. The tour turned out to be really touristy--we were dropped off at plenty of places where we could buy things, or take pictures with baby llamas and people in traditional outfits, for a small fee, etc. Actually, very reminiscent of the tours I used to help organize for my old job, but completely different from the kind of traveling I´ve gotten used to on this trip. We even went to a folklore show at night, where we listened to a band play and watched dancers perform traditional dances. Of course, it wouldn´t be Andean folklore if the band didn´t play El Condor Pasa (made famous by Simon & Garfunkel--"I´d rather be a spider than a snail" etc--but now the National Peruvian Heritage Song.) We also watched the most bizarre dance, where one person pretends to eat from some kind of poisoned orange, then falls on the floor in spasms, and the other person tries to revive them by whipping them, hard, with a rope! It was totally bizarre, but hysterically funny, especially when some unsuspecting members of the audience got pulled in to try it out for themselves.

Anyway, the next morning we went to the Cruz del Condor, a spot where condors rise on early-morning thermal winds. We saw about 10 or so condors; they are very impressive, huge birds. Then Rick and I left the tour, and hiked the steep path down the canyon to Sangalle, more often called "The Oasis". It´s a beautiful spot, surrounded by palm trees accented against the orange and yellow canyon walls, with a microclimate of its own, which makes it almost tropical. There we found a big group of other hikers, with whom we spent two nights, sitting around the pool by day and the campfire by night. It was a totally idyllic spot, where a bed in a bamboo hut and dinner cost about $1.60 each (though a bottle of beer costs nearly twice as much!) and one could be tempted to stay for a long time. But instead we continued along the wall of the canyon to the tiny town of San Juan, and yesterday, resisting the temptation to hire a mule to carry us up, hiked 4 hours up the steep cliffs of the canyon, back to the top, starting at 6 AM to avoid the heat of the sun as much as possible.

Tonight I am off to Cuzco, which means in just a short time I will be at that tourist mecca, Machu Picchu!

If you want to check out some other photos from my hike, just click here.