Ecuador and the end of the South American leg

March 28 – April 6 2015

Ten short days in Ecuador, 24 hours in Bogota, and just like that, seven solid months of travel in South America came to a close.

I took a bus ride of nearly 20 hours from Trujillo in Peru to Guayaquil in Ecuador, a trip that was mainly unremarkable despite involving crossing an international border. I’ve crossed so many borders now. My passport is starting to fill up.

I visited Guayaquil, Couchsurfing with an awesome Finnish girl who makes macrame bracelets and had moved there to be with her Ecuadoran boyfriend. I was there 48 hours or so, most of my time spent with Viia, her boyfriend, and one of his friends, driving around Guayaquil, eating a typical Ecuadoran dish called Seco de Pollo, talking with Viia about travel and about South American culture, and, strangely, watching the season finale of the Walking Dead.

I took a bus up the coast from Guayaquil to a little beach town Viia recommended, where I watched ten or fifteen other backpackers got off the bus at the big surf town Montanita, kept staring out the window as we passed rows of identical kiosks selling the same cheap souvenirs you can find all over Ecuador, waited as the bus rolled further on to Olon, where I got off and took another bus 30 minutes further up the coast, past towns and into a country of tiny villages and quiet seaside bed-and-breakfasts, to Viejamar, an enchanted garden of hibiscus flowers and palm trees that happened to also contain a hostel – a few bamboo cabins, hammocks, and couches scattered among the palms and flowers and under the shade of the second-floor cabin where Rodrigo, the Chilean owner, spent his days surfing and occasionally administrating the hostel. The pool was on the other side of the kitchen and the gate was on the other side of the pool, under the balcony where you could watch the sunset and the locals surfing after work and feel the sea breeze, and on the other side of the gate it was sand and a twenty-second stroll (or a ten-second dash at mid-day when the sand was hot) to the little palm hut with hammocks and hooks to hang up my towel and then another two second dash down the wet sand and into the formidable waves of the Pacific Ocean. I stayed at Viejamar for five days.

image

image

image

There’s an island about an hour from shore called Isla de la Plata, reached from the town of Puerto Lopez (close to Viejamar, between 20 and 30 minutes driving, depending on how fast the fishermen I hitched rides with wanted to drive). This island is like a small Galapagos, they say, because some of the same species live there. A column of massive, sharp-winged Frigate birds dominates the sky above the little mass of land, the birds circling slowly and silently in mesmerizing circles, not like vultures and not at all like frantic, haphazard seagulls. On top of the island we walked with a guide along a sandy path where blue-footed boobies nest. How have these animals survived, as curious as they are? Perhaps there’s a reason they only live here, and on the Galapagos, isolated from humans and other predators. They would come out of their nests to look at us, waddling practically in between our feet and turning their heads slowly and curiously. I’ve never seen a wild animal so curious and so unafraid, and so serene.

image

image

We took the boat out into the shallow, clear water in the shoals of the island. Sea turtles swam up to our boat. Schools of parrotfish flickered under us. Everyone got out of the boat to snorkel. I never learned to snorkel so I dove without a mask, looking through the clear water at the coral colonies under us.

image

From Viejamar I took an overnight bus to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, high in the mountains at around 2800 meters in elevation. That first morning after bad vibes at the first hostel I was supposed to stay at (unluckily named “vibes”), and after I found a much prettier hostel looking out across a wide valley to the high mountains beyond, I took one of the free walking tours in the old center of Quito. A girl from Guayaquil led a group of about 20 of us through the central market (I’m crazy about markets), through several plazas and past historic buildings, telling us wild stories about some of the crazy presidents in Ecuador’s past (and unfortunately, its present), showing us monuments to the fighters who were among the first in South America to rebel against Spanish rule. Quito is a beautiful, interesting city, and I barely began to discover it.

image

image

image

I went to an Easter Vigil service in a building that is home to at least three different Christian churches (one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, one German-speaking). The service was small and disorganized, possibly because it was held in three different languages; but the pastors and priests made the most of it. I went back the next morning for Easter, feeling a little strange as i always do when I visit a congregation just to pass through. Churches I think are not places that people generally pass through. They are places you come to find family and heal wounds and plead for forgiveness and contemplate the meaning of your life. They’re definitely not a place for tourists. But a tourist I was and they were friendly and gracious about it, as people in churches usually are.

If you’re in Quito, the city in South America that rests on the official equator, you have to go and visit the official monument that marks the official equator line. It’s touristic and Disneyworld-ish, but you can’t come all the way to the equator and not go. So I went, taking a bus 90 minutes from my hostel in Quito, walking around and taking photos, and feeling a little weird in this surreal fabricated Disneyworld village, wandering around alone in the morning on the day after Easter when everything was quiet and most of the shop keepers weren’t even awake enough to try to pressure me into buying a tacky souvenir. And it was interesting to think, wow, I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere this whole time and now I can just hop back to the northern hemisphere, like I’m teleporting home or something. And it was disappointing to visit the equator line and find that the scientific exhibits were closed, so I wandered around looking at a photography exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the experiments conducted by French scientists who were responsible for measuring the bulge of the earth at the equator.

image

image

And then it was time for another 90-minute bus ride back to Quito and convincing the receptionists at my hostel to help me with directions to the airport (is it that difficult to believe I would rather pay $5 and take the bus than $35 for a taxi? Apparently so.) and taking the bus which was cheap and fast and got me to the airport for my flight to Bogota.

And then it was barely more than an hour before I landed back in Bogota, back in the city where I started my journey through South America over seven months ago.

