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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Arequipa, Peru: 11-13 March 2015

Arequipa, Peru

11 march 2015 –
8:27 – waiting in the Irish cafe on the main avenue in Copacabana. It’s my last day in Bolivia and here are the famous road delays they warned me about: the main street running down to the water, usually loud with the shouts of bus company employees pushing tickets out of town – today it’s silent. The cafe owner tells me the local government neglected to connect running water for a nearby community, and they’re blocking several of the roads to the Peruvian border in protest.

8:57 – in the main square I find the Irish couple I met in the cafe and together we negotiate a minivan to the border with a driver who claims he can get us there on back roads. Our driver Luis checks the radio and asks police at a roundabout where there’s an open road to the border. We’re on a rutted muddy country lane for about a kilometer, then a wider paved road littered with debris. We see people running along this road – young people, teenagers, with racing numbers pinned to their stomachs. I ask Luis about this – is it part of the protest, or an unrelated race? He says it’s a race of some kind but I don’t completely understand his answer. He seems intent on driving so I don’t press it. As we get further from Copacabana I start to see the real signs of the blockade – old brick buildings torn down, bricks scattered across the road, trees pulled over to block the lanes. More teenagers racing. Luis stops the van in front of a large group of men and women gathered with a Bolivian flag outside a government building. He says this is as far as he can drive us; “they’ll stop us if we try to go further.” But a few of the men on the edge of the group wave us through. Luis drives carefully past, everyone waving us on. “Que suerte”.

Past the blockade more bricks and trees scatter the road but it’s only a few minutes more before we’re at the Bolivian exit migration office and shaking hands with Luis and shouldering our backpacks and heading inside.

The office is quiet – the tourist buses won’t go along the roads that Luis knows, so there aren’t many people passing through today. We’re stamped out with no fuss, and we exit Bolivia on foot, walking the 100 meters down the road and through an arch and into Peru, where we get stamped in just as quickly. An enterprising taxi driver asks where we’re going. “Puno” we say – a town a couple of hours away where we can catch buses to other parts of Peru. He says he’ll take us for 5 soles (about $2). This seems great. He drives for about 5 blocks and stops. “Here’s the bus for Puno,” he tells us. I sigh.

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12:15 – the minivan we eventually find near the border stops at a terminal in Puno. It’s a local terminal so we get directions for the inter-city buses and walk the few blocks there. The buildings around the terminal are bare, raw red brick and exposed cement and concrete, bare rebar sticking out the top. The road is broken gravel and mud. I pass a heap of trash and rubbish and quickly glance away as I see a young boy squatting to defecate in the tall grass. Supposedly Bolivia is poorer than Peru but this part of Peru certainly looks worse.

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At the terminal I find a cheap bus to Arequipa. As I board, the bus drivers use a little hand-held video camera to film me (and the rest of the passengers) as I write my name on the passenger list and I get on the bus to find a comfortable seat on the second floor.

14:19 I look up from my book and find we’re passing through a perfect grid of industrial brick buildings. At regular intervals a side street opens up and I see it goes on perfectly straight for dozens of blocks. I can see the hills at the edge of town but I can’t see far enough along the side roads to see where they end. Each street is equally long and straight and busy. Once we pass a stadium with SAN ISIDRO written on the side.

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The afternoon deepens and the landscape changes, becoming more beautiful and more open. Rolling green hills and mountains host herds of sheep and alpacas. As we turn west a mountain range rears up ahead of us, sharp peaks dusted with ice. I see a solitary cone away to the south that looks like a volcano. Behind the mountains, the sky lights up with a brilliant sunset.

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An hour after dark we’re in Arequipa. I get a fleeting impression of narrow streets and bright streetlights and screaming taxis jamming the avenues, and then I’m stepping into a cool colonial house divided into dormitories, and because they overbooked I’m in a private room for the night, and I’m tired from my journey and curling up to sleep.

12 march 2015
I wake up early and make myself breakfast and sit on the terrace at the hostel drinking coffee and watching the morning haze rise. In the mornings in Arequipa I would go to the central market just as the stalls were opening and hear the vendors greeting each other and smell the fresh bread and fruit, and I would buy some brown eggs in a little plastic bag and a fresh mango and cook the eggs with tomatoes and onions and garlic and eat them on the terrace at the hostel where I was staying. From the terrace I could see the volcanoes early in the morning before the air got bright and hazy: Chachani which is a series of peaks all together; Misti which is a huge cone off by itself; and sometimes the little cluster of peaks further south called Picchu Picchu.

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Arequipa by daylight is lovely. I could see the buildings downtown, all white, crowding together. Here and there are the stone towers of cathedrals and churches. On the other side of the hostel’s wall is the flat roof to an old spanish-style building with a tiled courtyard and wide stone steps leading up to a promenade. Farther out I could see the buildings march away into the hills, becoming more modern and less beautiful as they fade.

Out from the hostel I turn right and walk down to a wide pedestrian avenue lined with modern-looking chic clothing stores, high-end pharmacies, and little pastry shops. The pedestrian street opens onto the principal Plaza de Armas, dominated at one end by a huge stone cathedral and lined on the other three sides by airy colonnades. Hordes of pigeons splash in the central fountain tucked among tall palm trees.

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From the plaza I turn east and walk along a cool street of big square buildings made out of white stone. As I pass huge, two-story arched entrances, I look inside and see dark stone entrances that open up into bright courtyards.

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Around the entrances to these huge doors, which once led into the houses of rich Peruvian aristocrats, stone carvings mix Spanish baroque ornaments with designs from the indigenous cultures living here when the conquistadores arrived.

