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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Leaving Ushuaia and downtime in Puerto Natales

January 3, 2015
I leave Ushuaia on the 6:00 bus, the sun already high in the sky and melting a little of the snow off the tops of the mountains I missed seeing on the bus ride in thanks to the rain.

It’s a long but mainly uneventful day of bus rides north, across the border with Chile, into the little coastal town of Puerto Natales. There is one moment I wrote about –

18:43 – one of the drivers checks to see if anyone is going to Puerto Natales on the 18:00 bus. (At this point it doesn’t even bother me that 18:00 was 45 minutes ago – after my bus journeys last week I think I would have been more surprised if the bus were on time). A few minutes later, the bus pulls onto a gravel shoulder by the side of the road at a small intersection and stops, idling. There’s no bus terminal in sight – not even a gas station – just wind, grass, hills, the long stretch of road. A few of us get out with our bags, along with one of the drivers. We mill around. After a few minutes the driver gets back on and the bus leaves us by the side of the road with our bags: me and my strange seatmate; a woman with her two kids; and an older Argentine lady traveling solo. We’re all alone. The wind blows. The sheep graze. A couple of minutes pass. I start wondering if I understood correctly that this is a bus transfer, or maybe something got lost in translation and I’m supposed to start walking. At least everyone else is in the same boat as me, and none of them seem concerned. After a few more awkward minutes a bus pulls up showing PUERTO NATALES on its front window display – sure enough, this is the bus transfer. We’re on the bus in a minute and a couple of hours later I’m hopping out at Puerto Natales.

January 4, 2015:
I wake up sick. The plan for Puerto Natales was to prepare for and set out on a backpacking trip in Torres del Paine national park, but the cold that I caught in Ushuaia is hitting me hard today. In cities it’s not so difficult to get by with a cold, you can vary your activities and take breaks and drink lots of tea when you need it – but I know better than to head into the wilderness with a fever. I force myself to relax, be patient, and recover before the hike.

I spend the day chugging tea and lying in bed.

January 5, 2015:
I chug tea and lie in bed.

January 6, 2015:
I chug tea, lie in bed, and watch a Star Wars marathon with Miguel, who works at the hostel.

January 7, 2015:
I feel a little better. The tea appears to have had no effect but the medicine I finally bought is doing the trick. I spend the day packing, renting equipment, panicking when it seems impossible to fit all my equipment in my modest 50-liter backpack, taking a deep breath, and managing to fit everything in anyway. I chug more tea just to be safe.

January 8, 2015:
I’m ready. I buy a ticket for the 14:30 bus to the park. I’m doing the “Q” circuit through Torres del Paine – the full loop around the famous peaks, plus the “tail” trail that leads into the park from the south. It looks to be about 140 kilometers – 87 miles. The nine days I have allotted should be sufficient, based on all the information I was able to gather before hand, and will even leave me with a buffer day if I run into bad weather or need to take an extra day to rest. This is a big deal, though. I’ve done long hikes, and I’ve camped, and there was that time in Colombia when I walked through a jungle for four days – but this will be my first honest-to-goodness backpacking trip. I don’t do anything halfway, apparently. I’m a little nervous – but I feel ready.

I leave a thank-you drawing in the hostel’s guest book and get ready for my bus ride.

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Travel Update: Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park was my farewell to the West, a final camping and hiking adventure before I was to spend three very long driving days covering the 2,000 miles of hot asphalt that separated me from my parents in Virginia.

My experience in Yellowstone was probably typical to that of other visitors.  Buffalo, geysers, long stretches of vast wilderness between natural wonders, and so many photographs taken.

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

I’ll be honest – a lot of the scenery in Yellowstone didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would.  I drove through long corridors of unremarkable two-lane road bordered by dense evergreens – maybe unique in the west, but not remarkable for someone who comes from a heavily wooded state.  I didn’t understand until I visited how big the entirety of the park really is, and how far you can drive from one place to another before the scenery changes.

Saphhire hot spring

Sapphire hot spring

But loved the Geyser Basin.  The area around Old Faithful called Biscuit Basin is riddled with (very) hot springs and erupting geysers.  The trees thin out and rainbow-colored pools of boiling water and steam dot the landscape.  This part of the park is unreal – unlike anywhere else I’ve been, even unlike the hot springs I’ve visited.  The barrenness of the Western landscape is what has always drawn me, so it makes sense that this was my favorite spot in the park.

