Ecuador and the end of the South American leg

March 28 – April 6 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Sucre, Bolivia: 23-27 February 2015

Sucre
23-27 February 2015

I spent a quiet and slightly aimless week in Sucre. It’s the official (constitutional) capital of Bolivia, but only the judicial branch of government is based here and I found the city quiet and relaxed. The buildings and streets are lovely, colonial. I read that Sucre was built to be a retreat for the wealthy people of Potosi – a sort of resort town.

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The first place Boris and I visit is the central market, which is deservedly famous. It’s housed in one enormous building with concrete partitions dividing the counters. On the perimeter are the fruit and vegetable stands, run by old ladies who all call me “mamita” and try to convince me to buy extra fruit. The day I leave on the bus one very savvy businesswoman almost convinces me that it’s a good idea to buy a watermelon to bring on the bus. But my favorite is the woman who sells eggplants – I can’t find them anywhere else – she gives me a little bit of basil for free when I buy tomatoes and onions to make a salsa.

Further in the market are the meat counters – all varieties of beef, pork, and chicken – these are the counters with the big concrete partitions. The meat portion of the market is strange and a little mazelike. Further in there are stalls selling flowers and cakes and even shampoo, and on the second level a row of restaurants selling typical Bolivian food for very cheap. Boris and I stop at one stall where a woman convinces us to try a spoonful of delicious beef stew. We agree to eat there and ask for plates of the stew (or at least, we think we do). In a few minutes she brings me a plate of some kind of rice and chicken soup, and Boris gets a slice of some kind of meat in a mysterious sauce. Neither of our plates look like the beef stew the lady convinced us to try before. We shrug and eat what’s in front of us. Maybe the stew comes later. (Eventually the meal is over and there was no stew, but it was a good meal anyway). I think this is kind of how it goes eating in restaurants in a foreign country. You smile and point at things and sometimes they ask you a question and you say yes even though you have no idea what the question was, and suddenly there’s something unidentifiable on your plate and you eat it anyway as it’s delicious, and when the bill comes your entire meal is $3 or $4 and you leave bewildered but happy. At least, that’s been my experience.

Boris signs up for Spanish lessons, which a lot of people do in Sucre where prices are cheap and there are many schools available. On Wednesday evening, the school where Boris takes classes organizes a trip to a local football game – Sucre’s team against a team from Brazil. I tag along – I’ve never been to a football game before – and we go as a group, meeting at the school to walk together en masse, 40 gringos looking probably a bit bewildered as we traverse Sucre at night. As we get close to the stadium we hear a crowd singing racously (I’m not able to make out much except “dale Sucre!”), waving flags with the Sucre colors and banging drums. They block a major road for several minutes. I’m amused that the police aren’t breaking up the parade – there are buses and cars stuck on the other side but no one really seems to care. A few men light colored flares and set off little fireworks. We follow them for a few blocks, then break off and enter the stadium through a side door. There’s a special section reserved for the official fans. We sit in the general crowd, buying popcorn from the ladies squeezing through the concrete bleachers. People wave colored balloons, sing, and whistle as the teams come onto the field to warm up. As a dancer and musician I can’t imagine being onstage to warm up, but I guess it’s different for sports – it’s not a rehearsed performance.

The game begins with fireworks over the stadium, and, I’m sorry to say, this is about the most interesting thing that happens. The teams can’t seem to keep control of the ball – someone is always kicking it out of bounds or losing control or accidentally kicking it to the other team. At the end of 90 minutes the score is 0-0, and since it’s just a regular game, there’s no overtime or penalty kicks.

On another afternoon I decide to give football another try and go with Boris to watch a football match at the pub Florin. It’s a team from the Netherlands versus Rome. I find this match more interesting, and the teams seem to play well. After a little while another Dutch guy joins us – a friend of Boris’ who lives in Sucre. We stay for a while after the game ends, drinking, then go to the central market for dinner. We find a spot upstairs and for 10 bolivianos each (around $1.50) a formidable-looking woman serves us each a giant plate of rice covered with a thin-cut portion of steak, a huge helping of french fries, a fried egg, and a sausage. It’s more food than I can hope to eat even with the alcohol munchies. We take our feast back to the house of Boris’ friend – actually an old building he’s bought in order to convert it into a bar. The rooms are huge and airy and filled with tables and chic couches the friend built himself. We stay up in the lounge long after our enormous feast is gone, drinking wine and rum and listening to hours of electronic music and talking into the night.

