A Travellerspoint blog

Lima, Peru


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we made the 20 hour bus trip from cusco to lima simply because flying out of cusco is expensive. we arrived in lima on friday, spent one evening exploring a bit of the ritzy miraflores neighborhood (one of the settings of peruvian master mario vargas llosa's monumental book conversation at the cathedral, which i just finished), took a quick look at the foggy pacific, and went straight to the large, efficient international airport with visions of colombia limned in our minds' eyes.

but we'll be back.

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Posted by jtwires 11:39 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Cusco, Peru


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cusco was once the most important city of both the inca and spanish empires, and today it remains one of the coolest places i´ve yet encountered in south america. the narrow, cobblestone streets; the impressive plaza de armas, with its imposing colonial cathedral and church; the twisty alleys of san blas, lined with artisan shops and restaurants; the nearby valle sagrado, home to numerous inca remnants; machu picchu; the friendly people: all this and more make cusco a great place to visit and contributed to our extended stay here.

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of course one of the highlights of our visit was the four day trek we made to machu picchu. the traditional inca trail leading to the old mountain is heavily congested and requires reservations months in advance, so we elected to take one of the newer routes to the lost city of the incas. our trek included one day of biking, two long days of hiking, and a full day at machu picchu. although we didn´t follow the traditional inca trail, we did tread trails that were originally created by the quechua people before and during the height of the inca empire; in the old days, the trails were used both by common quechuan citizens making pilgrimages to machu picchu and the inca emperor himself, who was obliged periodically to travel from the empire´s capital of cusco to machu picchu (as well as to the extremities of the empire, ranging from colombia to chile -- but of course, he never found the journeys strenuous, as he was carried on the shoulders of his attendants).

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unfortunately, i was stricken with food poisoning the second night of the trip, which left me in a sorry state for hiking. i was able to ride in a van for the first half of the third day´s journey, but since there are no roads in or out of auguascalientes (the nearest town to machu picchu), i had to do the last three or four hours of the trek by foot, a great test of endurance. on the fourth day, after a final mad 2-hour dash up the mountain from auguascalientes, we were greeted with the magical, mystical, cloud-covered machu picchu itself. for the ambitious, one´s first impression of this incredible place is marred by the immediate need to book it through the site to the huayna picchu checkpoint, where no more than 400 passes granting access to the nearby ´young mountain´ are distributed per day on a first-come-first-serve basis. waiting impatiently in line to enter machu picchu and finally gaining entrance only to make a mad dash to the next line, there to wait once again, leaves one with a taste of disneyland in one´s mouth, and indeed, machu picchu is a sort of disneyland for the backpacker. what more can one expect from one of the new seven wonders of the world?

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disneyland aside, machu picchu is quite an amazing place to see. it´s estimated that roughly 500 permanent residents called the place home, and given the status of the site, anthropologists theorize that they were carefully chosen from cusco and surrounding areas. the demographics ranged from slaves to common quechuans to religious leaders, and their domiciles reflected their social status, with commoners and slaves living in buildings comprised of roughly-hewn mortared walls and religious leaders´ houses composed of the meticulously constructed, plaster-less, gap-less walls, whose construction alone present a marvelous testament to the sophistication of quechan abilities. even with only 500 residents, the site is home to a number of diverse structures, including an astronomical observatory replete with water mirrors used to isolate specific star clusters, a condor temple most likely used for offering sacrifices to various deities, and a specially-crafted sun dial which implemented an accurate seasonal calendar. having seen the place in its semi-restored glory, one can only imagine what it would have been like to live there at its peak, with its terraces brimming with agriculture and its residencies alive with people and domestic animals.

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while machu picchu is the most famous inca site in peru, it is by no means the only one, as we discovered when we took a tour of the valle sagrado, or sacred valley. in a single day we were able to visit the thriving market of pisac (a seemingly endless alley of niches offering everything from the conventional tourist bric-a-brac to fresh produce and homemade empanadas), the terraced remnants of an inca town just outside pisac, and the old military fortress at ollantaytambo. each of these sites offered examples of the brilliant inca stonework and glimpses into what life was like in america before it was america.

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even within the city of cusco itself, archaeological monumets abound. having been the holy capital of the empire, the city contains many examples of the finest stonework produced by the inca people, although much of it was razed by the spanish, who literally planted their churches and buildings on the ancient foundations. here again is a testament to quechuan ingenuity, for while all the inca walls were built at a slight inward angle to fortify them against earthquakes, the spanish kept only the foundations of the walls and built their additions straight upwards, leaving them vulnerable to tremors (and, in fact, many of the spanish walls later had to be rebuilt, while some of those inca specimens left unmolested by the conquistadors still stand today).

as much as there is to do in the day in cusco, we were also pleasantly surprised with the city's nightlife. for some strange reason, a number of the bars in the central area love gringos, and lure them into their establishments with free cover and even free drinks. it is quite easy (and indeed became our custom) to 'do the rounds', bouncing from one to the other of these nearby waterholes to slake our thirsts before the night was started in earnest.