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

On a short hike, we were lucky to see a rainbow in the valley just as Old Faithful erupted again.

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Lamar valley is the first place I would go back, if I ever make it to Yellowstone again.  Camping here would have been divine; I’m sorry we didn’t try to make it work, but I don’t think I nor my couchsurfing friend were prepared to wild camp in grizzly bear country.

Lamar Valley panorama

Lamar Valley

Possibly I could also have been trampled by a buffalo, always something to be avoided when in a tent.

Buffalo crossing

Buffalo crossing

My favorite long-distance views were from Mount Washburn.  It’s not a very difficult or interesting trail, but I would recommend it for the views from the top.

Panorama from the spur trail

Panorama from the spur trail

Wildlife on the trail was limited to some mildly interesting moths, but from the summit we could look through telescopes to see the bighorn sheep on the opposite hillside.

two bighorn ewes and a kid

two bighorn ewes and a kid, seen through a spotting scope

I would have loved to continue hiking the spur trail that follows the top of the ridge from the Mount Washburn summit.  The grassy plains and scattered rocks reminded me of the rolling fields in Ireland, so green and vast.

Spur trail up to Mount Washburn summit

Looking up toward the watchtower from the spur trail

And the hillsides covered in butter-colored wildflowers didn’t hurt either.

Field of flowers

And that was it.  I put the holy West behind me reluctantly, cutting a sprig of sagebrush as as last souvenir.

As cross-country trips go, mine tend to be hurried.  Three solid days of driving got me back to Virginia without much to show for my journey except 15 cups of coffee and emergency oil change in Montana.  And so the lull in my travels began, which as I write is coming to an end.  In two weeks, I’ll begin a trip through South America that may last six months or more.  I’ll keep writing and posting photos, so stay tuned.

Laying low in Virginia

For the next month or so, I’m biding my time in the house where I grew up, keeping my parents and sister company and trying to hang on to a few pennies for my adventures outside of the country.

After weeks of road trips and hikes in majestic mountain ranges, new stories revealing themselves every day, I’m finding I don’t have as much to write about here in the comfort of my family’s house.  I’m happy and relaxed, staying busy by reading voraciously, keeping a daily yoga practice, running, writing, and taking day trips around Virginia to see various friends.  It’s not very exciting, but it’s important for me to have this downtime to tie up the loose ends of my previous life and prepare for what I hope will be at least six months of traveling abroad.

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It’s surreal to visit my hometown now.  I’ve changed so much even in just the last six months that it feels like I’m seeing the area where I grew up for the first time, even as I also feel like I’m returning home. When I make a grocery run to the store where my family has bought food for the past 20 years, I feel just as much like a traveler as I did on one of my many grocery stops in nameless towns across the country.  But I don’t feel isolated, or lonely, or out of place.  I feel excited to be seeing old familiar places with new eyes.

After a couple of years in the desert, the mist and fog and fuzzy, tree-covered mountains that I grew up with seem exotic.  I still miss Reno’s dry air and constant sunshine, but I’m also enchanted by the rolling fog and heavy clouds that have blanketed the valley for the past few days.  I began hiking avidly when I moved to Reno, and now I’m coming back to discover that my hometown is rich with hiking trails I never took an interest in before.  On today’s hike, we ascended up through heavy fog and into low-lying clouds that brushed the top of the mountain we summitted.

Travel Update : Great Basin National Park

I will always remember Great Basin National Park fondly, because it was the first night that I actually slept well in my little tent! Earplugs are the answer, my friends.

While visiting the park, I also summited Wheeler Peak, a hike that begins at about 10,00 feet and climbs to above 13,000 feet over the course of four miles. It’s not the most challenging hike I’ve ever done, but definitely the highest in altitude. I had the voice of my good friend and hiking buddy P—— in my head reminding me to slow down, not to rush and risk injuring or sickening myself all alone in the wilderness. This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. I’m competitive, with others and with myself, and I definitely have a selfish side that wants an excuse to feel superior.  It’s gotten me into trouble on hikes before, when I’ve worn myself out to the point of illness.  On this hike I think I did well at maintaining a healthy pace up the mountain, stopping frequently to rest and acclimate to the altitude.

