Salkantay Trek, Machu Picchu, & Chinchero

Colin and I lucked out with our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. The weather forecast had threatened rain the entire time, but we had only a little the first day as we summited the Salkantay pass (4800m) between glacier peaks. From there it was all downhill. Literally. The first two days were by far the longest and most strenuous with 7-8 hours of walking each. We were rewarded at the end of day two with a visit to some nearby hot springs. The third day was short and flat with just 3 hours of walking to the town of Aguas Calientes, the launching point for Machu Picchu, where we’d have the most of the afternoon and evening to rest.

During the first 2 days, I had persuaded our guide, Herbert, of my tireless spirit and legs, and elicited from him information about a bonus hike that’s free and possible from town. He promised it to be difficult with ladders covering parts of the mountain that are too steep for trails, but I’d be rewarded with a unique view of Machu Picchu. After a quick stop at the hostel, I set off on my own for a couple of hours. I was a little nervous about the ladder being not so fond of heights, but Herbert assured me it wasn’t very long. I soon learned that there wasn’t just one ladder but five, and the longest one was around 100 feet. Once I was on my way, I certainly wasn’t turning back. In just under an hour, up I went to the top of Putucusi (Quechua for “Happy Mountain” according to Herbert and “Squash Mountain” according to an elderly man in town. We agreed on a compromise of “Happy Squash.”), climbing endless stairs and willing myself not to think about the trip down with each ladder I climbed up. The workout was great and I think I actually yelped aloud with glee as I came to the top and saw Machu Picchu for the first time. I enjoyed the view for a bit and made a fairly quick descent, making an effort to look down as little as possible. It was definitely worth it, especially having only seen a handful of people during the whole trip.

The next morning was an especially early wakeup at 4am to hike up the stairs to Machu Picchu. Turns out the site doesn’t open until 6 anyway, so it wasn’t entirely worth it (though another good workout). Once inside we enjoyed a tour of the site from Herbert and then were set loose to explore on our own. Having not signed up early enough to get tickets for Huayna Picchu, Colin and I hiked up to the Sun Gate for that view and then over to the Inca Bridge. After getting our fill, we went for a leisurely lunch back in Agua Calientes and learned how terrible we both are at chess. A few modes of transport later that evening, and we were back in Cuzco for a couple days of relaxation (and just in time for the rain!).

Our next mini adventure was to the town of Chinchero in the Sacred Valley, which was fairly uneventful. The town is small with not a whole lot going on. We stayed at a nice hostel called La Casa de Borro Lodge and Restaurant (where the cutest puppy, Maracino, also lived), visited ruins, ate empanadas, saw traditional weaving, explored a market, ate more empanadas, and bought some alpaca goods.

We made a quick trip of it and were back in Cuzco the next day, this time to greet our next visitors: mom & dad!

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Highs and Lows from Bolivia to Peru

From Uyuni, I took a bus to La Paz and continued directly on to Copacabana. As I passed through the city, I was thinking perhaps I should have stayed there for a bit. I’d heard mixed reviews, but to me it looked like a nice place with lots of interesting culture. I could see the naturaleza of which I’d been told – far more “rustic” than my experience in Argentina and Chile. Plus everything in Bolivia is CHEAP. Seriously cheap.

But on I went to Copacabana, a small town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, where I caught a ferry to Isla Del Sol in the middle of the lake. Lake Titicaca is the highest elevation navigable lake in the world. Once on the island, I paid my tariff (the first of many) and hiked directly and literally uphill and found a hostel for the night. I was pretty eager for a shower after traveling for 17 hours straight from Uyuni where I’d only had one shower during the tour that was not exactly hot and lacked much water pressure. Sadly, I soon learned I’d have to wait a bit longer for a hot shower and suffered through another cold one. After settling in, I wandered further uphill to explore and find a place for dinner. I decided on a small restaurant facing the other side of the island where I could watch the sunset, then it was early to bed.

I woke early the next morning in time to see the last of the sunrise just outside of my door. I set off early to do the hike around the island starting along the trail on the western shore. I’m not sure if I was up way too early or if there just aren’t that many people doing the hike in a single day, but I hardly saw anyone along the way until I got nearer the northern end. The silence and sense of isolation was very peaceful and welcome for my morning hike. That is until I approached a little building that appeared deserted, paused to take a picture, heard some dogs barking, then realized the barking dogs were running for me. Caught off guard and unsure what to do, I turned to walk on my way thinking they might just leave me alone until I felt something on my calf. I looked down and realized these dogs weren’t kidding. One had actually bit me. Still not knowing what to do I scrambled up a pile of rocks out or reach until the dogs seemed to lose interest and walked away. I climbed down and started to run a bit along the trail only to hear more barking and see the dogs chasing after me again. This time I did not turn my back on them and walked backward, kicking dirt at them until I was far enough from the house that I guess they felt they’d extricated the threat for good. Now I wish I had a picture of the dogs, because mind you, they were not large. I can only imagine what would have happened if they were. I checked my calf and was happy to see that the dog had only torn a whole in my leggings and not drawn any blood. No rabies shots for me!