Advertisements

Huanchaco and Trujillo

Huanchaco and Trujillo
26-27 march 2015

26 March 2015
I wake up in the predawn light with my green Oltursa blanket tangled around me and my feet on the seat next to me which by some miracle remained empty all night. Around sunup I start to see the concrete and brick outskirts of a city, which grows to larger shops and warehouses by the time we reach the bus company’s office where Harmeet and I disembark. To exit the station we have to squeeze through a single door in which six taxi drivers are standing, jostling each other, blocking our way, screaming in our faces and trying to grab out bags. The further north I go, the more aggressive the taxi drivers become. We pace past them serenely and wait for the prices they’re offering for Huanchaco to go down and haggle a little further with a guy driving a rickety station wagon. He drives us through the thick morning haze, out of Trujillo, past the outskirts and the airport, past a huge clay brick Inka ruin, into a small beach town of low concrete buildings, nearly silent in the early morning.

Things are weird at the hostel where Harmeet has a reservation, so I make sure she’s checked in all right and head next door to a different hostel I had in mind, where the owner checks me in early with no fuss and leads me through a lush, shady garden hung with hammocks to a little stuffy room off the courtyard. I sling my backpack on a top bunk and sneak past a few backpackers sleeping with eye masks on to freshen up before I meet Harmeet again for breakfast.

We eat at my hostel, in the restaurant on the first floor with the door open to the ocean. While we’re waiting for coffee we see a wave come rushing in, surging over the little sandback and over the concrete planters, over the curb and halfway across the street. The rough sea seems to be washing this part of the beach away.

image

Huanchaco looks a little worse for wear – the beach is rough and strewn with large, heavy rocks that clatter in the heavy undertow after each violent wave rolls back. In the morning as we walk south along the sand we see more sand banks eaten away by the waves. They say Huanchaco wasn’t always like this – I read that a few years ago someone built a breakwave – some kind of sea wall – further south and it’s been affecting the currents here, making the waves stronger and more destructive. There are banners up around town protesting the sea wall and in the evening a crowd of about 30 people stand shouting outside the municipal building and parade down the street, blocking traffic in protest.

There’s not a lot to do in Huanchaco except drink, eat ceviche, and surf. Harmeet and I aren’t here to surf, so we spend the afternoon and long beautiful ocean evening in bars and restaurants. The ceviche here is different than in Lima, the fish is denser and richer. I loved the ceviche in Lima, but this is something else, something even better. We bar hop a little, sitting first in a surf hostel with beautiful plush antique furniture, then in a little tiki-style bar. In between we stop at a street vendor for anticucho. I need water so I walk for the first time away from Huanchaco’s touristic main boulevard. One block from the fun, brightly lit and decorated beachfront bars it’s back to quiet streets with concrete buildings and little kiosks – typical residential South America, at least in my experience. It’s familiar. One block past this, things get a little rougher, more potholed, stray dogs looking a little more mangey. I stop at a kiosk planning to buy water, call to the attendant who must be in the back somewhere. I glance around idly as I’m waiting and make eye contact with a guy across the street who wanders out of the doorway to a house holding a little jar half full of liquid. He stares at me and slowly vomits into the jar, never breaking eye contact. I decide I’m not thirsty. “Couldn’t you find water?” Harmeet asks me back at the anticucho stand. “Things got weird,” I say.

27 march 2015
Harmeet and I eat breakfast at the vegetarian cafe Otra Cosa (an omelette and two coffees for me, crispy falafel for her). The owner, a friendly Dutch guy, gives us directions to a bus terminal in Trujillo. An actual bus terminal! This is what I’ve been missing since Ica, where I stopped finding big bus terminals with a bunch of companies where you can shop around for tickets to wherever you’re going. In Lima we had to pick a bus company, figure out where in that massive city their office was located, and go to buy tickets in advance. Harmeet and I pack and grab a bus to town, going to find this mythical bus terminal.

As it turns out, the terminal only hosts bus companies with routes going south, and it’s another two hours and three taxi rides back and forth across Trujillo before Harmeet has a ticket to Mancora and I have mine to Guayaquil and we’re finally sitting down to lunch in a little cafe near the historical center. Neither of us can leave until the evening, so we kill some hours walking through Trujillo’s colonial center, to a strange toy museum with dolls and antique toy cars and dollhouses and rocking horses and marionettes, back out to another cafe with divine espresso, and finally along a pedestrian street where we buy souvenirs and stroll with everyone else in the cool evening air and finally say goodbye when Harmeet squeezes into a taxi to her bus terminal and I wander around downtown Trujillo alone for a few hours before heading to my bus terminal for the midnight bus to Ecuador.

Midnight comes and goes at the bus terminal, but not my bus to Guayaquil, and at first I’m surprised and worried that the bus isn’t leaving on time. By the time one of the guys working at the terminal comes around to tell us it will be another three hours before the bus comes I’ve reminded myself that this is South America and almost nothing happens on time, and I’ve relaxed and tuned up my rusty Spanish chatting with the other two sleepy people waiting for the bus, Alan and Anna, he from Peru and she from Andalucia in Spain. We all sleep on the floor of the strange little waiting room until the bus finally arrives around 3:30.

Lima, Peru: 22-25 March 2015

22 march 2015
The taxi drivers practically mob me as I walk up to the road leading out of Huacachina with my backpack slung across my shoulders, headed for the road out of town. They’re all talking over each other, offering prices, asking me where I’m going. I’m about to get into a cab when just in time a line of the tiny, plastic-sided three-wheeled carts you see all over Peru come teetering around the corner. They’re everywhere in the cities, not much more than a little motorcycle engine attached to three skinny wheels, tiny and a little slow and brightly decorated with plastic sides, and probably not very safe in the event of an accident, but usually half the cost of a taxi and at least three times cooler to ride in. I’ve heard backpackers call them tuk-tuks, which is what they call similar cars in Thailand, but here in Peru they’re called taximotos.