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In the afternoon I take a free walking tour. Our guide points out the white volcanic rocks that were used to construct the old aristocratic houses and are now broken into small pieces to line modern buildings. He tells us about the people who lived here before the conquistadores – prior to the rise of the Inka empire, people farmed here in small villages. The mild climate attracted Inka explorers and so they stayed, relocating the existing population to other areas of the Inka empire. Arequipa was conquered like the rest of Peru, and eventually freed from colonial rule like the rest of Latin America, and remained a small rich town until the 1970s, when the city exploded in a manufacturing boom. This part of Arequipa’s history is written in the shabby, industrial suburbs that grew rapidly out from the pretty colonial center.

We tour old streets that date back to the 16th-century founding of the city, visit a little alpaca wool workshop, and do a quick food tasting of potatoes, chocolate, Pisco.

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Late in the day I find a restaurant serving an enormous fixed-price menu del dia for 12 soles – there’s a little ceviche appetizer, a bowl of rice soup with a chicken leg in it, a huge plate of rice and potatoes with chicken breast, and purple corn pudding for desert. As much steak as I are and loved in Argentina, and as much as I enjoyed the market chicken in Bolivia, I think Peru has the best food of all the countries I’ve visited in South America.

13 march 2015
This morning I finish the last of my coffee as the outlines of the volcanoes disappear into the haze and pollution as the day warms up. The sunny terrace starts to get too hot after a couple of hours, so I come down and finish packing my things to leave behind the reception desk at the hostel while I take a day trip to a nearby hot spring. The French receptionist gives me directions to the buses going to Yura and the hot springs. “We went there once… but they were closed,” he tells me in Spanish. “We got there too late. You should go now.”

10:45 – I get into a city bus for Yura and pay two Soles to the bus assistant whose job is to yell YURA! out the door as we pass groups of people on the street, and to collect money. The bus driver is a talkative older man who can’t stop laughing as we’re driving off. He bought a bicycle horn to replace the bus’s regular horn and he’s giving himself the giggles honking the bicycle horn out the window of the bus.

It’s an hour to Yura, and we pass over the Grau bridge and head uphill past the airport and into the manufacturing sector of town, which is barren and industrial looking as you might expect. The suburbs keep going and getting poorer and people get on and off. When old men or ladies with little children get on I give up my seat. Once I sit down next to a man about my age and we introduce ourselves. He’s from Trujillo, visiting Arequipa for a law seminar, and is on the way to the hot spring too.

After the corrugated metal outskirts of Arequipa finally peter out, we drive along a gently curving highway through dry desert hills dotted with grimy kiosks until we come to a narrow valley. Just as we come around a curve I see a series of pretty, tallish adobe and stone buildings in a kind of colonial style. There’s a flagstone walkway next to a map showing a layout of the small town, with hiking and horse trails leading up to Inka ruins in the mountains. I wander into the hotel with Alberto, my friend from the bus, to buy tickets for the hot spring.

There are four pools in the complex but none of them are natural like the springs I’m used to in Nevada. Alberto wants the swimming pool but I veto this, remembering the spring Patrick and I went to with children wearing swimming diapers and flailing pool toys at each other and the pool so packed with people that there wasn’t a foot of space. I think the bath with five separate pools looks the best, least likely to be full of screaming children.

Because this spring is part of a resort complex and not an undeveloped pool like I’m used to, the baths are indoors and we have to pay 1.50 soles extra for bathing caps. I put mine on and feel like I’m in the 1950s and dip into the first pool. The water is tepid and smells of sulfur and I come out shivering. The plaque by this pool says the water relieves rheumatism. The following pool, which is even cooler, is supposed to relieve gastrointestinal complaints, so I shiver there for ten minutes and try to explain celiac disease in Spanish to Alberto. The next pool, which is the hottest, claims to soothe arthritis. I don’t have arthritis but I stay in this pool for a long while anyway to keep warm. The water in this pool is being aerated somehow and fizzes like a soda (perhaps this is good for arthtitis). The last two pools are even colder and are meant to relieve eye complaints. I dutifully dunk my head under the cold water and open my eyes to check if I still need my glasses when I come out. My vision has not improved so I go back to the hottest pool and talk with Alberto for another hour.

If you don’t have a better option for going to a hot spring, this one isn’t bad. I don’t have a lot of faith in the supposed curative properties of hot springs – besides the mental and physical benefits of feeling relaxed and happy, and the lithium content of some natural pools which do have antipsychotic properties – so for me this was more of a curiosity and a nice way to spend the morning.

For lunch Alberto and I eat at a restaurant across from the pools (I order a ceviche that nearly brings tears to my eyes) and catch a bus going back to Arequipa. Next to me on the bus is an old lady who talks longingly about how much she would like to go to the US to work, but can’t get the proper visa. It’s a story I’ve heard from a lot of Peruvians. There’s no work in a Peru, they say.

Back in Arequipa I grab my backpack from the hostel and wave down a taxi and pay the driver extra because he talks to me about his family and his kids (both in their 20s) working in mines and the tiny salary he makes each month, and then in the terminal I find a bus leaving for cusco in 10 minutes that has cama beds for cheap, so I pay a little extra for a fancy leather seat in the lower floor of the bus and settle in to a kind of tired stupor as the light outside fades and the long miles roll away under the bus wheels to Cusco.