Looking down the trail - note the two hikers in the lower left

Looking north along the Wheeler summit trail – note the two hikers in the lower left for scale

Panorama from the top of the mountain

Panorama from the top of the mountain

The summit was great – not as windy as Mount Rose, where I’ve sometimes been so uncomfortable I couldn’t enjoy the top of the hike for long.  In the photo above you can see Mount Moriah and a large wildfire burning on the north side.  The center of the photo faces due south toward the wilderness encompassed by Great Basin park, which includes some spectacular valleys and forested areas.

My contribution to the summit record

My contribution to the summit record book

The record book at the summit was the funniest I’ve seen! A few people logged just their names and the date, but more wrote a story or shared information about themselves (“Age 11” “This is our anniversary and it’s the highest we’ve ever been together!” “On our way to Yellowstone” etc).  A lot of it was clearly made up, which made it even funnier.

Excerpt from the summit record book

Excerpt from the summit record book

Looking over a dangerous ledge

Looking over a dangerous ledge

Of all the dangerous ledges I have unwisely dangled my feet over, this one was definitely the scariest.  That’s about 1,000 feet of empty space under my chucks.

Looking south

Looking south

A full night’s rest and a sizeable mountain to climb were a nice welcome back to Nevada.

Speed bumps in Zion

Like my drive to Tucson, the story of my trip to the Zion National Park in Utah is one that could be told several ways.

looking toward the entrance to Zion

looking toward the entrance to Zion

I could tell the unglamorous story. This story includes my feelings of isolation, fear, uncertainty, and self-criticism. I’d talk about how a lack of sleep made me less able to enjoy my stay, hindered my decision-making process, and generally made me cranky. I’d tell you that I suffered the effects of camping inexperience, not feeding myself well or using my time effectively. I didn’t explore nearly as much of the park as I might have under different circumstances. It would be kind of a lame story, to be honest.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without the lame parts – the speed bumps. But sometimes I wonder if I should censor things like that from my travel stories. They make me sound whiny, and after all I’m truly privileged to be able to take this trip. When things don’t go as planned, when I feel lonely and unhappy and uncertain, I wonder if I’m acting spoiled. I’m embarrassed to think I might actually be a spoiled person, so I feel I should omit my negative feelings from my stories to avoid seeming ungrateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I don’t usually think of myself as a spoiled person – but what spoiled person does?

cliffs bordering Zion.  Note the tiny window in the rock - that window borders the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

Cliffs bordering Zion. Note the tiny window in the rock – that window opens onto the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

So what would my non-spoiled-person story sound like? I could post pictures and talk about the hikes, the wildlife, and the natural beauty – it would be the story of a lucky girl who got to travel to a beautiful national park many Americans will never visit, the story of an independent woman venturing into a new chapter of her life and discovering new and exciting skills, preparing for her next adventure.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without that side of it, either.

This formation is called The Watchman

This formation is called The Watchman – visible from the campground where I stayed

For now, I’m choosing not to censor my negative experiences from my travel stories. For one, I’m not entirely convinced that they make me a spoiled person – an honest picture of travel isn’t complete without the dirt and tears and worry. Hell, an honest picture of life isn’t complete without those ugly bits. I think leaving out the unglamorous bits of a travel story makes it shallower, and less realistic. I’ve gained a lot of useful information reading the travel blogs of other nomads, and if those people had chosen to leave out the difficulties they faced while traveling I’d probably be a lot less prepared for some of the speed bumps that have come up on my road.

So – here’s the story of my trip to Zion National Park, speed bumps and all.


You’ve already seen how beautiful are the views on the way into the park. I was on a bit of a schedule: my research suggested that the first-come first-served campground in the park would fill by about 11:00 and I was still a couple hours’ drive away when I woke up at Lake Powell. I made it into the park around 10:00 and was delighted to find plenty of campsites still open, including a spacious site with plenty of shade directly across from the bathrooms and water pump.

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my hotel for the night

I feel so lucky to have snagged this campsite!

That first day I explored. Zion is a relatively small park – really just the one canyon and a few surrounding cliffs. The park management has made the wise decision to close the main canyon to traffic and instead rely on a series of shuttle buses to transport visitors around. I found this system to be surprisingly comfortable and quick, and definitely preferable to long traffic delays up the canyon! The park roads are also open to bicycles, and I found them easy enough to navigate on mine.