I flag one down and slide in the back as the driver guns it for Ica. “Terminal de buses!” I yell over the buzz of the little motor. “A donde vas?” He asks me. I tell him Lima and a few minutes later we’re pulling up to a little building that seems dedicated to just one bus company. It’s not what I was expecting – “terminal de buses? Aqui?” but he waves me on and I wander inside completely confused. Strangely helpful security guards shepherd me over to a counter where I buy a ticket for Lima and after a false start involving getting on the wrong bus, I’m on my way.

17:30 – the bus pulls into a parking lot in Lima that would seem to be our final stop. This isn’t a bus terminal with multiple companies all together – it’s just a building and parking lot of the company I came in with. I’m confused by this system, but at least they didn’t leave me on the side of the road like in Ica. There’s the usual screaming horde of taxi drivers outside the door. I make it through the crowd without losing my composure and screaming back at someone, and after a few vague sets of instructions I manage to hop on a collectivo to Miraflores, where I’m staying in a pretty hostel on a quiet residential street.

After the bus ride I’m too tired for anything except dinner (stir-fried eggplant, in the first hostel where I’ve been able to cook since Arequipa) and relaxing on the rooftop terrace of the hostel, enjoying the night air.

23 march 2015
After breakfast, I meet Liz, a girl from Lima who I met online through a friend of a friend, and who has time to show me around Lima today. She picks me up in her car and takes me through busy Miraflores to a stunning shoreline that nobody really talks about when they talk about Lima. Here there are beautiful brown cliffs towering above the pulsing blue waves. The city stretches out behind us on all sides. To the left there’s a towering hill speared with tall radio towers, sheltering high-rise apartments and office buildings. To the right, more cliffs and shoreline, fading into the ocean haze. Liz and I walk down to the shore and out a little pier.

image

Later she takes me to her family’s house where we eat an anticucho of chicken heart and delicious fried rice and I try the ubiquitous Peruvian soda called Inka Cola for the first time (it’s yellow and sweet and reminds me of candy).

We drive with Liz’s mother and sister to Barrio Barranco. On the way Liz tells me about Peru and about her time spent living in Mexico. I exchange travel stories with her mom, who has been all over Europe and the US and who is planning to go to China next year despite speaking only Spanish. She likes hearing about my trip and wants to know, as most parents do, what my own parents think of me traveling all over the world. I give her my usual answer – I wasn’t living at home before anyway, and my parents tell me they’re happy to have raised an independent and adventurous daughter. They never tried to stop me from traveling.

Barrio Barranco is a pretty neighborhood of shady old streets and pretty buildings that I think date to around the turn of the century. We pass charming old bars and little restaurants and an old beautiful bridge overlooking a dry canal that opens onto the sea.

image

Just before sunset we drive back to the shore, to a very western open-air shopping mall with fancy restaurants and American stores. We find a restaurant with a view of the ocean and a happy hour with some seriously strong drinks and we order a seafood platter and watch the sun sink into the ocean.

image

24 march 2015
I wake up late and have a lazy morning. Today I have made a solemn vow to eat ceviche, so I set out for a restaurant in Miraflores called La Red (the network) that’s supposed to be famous for the quality of its fresh ceviche. I find it a quite upscale restaurant with glass table tops and fancy looking desserts on display. The ceviche costs an arm and a leg – 30 soles, three times as much as what they charge at the little restaurant down the street. I decide to go for it anyway – I’m in Lima and it’s the national dish and you only live once. The ceviche comes out fresh and tender and soaked in delicious lime juice and salt. The taste is incredible. I eat the raw fish with sweet potatoes and with big roasted corn kernels, which taste delicious and which you can find all over this part of Peru.

I rest for the heat of Lima’s scorching afternoon – the sun is baking and there’s hardly any breeze away from the shore. In the evening I’m craving something fatty after the lean ceviche, so I find chorizo in the supermarket and cook it together with melted cheese and tomatoes. I try drinking Corona, which is apparently gluten free according to the tests despite being brewed from barley. (It doesn’t give me a gluten reaction – so far so good, readers). I stay up watching movies and relaxing on the roof of the hostel.

25 march 2015
Tonight I’m taking an overnight bus to Trujillo, further north in Peru, but I’ve got all day to kill, so I buy a bus ticket for the evening (at the supermarket – I’ve given up on the idea of an actual bus terminal by now) and catch a city bus into downtown Lima.

Lima is a gigantic city – more than eight million people – and the traffic is miserable. The bus driver slams on brakes and gas with equal frequency and vigor, and the noise of people leaning on their horns (5 seconds at a time, or more) is constant. It takes us an irritable 45 minutes from Miraflores before I’m at the Plaza de Armas getting my bearings. The buildings here are old, colonial, though I learn later that most of them have been reconstructed in a colonial style and aren’t original. Hundreds of years of strong earthquakes have leveled the city year after year and hardly anything has stayed standing for more than a century. It surprises me that modern construction techniques have never tried to mimic the Inca style of building with slanted walls, which is famously resilient against earthquakes.