I spend time in Sucre cooking, writing, and generally relaxing. The day before I decide to leave, I meet a Swiss traveler named Roman who’s headed the same way I am, to the small town of Cochabamba, midway to La Paz. We decide to travel together, and the next afternoon I’m shaking Boris awake so I can say goodbye and heading out to Sucre’s small bus station where Roman and I hop on a night bus to Cochabamba.

Potosi, Bolivia: 20-23 February 2015

Potosi

20 February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 February 2015

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

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

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

23 February 2015

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

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

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

Salar de Uyuni tour: 18-20 February 2015

Salar de Uyuni 18-20 February 2015

18 February 2015

It’s 7:30 and Boris and I take bets on when our tour operator’s bus will actually arrive to pick us up. Neither one of us actually believed them when they told us 7:20 – the only question now is, how much later will it actually be? I say 7:45, Boris guesses 8:00. I’ve just stepped outside the hostel to look at the incredible sunrise when a van pulls up. “Boris y Meri?” It’s 7:45 – I win the bet.

We haul our backpacks into a large van full of other sleepy-looking backpackers. The van navigates the dusty, potholed streets of San Pedro to the edge of town, where there’s a Chilean border control at the side of the road leading into the mountains. We take some time at the Chilean migration office – fortunately leaving Chile is easier than getting in, though we’re all a little confused by the information in the forms we have to fill out. After 45 minutes or so we’re back in the van, everyone dozing as we gently climb toward the mountains.

I think it’s around 9:00 that we reach the Bolivian border crossing. It’s just a hut flying a Bolivian flag (yellow, red, and green). I can already feel the change in elevation – San Pedro is at 2400 meters above sea level and here we’re already probably 500 or 600 meters higher. I desperately want some coca leaf tea, which contrary to popular belief does not get you high the way cocaine does, and is practically a miracle remedy for altitude sickness. Our van driver is already setting up breakfast, but first we need to officially cross the Bolivian border.

We queue up outside the building. I’m jumpy with anxiety – Americans need a visa to enter Bolivia, and officially I’m supposed to have bank statements, hotel reservations, passport photos, and special forms filled out. Because the guy at the tour agency told me I wouldn’t need them, and also because I was lazy about preparing, I don’t have any of those things. I have a feeling things will work out, but I’m also a little afraid they’re going to chuck me back over the border to Chile and make me fill out all the proper forms.

The long line of Europeans and Brazilians ahead of me moves smoothly through the border office – none of them need special visas like me – and finally it’s my turn. The border official sees my American passport. “Do you already have your visa?” He asks me kindly in soft, slow Spanish. “No, I have to pay the fee…” He nods kindly, sits me down and in five minutes he’s hand-writing dates on a little sticker that goes in my passport. 135 bolivianos (about $20) later everything is taken care of and I have a one-month tourist visa sorted. I breathe a sigh of relief – actually more like a gasp at this altitude – and head for the breakfast table.

Here I officially meet the rest of the group taking the tour. (Technically we all met on the bus but no one was really awake enough before for it to count). There are a handful of Germans, including, by wild coincidence, a girl I met in a hostel in El Chalten; three Brazilians who it turns out are in a band together; Boris; and me. After a few minutes of nodding politely while everyone speaks German, I finally work up the courage to ask if anyone minds speaking English as a group so I can participate. I feel quite ethnocentric and a bit self-conscious at being the only person who can only speak one language fluently, but it can’t be helped now. Everyone is understanding and willing to speak English, and the conversation is interesting, and I’m glad I asked. Over the course of the tour they teach me a little German (schmetterling for butterfly, which everyone loves to joke about) and French, which I’m supposed to be practicing for my trip to Paris later this year.

At the border crossing are parked a line of big sturdy jeeps. Drivers are unloading backpacks and equipment from some of them – the groups that took tours from Uyuni to San Pedro, or who opted for a four-day return trip tour, are returning today. Many of the cars have ribbons and flowers attached to the front as carnaval decorations. This makes me a little uneasy – one of the big dangers of this tour, along with the altitude and the harsh environment of the desert, is the supposed frequency with which drivers conduct the tours while drunk. Carnaval is the main drinking event of the year in this part of the world, and even though the agent who booked our tour assured us that they only hire drivers who don’t drink, I’m still suspicious. Eventually we’re split into two groups and shepherded over to a couple of waiting SUVs. The drivers introduce themselves – both seem sober and friendly – and after some milling around, loading our bags onto the top of the car, and some minor vehicle maintenance, we’re all squeezing in. Carmen and I share the very back – I think she must be terribly uncomfortable with her long legs. I’m pretty short at 5’2″ (or 157 centimeters) but my knees still brush the back of the seat in front of me. The men in the group – Johannes, Felix, Roschan, and Boris – stoically arrange themselves in the slightly larger middle and front seats, and, I assume, get used to being squeezed next to each other for a solid three days.

