Friday, July 30, 2010


We have entered Bolivia along the shores of the lake Titicaca, and noticed no difference from Peru. The same half-finished buildings, same traditionally dressed people on the streets and the same freezing temperatures. Copacabana, our first Bolvian town, blew us away by the tourist crowds. Every restaurant was ¨touristico¨, which translates as ¨same shit, just very expensive¨.
We did not go to the well-advertised Isla del Sol because we had no desire to pay for the ferry, and then escape the people collecting ¨tourist tax¨ in three different places on the island itself. So we walked out of Copacabana early in the fresh morning and got ourselves a ride in the back of a pick-up of a newlywed couple. They left us half-way to La Paz, and in 20 minutes we were riding again, this time with a truck loaded with pebbles. The driver gave us directions on how to get to the city centre and dropped us off at a bus stop - a perfect ride!
In La Paz we had a shower, a refreshing sleep on a soft wide bed, Anastasia had a haircut, and we invested in two pairs of loosely knitted alpaca socks. That concluded our tourist program of the city.
Next morning we headed to Santa Cruz. This was when we have encountered, for the first time, the Bolivian version of hitch-hiking. It is almost always in a back of a truck, and almost always it is not free. After travelling for six hours through the cold of the altiplano amidst stinking empty boxes of chicken meat, a driver asked us to pay for the ride! This has happened almost every time since then, and we more or less figured out the going rate: 10Bs ($1.5) for 150-200km per person. The change of climate from the altiplano to the selva was spectacular. We were descending down for a few hours, the engine brake humming non-stop, leaving us half-deaf once again. The vegetation changed in front of our eyes. From the scarce dry shrubbery of the highlands it turned into a lush tropical cloudforest with banana palms, enormous ferns up to 3 meters tall and lianas all over. In the places where the pavement was washed out by seasonal torrents, it was replaced by cobblestone(!), sometimes stretching for several kilometers. After seven hours of travelling (and 30Bs later) we were walking down the streets of Villa Tunari, a very clean and quiet town in the jungle. We camped in the municipal fairground, which was laid out as if it was somewhere in the MidWest USA - huge lawn (funny enough, mowed by machete-swinging men), a half-finished public washroom that was constructed better then most houses in the village and big flood-lights, which were, luckily for us, out of service. Bolvia used to receive a lot of aid from the States - in many villages since we have seen the signs advertising the USAid program to schools, hospitals and the like. Now the Americans are expelled by Evo (yes, they call their president by his first name), and the Russians are brought in instead to develop the gas industry of the country.
Having enjoyed the agricultural surroundings of Santa Cruz for a few days, we headed to Sucre. The shortest way was not the fastest. We went through Samaipata, Valle Grande and Villa Serrano, and it took us four days to thumb through this hilly terrain. What appears as a neat white line on a map from Valle Grande to Villa Serrano is in reality a very bad, curvy dirt road. The sign on the side of the road informed us that we were travelling on ¨Ruta del Che¨. He was excecuted in the near by village of La Higuera, and now tourists flock to the historic site. Most of the time our truck, loaded with peasants and their belongings, was dragging itself a little faster than one could walk beside it. The driver of this truck exceed the usual country rate, asking us for 100Bs for about a 100 kms covered. We offered 20, which he declined. Spitting coca juice and cursing, he screamed: ¨But you have DOLLARES, I know you gringos have DOLLARES, you must pay, everybody pays!!!¨ After a few minutes he realized that no more money are coming his way and accepted the payment.
Dirty, hungry and tired, we entered the capital. We will rest here for a few days, and then continue on towards Potosi and then Uyuni.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Arequipa and the Colca canyon