image

From the Plaza I walk to a convent of Franciscan monks and nuns, where I go with a group on a tour of the cloister and the famous catacombs under the sanctuary. I’m surprised at how lovely the building is; there’s an elaborate wooden dome made of a sort of intricate lattice; old frescos of surprisingly good quality depicting the life of Saint Francis; a beautiful library with spiral staircases and books dating to the early 19th century. The sanctuary is huge and wooden and grand, with another impressive ceiling and an elaborate lazy-susan wooden book holder for the massive hymnals we saw earlier.

image

We pass through rooms of monks’ vestments and down a set of stairs to cool musty rooms with low ceilings (I’m happy again to be in a country where I’m the same height as everyone else here and I don’t have to crouch). Through a set of low doors we come to a series of tunnels lined with rectangular wells. In the wells are thousands and thousands of human bones. They say that at least 25,000 people were buried here, first when it was a public cemetery, later on by choice when deeply religious citizens wanted to be buried close to the convent. The bones have been disinterred and re-arranged over the years, and the top layer of bones in each of the wells has been arranged into a pattern, but I think it all seems rather sloppy – the bones are piled messily, caked with dust. In some corners of the catacombs there are random fragments of femurs and pelvic bones lying broken and seemingly forgotten. I can’t help but compare these catacombs mentally to the catacombs in Paris, where rows and rows of bones and skulls line the corridors for miles; but there you never feel a lack of respect – awe, perhaps, and sobriety, but everything is polished and arranged and there’s an air of macabre dignity to it. The catacombs are the last stop on our tour of the convent and everyone leaves feeling a little unsettled.

I eat ceviche for lunch again, so good it nearly brings tears to my eyes, with Api, a drink made from purple corn juice. I finish just in time to take a free walking tour from the Plaza de Armas, which I’m sorry to say is probably the most boring tour I’ve taken in South America. Our guide speaks very quietly in a monotone, going into laborious detail over insignificant architectural features of the buildings downtown. The main thing I remember learning is that there was once a rail and tram system in Lima, and that it was disassembled when it was believed that gas for cars would be much cheaper. Our guide mentions Lima’s numerous earthquakes and takes us for a Pisco tasting, which thanks to his deadpan delivery is probably my least exciting alcohol-related event to date.

image

Back at the hostel I make myself a simple supper and settle down to wait for my bus to Trujillo. I’m going with Harmeet, an English girl of Indian heritage whom I met in the hostel. We take a taxi together to the parking lot of the bus company – of course there was no bus terminal to go to – and go through a check-in and quick security scan that’s almost like the security at an airport. We’re both shocked to get on the bus and find how nice it is – we have tv screens in front of our seats like you get on some airplanes, blankets, headphones, and a bus attendant who brings around snacks as we navigate the outskirts of Lima. We settle in to very comfortable seats for the ride, which is meant to take around 10 hours.

The Oasis at Huacachina: 19-21 March 2015

19 march 2015
I left Cusco on an overnight bus, sitting next to a kid from Lima who had the same name as my grandfather, Franklin. I remember this as the most awful of my bus rides through Peru – worse even than the minivan along the cliffs to Hydroelectrica – because of the number of people on the bus who spent the entire ride vomiting into plastic bags handed out by the bus company. An indigenous girl and her mother sat behind me filling bag after bag (occasionally I saw them walk past carrying their full bags to the toilet). Franklin made it to the bathroom in time, thank God, and spent the rest of the trip sweating next to me looking miserable. I’m no stranger to physical ailments (read: gluten intolerance) but thankfully motion sickness isn’t on my list of issues, so I made good use of the music loaded on my iphone to drown out the sound of sickness and enjoyed the view out the window of the brilliant green hills.

20 march 2015
Around 11:00 the landscape levels out and most people’s stomachs calm down (except for the ladies behind me who are still at it). We’re in a beautiful yellow sandy desert now, stretching out flat in the valley where we drive and bounded by stark rocky mountains and plateaus. We pass Nazca, where the famous enigmatic petroglyphs lie close to the road, though of course you can’t really see them from the ground. We stop at a roadside shack for lunch (some people still have an appetite) before continuing on to Ica.

Franklin nudges me and tells me to let the bus driver know I’m getting off here. “Doesn’t the bus go to a terminal?” He shakes his head. I stagger down the stairs as the bus swings around corners in the outskirts of Ica and convince the drivers to let me off in the dirt by the side of the road – I get the sense they’re reluctant to do even that, never mind actually taking me to a bus station or at least a taxi stand. They chuck me out the bus and leave me coughing in the dust by a busy side road in God knows what part of Ica. I stand there in my chucks with my blonde hair and my big American backpack, feeling indignant and a little awkward and exposed for a few minutes. A sleepless night surrounded by vomiting bus passengers leaves me a little underprepared for thinking on my feet. But I love this about traveling, the random places you find yourself and the adventure of getting yourself where you need to go on your own willpower. And there are few enough places I’ve traveled where friendly locals would actually refuse to help a lost tourist. Within a few minutes, a shirtless old man working on a car near where the bus ditched me waves me over and points excitedly at a tiny, rickety taxi that’s just turning across the road. He tells me it’s his neighbor’s taxi, and the neighbor can give me a cheap ride to Huacachina.