11054354_10102260942714549_2256999959551790450_n Rene, our driver, introduces himself, as the jeep lumbers off into the mountains. We’re in a high, barren country of rolling hills and steep, snow-capped mountains. There’s dirt around us on all sides – no bushes and certainly no trees – but we do see a strange sort of green fuzz covering the hills and sometimes pass groups of grazing vicuñas (a camel-colored member of the llama family). When we look closely we can see tiny bunches of small, hardy grass – this is what the vicuñas are eating.

10996090_10102260942959059_354798022885397365_n The first stop of the official tour is a hot spring, which turns out to be a small concrete pool about half a meter deep and full of pleasantly hot, clear water. It borders a beautiful lake brimming with weird-colored algae. I soak blissfully in the hot water and chat with travelers from other tour agencies. Half an hour isn’t long enough but it’s all the time I have before we’re herded back into the jeep. Rene passes around coca leaves as we start off again. Like coca tea, the leaves don’t get you high (though there is a bit of an alert buzz similar to caffeine) – they’re chewed for the increased alertness and the medicinal benefits, mainly protection against altitude sickness. We’re now at an altitude above 4000 meters. I’m grateful to try the leaves, which have a bitter taste similar to green tea or yerba mate. I roll them gently into a ball on the side of my cheek like they say to do – you don’t chew the leaves, exactly, but instead kind of mash them in the corner of your mouth for a few hours. I feel the benefit almost immediately : it’s easier to breathe and the hint of a headache I was starting to feel fades rapidly.

image Our next stop is even higher – 4900 meters. Even with the coca leaves, I feel a little light headed. We stop next to a plume of steam where there’s a series of small geysers and mudpots. Like in San Pedro, there are no fences or guard rails or warning signs – you just have to be smart enough to figure out not to stand too close to the pit full of boiling steam.

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We continue through the altiplano, thankfully coming down in altitude a little, and stop at a beautiful turquoise lake. One of the oddest features of the altiplano is the flamingo population. I generally associate flamingos with tropical climates and I can’t figure out how or why there are flamingos here, in the high desert of a landlocked country; but they seem pretty content to graze in their colorful lakes. Over the course of the trip we visit several different high country lakes, all of them populated with flamingos.

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Around 14:00 we reach a large lake with a shifting border of red and green algae, and eat a lunch prepared at the hostel where we’ll stay the night. We’re all tired – the bumpy jeep ride and high altitude make for an exhausting trip – and rest for a bit before exploring the lake. There’s a small trail that leads up to a hill overlooking the brilliant blue water. I take one or two photos but eventually just sit on a rock overlooking the lake, letting the colors and the atmosphere wash over me as the sun slowly sets.

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A little later, back at the hostel, we drink coffee and eat a late dinner. We play cards and talk and eventually decide to go outside to look at the stars, which are as clear and bright as in San Pedro. This turns into a photoshoot – Johannes has an excellent camera – and we huddle under blankets, looking up at the Milky Way and watching the southern cross rise into the sky as the night deepens. Finally exhaustion gets the better of us and we curl up under wool blankets in the room we all share.

19 February 2015

It’s 5:45 and I’m wide awake. They say one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is trouble sleeping. I didn’t wake up gasping for breath the way some people do, but I woke from a vivid nightmare around 2:00 and passed the rest of the night dozing fitfully. After a groggy breakfast we’re moving again.

We more or less get past the park guards – I having somehow lost That Important Piece of Paper They Told Me Not To Lose – and drive to a series of rock formations called Piedras de Arboles (rock trees). This is a fun place to take photos and climb around, though I think we’re all still a little tired and cold to appreciate it.

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For the rest of the morning we drive along the altiplano, visiting several different alpine lakes. They are all beautiful, but after a bit it feels repetitive – there isn’t much to do at each lake except take pictures and try to get close to the flamingos. We stop for lunch by one lake – Rene tells us we’re eating flamingo meat, a running joke for him.