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Copacabana and Lake Titicaca: 9-11 March 2015

Copacabana

9 march 2015
I’m up early for coffee with Brayan before heading to a line of buses near the cemetery in La Paz. By now it’s almost familiar – a man standing by one of the buses shouts COPACABANAAAAAA at everyone passing by and I walk up to him and buy a ticket and eat a quick snack and file onto the bus along with a few other tourists and locals and in a few minutes the bus is climbing up the valley and passing El Alto. We drive through concrete and cinder block suburbs for about an hour. Gradually the landscape opens up to green fields soggy in the rain, sheep and llamas walking next to their colorful cholita shepherds. Soon the fields rise to rolling green hills and the hills rise up to green mountains and a little later through breaks in the clouds the sun sparkles on a bright sapphire lake bounded by steep green peaks.

This is lake Titicaca, the highest lake on earth, and in the Inka philosophy, the place of creation of the Inka people, the sun, and the moon.

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Back on the pavement and past more beautiful rolling hills for an hour or so and finally we’re pulling into a large plaza dotted with kiosks, white colonial buildings with red roofs, and a white cathedral with huge graceful arches framing a stone courtyard. I step out of the bus and wander downhill, toward the edge of the lake. There are two main streets leading down to water, where charming little restaurants have signs and menus written in English on chalkboards out front, and souvenir shops overflow with little llama figurines and Peruvian blankets and macrame bracelets and knitted alpaca sweaters. There are hotels and hospedajes and cheap motels which are confusingly called hostals, but surprisingly there don’t seem to be any classic backpacker hostels here. I wander into Hostal la Libertad which has an open, bright lobby tiled in white with a tall glass entrance. The stony-faced, unsmiling receptionist offers me a private room for 30 bolivianos a night (a little less than $5) and I when I go up to settle my things I see that the room itself is finished but the floor it’s on is bare concrete, with unfinished windows open to the sky. At the end of the hall, past the rooms still under construction, the floor drops off into empty space.

I leave my hotel in the afternoon and wander Copacabana for an hour. The majority of the town is the two touristic streets running parallel to each other, down to the water where flocks of paddle boats sway with the ripples and larger speedboats lie at anchor waiting to take their next cargo of tourists to Isla del Sol. Lots of backpackers wandering around, like me. Further up the hill there’s the plaza and cathedral, and from there the town spreads out into residential streets and then into little farms. I can walk from top to bottom in 30 minutes or so. I wander inside the cathedral, looking at the enormous altar covered in gold plate. Niches along the walls of the sanctuary hold statues of Mary and Joseph, dressed in elaborate royal robes. At the front of the cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to a replica of a famous statue of Mary to which many miracles have been attributed.

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From the cathedral I walk through town toward a steep hill overlooking the water. At the entrance to the hill is an arch announcing the hill as CALVARIO, or Calvary, a name for the hill where Jesus was crucified. My breathing is shallow and I sweat up the steep steps, panting from the altitude (3800 meters, about 12,500 feet). There are stations of the cross carved along the way.

I hope for feelings of reverence as I’m sweating my way up the hill, but I’m distracted by the feeling that this is all very out of place. I can’t forget the history of Bolivia, the conquest of the advanced civilization that was once in power here, the absolute razing of their sacred spaces and their people by the European invaders who justified torture and murder by calling it evangelism. The cathedral and calvario hill feel a little like they were dropped here intact from Europe, cookie-cutter style. At the top of the hill where I rest and eat a grilled trout I bought in town, I watch the sun setting over this huge lake which for the Inkas was traditionally the birthplace of their people, and I think, this could have been such an important pilgrimage site, for the same reasons that the Inkas found it to be a sacred place, and they missed it and built a giant European-style cathedral instead, away from the water which is so important in Christianity – water which is there in the creation story even before light. How did they miss it?

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I’m not able to come up with any satisfying explanation before sunset and I’m tired from the walk, so I stumble back down the dark stone steps and back through the quiet residential streets and on to the loud touristic street and back up to my motel room where I toss and turn for most of the night.

10 march 2015
I’m up early for a humble breakfast of apples and peanut butter and cold rice from my dinner last night, and then I walk down towards the water and pay one of the myriad tour companies for a day trip to Isla del Sol by boat.

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The island has always had people living on it, I learn, maybe as far back as 3000 BC. There are sacred spots where the sun and moon and even people were meant to have been born, and a spring that was supposed to be the fountain of youth, but surrounding these are normal people carrying out their lives raising quinoa and barley and other crops on ancient terraces built into the hills.

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We dock at the north end of the island where there are a few hotels and overpriced restaurants and a map of the ruins and paths on the island. I go with a group and a guide to some of the sacred places – a rock that looks like a puma, a labyrinth in ruins, depressions in the rock that look like footprints and were supposed to be the footprints of the sun. With the tour and the commercialization of the place it’s hard to feel reverent and contemplative, to try and see what the Inkas saw here, but I watch carefully for it anyway.

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After the tour I walk along the path that crosses the island toward the south. At this point I regret not sleeping for a night on the island, because I have to walk very quickly to reach the south end of the island in time for my boat back to Copacabana. The scenery is lovely, tall green hills dotted with little ruins, grazing sheep and llamas, deep blue bays. But i have to speed walk along the path to make it to the boat in time for the hour-long slow journey back to Copacabana, and there I eat a quick dinner with friends who are leaving on an evening bus.

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I go to sleep early again, planning to get up early and take a bus to Arequipa, in Peru. Tonight is my last night in Bolivia.

Bus blog: Torotoro to La Paz, Bolivia

Torotoro to La Paz

4 march 2015:

6:45 – We’re up early to pack and buy breakfast. Eggs this morning, peach juice, coffee, and the fruit salad Frances makes so well. While we’re eating, Macedonio swings by to tell us the minibus is ready and we can leave as soon as we’re finished eating. We hurry with the bill and our bags and head out the door.