I get in the front seat of the taxi, say hola, and start to put my seatbelt on. “Oh you won’t need that, I’m a safe driver,” says Jhon, before stomping on the gas and driving full-speed in reverse for about three blocks. It’s probably not a very safe ride, from an objective perspective, but it’s a fun and fast one and about six minutes later we’ve come around a curve in the road that takes us into a valley of high sand dunes, and then we’re pulling into a tiny sandy town surrounding a cluster of lush palm trees ringing a large brown pond.

image

From the racks of snowboards hanging up at the hostel and the giant posters advertising rides in dune buggies, I gather people tend to come here for adventure sports in the sand dunes. I consider trying this – it certainly seems fun – but eventually decide to save the money for something else. Adventure sports were never meant to be the focus of my trip – I didn’t ride the death road in La Paz, I didn’t do a trek to Macchu Picchu, I don’t plan on zip lining in BaƱos. It’s not my style. I’m not exactly an adrenaline-fueled person to begin with, and anyway, for this journey at least, I wanted my focus to be on experiences that would help me understand South American culture. I don’t expect to experience any great insights into the nature of everyday life outside the US while squeezed into a dune buggy full of shrieking tourists. That sounds cynical – I guess you never know. Perhaps next time.

I spend a quiet two days in Hucachina. It’s touristic – you can’t walk anywhere without someone coming up to you and trying quite persistently to sell you a tour or convince you to eat at their restaurant. The aggressive salesmanship has gotten worse as I’ve come farther north into Peru. Here a simple “no, gracias” is interrupted by raised voices and even more rapid spanish as they attempt to change my mind by reading me the entire menu or describing a tour in detail. I find it rude and a little exhausting. Fortunately, the little sand beach that rings the lagoon is free from this kind of behavior. I find shady spots on the rough, worn concrete walls and watch the humid air stir the surface of the lagoon, watch people float their paddle boats in circles across the water.

image

21 march 2015
Before breakfast on the morning of my first full day, I climb one of the sand dunes looming over Huacachina. It’s hard work getting up those massive formations. They must be 150 meters high, the big ones, and the thing about climbing in sand is you’ve got nothing to push against, so progress is slow and difficult. The humid air here makes me sweat as I heave myself up to the very crest of the southern dune and look out across the desert. The view is enchanting. I was taken with the desert in Nevada as soon as I saw it, but that is high desert, flat caked earth and hard, unforgiving rocks and sagebrush and rough mountains. This is something softer and more exotic, this mysterious yellow landscape of sensual curves and elegant arcs and mysterious hollows between the hills. I look out in wonder to where the dunes march away south and west to the horizon. To the north and east, separated from the oasis by the crest of a single large dune, the city of Ica coughs in haze between the foot of steep mountains and the dust of the dunes.

image

Back in Huacachina I enjoy a day of doing nothing in particular. Sometimes I feel guilty for relaxing, doing nothing, like I’m wasting time or missing an opportunity; but then I think back to where I might be if I hadn’t quit my job, in a meeting or at my desk working, and I think, I’m so lucky to have this time to myself, I’m lucky that I could afford to quit working for a year and do whatever the hell I want. I will probably never have this opportunity again. I’m going to savor it.

At sunset I walk up the dunes again to watch the sun go down. On the way I use the money I would have spent on a dune buggy tour to buy a beautiful macrame bracelet set with lapiz lazuli. The woman who made it ties it on my wrist, then clucks at my disapprovingly when she sees the state of my other bracelets. The one from Uruguay is being held on with a safety pin and the one from Machu Picchu is already coming undone. With a few deft movements she repairs the loose ends and secures them with a quick flame from a lighter, giving me a motherly pat and a smile and sending me on my way.

I watch the sun set and come back from the dunes covered in sand. The evening breeze crested the tops of the dunes with a surprising force that drove blowing sand in my ears, coating my skin with a fine layer and sticking to my face where I had sweated from the effort. The beauty and romance and enchantment of the desert are all great, but it’s also a messy, sandy place when you come right down to it.

image

The hostel is about half full of friendly-looking backpackers, but the people who pass through while I’m there are all strangely insular, either in closed-off groups or buried silently in books, and I don’t exchange more than a few superficial greetings with anyone. This doesn’t bother me – I’m independent enough to survive a few days of keeping myself company – and I spend my last evening in Huacachina drinking red wine on the patio of the hostel where it overlooks the lagoon.

Cusco and Machu Picchu

Cusco and Machu Picchu
14-19 march 2015

14 march 2015
I staggered off the night bus and into a crowd of taxi drivers screaming like football fans on the morning of my first day in Cusco, Peru. At the time I was too dazed from an inexplicably sleepless night on a bus to appreciate Cusco’s fascinating mixture of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture; but later, after I’d downed three or four cups of coffee and eaten an enormous American-style breakfast in a touristic cafe, when I wandered the polished stone streets and little alleyways of the historic center of Cusco, I was struck by the history written on the buildings in Cusco. All around the historic center of the city, Spanish colonial buildings were constructed on the demolished foundations of Inca palaces and temples, made of stone blocks crafted so carefully that you can’t fit even a sheet of paper between them, blocks which they say seem to jump back into place after an earthquake – blocks fashioned into gently slanted walls which end abruptly where the fragile, white walls of their conquerors were built on top after the Spanish wiped out the advanced civilization that once thrived here.

image

This morning I wander central Cusco thinking dark thoughts about colonialism until I can check into my hostel for the night and meet Roman, the Swiss guy I traveled with previously in Bolivia. In the afternoon we do what practically every other visitor to Cusco does : we plan our trip to Machu Picchu.

image

When I left for South America, Machu Picchu actually wasn’t on my list of places to visit. People usually say it’s best to go as part of a trek through the mountains, and I knew I wouldn’t have time or money to do a trek like that, so I originally thought I would skip Machu Picchu and come back on a different trip. But by chance I’d done some research and found out it’s possible to get to the town called Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Pichu, by public transport and walking, and for a small fraction of the usual cost and in less time than you normally need for a trek. Roman and I do a little asking around at tour agencies around town and eventually find a company that runs minivans from Cusco to a hydroelectric plant on the river, the site from which it’s possible to walk along the tracks of the ridiculously expensive tourist train that goes to Aguas Calientes, a walk of a few hours. The round trip cost is 75 soles, about $25. To ride the train would be at least $150.