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The landscape changes after this and becomes rockier, drier. Soon we’ve reached a bare plain of rough, reddish rocks twisted into strange shapes by erosion. It’s actually a field of hardened lava spewed out by a nearby volcano last time it erupted. Rene tells us the volcano isn’t active anymore, but we see that a little bit of smoke still dribbles out the top. We explore the weird landscape as long as we can.

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Everyone dozes for the afternoon as we drive to a tiny village – completely silent, which Rene tells us is due to the carnaval. One tiny shop is open and we all stop for a break in an incredibly basic bathroom where I encounter for the first time the concept of pouring water straight into the toilet bowl in order to flush it. For some reason this shop also sells toblerone, which is a delicious Swiss chocolate shaped like a pyramid. I buy one to share with the group, who are as surprised as I am that you can find good European chocolate in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano.

We make a stop at an old yard full of the rusting hulls of trains and stop to take photos. It’s interesting, though it feels a little pointless after the mountains and lakes we’ve been passing. Another long drive through mountains and canyons covered in cacti, and around dusk we arrive at a salt hotel on the edge of the salt flats. The walls are made of blocks of compressed salt, the floor is cold tile. There’s no electricity when we arrive, so we drink coffee by the light coming in the windows and wait for dinner.

Around 6:30 the electricity comes on, and with it the promise of a hot shower, though in my room the best we manage is a lukewarm trickle. We eat dinner together, us and a group from the other jeep, and as the dusk fades into night outside we listen to Rafael, a musician from Brazil, play beautiful songs on the guitar he brought on the trip.

20 February 2015 4:15 – we sleep soundly in our beds (thick mattresses placed on top of little salt platforms) but it’s not long enough. We’re up for breakfast at 4:30 and getting into the jeep at 5:00. There’s a pale grey hint of dawn on the horizon and it broadens and brightens as we approach the thin white edge of the salt flat. At present, this entrance to the salt flat is covered in maybe 10 centimeters of water. The jeeps rumble down a narrow lane that’s raised above the water and stop where it dips down. The sun is just about to come up and the water reflects the blushing colors like a mirror. Though it’s shallow, the surface is perfectly glassy and smooth, like a lake.

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After a few minutes of sunrise we’re back in the jeeps and actually drive down into the water, Rene and the other driver guiding them carefully over the flooded salt. Gradually the water becomes shallower and shallower and soon we’re out again, taking pictures in the early morning light. It’s cold, as desert mornings often are, and my feet freeze as the water and salt seep up into the canvas tops of my chuck taylors.

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We drive further and soon we’re gliding along a vast white expanse of slightly damp salt. Little ridges break the surface into panels like a turtle’s shell. The jeeps speed up here and we drive for maybe 20 minutes, deep into the salt flat. Once we’re in a really good dry spot everyone’s out taking the classic salt flat pictures. The draw here is that the landscape is essentially featureless – no trees, no rocks, no vegetation. I’ve never been somewhere so barren. This is probably depressing after a while but for the short term it means you can take some unusual pictures. We do this for probably two hours.

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Eventually Rene has humored us long enough, and it’s back into the jeep. He takes us to what he tells us is a salt museum but appears to be just another salt hotel. Outside is a huge salt monument in the shape of the Dakar logo. We don’t know it yet, but we’ll see this logo everywhere in the next two weeks in Bolivia. The motor race, which until recently ran between Paris and Dakar, is being held in South America for the first time this year, and people are justifiably proud about it.

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We cross off the salar into a tiny, poor village, where we eat lunch. The buildings here are made mostly of mud brick, lining dirt roads. I see for the first time indigenous women dressed in traditional Bolivian clothing: a long-sleeved knit sweater; a colorful, flouncy, knee-length skirt; stockings; sandals or flat shoes; and a hat on top of two long braids. Here, the women wear English-style bowler hats (the story is that colonists brought the hats over as men’s fashion but the Bolivian men didn’t take to them, so the women adopted the fashion instead). I learn later that the preferred style of hats and shoes varies depending on the region – here it seems they wear bowler hats. At first I think the women I see in this very touristic little village are just dressing up as a tourist stunt – one woman asks us to pay her to take a photo. Later on, when I’ve spent more time in Bolivia, I’ll realize that this isn’t a tourist costume – it’s the traditional dress and women all over Bolivia (especially the indigenous groups) are proud to dress this way.

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Our last stop is another train graveyard – not a very interesting place, and we don’t stay long. Soon Rene is driving us into the town of Uyuni, where we say goodbyes and exchange information and quickly buy bus tickets to our various next stops. I head for Potosi with Boris, Roschan, Felix, and a German girl from the other jeep, named Michelle.