The Oasis at Huacachina: 19-21 March 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cusco and Machu Picchu

Cusco and Machu Picchu
14-19 march 2015

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

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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.

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.

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.

Travel Update : Tetons

I’d wanted to return to the Grand Tetons for nearly two years.

I first saw the mountains while driving west on my way out to Reno. They struck me almost like a blow, I’d never seen mountains so sharp or tall. We had crossed the Rockies, but this was different – these were like the fingers of God.

Grand Teton mountain range

July was my first time seeing them again. In 2012 we’d driven past the mountains at sunset, passing herds of bison and taking pictures of the mountains until the light failed. The next day we were driving as far as Reno, so there was no time to do more than learn the name of the mountain range and give our own secret names to the peaks that had most unsettled us.

I expected to feel frightened and disturbed like I had when I first saw the mountains, but I’ve grown since last time, and they didn’t affect me the same way. I must have taken a hundred photos, trying to catch the range from every angle as the light changed. I hiked into some of the canyons, exploring the hidden places of the mountain range.  After all the exploring, though, I left feeling like the mountains still had something to tell me, something I hadn’t quite heard while I was there.  Maybe to really understand this mountain range I need to summit one of the peaks – something I wasn’t prepared for on this visit.

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

I’d left Reno for the last time (in the foreseeable future) on Tuesday midmorning, car packed to the brim with the remaining possessions I couldn’t part with.  I followed a route that took me through northeastern Nevada, northwestern Utah, and a corner of Idaho where I eventually camped for the night.  My roads were two-lane highways and I generally avoided interstates, so cell phone reception was spotty and my musical selection limited.  I kept things interesting by sampling the ancient CD collection that has lived in my car since high school; for the misty, ethereal morning sunrise over the Idaho farmlands, I picked Radiohead’s Amnesiac.

I was just beginning the second listen-through when I entered Jackson from the south – gas stations and supermarkets crowded each other and broke the mesmerizing atmosphere just as the sun rose high enough to burn through the last of the morning mist.

Mountain and Thistle

Mountain and Thistle

It was a different experience seeing the mountains after driving through crowded, superficial Jackson as opposed to coming on them suddenly after miles of empty mountain roads.  I felt more like a tourist, less like I was discovering the mountains unexpectedly.  I was in luck, though – the road was busy but not congested (apparently this is rare), and I was lucky to snag a campsite for the following two nights.

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

I set up camp, but the morning air was clinging to the inside of my head and making me feel aimless.  I hadn’t planned any major activities for the day – a mistake I still sometimes make as I’m getting the hang of solo travel – so to keep myself from feeling like I was wasting time, I packed food and hopped on my bike to explore the park and get some exercise.

Teewinot Peak

Teewinot Peak

The drama of this range can’t be conveyed through photographs – it must be experienced in person.  These mountains were formed along a fault – no, they are the fault: the top of the ridge is one edge of the fault, the other edge far below at their roots.  There are no foothills, no gradual rise in elevation.  They burst from the landscape.  Standing by these mountains, you can almost feel the surrounding area still trembling from the violence of their rising.

Grand Teton

Near sunset I swapped my bike out for the car so I could take in the length of the scenic drive that parallels the Teton range.

Sunset

The next morning I was sick from something I’d eaten the night before, but I’m an old hand at weathering exciting digestive incidents, so I decided to drive into Jackson for espresso (and the coffee shop’s flush toilets).  By midmorning, after  I felt well enough to go through with my plan for the day – volunteering for trail maintenance with a cleanup crew.

It was a day of hard work brushing out a trail above one of the park’s alpine lakes.  Working alongside me were a very young ranger on her summer break from college and an old retired woman who had more energy than me and the ranger combined.  By the end of the day I was exhausted and happy to have spent the day getting plenty of exercise and fresh air, and making a contribution (however small) to the health of the park.  As I begin this long season of traveling, I don’t want to experience the places I go as a typical tourist.  It was good to participate more deeply in the growth of this park – not as a consumer, but as a participant in its maintenance.

That evening, feeling deeply worn out and satisfied from my hard day, I put on a flowy dress and drove into Jackson.  I walked slowly along the busy streets of the tourist district, window shopping at the upscale outdoor outfitters and jewelry stores, people-watching.  As the sun set, I drove back into camp, stopping for a couple of unexpected wildlife sightings – a bull moose and a bull elk!

a moose!

a moose!

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

At this point in the story, I suspect a normal exhausted person would have taken a day to recover from the hard work, possibly sleeping in, but I tend to push myself when I’m traveling.  I don’t want to spend my time sleeping when there are mountains to climb! So, I hauled my tired butt out of my sleeping bag at 6:00, broke camp, and headed out to a trail for a 10-mile hike.