8:40 – The minibus is not ready. Macedonio is nowhere in sight and the ticket agents at the little minibus kiosk tell us they’re waiting on four more people before the van will leave. The minibus system is faster than the bus and only a little more expensive, plus you have more control over departure times and stops, but the downside is that the minibus does not leave until it’s full, which can sometimes take a few hours.

9:40 – Macedonio has come and gone and we’re still missing two or three passengers. I chat with a Bolivian man waiting for the same bus (he cans and exports palm hearts for a living), pet the friendly stray dogs, and catch up on writing.

10:20 – we collectively decide to buy the empty minivan seats so the van can leave. I take one last bathroom break.

10:45 – After a few more frustrating moments of waiting, the van rumbles slowly over the cobbled streets, across the river, and out of town. Including the driver, there are 13 of us stuffed in a car only a little bigger than the average American family van. The scenery out of Torotoro is stunning. It was dark when we first arrived, so this is my first time seeing this landscape. We leave the jagged-edged bowl with its striped layers of earth behind and begin weaving in and out of green hills. Occasionally our driver brakes hard for a herd of goats or a stray cow. We pick up two more passengers along the way (I’m still not sure where we managed to fit them).

The curves in the road make me dizzy, so I close my eyes and listen to music. I would sleep, but the bus driver honks every time we round a curve, which makes sense – the road is not quite wide enough for two cars to pass and most of the curves are blind turns. What I don’t quite understand is why he also seems to be honking at water crossings, trees, and large rocks. The peculiarities of Bolivian road etiquette are still a mystery to me.

When I can open my eyes again I watch closely as we pass small groups of buildings – not towns or even villages, just clusters of houses every now and again along the road. They’re all dirt and adobe, some with corrugated metal roofs held in place with bricks or stones. Sometimes there’s no glass in the windows. Sometimes there are no doors. I see a lot of political slogans painted along the walls, all of them pro-Evo Morales, the current president who is running for his fourth term. In the doors of the occasional kiosk plastered with coca-cola slogans sit indigenous women dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit: black sandals, a knee-length skirt and petticoat in a sold blue or green, long-sleeve knitted sweater, and wide-brimmed hat sitting atop two long, shiny braids hanging down to her waist. She sits with her neon striped blankets tied around her shoulders, a tiny son or daughter peeking over her shoulder from within the shelter of the blanket; or with the blanket spread in front of her, various sweet snacks tucked inside for sale.

14:40 – we climb out of the van on a busy street in Cochabamba, stretch, shake hands with Macedonio, and grab a taxi into town for a hurried coffee and a menu del dia.

16:32 – we’ve just missed a bus departure to La Paz, but the noise in the terminal tells us we won’t have trouble finding another. The terminal at peak hour is a madhouse. Women and men shout destinations like they’re selling food at a county fair: “La Paaaaaaz! ” “Oru-ru-ru-ru-ro-O-ruuuuuuu-ro!” “PotosiPotosiPotosiiiiiiii!” It’s surreal. The noise is deafening. We weave through vendors all but screaming in our faces, like soldiers running through enemy fire, to a company advertising cama and semi cama seats for La Paz. Our taxi driver advised asking for a company with a semi cama option as a security measure (buses in Bolivia have something of a reputation). The El Dorado booth looks clean and professional. The woman selling tickets signs us up promptly for seats at the very front of the bus – seats with a panoramic view – and assures us that the bus leaves “al punto” 18:00 – exactly at 18:00.

18:15 – the bus does not leave exactly at 18:00. The bus driver is sound asleep in the front seat. We check with the woman who registered our bags and she assures us the bus will leave in “just a little bit”.

19:02 – having a seat at the very front of the bus gives me an excellent look at how close the bus driver pulls to other buses and cars as we crawl out of the terminal, an hour late. I am genuinely surprised that the bus is leaving so late; the microbus this morning was one thing, but this is a major bus company and generally they leave punctually. The bus weaves rapidly in and out of traffic as we navigate the suburbs of Cochabama. The driver honks at everything. I lose count of the number of obstacles and other vehicles we nearly hit.

19:30 – the other passengers on the bus complain loudly and bang on the windows and floor. “Vamooooos!” We’ve stopped to pick up passengers in Quillacollo and everyone is more than anxious to be on the way.

20:30 the bathroom that was advertised in the el dorado ticket office is apparently “closed for the duration of the trip”. We stop next to a line of about 15 identical restaurants serving chicken prepared in various quantities of oil, and several men and one or two women get out. The men turn their backs to the road. The women squat in the shadow of tractor-trailers parked in a long line. I find a deserted concrete corner behind the line of restaurants. When I come back, the bus is already pulling back on to the highway. I yell and bang on the door and they slam on the brakes so I can jump in.

22:08 I’ve decided that the best strategy for surviving the journey with nerves intact is to close my eyes. We’ve already passed long lines of trucks on mountain roads with short blind curves. A few times the bus driver has begun passing a few cars on a hill, only to slam on the brakes when another car comes flying at us in the opposing lane. Now I think I know what they’re talking about when they say going by bus in Bolivia is rough on the nerves.

0:43 we make a stop to let off a few passengers. I eat an apple with peanut butter – an excellent gluten-free travel snack, readers, if you all are curious how I stay alive on long bus trips. The lights in the upstairs level of the bus come on and stay on. According to the information our taxi driver gave us, we’re still three hours from La Paz.