Having said farewell to the hippie bunch on top of the hill near Cusco, we headed out for Arequipa with Karan, a first Indian from India we have met on our trip. He was excited about becoming our apprentice in the art of hitch-hiking for a few days. Travelling once again in a group of three did not slow us down, and by the end of the first day we disembarked in a small town of Pucara. It was already dark and freaking cold, so we headed for the church in hopes of finding its doors open and a pastor sitting inside. Our expectations were crushed very shortly, but a kind couple passing by got interested in our plea to find a room free of charge. They took us on a tour of the town and then to a restaurant, which also functioned as a hotel. Our guide-lady had a quick chat with the owner, and soon we found ourselves resting under heavy wool blankets in a room.
Early next day, after a few short rides, we were picked up by a truck going to Arequipa. The slight inconvenience was the fact that we were riding inside a closed box with only a few light beams penetrating the steel walls. The noise inside was deafening and we felt every bump in the road with our bums. After the ride Anastasia´s hearing was impaired for one day. This is what we saw of the landscapes we were passing with this 6 hour ride:We got to Arequipa after dark, where we separated with Karan. He went on a cheap-hostel search while we headed to our CS contact in town. Paul and his family welcomed us with hot tea and dinner, and then even gave us our own room, with a bed and a dresser! We stayed with them for four days. This is the view form the top of their house.After we have rested in Paul´s house, we went off to the Colca canyon, the second deepest in the world. It lays some 200 kms from Arequipa and there are two ways to get there: the easy way and the hard way. Sure enough, yours truly chose the hard way: a long winding desert dirt road that approaches Cabanaconde from the south-west. As we found out later, hitch-hiking there was not an option: all the traffic takes the OTHER easy way, and this road is only traversed by two buses a day. The bus was expensive and full of campesinos carrying loads to their hometown: onions, beans, mattreses and the like.
Once in Cabanaconde, we embarked on a search of a camping spot. We met some french tourists (most tourists in the canyon are french) who informed us of all the dangers of camping out in Peru and suggested a ¨nice¨ hostel which only charges 5 soles per person to camp in a fenced off (read: safe) area. We chuckled, walked a few doors down and obtained a permission to camp on the lady´s lawn for a night for free.
The next day we went down to the bottom of the canyon. It was not as spectacular as we were made to believe (what a surprise!), but it was indeed deep. The trail was steep, long, and rather boring. We met lots of guided (!!! who the hell needs a guide on a meter wide trail???) french tourist groups and a few locals. The ascent the next day was hard. We figured out whose idea it was in the beginning to hike down here at all, and placed all the blame on her. When we reached the top, our hiking day was not over, as we wanted to go to the famous Cruz del Condor the same day, to see the majestic Vultur gryphus early next morning. Here, the ¨Peruvian hour¨ played yet another trick on us. ¨Two hours¨ until the mirador turned out to be a good five, and unaware of it, we mistakenly camped on the first mirador we came across after 3 hours of hiking (well after dark). We woke up early next morning and something felt odd... May be it was the absence of a big sign saying ¨Cruz del Condor¨, or may be the absence of a huge parking lot, or the absence of the birds... We walked to the road, stopped a truck and found out that Cruz del Condor is only ¨30 minutes¨ of walking ahead. After an hour and a half of hurried walking (the sun was rising, the thermal currents were already carrying the birds on their wings high up in the skies, the precious time was going out) we spotted the point. As soon as we got there, an official-looking dude approached us and inquired if we had a ¨boleto turistico¨, which goes at 35 soles. We told him no, spread out our hands, and said that we have absolutely no money for him. He then asked us to pay at least 3.5 soles entry fee (a ten times difference!), but got a negative reply once again. He then nodded, and left us alone. The few tourists who were around looked at us with big eyes, as they were obviously charged for the privilege of observing the birds. We got there for the last ten minutes of the show.As soon as the last bird soared high up, the tourist throngs started pouring in. There was no end to the caravan of buses, big and small, steering into the enormous parking lot. We hanged out there for a few more minutes and started walking towards Chivay. The lanscapes were breath-taking. There was no traffic except for the tourist buses, and, needless to say, these never stop. Finally, we were picked up by a minivan carrying a loar of American volunteers to Chivay. There were excactly two spaces left inside for us.
In Chivay, we went to the market, had a big ¨menu¨ lunch for a dollar and headed for the hot springs. There, we took a long hot shower and soaked in a hot pool for a while. Clean as never before, we walked to the other side of town and got a ride in the last rays of the setting sun with a truck, which dropped us off at the crossroads to Juliaca.
Literally within seconds of disembarking we were already talking with Manuel, an agronomist working at the check point there. He told us that the temperature there drops down to -17 C at night. He then invited us to sleep in his room, and we gladly accepted. The room was built in a shipping container, and it was nicely furnished with a brand new kitchen, two bunk beds and a gas heater. Manuel turned the heater on for the night, but it did not prevent the water in the teapot to freeze solid in the morning!!! We slept under three thick alpaca blankets, in all our clothes and hats.In the morning we shared some mate de coca with Manuel, walked across the road to the truck stop, chatted with the first driver we saw and, in a few minutes, rolled off towards Juliaca.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