Grand Teton at Sunrise

Grand Teton at Sunrise

The morning light gave me a new look at the mountains – their shape and character changes subtly throughout the day as the light moves over new faces and into canyons.

Tired as I was, getting up really early turned out to be a great decision.  All the hiking information in the park contains strict admonitions not to hike alone due to the presence of bears.  I didn’t have a traveling or hiking partner, so after consulting with a ranger I’d planned to go up the trail armed with bear spray and plan to stick close to other hikers on the popular trail.  However, I was in luck – I met another solo hiker at the trailhead and we agreed to hike together.

Hiking buddy!

Hiking buddy!

It only took about an hour of conversation for us to discover that we were both Couchsurfers and on road trips in opposite directions – I was going east, he was headed West.  It was a serendipitous meeting that wouldn’t have happened if I’d slept in the way I wanted to!

Surprise Lake panorama

Surprise Lake panorama

The views at the top – Surprise lake and Amphitheater lake – were lovely.  As we rested at Amphitheater lake, a gentle rain crossed the ridge and made its way east, gently dimpling the surface of the lake with perfect rings that gradually spread out and crossed each other over and over.

Amphitheater Lake

Amphitheater Lake

I wish I’d had the energy to follow the spur trail up to the peak pictured above – an additional 2,000 feet of climbing, with the top of the mountain just brushing the clouds.  Starting a hike like that with uncertain weather is not the best idea, either, so I passed on the opportunity this time.

Indian paintbrush flowers

Indian paintbrush flowers

I didn’t find the trail particularly exotic, but we were treated to beautiful scenery.  The park has had a late spring this year, and wildflowers blanket the trail corridors at various elevations.  I also happened upon a beautiful leather belt that someone had abandoned on the hike.  Good strong leather, it must have been made for a woman, because it was the right length for me, and tooled with ducks and wetland scenery.

After 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, I was seriously worn out.  Couchsurfer and I decided on a drink in Jackson, then headed to a campground by a developed hot spring, where I’d originally planned on staying on my way into the park.

I’ve been spoiled by many visits to beautiful undeveloped and remote springs, so I was a little unimpressed by the large concrete swimming pool “hot spring” that required a $6 entry fee.  However, even the grumpy hot spring snob in me had to admit that the warm water felt amazing after two days of hard work.  We soaked and floated in the water for about an hour, and enjoyed a hilarious conversation with a very drunk group of middle-aged ladies who had snuck vodka into the pool in their water bottles and were having a fantastic time splashing around in the spring and making snarky comments about the fat tourists.

The next day we headed north to Yellowstone, separately – planning to meet again in the next park, both of us a little lonely from our days spent traveling solo.  I left the mountains for the time being, still not entirely understanding them, and promising to come back.

Teton Range

Farewell to Tucson

The first leg of my trip is coming to an end, and I’m heading for Utah tomorrow.

It’s been a relaxing couple of weeks as I transition out of a typical working life and into a life and schedule of my own choosing.  As the pictures show, I’ve had a few adventures.

thunderstorm over a valley near Tucson, seen from the top of Mount Lemmon

Thunderstorm over a valley near Tucson, seen from the top of Mount Lemmon

I’ve had fun seeing friends, traveling, and relaxing, but it doesn’t feel entirely successful, yet.  I’m still getting the hang of a rhythm – is there even a rhythm to a life with no schedule? Day and night happen pretty predictably – everything else is subject to change, and I’m the one who decides when to sleep, eat, exercise, read, see friends.  It’s tremendously freeing, but also scary, to have so much freedom and so much responsibility together.  I really need to know who I am and what my priorities are in order to avoid being buffeted by the tides of whims, passing emotions, and the desires of others.

night-blooming cereus flowers - they bloom in the desert only once a year

Night-blooming cereus flowers – they bloom in the desert only once a year.  I feel so lucky to have discovered these, entirely by chance, as I found out about the opportunity from the news while watching TV for the first time in probably a year.

Tomorrow I begin meandering back to Reno via a couple of Utah’s gorgeous national parks.  I’ll say farewell to Tucson’s formidable heat (yay), lots of cacti (bummer), old and new friends (boo), and my cat (boooo).  My goal for the next week is to do my mini-road trip Mary-style.  I have a bad habit of worrying about what someone else would do in my place when I’m on a trip.  I worry that I’m wasting my time, or not doing it right, or that if I’d only planned better I could have done something really spectacular.  That worry poisons my experiences.  This week, I’ll try to go a few days without poison.

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Sunset over Tucson, midway up the hike to Romero Pools