2:35 and it seems we made good time to La Paz, and we’re groggily shouldering our backpacks and deciding whether or not to take a taxi to our hostel, which turns out to be just a few minutes’ walk downhill, and then we’re falling into our bunks and trying not to wake the other guy already asleep in our room, and then we’re out.

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

Cochabamba, Bolivia

27 February 2015

18:30 – Roman and I arrive exactly on time and find our bus parked behind Sucre’s terminal, looking far shabbier and worn than in the picture the man at the ticket office showed me. My armrest is fraying and the seat squeaks as I sit down, but it is actually pretty comfortable. As I get up for one last bathroom run – there’s no bathroom on the bus – a man in an aisle seat grumbles about the supposed “semi-camas” (reclining seats) that the bus company advertised. The seats aren’t terribly uncomfortable, but the guy at the ticket office was definitely exaggerating when he said the bus was a “luxury”. Truthfully, I think I prefer the cheap local bus to a luxury bus anyway, at least for short trips.

18:49 – puffs of black smoke drift by my window as the engine rumbles to a gentle start. The sun sets before long and I’m asleep soon after.

3:00 – Roman and I drag ourselves groggily off the bus and into the terminal. It’s big and echoes like a gymnasium – even at this hour – with the shouts of bus company operators screaming out destinations. We’re both a little dazed. We don’t have a hostel to go to – there don’t seem to be many traditional backpacker hostels in Cochabamba – but we can’t stay in the cacophonous terminal, either. After sitting and blinking sleepily for a few minutes we decide to try one of the hostels listed in Lonely Planet. We take a taxi downtown to the first place the book suggests – depressing and barren-looking as a jail. We walk through deserted streets to another potential hostel – no room. Finally we find a cheap hotel with clean rooms and soft beds and pass out for a few hours.

28 February 2015

Roman and I switch hostels – we try a hostel listed on hostelworld in the hopes of finding a backpacker crowd, a few other travelers we can exchange tips with. But the hostel – rather a beautiful guesthouse – is completely empty. We pay 100 bolivianos each for beds in a dormitory that’s empty except for us.

Cochabamba by daylight is much lovelier than at night. Like Sucre, there are colonial buildings, but the city has a decidedly modern feel, and a far busier pace. It seems to me to be a wealthy city. We eat more mysterious Bolivian food in a pretty restaurant, then go in search of a tour operator to take us to the nearby national park Torotoro. We ask for directions to tourist information centers, which we never find, and eventually end up stumbling on a tour agency that seems about to close for the siesta. A friendly Bolivian man inside gives us some options for a tour of the national park. The prices are good – about $150 each for a three day tour – and we arrange to leave the following day.

In the afternoon we walk up to a huge hill dominating Cochabamba, on top of which stands the largest Jesus statue in the world – taller even than the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. We ride the cable cars up – signs at the bottom of the hill bluntly state that people who walk up are likely to get robbed – and come out on top of the hill to a view of a huge city sprawling through two adjoining valleys. High-rise office and apartment buildings dominate downtown Cochabamba, while the city spreads out away from them, big and urban and busy.

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In the evening we go to a restaurant called Casablanca where I try ceviche – actually a specialty of Peru – that must have the juice of 20 limes in it. On the way back to the hostel we stop by an Irish pub where Roman orders a quinoa beer, which we’ve started seeing more of in the Andes. It turns out to have been made from barley with quinoa added in for laughs I guess, meaning it’s not gluten free. I think this seems like a cruel joke and if makes me glad I haven’t ordered one.

1 march 2015

A new day, a new month, the beginning of my sixth month of travel. I check my calendar and see it’s actually been six months plus one week since I left the US. It doesn’t feel like that long. I thought by now I would feel tired, lonely, worn out, ready to go home. Instead I feel relaxed. The more I travel, the more I get used to living out of a backpack, the more Spanish I learn and the more people I talk to, the more I come to know myself well and really understand what I want to see and do when I travel. I travel better the longer I’m at it. And the trip doesn’t feel long. In fact it feels more like two or three different trips than one: there was the time before I could really speak Spanish, when I was more of an outsider; there was my long stay in Buenos Aires and my depression there; and there was the day I left Buenos Aires and really started moving and the road trip began. And now in some ways it feels like another trip is just beginning.

A new month, a new day. Today Roman and I decide to visit the nearby town of Quillacollo where there’s meant to be a large Sunday market. We take a “trufi”; not quite a taxi and not quite a bus, it’s a minivan that I would normally say seats about 8 people plus the driver, but I think we squeeze in 12. As in most countries outside the US, personal space is much much smaller than what Americans assume is the norm – so sometimes you’re pressed in between two strangers. Four people squeeze together on a bench seat, and special folding seats built into the aisles spring out to make use of every available spot. When someone in the back wants to get out, the people in the folding seats have to get out too to make way.

We grab a trufi in Cochabamba and take the 45 minute trip to Quillacollo. We keep thinking we’re going to miss the market – it’s always a gamble when you take public transit somewhere you’ve never been – but finally we’re in downtown Quillacollo and there’s no mistaking it. It’s a madhouse, throngs of people everywhere and the trufi inching through the crowd of people crossing the street. At first all we can see is the crowd, locals bustling back and forth and around the street, indigenous women with brightly colored striped blankets tied on their backs (sometimes there’s a baby tucked back there, or a load of potatoes or rice), and here the style of hat they wear is a simple wide-brimmed hat in white or tan, a sort of lacy texture with flowers tucked in somewhere.