In the evening we meet Gemma, an English girl I’d met in a hostel in Puerto Natales, and the three of us take a walking tour of Cusco. We walk to the Plaza de Armas as the sun sets and look down on the grave of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, who was executed by the Spanish conquistadors after he lost his value as a hostage. This is the first of countless places in Cusco where the tragic history of the Spanish conquest is written: here was an advanced, powerful, intelligent civilization living and working and reigning, and the Spanish conquistadors came in to their land, stole their finely crafted golden treasures and melted them down into bars, raped their vestal virgins, and murdered their citizens. The tore down their temples and used the blocks to make cathedrals and palaces. We climb a hill above Cusco and look down on the city of this violent conquest, the city which was built shaped like a puma, the city that was once the seat of power of the Inca empire.

image

15 March 2015
Roman and I are up with the sun. Minivans leave for Hydroelectrica between seven and eight and we negotiate a couple of seats on one of them and soon we’re climbing Cusco’s steep stony streets and winding our way into the mountains as the sun is breaking through the morning fog.

We bounce through the outskirts for a while and soon we’re in the mountains, following huge slow curves around the contours of massive, steep hills. I’m stunned by how beautiful the landscape is here. The mountains are steep but green, covered in soft-looking brilliant green grass. Near the town of Ollantaytambo we pass a valley where the mountains must rise two kilometers or more above the floor where a tiny, humble village is nestled. After a break we enter a road weaving its way through those high steep mountains, in between those high green and impossibly beautiful slopes.

image

We stop briefly at a small town along the side of a river gorge. Our driver exchanges a few words with some guys running a kiosk by the side of the road, then tells us it’s an hour and a half to Santa Teresa, the town just by the Hydroelectric plant. I can’t tell you what the scenery looked like for this part of the drive, readers, because I kept my eyes closed for most of it. When I opened them for a few brief seconds I saw glimpses of the narrow dirt road we were traveling along, high up on the side of a steep gorge carved out by the river. I would open my eyes again and see that the tires of our minivan were about a foot from the edge of the unpaved dirt road, wet and muddy from the rain, where there was a sheer drop of about 500 meters straight down. No guard rails, readers – it’s not that kind of road. Sometimes we crossed wide concrete channels where runoff water flowed over the road, nearly covering the tires of the van. At one crossing three rows of passengers got out of the van at the driver’s request and walked a little wooden bridge across a sharp bend in the road, to keep the bus from becoming too heavy for the flooded road. Other times when the minivan would lean toward the cliff and I felt fear surge up in my chest and tried to breathe through it, I told myself, There’s no sense in being afraid. Being afraid won’t keep you safe. The bus driver is the one who will keep you safe, and he drives this way all the time. Don’t be afraid.

image

I kept breathing and closing my eyes and the driver kept guiding the minivan around those sharp, tight turns high above the river, along a road that could probably crumble in a landslide at any time, and I wondered if this was one of those times when I was trying too hard to be tough and independent and brave and had really gotten myself into a dangerous situation. But finally I felt the motion of the bus level out and become solid and normal and I cautiously opened my eyes and saw that we were coming into a rundown, concrete town and pulling up to a restaurant and all the other tourists were getting out of the bus and stretching and sitting down to eat.

Roman and I eat at one of the nearly identical lunch spots in Santa Teresa, serving a fixed-price menu of surprisingly juicy pork along with the ubiquitous rice and french fries. After an hour we’re back on the van for a soothing, easy 45-minute ride to the hydroelectric plant. We come to the plant – a grey concrete industrial building by the side of a roaring, swollen river, chocolate brown from sediment and foamy white where it gushes past huge boulders. The minivan lumbers to a stop next to a few other minivans. A handful of backpackers, guides, and industrious taxi drivers amble around. Everyone else in our van waits for a guide, while Roman and I shoulder our small backpacks and follow the line of other backpackers across the river and past the line of kiosks where the train stops, and on to the train tracks.

image

I’m worn out from the ride from Cusco, which took us nearly six hours in the end, so I walk slowly and it takes us three hours or so to arrive at Aguas Calientes. The path by the train tracks is pretty well worn – this alternate route to Machu Picchu has definitely been discovered, and we’ve got company with other backpackers along the way. Once we hear a horn and step off the tracks to let a sleek-looking blue train go past. A little later our path takes us off the tracks and onto a steep dirt road that leads up to a little collection of hotels and restaurants – Aguas Calientes.

image

We stop at the tourist office to buy tomorrow’s passes to Machu Picchu – $50 including a pass to climb Machu Picchu mountain – and settle into our hostel for the night.

image

16 march 2015
4:15 – almost every hostel in Aguas Calientes advertises breakfast starting at 4:00 or earlier, because this is when you have to get up if you want to climb the stairs to Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. Our hostel advertised breakfast starting at 4:30, but the cook slept in so it’s nearly 5:30 by the time we’ve eaten and left the hostel to start the gentle walk down the dirt road leading out of Aguas Calientes. There are a few other hikers up early, and after a few minutes the buses start to rumble past, too – a road has been built up to Machu Picchu and for $25, buses carry those who can’t or won’t climb the nearly 1500 stone steps up to the ancient city.