And, of course, the Machu Faken Picchu

The plan was simple and elegant: Take a bus from Cusco to Piscocucho (aka km 82), walk the railroad until Agua Calientes (km 110), wait until the nightfall and enter Machu Picchu without paying the pricey $40 entry fee.
The first two points of the plan were completed with relative easiness, although we were turned around near Piscacucho by an official-looking dude with a hand-held radio. He told us it is prohibited for us to walk on the railroad and that if we want to reach Aguas Calientes, we have to buy a train ticket (the cheapest is $35). We pretended to comply and walked back a bit, but then, behind his back, we climbed the steep hill, went up through the bushes and a dry creek bed and so escaped him. We made a big circle through the fields and got back to the railroad a few hours later. We met no more harmful people, so we walked on the rails until the sunset.As it was getting dark, a Quechua woman hailed us from her yard and invited to camp on her land. We happily accepted her invitation and pitched out tent in the meadow, next to the 20 constantly shitting cows. We then cooked dinner on the wood fire in her kitchen.Most of the next day we walked through the most beautiful landscapes along the Urubamba river, saw many ruins and terraces. Trains passed us once in a while, and we waived to tourists who were taking pictures of us.
Around lunch time we reached Aguas Calientes, an ugly town built in a most beautiful valley. All the prices there were doubled, so we walked through to the camping site near the bridge and surveyed the surroundings.
The picture we saw was disheartening: Lots of security everywhere, even on the bridge. You need to buy the ticket to M.P. in advance and present it to be allowed to cross. The bridge is blocked by high gates at night, supposedly guarded as well. Under the bridge, a mighty boiling rio Urubamba. ¨No way¨, we thought. If only we would have looked closer! There is a way, in fact, but we have learned about it only when we came back to Cusco.
So instead of laying out $80 for the tickets, we desided to climb the mountain on this side of the river, Putucusi, free of charge. The forest was full of singing birds and sunlight, and there was absolutely nobody on trail! The reason for that was that the section of the ladders was wiped out by a mudslide last rainy season, and the ascent of the section was difficult, but possible for those without fear/brains, underline the appropriate.We climbed the slippery slope and continued on an impressive Inca trail. The trail mostly consisted of high steps sometimes constructed of huge boulders and sometimes carved right out of the side of the mountain. A beautiful panorama of the archeological site and the surrounding peaks opened up from the top.
We desided that this was as close as we really wanted to get to this jewel of South America. Two thouthand tourists daily on that side and zero on this side looked like a good deal to us. So we came down and walked in the direction of Santa Theresa, leaving Machu Picchu undefeated.
There was a trail along the railroad to Santa Theresa, it was very wide and flat, with scores of tourists walking on it. That´s why we haven´t met anybody walking from km 82, they all come from this side! It is much closer (like 3 hours instead of 24) and the trail is sooo easy, but the lanscapes are nearly not as impressive. After we got on an actual road, we flagged down the first pick-up that went by and got a ride straight to Cusco! Sweet.


Together with Jonathan we easily hitched out of Abancay.After the first quick ride we had to wait a little until a pick-up stopped. Inside was a typical wealthy Peruvian family.The man was a newly elected municipal official, his wife was a meat seller at the market. There was also a driver who did not talk until the very end, and their 5 year old son. Jonathan and George had a pleasant ride in the box, while Anastasia was enjoying the ¨cultivated¨ conversation inside. When they dropped us off, the driver of course started asking for money, but got nothing. He angrily threw an empty plastic bottle on the pavement and sped off. We walked to the shoulder and in a few minutes flagged down a beautiful new Toyota truck, and we rode in comfort until Cusco. In town Jonathan had a CS contact (as usual), so we headed there.The place was a typical hippie-run disfunctional community. There was a lot of rosy talk and meditation, but little useful work was being done... Mariesol and Christian, who were running it, had a beautiful picture in mind: a yoga school for the local kids, an organic veggie garden to feed all and an ashram... The brute work of cultivating the garden and building the yoga temple, as well as more mundane tasks were supposed to be done entirely by volunteers (or CS´ers). The volunteers were supposed to work 8 hour days, as well as buy and cook their own food, do dishes and keep the place clean, with the Head Couple happily overlooking the process. Luckily, yoga, meditations and plain laziness got in the way of this busy program...
After a few days of meditating, we went on a day-trip with Jonathan to see some Inca places around Cusco. The Inca experimental farm in Moray and the salineras near Maras were impressive. As true hitchers, we managed to solicit two rides even on a day trip!After we came back, we worked a bit ¨for the children¨ who were supposed to arrive later and surely appreciate all we have done for them. The job we got was to varnish the entry gate. Much better then demolishing the pigsties out back, so we kept slapping the poison on the wood for two days...