Posted by jtwires 15:07 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Copacabana, Bolivia


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a few hours northwest of la paz lies copacabana, a small bolivian village located on the shore of lago titicaca, one of the highest navigable lakes in the world. the eponymous copacabana (from which the famous brazillian beach derives its name) is a tranquil spot which is similar to other small stops on the backpacker circuit (such as, for example, san pedro de atacama) in the sense that much of it seems to exist almost exclusively to cater to tourists. given a bird's eye view of this home to 6000 residents, one would never expect it to boast such a large number of travel agencies and exotic restaurants, but when one peruses copacabana's main streets, one is unlikely to find much else, except of course for small shops selling kitchy baubles and alpaca garments.

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the undisputed highlight of copacabana is the resplendent lago titicaca and the archaeologically important islands of isla del sol and isla de la luna, home to ancient ruins and spectacular views, but coming in at a close second is the impressive whitewashed basilica of our lady of copacabana (the patron saint of bolivia) which dominates the central plaza. this church, which was buit over an indigenous temple, is a sacred destination for bolivians all over the country, many of whom make the pilgrimage to visit the ornate virgin of copacabana. also nice was the small hill overlooking the city, which, although draining to climb in that altitude, provides a nice view of copacabana and lago titicaca, and also features some interesting monuments.

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after a few days relaxing (and, in my case, convalescing) in copacabana without much incident, we took a night bus to cusco. in typical bolivian fashion, the ride was, shall we say, rather unorganized. to start with, it seems that bolivian buses are either unable or unwilling to leave the country, as the first leg of our journey amounted to little more than a cab ride to the customs point, where our bags were tossed to the curb and we were told to cross the border by foot after haggling with the bolivian immigration officers for a bit. 100 meters across the border we spent a few friendly moments with peruvian customs officers before resuming our positions on the curb waiting for the arrival of the small bus that would take us to puno. when it arrived, we scrambled in to find seats and settle down for a bit of sleep. our speed-demon driver had different ideas, however, and in the process of weaving maniacally through the oncoming traffic of the two-lane road, managed to rear-end a motorcycle-like taxi contraption, sending it careening off the road into a 2 meter ditch. 200 meters later our bus stopped, and while the concerned drivers hopped out to check the damage inflicted on the bus, a few tourists ran back in the dark to check the health of the motorcycle's passengers. reluctantly, the bus turned back to lend assistance as well, and luckily, nobody had been injured. after giving the startled victims a ride back to town, our bus once again resumed its race to puno, where we arrived to find a few anxious trip coordinators waiting to inform us that our final bus had already left for cusco without us. so quick as you like we throw our bags into taxis and 'tally ho, follow that bus.' with a bit of luck and some more speedracer antics, we overtook the bus, jumped in, piled on the blankets, and snuggled down for a long night's journey.

while i'm at it, i'll relate another bolivian bus anecdote, this one having taken place in sucre. the night of our departure from that city, we arrive at the bus station with precious little time to spare, owing to the fact that our dinner had inexplicably consumed one and a half hours (bolivian table service, while not unpleasant, is not always rapid). we run through the crowded station looking for our bus company, copacabana llc, or somesuch. luckily, we find a copacabana bus just pulling out, with doors still open and a placard reading potosi, our intended destination. just as we reach the bus, the driver gives us an unpleasant look and closes the doors in our face. this unagreeable gesture was met with shouts of desperation, and a few members of our party jumped in front of the bus to inform the driver of our presence. well, he wanted nothing to do with us, and in so trying to avoid us, ended up backing into another bus a few meters away. whoops. now our bus had to pull over to the curb to check the damages, and we took this opportunity to bribe a baggage attendant to load our bags on the bus, pay the duties lady our departure taxes, and jump on the bus with triumphant relief. this relief slowly transformed to disbelief as we made our way down the aisle of the crowded bus and came to the realization that not a single seat was empty. bummer. turns out there are five or six bus companies servicing the sucre terminal whose names consist of some variation of the word copacabana. at this point the bus was back on its way again, with the five of us standing awkwardly in the aisle. finally, after a bit of arguing, the driver agreed to stop for just long enough for us to jump off and collect our luggage, which we dragged back to the station, there to purchase more tickets to potosi, this time from a company not named after copacabana.

all this is to say that if, after a few days of stomach troubles, you convince yourself that you can handle an easy bolivian nightbus (and this bus, after all, does have a bathroom, right mr travel agent? sure sure, of course it does... or at least it did at one point), perhaps you should reconsider.

Posted by jtwires 14:29 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Paz, Bolivia


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although sucre is the political capital of bolivia, la paz often gets credit for being the highest (de facto) national capital, and at 3660 meters, its altitude is quite difficult to ignore, especially as one labors to ascend the city's unavoidable hills. the geography of la paz is quite striking, with the city's main drag, known as the prado, following the nadir of the deep, bowl-like canyon which envelopes the city, while a dizzying profusion of buildings cling precariously to the steep walls on either side, providing housing for the roughly 1 million residents. strolling along the prado, one encounters a vibrant cultural juxtoposition as business men and women in slick suits hurry past street vendors in traditional outfits of brightly colored multi-layered skirts and iconic bowler hats (this garb, while considered by many to be a distinctive feature of aymara culture, was actually imposed on the indiginous people by spanish decree in the 18th century).