Just as I had been thinking I wished I had more time in Bolivia, I now suddenly couldn’t wait to leave. After completing the circle of the island, I picked up my stuff and took the ferry back to Copacabana. I had already purchased a bus ticket from there to Puno, the city on the Peru side of Lake Titicaca, though now was hoping to change it and go straight to Arequipa. I arrived at the office with exactly 0 Bolivianos, having spent my last 12 on a banana smoothie on the island. The woman informed me I could change the ticket, so I off I went to the ATM to withdraw some more money. Unfortunately the luck I’d had in La Paz continued and none of my cards worked. Panic ensued, I ran around a lot, and finally she said I could go to Puno and withdraw money there (I figured maybe Bolivian ATMs didn’t like me). Of course that was not the problem and I still could not get money at the Puno bus station. Luckily I ran into the nicest woman who offered to pay my taxi fare to get to her hostel where I could then sort things out. Normally I would not have done this, but it turned out to be quite a nice hostel. The woman even gave me some food and tea that night and let me use the phone to call my bank. Finally, it seemed things were resolved and the next day when I saw cash dispensed from the happy mouth of the ATM I was fully relieved.

Things in Peru were looking up! I was excited to arrive in Arequipa next, having heard several great things about it. I went to a hostel that was recommended and was happy to hear they had space. The owner of the hostel, Jose, truly makes you feel at home. He recommended several things to do in the city and advised me of areas to stay away from. He also spoke to me in Spanish though he knew I spoke English (many people who speak English seem to answer that way, even though I ask in Spanish and am hoping to practice). Arequipa is the first city I’ve visited that I’ve read is known for its food. Obviously, I was pretty excited about that and my days there consisted of eating, visiting markets, and taking pictures around the city.

Goodness, I hardly did anything this week, yet it seems so full of activity, or maybe just anxiety. I’m in Cusco now and very excited to have my first visitor: my brother!!! Tomorrow we set off on a 4-day trek along the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu!

Desert, Lakes, & Salt Flats

I know the suspense must be killing you. The answer is yes, Chile was nice to me this time. After yet another lengthy bus ride, I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. My fellow bus riders and I looked around in uncertainty when we pulled up to the bus terminal, all quietly wondering “Is this really it?” All I could see was a few buildings and a lot of dirt. But yes, I was in the right place: welcome to San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Atacama Desert where it rains only twice a year.

I didn’t know much about the town prior to my arrival other than that the tours to Salar de Uyuni started there. After finding a hostel, I learned from the very friendly and helpful owners how much there is to do in the surrounding area. I also learned that for the moment there were no tours to Uyuni due to a petrol strike in Bolivia – a little foreshadowing of the change I’d experience after crossing the border into Bolivia. As I was told, “todo en Bolivia es naturaleza.” Both of these reasons gave me a day to spend exploring the area (and acclimating). I opted for renting a bike in the morning to go visit El Valle de la Luna, named for its resemblance to the surface of the moon and considered one of the driest places on Earth. Due to its extremely dry and unique terrain, it has been used by scientists as a testing place for Mars rover prototypes.

After my roughly 4-hour morning adventure, I returned to the hostel to join an organized tour visiting a few more of the surrounding areas, including Cejar Lagoon and Salar de Atacama. Cejar Lagoon is a lake in the middle of the desert with around a 25% salt content in which visitors are permitted to swim, or float rather. While it wasn’t terribly warm out and the water was quite cold, I forced myself to jump in and experience this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The sensation was so strange – not only did I float, but I could hardly keep my legs underwater when I tried. Seems like it would be pretty convenient for a pool party. Once I got out of the water and dried, I was covered with a white salty crust. For once, I had something else to blame my paleness on.

After the Cejar Lagoon, we made our way to the Salar de Atacama – the largest salt flat in Chile. I didn’t particularly care about this visit since I was still planning to visit Uyuni (the largest salt flat in the world), but I was told the Atacama one currently had water on it and was reflecting while Uyuni was not. I couldn’t pass that up. The tour arrived shortly before sunset in time for some really spectacular sights and unworthy photos.

I had found out earlier in the day that the strike in Bolivia was over and the tours were on again, so I booked one leaving the next day. I was picked up at the hostel and taken to the border crossing, where I paid for my visa, met my driver (Edgar), loaded into a 4×4 with backpacks strapped to the top, and set off on the 3-day journey. I won’t go into excruciating detail, but the first day consisted of several stops: Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (both colored by the different minerals they contain), views of the volcano Licancabur, hot springs, geysers, and Laguna Colorada, which is inhabited by pink flamingos. During the day, we reached an altitude of 4930 meters before reaching our refugio (hostel) at just 4500 meters, also making for terribly cold nights at around 0°C.