We cross a swinging wooden bridge across the roaring river and then we’re there, at the base of a stone staircase that seems to lead straight up. “Un”, I say, putting my foot on the first step. I’m practicing French. “Deux, trois, quatre…” And so on and so on, up and up and up, counting in French and checking my pronunciation with Roman (who is from the French part of Switzerland), putting one foot above the other up this steep staircase of chiseled stone, a little slippery from the moss and the light rain dripping down from the overhanging palm leaves, rising up through the morning fog. “Mille cinq-cent” I gasp fourty-five minutes and 450 meters later, and there we are next to the honking buses and the confused-looking tourists in wet ponchos at the big pavilion at the entrance to the city of Machu Picchu.

image

The ruined city was an Inca town whose function isn’t clear to modern archaeologists – maybe it was a special, sacred site; maybe a refuge for aristocrats from Cusco; maybe just a regular city. It was abandoned only about 100 years after its construction, when the Incas fled the smallpox epidemics that the Spanish had brought with them. They say it was never really a “lost” city, since the locals always knew about it, but it wasn’t “discovered” again by westerners until 1911.

The entrance here has a little bit of a Disneyworld feel to it (there’s even an outrageously overpriced restaurant with big menus printed only in English), but once we’re inside it’s just us and the ruins and maybe 1000 other tourists all spread out through the remains of the city. There are discreet signs pointing to temples and other notable sites, but for the most part you can wander the ruins on your own like it’s a regular city.

image

It’s foggy and rainy this morning as Roman and I walk about a half hour away from the ruins of the city toward the Sun Gate, which is an eastern entrance to the city along the ancient Inca road. Sadly, there’s no sun when we reach it – practically nothing is visible through the thick morning rain clouds. We make the most of it and take a bunch of pictures and eventually the clouds clear out a little bit, enough that we begin to see the mountains around us.

image

The ruins are impressive – beautiful and interesting – but I think the mountains surrounding the city must be what makes this place special. I never heard anyone talk about the way the high, steep mountains form a ring around the hill where Macchu Picchu is located, but being there, surrounded by these enormous high sheer mountains, this was as impressive as the ruins themselves.

image

We have tickets to climb Machu Picchu mountain, which is a high sharp peak behind the city from which you can look down on Wayna Picchu, the smaller of the two mountains that shelter Machu Picchu, and on the ruins of the city. This is another grueling hour or so of me and Roman counting the steep, difficult stone steps in French (“mille huit-cent”) and sweating through our layers of warm clothing. It’s still raining at the top of the mountain, but the view is amazing: we’re at eye level with peaks over 3000 meters high, ringing Machu Picchu and by turns visible and obscured by the patchy clouds. The ruins themselves are mostly hidden by billows of fog that rise up from the valley floor and pour over the mountain ridges like a waterfall, or like dried ice.

image

Back down those grueling steps (quicker than going up, though not much easier) we explore the ruins, walking through a residential district of simple stone walls that were once houses and hearths. I try to imagine living here, imagine going to markets in the morning and gossiping with neighbors and carrying on with daily life in this incredible landscape. We wander past stone temples and rocks aligned with the sun and the compass. We watch llamas grazing on narrow, green terraces cut into the steep hillside.

image

image

image

Machu Picchu is the most visited site in all of South America, so it’s no surprise that we’re bumping into other tourists all day as we navigate the ruins. I see more Americans here than I have in any other place on my journey – lots of middle-aged men and ladies in expensive north face jackets, in large tour groups. You can’t criticize people too much for traveling like that – I think that, in a general sense, the concept of international travel in the states does revolve around the idea that you go places as part of a tour group and you stay in hotels and you have to pay a lot of money to go anywhere. There are lots of places in the states where that’s the only way to do it. But maybe I pity people a little when I see them traveling like that, because I wonder if they realize you don’t have to travel like that.

image

Eventually we’re hungry and worn out from the hike and the day of wandering. Roman, who has a knee injury, takes a bus down to aguas calientes, while I count another 1500 steps back down to the valley floor. In the evening I eat two enormous meals at the hostel and go to sleep early, exhausted from the day.

image

17 March 2015
We’re up and having breakfast around 9:00 and leaving Aguas Calientes around 10, walking back along the train tracks to Hydroelectica, where we share a minivan back to Santa Teresa with a few other backpackers. Here Roman and I find a cheap hotel room for the night – 20 soles each, about $7, for a pretty basic room with two twin beds. We nap (both of us are still sore from hiking yesterday) and find the road leading out of town to a little resort complex with hot springs.

image

We’re there as dusk is setting in but there are lights all around the pools and the hot spring stays open until midnight. Unlike the pools I went to in Yura, which were indoors, and cold, these are outdoor rectangular concrete baths as large as swimming pools, full of clear, very hot water and covered on their floor by smooth black stones. There are three pools of slightly different temperatures and sizes, fed by a source I’m not able to see but which feeds the pools with sufficient volume that from the last pool in the series flow four torrents of hot water, gushing from outflow holes that create the cascades that bathers use to rinse off before entering the spring. There are a few other bathers resting silently along the edges of the pools, relaxing as the faint dusk fades into night. Roman and I soak for a while (I find the small, natural pool that’s fed directly by a source and is piping hot) and we talk with a couple from Findland whom we met in town.

Later we walk back to Santa Teresa as it begins to rain. We say goodbye to the Finns, eat dinner in a little Italian restaurant, and head back to our hotel.