Once we’re off the trufi and slipping into the moving tide of people, there are the stalls selling fried fish, batteries, razors, heads of pick axes, secondhand clothing, toothpaste, underwear; ragged plastic tarps swaying loosely as the ladies running the stalls slap their towels languidly at clouds of flies. We wander the aisles. Each street has its sellers: a street for shoes piled neatly in stacks, a street for fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a street for bouquets, a street for restaurants. The food market takes place under a pavilion in the center of the block of stalls, divided into alleys. There are pyramids of bananas, oranges, cactus fruit, huge papayas and avocados, piles of peaches, apples, and mangos. In the butcher stalls we see piles of chicken heads and feet.

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We stop to drink fresh-squeezed peach juice with cinnamon and a sweet peeled peach at the bottom of the cup. While we sit with our cups an old woman approaches Roman and tries to negotiate the sale of his backpack in Quechua (an indigenous language). She’s at it for about five minutes before we finally make her understand that we don’t speak Quechua.

Later we rest in a plaza and eat chantilly, a cup of red jello with a quivering tower of soft meringue on top. Four teenage boys have a small speaker hooked up to someone’s iPod and are practicing breakdancing in the center of a gazebo. Old couples, young children, and teenaged girls in indigenous clothing eat chantilly under the tall graceful arches of the gazebo and look on as the teenagers slide their sneakers over the polished stones and make flips and headstands one after another.

In Cochabamba we meet Eddy, the travel agent who takes us by taxi to the bus for Torotoro. At the stop we’re waiting in our squeaky seats for a few minutes when it becomes apparent that the bus company made a mistake and all the seats on the bus have been sold to two different people. After an hour of scrambling, every seat is full and people are sitting on benches squeezed in the aisle. Two skinny kids share the seat next to me. I offer my seat to the older boy when I see his head start to droop and he nearly slides onto the floor. He falls asleep right away with his head on Roman’s shoulder while I stand in the aisle.

Roman and I take turns standing for the rest of the winding, bumpy road to Torotoro. Sometimes the bus leans a little going around a curve and I look down and see a cliff half a meter from the bus tires. Just after midnight we’re in town, a few adobe buildings fading into darkness, and our park guide greets us yawning and points us to a cheap hotel where we bang on the door and stumble into our room for the night.

Potosi, Bolivia: 20-23 February 2015

Potosi

20 February 2015

The Salar tour jeep leaves us in Uyuni. Everyone wanders in different directions – some people stay in Uyuni, others grab buses for La Paz. Boris, Felix, Roschan, Michelle, and I hop an old, creaky bus headed for Potosi, an old mining town that was once the richest city in the Americas.

The ticket is 15 bolivianos – around $2. I’ve read a lot about bus travel in Bolivia – they say to watch your things so they don’t get stolen, they say the roads are unimaginably bad, they say drivers drive drunk, they say there are delays. Inside the bus looks fine – not as luxurious as the buses I took in Argentina, but the seats are comfortable enough and it seems fairly clean. There’s a decal on the front plastic window that reads “NO PIDE VELOCIDAD, PIDE SEGURIDAD” (don’t ask for speed, ask for security). I’m nervous and skeptical for the first hour or so, waiting for the bus driver to make some kind of dangerous move or run the bus into a ditch, but eventually it seems like the smooth, gently graded paved road we’ve been traveling isn’t going to turn to mud and gravel, and the driver with his glorious 1980s-style mullet isn’t trying to kill everyone on board.

I want to sleep but the scenery demands my attention. The high mountain landscape we’re now passing through is every bit as beautiful as the scenery we saw on our tour of the altiplano and salar. We’re threading our way through steep, rocky mountains covered with green pasture grass. The bus driver honks intermittently to shoo llamas out of the road. We pass herds of them grazing by the road, colored threads sewn in the tips of their ears. Out my window I watch mountain ridges open up into wide, lush valleys. Miles and miles of clouds march away into the deep blue sky, and steep purple mountains frame the horizon.

The only problem is that there’s no bathroom on this bus – I learn later that cheap Bolivian buses seldom have a bathroom – and we’ve got another two hours to go till Potosi. There’s no way I can wait that long. I hem and haw and remember people saying Bolivians are cold and unfriendly and wonder what I’ll do if the bus driver refuses to stop. Finally I walk toward the front of the bus and timidly ask some of the ladies sitting near the front if the bus makes bathroom stops. They reassure me and tell me to bang on the plastic partition in the front. I knock gently. The woman next to me laughs and gives the window a solid, strong hit. “Go on!” She urges me. The driver cracks the door. “Baño?” I ask. He nods and tells me we’ll stop at the next town. Another 10 minutes and we’re pulled over by the side of the road and those of us who can’t wait for Potosi are finding trees or bushes or little ditches. Peeing outside has never bothered me but I suspect this version of a bathroom break might be what contributes to the bad reputation of Bolivian bus rides.

A couple of hours later we’re in Potosi, and it’s a new adventure navigating steep hills in the highest city in the world and following our noses to a hostel for the night. Roschan and Felix head for an airb&b, and Boris, Michelle, and I take a crowded public bus up to the central plaza. There’s a hostel there that charges 40 Bolivianos per night – a little less than $6. There’s no heat (most buildings in Bolivia lack central heating) and the roof over the courtyard leaks, but the showers are hot and the room is more or less clean. We stay in a little room with three very creaky twin beds and one electrical outlet that we take turns using to charge our phones.

Later, the five of us eat dinner at a restaurant that’s mostly empty. I try a llama steak – a little chewy but with a rich, strong flavor that reminds me a little of venison. Everyone’s tired but we decide to wake up early (10:00!) for breakfast together.