My head had started to hurt progressively throughout the day and it was becoming apparent I hadn’t been drinking enough water. At the refugio, Edgar brought me coca leaves to have in a tea that is supposed to help with the altitude. I drank that and plenty more water, though my headache did not improve. Once dinner was served, I forced down a little bit of food, and quickly learned both that my stomach wasn’t fond of that idea and I truly had altitude sickness. A doctor at the refugio gave me a couple of pills and I immediately went to bed. Not a great first night.

Thankfully, the second day I felt much better and was able to enjoy the rest of the trip. Day 2 was a lot of driving with visits to el Arbol de Piedra and several lakes. We descended quite a bit in altitude and ended the day at Hotel de Sal, a building that is actually made from the salt and has salt floors. There I was happy to have a semi-warm shower and a hot meal that agreed with me.

The third and final day had an early start at 4:30am in order to go see the sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni, the pinnacle of the trip. The Atacama salt flat pales in comparison to Uyuni. The expanse of Salar de Uyuni is literally awesome, stretching 12000 square kilometers and going 7-8 meters deep. The primary lesson I learned that day was I should have practiced taking pictures. There is a lot to play with given the lack of perspective, but I found it surprisingly tough to figure out. Also, not so easy without friends with whom to get into it.

Up next: making my way north through Bolivia and into Peru!

Mendoza & Salta

After another night bus, I was excited to arrive in Mendoza despite catching a cold my last day in Bariloche. I opted to get my own space and splurge a little on an apartment instead of staying in a hostel. I arrived a bit before the apartment was ready, so I headed in the general direction I needed to go and stumbled upon a pedestrian street with tons of cafes and outdoor seating. I set up camp for a bit until the apartment was ready. When I got up to go, I was delighted to see I was actually on the same street as the apartment and soon discovered it was right across from the cafe in the heart of downtown. The apartment was exactly what I needed – my own space, a kitchen, close to everything, and surprisingly quiet given its location.

My first couple of days were primarily spent resting, recouping, and trying to find a pharmacy that was open on a Sunday. Once I was feeling a bit better, I managed the one outing I had been looking forward to – visiting the bodegas (wineries) in the Maipu region just outside of the city. I took the local bus to the starting point where I rented a bike from Mr. Hugo’s. I have to say the outing was not as fabulous as I’d anticipated. I think I’ve been a bit spoiled having ridden my bike through both Napa and Sonoma. The main road was fairly busy and did not have a bike lane for the full stretch. Giant trucks screaming by me did not give me the biggest sense of comfort nor safety. The scenery and traffic improved once I got onto the sides roads, which is where most of the bodegas are. I stopped by a few, though my visits were fairly quick considering I was just taking pictures and not tasting wine due to my lingering congestion. On my final stop I was happy to enjoy a tasting of various oils, vinegars, tapenades, jams, and chocolates. There I also met an interesting family of four from Australia. They were a couple months in to a year-long trip around the world. Mind you, the two kids were about 9 and 11. Apparently Australia has flexible homeschooling laws, so that’s what they’re doing while traveling South America, Europe, and Asia. I was pretty astounded – they by far have the most interesting back story of any of the travelers I’ve met.

A couple other highlights of my in Mendoza: I went for 2 runs in a nice park they have and I managed to cook all of my meals for 4 days with just about $30 in groceries.

From Mendoza, I planned to cross back into Chile and visit Santiago and Valparaiso. I arrived at the bus station in the afternoon in search of a night bus only to learn that the route to Santiago over the Andes was closed due to snow and might not reopen for 4-5 days. You might recall my first bout with Mother Nature was on my first visit to Chile in TdP. This time, She had decided to not even let me enter the country. Going with the flow has pretty much been the theme of my trip and Argentina had been pretty good to me, so I decided to head north to Salta – just a quick 18 hour bus ride away.

Salta is a small town in the northwest region of Argentina and a good stepping stone for my next sure destination – Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Salta is a unique city in Argentina, having preserved a good bit of its colonial culture and architecture. The people of Salta are very proud of their home and make a point of identifying themselves as Salteños rather than Argentinians. I stayed in the room of an apartment belonging to an older woman, Josefina, from the area. Josefina was very hospitable and loved to tell me about the culture and politics of both Salta and Argentina as a whole. I stayed only a few days, during which I explored the town and tried the local cuisine – more empanadas, tamales, humitas, and locro, a corn-based stew with white beans, vegetables, and meat. I could have stayed a while longer in Salta and would definitely go back to visit the surrounding areas, which include smaller towns, hiking, beautiful scenery, and wine country.

From Salta, I figured out my next step on the way to Bolivia: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I hoped this time Chile might actually cooperate :).

(I’m playing catch-up here, so there will be another post soon!)