That first day I explored the route up the canyon and did the Emerald Pools Hike.

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I would recommend the hike to anyone! It was strange, though – after only a couple of days of traveling alone I was already a bit lonely, and met a lot of blank stares on the trail. Maybe it was the general population density, or maybe I was meeting mostly foreigners (there were a ton of French and German-speaking tourists in the park), but I didn’t find myself striking up the usual conversations with fellow hikers. It’s possible that my perspective is skewed by having more recently done challenging and less-traveled hikes, where it’s in your survival interest to chat up the passing hikers who are few and far between, knowing that they may be the ones you call to for rescue if you run into trouble up the trail. That’s certainly not the case in Zion – I probably passed 200 or 300 other people on this hike. Loneliness was my first speed bump.

Cliff by Upper Pools - tiny dots are climbers

Cliff by Upper Pools – tiny dots are climbers

At the Upper Pools I found a crowd gathered to watch the descent of two climbers down a massive cliff. Here’s a zoomed-in crop of the image above so you can appreciate the scale:

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag in the upper left quadrant of the image

It was at this point in the hike that I realized how difficult it was for me to grasp the scale of the cliffs in Zion. The people in those pictures look tiny in comparison to the rocks! It has the effect of being so overwhelming it’s underwhelming – it’s similar to being in St. Peter’s church in Rome. Everything is massive, but all in proportion to itself, so it’s actually harder to appreciate the scale. On my hike down, I challenged myself to keep the human scale in mind (comparing the size of trees wedged into cracks in the rock helped). I thought of my mind as something that was being physically expanded by the presence of so much large and dramatic scenery.

Virgin River and... some pointy rocks.  I can't remember right now.

Virgin River and… some pointy rocks. I can’t remember which right now.

That night was a big speed bump – I slept well at first, but a fierce wind began to blow through the canyon at about midnight. At that point, I wasn’t accustomed to camping, and the noise of the wind whipping my tent around terrified me. I was worried that a huge storm was brewing (it sounded like a hurricane from inside the tent) and I was sure I’d never be able to hike Angel’s Landing in the tempest. I slept only a few hours that night, and I woke up frustrated and disappointed (especially since the wind never turned into a storm and died down by the time I would have been on my hike).

I then proceeded to have an irritating morning that involved dropping my bra in the toilet. Speed bump after speed bump.

To cheer myself up, I decided to spare a few extra dollars for breakfast at a local cafe in the nearby town of Springdale. Revived by breakfast and coffee, I spent the morning biking around the park and wading in the river.

mule deer buck grazing at the campsite

mule deer grazing at the campsite

The rest of the day was so hot I couldn’t sleep even in the shade. I was down on myself at first for not getting out and doing more that day, but in all honesty it was lovely to spend the afternoon taking periodic dips in the river and lying in the shade on the soft sand of the banks.

The next morning, despite another sleepless and windy night, I resolved to hike Angel’s Landing.

worth it.

worth it.

This was a good decision.

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel's Landing

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel’s Landing

It was a challenging hike, but at 7:30 in the morning the air was cool and dry as I slogged up the steep ascent. The chain grips along the final stretch were mainly free of the crowds that swarm them later in the day, and the early morning light threw the cliffs into dramatic relief. The view from the top, as you can see, was memorable.

Looking upcanyon along the river

Looking upcanyon along the river

On the way down the trail, I struck up conversation with a group of fellow hikers and ended up sharing stories all the way back to the trailhead – finally having found the connection I was hoping for! It’s starting to happen in my life that anytime I strike up a conversation with someone and it goes well, it turns out that person is either a nomad or traveler, or they’re from another country. It’s kind of annoying in that it makes me wonder if I’ve lost the ability to connect with anyone else… but then I think, what the hell, travelers are the coolest people anyway.

Sunrise panorama

Sunrise at Angel’s Landing

I’d only been in Zion for about 48 hours by that point, but it was time to move on – restlessness kicks in for me after a couple of days and I begin to long for the open road. Though I’d initially thought of going to Bryce Canyon and Arches in Utah, Nevada was calling me back.

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