21 February 2015

Our 10:00 meeting time turns into 10:30 and by the time we meet Felix, decide collectively on what to eat for breakfast, and visit the labyrinthine central market for ingredients, it’s nearly noon. We talk about going to a hot spring but it’s too late by the time we’re ready to leave, so we try for a viewpoint overlooking the city.

As we walk through Potosi’s narrow, dirty streets, I’m overwhelmed by all the new sensations. There are lots of women here dressed in the traditional style – sweater, skirt, stockings, sandals, hat, long braids – mingling with locals in general western dress, jeans, puffy jackets, the women wearing platform heels or wedges. We don’t see anyone else who looks like a foreigner. We stop in a tiny store and the shopkeeper looks at us – light skin, three of us blonde, the boys towering over her – and beams, asking us where we’re from and wanting to know more about our trips. She presses our hands and wishes us well on our way as we leave.

The buildings in Potosi are old, stone and wooden colonial-style construction. The steep streets are broken and potholed and the sidewalks are too narrow for two of us to walk together in most places. We get used to walking in the dingy streets and stepping up onto the sidewalk when a packed minivan beeps its horn at us and passes a few inches from our heads. Along the main boulevard we pass pharmacies, tiny electronics stores, butchers, and lots of restaurants serving the ubiquitous roasted or fried chicken.

I like the central market the best. Instead of a big open central area, it’s a low complex of narrow hallways bordered by packed stalls crowding in next to each other. The tattered plastic awnings overlapping each other hang low enough that even I have to duck sometimes. The women running the stalls sell bulk grains and spices, eggs, fruits and vegetables, body parts from various animals, fresh bread, soy sauce, even goat cheese. The butcher shops catch my eye. In one shop the garage door gate is nearly closed, but just behind it I can see the carcass of a llama waiting to be skinned and portioned out. We see entire heads of cows. We see the discarded horns of bulls, removed from the heads of their owners and lying discarded in heaps by the butchers’ lane. The shops seem mostly to be attended by sturdy, tough-looking women, many dressed in the traditional indigenous outfit under clean white aprons.

I’m finding it hard to describe Potosi. It’s clearly not a modern city – even the buildings on the outskirts are cinder block and brick with simple tin or aluminum roofs. The city is much poorer, and far less western, than anywhere I visited in Chile or Argentina or even Colombia. Yet somehow I loved Potosi, I loved walking through the streets seeing everyone going about their business, the ladies on the street selling bread and fruit. Perhaps I’m romanticizing Bolivia’s poverty. It’s a complicated place and even as I write this nearly three weeks later I think i still have a lot to learn before I can write intelligently about what I’ve seen.

Boris, Felix, Michelle, and I wander our way to the western side of Potosi where there’s a tall tower that looks a little like Seattle’s space needle. On the way we pass a man with a llama carcass in the back of a Subaru station wagon like the one I learned to drive on, sawing the dead llama into pieces with a hacksaw. We cross old train tracks and a busy main road. Locked gates bar the road up to the tower and a few people resting nearby tell us the tower will be closed for the next few days, presumably due to the carnaval celebrations still going on. We keep exploring the city instead – Boris stops in for a haircut that starts out as an elaborate mullet and gives me and Michelle a good fifteen minutes of giggling. Boris comes out looking respectable enough in the end and we continue up Potosi’s steep main street, feeling the altitude which here is over 4,000 meters (13,400 feet).

We stop at the market again and cook dinner together at Felix and Roschan’s b&b apartment, which is a pretty, modern-looking one-bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen and a washing machine in the bathroom. We stay up talking, drinking wine, and eventually trying local Bolivian liquor called singani.

22 February 2015

Supposedly, today is the day of carnaval celebrations in Potosi, but the most I see of it is a few sprays of soapy foam and a near miss with a water balloon as I walk to the bus station to look for the bag I left on the bus from Uyuni. This is the first time on my journey that I’ve left something on a bus, and unfortunately this bag (a cute bag I picked up in San Telmo) happened to contain my warm jacket. It’s freezing in Potosi and I’m compensating by wearing every article of clothing I have with me, all at the same time. My bag isn’t in the terminal. I’m sorry for the loss of the jacket, but it’s something that happens when you travel. I’m amused that when I rearranged my bags to travel, I swapped my jacket for a jar of peanut butter I bought in Chile – now I may be freezing, but at least I’ve still got my comfort food.

This day is quiet, and we watch the movie The Artist on TV at Felix and Roschan’s apartment. It’s interesting that, because it’s a silent film, there’s no Spanish dubbing – just subtitles translating the occasional dialogue cards. For dinner Boris, Felix, Roschan and I try for a local restaurant and, after a little bit of searching, find a hole in the wall diner up a set of dim, narrow stairs. The little kid waiting tables (child labor is common in Bolivia) looks visibly excited as we come in. We shyly ask the man behind the counter to explain the menu to us – all of the dish names are unfamiliar. We order – I can’t remember the actual dishes now, readers – and the food comes out within a few minutes. It’s pretty tasty. I remember this as the first of many meals I eat in Bolivia, wondering if the food going to give me food poisoning. As with the buses, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about food in Bolivia, especially street food and cheap restaurants; but this meal turns out to be safe.

In the evening we do our best to find a broadcast of the Oscars – everything is being dubbed into Spanish and I can’t follow the rapid translation. I think I miss a few of Neil Patrick Harris’ jokes, but otherwise the general events translate. It’s surreal to be looking into this odd facet of American culture from the outside. The red carpet conversations, the dresses, the unbelievable extravagance of the theater and its spectacle seem all the more superficial and meaningless here, in Bolivia, where even the expensive apartment we’re staying in doesn’t have a central heating system.