18 march 2015
We visit the hot springs again in the morning and eat lunch at the little restaurant there. By daylight I can see the setting where the pools are located: tucked at the base of a steep hill, on a steppe overlooking the river and the high mountains. Far away in between two huge hills we can see a distant waterfall. We soak for hours in the pools, swimming laps and relaxing by turns. Soon it begins raining again, and if you’ve ever sat in a hot spring in the rain, readers, you’ll know how much I enjoyed it.

image

In town we wait in a little touristic restaurant for the van that will take us back to Cusco along the same terrifying dirt road we came in. I’m ready for it this time and I keep my eyes firmly closed for the first hour and a half. We somehow manage to avoid dying again and from there it’s another five hours back to Cusco. It’s dark when we return.

19 march 2015
Roman’s off in the morning for Lima. I decide to stay another full day in Cusco and explore a famous ruin site called Sachsayhuaman, on a hill above Cusco. Things seem to be going well until I arrive at the gate and find out the cost is much higher than I had read – 140 soles, over $40 to enter. This is more than I can afford for a trip to ruins. I’m hanging around the entrance trying to decide whether it’s worth it, or if I should try to convince the lady at the entrance that I’m a student, when one of the many random men selling tours comes up to me with a tour leaflet. We chitchat for a few minutes and I tell him my dilemma, and finally he suggests a different set of ruins which can be toured on horseback for much cheaper, about $7. I agree and we take a taxi to a little horse corral while he tells me about some of the old stone walls we pass along the way.

image

The rest of the random tour group arrives and soon I’m on an old white horse that keeps dozing off while we wait for everyone else to climb into their saddles. I worry I’m going to have trouble motivating the horse to actually walk – I don’t know anything about motivating horses, readers, I’ve only been on a horse once before – but he perks up and paces steadily behind the lead horse as our group moves up into the hills. There are six of us – a pair who live in Switzerland but are originally from Portugual and France; a fantastically annoying middle-aged woman who has an American accent but seems to be Israeli, and her quiet, terrified boyfriend; our tour guide; and me. David, our tour guide, leads us up a gentle hill into green farmland. We tie up the horses and go on foot to a large complex of boulders, caves, and sturdy Inca walls. David shows us a network of caves among the boulders where the Inca army would hide from invaders, luring them into the labyrinth of tunnels where they would become lost and divided, easier to defeat. He shows us flat indentations in the boulders where they would have placed sheets of polished metal intended to reflect light into the tunnels, or in some places, intended to reflect the stars and make astronomical observation easier. The American woman in our group translates David’s explanations into English for her boyfriend, adding in peculiar comments like “they loved the stars like brothers” that aren’t part of David’s explanation. Occasionally as David is explaining some facet of Inca philosophy to us she’ll interject a “correcto!” loudly in response, like a professor. I gather that she’s already studied the Incas.

image

We enter a tunnel between the boulders – just a narrow path, really – where David shows us sacred inca formations in the shape of a chakana, which he tells us is the symbol for the sun. He tells us the Inca believed in reincarnation, and would bury bodies mummified in the fetal position, to symbolize their return to the womb of the earth to await rebirth. I’m not clear on how this relates to the sun symbol but it’s an interesting compliment to our walk through the caves.

image

We’re back on the horses for another 20-minute ride through more tranquil green pastures, watching the landscape above Cusco open up into brilliant green hills. Close to another large rock pile we dismount again and climb up to what David tells us was the Inca moon temple here. There are figures of pumas, snakes, and condors – animals that represented power – carved into the rock. All of them are missing their heads. When the Spanish conquered this civilization, they waged war on their religious sites, too. In Inca philosophy it was believed that a person could not be reincarnated if their head had been cut off. So the Spanish cut the heads of the symbols sacred to the Incas, to indicate that their beliefs and their civilization could never return.

image

We make our way slowly around the rocky temple ruins, coming up to a set of shallow steps. David shows us how they’re cut in the shape of a chakana – but the shape is incomplete. “The other half of the chakana is formed by the shadow of the sun,” he tells us. All over this temple we see places where negative and positive space are used to create a sacred shape – the Incas loved duality, he tells us. “It’s not really a religion, it’s more of a philosophy,” David says. (“Correcto!” shrieks the American woman). By the entrance to the temple David explains the meaning of the chakana to us. The symbolism is supposed to incorporate four sacred animals (the snake, puma, condor, and llama), planes of existence, points of the compass, months of the year, and a creation myth to booth. The symbolism is rich and sophisticated and at the time I was quite moved by it, but since researching the Inca philosophy, I’ve learned that there’s no respectable scholarly basis for these interpretations and probably no historical basis either, which disappoints me.

image

We circle the rock pile and come to the entrance to the temple. According to David, girls would come to the temple around the time of their first menses and remain until the full moon, when they would participate in some kind of ritual involving the sacrifice of a llama (the American woman is very excited by this and jabbers to her boyfriend about animal sacrifice, talking so loudly I have to strain to hear David) and a symbolic rebirth from the earth, before leaving their families to attend university (so David tells us) and enter obligatory military service, like their male counterparts. I’m now skeptical as to the veracity of this information as well, but the temple itself was fascinating in its own right.

image

After we leave the temple the obnoxious American and her boyfriend leave the tour (without giving David a tip). The Swiss couple and I continue on to another temple called the Temple of the Monkey, where there are some stones set to align with the sun at specific times of day and indicate times and season on a rock wall.

David leads us back into Cusco (a walk of about 30 minutes) and takes us to a restaurant serving typical Peruvian food : I eat an incredibly tender slow-cooked cut of beef. The Swiss couple sticks around – David is kind and interesting and knowledgable about Peruvian culture, and I’d like to stay too, but it’s getting late and I plan to take a night bus to Ica tonight. I give David as much of a tip as I can manage to try to make up for the rudeness of the other American on the tour, say goodbye, and speedwalk back to the hostel to grab my back and jump in a taxi to the bus terminal.