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the most elevated capital in the world, located in the poorest country in south america, la paz can be considered a city of extremes, and our experience here quite loyally reflected this place of superlatives, as every aspect of our stay here, from hostels to meals to bike rides, was anything but mundane.

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for example, most of the well-known hostels in la paz are not your run-of-the-mill domiciles. we stayed in the loki, a so-called megahostel with room for hundreds of party-seeking backpackers, most hailing from the u.k. and australia. this place is so big that the in-house bar is a destination for travellers staying in other hostels. i suspect many loki guests, after their first few days in the city, rarely ventured outside the hostel, except perhaps during the mass exodus every night when the bar closed and its patrons migrated in one giant herd to whichever of the four or five gringo discoteques had been pre-arranged as the meeting spot for that night. among these gringo hangouts was a certain crack den in which coke could be purchased straight from the bar (bolivia's status as world's leading producer of coca leaves, coupled with the presence of a coke plant in la paz's prisoner-administrated san pedro prison, make the drug easily accessible for interested travellers). this over-cozy arrangement grew a little tiresome after a while, as it resembled a british boarding school for backpackers taking field-trips to boozehalls.

also extreme was 'the world's most dangerous vindaloo,' an insane and unappetizing curry fortified with a nearly fatal dose of bolivian chilies. anybody dumb enough to order and finish this colon-cauterizing concoction receives a free t-shirt for their pains, and while the shirt seems like a cool badge of honor at the beginning of this trial by fire, a few minutes into the meal one is forced to seriously reconsider the merit of undertaking such a silly challenge for a tacky touristy t-shirt. but undertake we did, and somehow we both stumbled out of that curry den with new attire.

capping off our stint of extremes was a bike ride down world's most dangerous road. the official statistics are hard to come by, but taking an average of all rumors and reports, i estimate that about one biker per year dies during this deathrace, while somewhere on the order of one serious injury occurs every week. before the unpaved portion of the road was closed to automobiles, i suspect a large number of car casualties were incurred as well. given these credentials, it's no wonder that this bike ride has become quite popular with younger travellers, and, in honesty, the experience is not without its merits. the scenery along the 63 km bike ride ranges from frosty, cloud enshrined mountain peaks to sweltering rain forest vegetation, and the adrenaline kick produced by flying around precipitous switchbacks on smoothly paved asphalt is definitely something to be remembered (but so also is the prostate pounding endured during the rocky off-road portion of the ride).

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Posted by jtwires 11:57 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Potosí, Bolivia


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potosi is home to el cerro rico, one of the most productive mines in south america. the silver from this mine was extracted by native slaves to fortify the coffers of the spanish kingdom, which, due to mismanagement and extravagance, were promptly emptied via payments to great britain. at the height of its power, potosi was a thriving city, lined with opulent mansions and cathedrals. that was some time ago, however, and after the production and price of silver fell, most of the rich europeans fled, leaving behind something of a ghost town.

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although there is not much silver left to be found in potosi, it is still actively mined for tin and other minerals. until not too recently the mine was under government control, but now it is worked by individual contractors and cooperative companies. to make any real money one has to buy into one of the companies, a feat that requires a few years toiling away for meagre salaries and a hefty monetary contribution. once one has attained partner status in the company, one is given free reign to decide when, where, and for what to mine. this is something of a dangerous arrangement, as it means many individual groups are working their way through the rock with little to no knowledge of the whereabouts of other groups. as you can imagine, this leads to a swiss-cheese-like structure in the mountain. it is estimated that the mountain will collapse some time within the next thirty years.

those tourists with a bit of fortitude are given the opportunity to go down into the mines in person. before entering the mines, visitors are asked to purchase gifts such as coca leaves, soft drinks, hard alcohol, and dynamite for the miners. then, after gearing up, you pile into a van and head out to the nearest active mine.

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we had to walk over 1 km into the mine before we reached any active deposits. on the way we met an effigy of the mining god tio, whom the miners leave cigarettes and drinks in hope of eliciting good luck. we were told that during carnaval, the miners celebrate in their own way, spending entire days underground drinking with tio. the further into the mine one goes, the hotter it gets, and when we actually reached a location where miners were working, it felt like we were in a sauna. most of the time the tunnels are well too short for anybody to stand upright, but sometimes they are so small that the only way to pass through them is on one's belly. in fact, the final destination for the miners we met was at the end of a 50-meter inclined rat hole which the larger of the tourists were simply unable to navigate.

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needless to say, the conditions in the mine are terrible, and, barring any accidents (a handful of people die from collapses and the like each year), the average miner can expect to live to about 50 before black lung overtakes him (women are generally not allowed to work inside the mines, as they are considered to bring bad luck). all this is endured for what in most cases accounts for barely more than a living wage.

Posted by jtwires 15:52 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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