23 February 2015

Roschan and Felix take an early bus for Sucre. Boris and I, feeling a little lazier, explore Potosi, walking up to a hill high above the city where we look out over the grey buildings, up to the Cerro Rico (rich hill) with its famous (and famously dangerous) mine, and out beyond the city to the green rolling mountains beyond.

In the evening, we take another rickety bus for Sucre. The terminal in Potosi is a big round building with bus agencies running around the perimeter and a kiosk in the middle. It’s large and echoes deafeningly with the calls of bus operators yelling the names of various destinations in peculiar singsong voices. As we approach they swarm us, yelling into our faces. It’s overwhelming and, dazed, we manage to buy tickets and pay the terminal tax and limp ourselves onto the bus to Sucre. We stop to pick up passengers in the suburbs, including a woman holding a lamb in her arms. During the journey it begins to bleat and she’s given a talking-to by the bus attendant (I expect animals typically aren’t allowed on buses), but she’s allowed to bring it for the rest of the journey.

We arrive after dark, in the rain. A quick taxi ride and a stop at our hostel, and we spend the evening in a nearby bar called Florin that makes an amazing blue cheese burger (not by any means a Bolivian dish, but comforting); and I try the best White Russian cocktail I’ve had in South America. Tomorrow we explore Sucre.

Epic four-day bus ride through Argentina: Day 4

Tuesday, December 30
4:30 – dawn. I look out woozily at the sunrise and take some pictures from inside my dream state before falling back asleep.

7:03 – another province crossing, which means another stop to check passports and documents. Yesterday we crossed two provinces – Chubut and Comodoro Rivadavia. Now we’re entering Santa Cruz. As far as I can tell, there’s still a possibility that I’ll get to Rio Gallegos in time for my next bus, but every time we stop I get a little anxious.

9:50 – against all my worries and expectations, we arrive at Rio Gallegos with an hour to spare before I have to catch my next bus. The bus drivers distribute migration forms for Chile, and I realize we’re going to pass through the southern tip of the country on the way to Ushuaia. I feel a little dumb for not realizing we would pass through Chile; they are strict about fruits and vegetables so my enormous supply of oranges will get me in trouble at the border. I trash them and now I’m down to half a bag of rice crackers to last me the next twelve hours.

11:10 – Chilean border crossing. A group of travelers on our bus must have gone grocery shopping in Rio Gallegos. They have a shopping bag full of cucumbers and carrots that they’re peeling and eating quickly outside the hut that houses the border officials and security line. On the other side of the arch displaying the Chilean crest, I can see guanacos grazing in the field.

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Chile is strict about food crossing its borders. There are piles of apples, a peach, and a jar of honey abandoned by other travelers in little corners of the border crossing hut.

12:16 – we cross the border and I’m in a new country. Under the arch a grey fox loiters waiting for scraps of food and looking elegant and sleek like all foxes do. Back on the bus, we pass rolling hills covered in the same low vegetation I’ve been seeing for the past few days. There are few trees. I see lots of guacanos in the fields (they are of the llama family but light brown in color). I also see a huge ostrich-like bird that I think is a Rhea, surrounded by fuzzy awkward looking chicks, and lots of sheep.

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12:56 – we arrive at a terminal where a ferry waits to take our bus across a narrow channel of water. Oscar, my seatmate on the bus, tells me that here the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mix together. We’ve reached the end of the continental landmass and are heading towards the islands of Tierra del Fuego.

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15:00 – I’m meditating when I feel the bus turn around. We’re probably 10 kilometers down a gravel road through picturesque farms and countryside, and now we’re heading back the way we came, back toward the direction of the ferry crossing. I ask Oscar, who used to live in Ushuaia and made this crossing many times, if he knows why we turned. He shrugs, not concerned. I relax a little too. Maybe it’s the mediation, or maybe I’m finally starting to get it through my head what it means to be outside the US, to be in a place where things don’t always happen on time down to the second, where sometimes the gravel road floods and you take a different route and arrive a few hours late. It happens and you shrug and don’t let it ruin your day. I guess I thought this was already my philosophy – don’t let a change of plans ruin your day – but it’s more challenging to apply to travel, when you have bought tickets in advance or made reservations or have to meet someone at a certain time.

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17:20 – border crossing back into Argentina. This one is weird. Instead of the usual desk with two border agents seated next to each other, this time I get my exit stamp from Chile and get told to get back on the bus. I assume I’ll get the Argentine entry stamp later and try not to fret about it – we drive for a few kilometers and stop at a different building for the Argentine migration. It’s raining now and the gently rolling green countryside reminds me of Ireland, especially with the rain.

19:15 – Rio Grande bus terminal. They have a bowling alley for some reason. I say goodbye to Oscar. He spent the last leg of the trip telling me about his life in Jujuy, where he lived on an Indian reservation for some time, and teaching me some words in Quechua, an indigenous language. My favorite is “uj”, the word for one, which sounds a little like “oof”.

220 kilometers to Ushuaia. I go back to reading Richard Harris’ biography of Che Guavara.

20:51 – we pass a large body of water surrounded by mountains. It’s beautiful, and reminds me of Tahoe. I think again for the thousandth time that Reno really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve lived.

22:15 – we arrive in Ushuaia and I hop a taxi to the house of some Couchsurfers where I’m staying for a few days. They’re three guys who work in tourist agencies around town, and from the second I step in the door they treat me more like a roommate than a guest. I’m sleeping on a big comfortable mattress on the floor of the living room and after we visit for an hour or so I curl up exhausted under the blankets and pass out.