Peru and Bolivia: Part I

Day 1.
Arrival in Cuzco. Hostal Qorichaska, located on a small uphill street off the main square, the Plaza de Armas.  Streets full of woven colors, children and elderly women with papooses.  At an altitud of about nearly 3,000 meters, I was finding it so hard to breathe; the heart just can´t keep up with such thin air.  Drinking tea infused with coca leaves helps, also directly chewing the leaves and extracting the juice.

After bargaining with a taxi-driver, we went to see Saqsawayman, a giant stone structure built on top of a grassy pasture.  A tourguide pointed out different animal shapes visible in the junctures of the stones, llamas and serpents.  We picked some flowering minty herbs which cleared the sinuses and helped with the altitude. Next we continued on to Puka Pukara, another archaeological site, and were meandering about the ancient stones with a stray dog at heel when it started to rain.  The weather in Peru is highly unpredictable and changing from minute to minute.  Always gotta have the poncho handy.

By nightfall I had a skull-splitting headache, after we had explored the plaza a bit and rented some camping necessities.  Straight to bed with Advil.  It is not easy changing altitudes; every night´s sleep ends with aching lungs and a frenzied heart which tires after tossing and turning.


Day 2. 

Didn’t actually think my oxygen-deprived body would be up for it, but we forged on with the scheduled acitivity — rafting on the Urubamba River. A tour van picked us up, along with four other rafters and a couple of guides, and we headed north towards the river valley Chuqui. Wetsuits and lifejackets on, ready to raft the class 3 part of the river. It turned out to be a load of fun, with rapids that were invigorating but not deathly frightening, and amazing scenery with green mountains and a peaceful valley.  After rafting 12 km, a delicious stone sauna and a big lunch awaited us at the lodge.  Some of our companions also did ziplining over the river.  The family at the lodge had two huge dogs which reminded me of Beethoven, and another one which had babies that very day!


Day 3.

First day of the Inca Trail!  A bus full of raucous young Australians took us first to a town called Ollantaytambo, where we had a power breakfast and got some other gear for the road.  Next stop kilometer 82, where we met Sonia, our tourguide, and the other 15 members of our group who were fortunately not the Australians.  The first leg of the trip was quite pleasant, after crossing the checkpoint and a bridge that marked the beginning of the trail.  A bit of uphill, flat road, a lot of stopping so that Sonia could explain the different archaeological sites that we passed.  After some more flat road, a steady sharp uphill made me lose my breath completely…brief foreshadowing of what was to come. More rests, more coca leaves to chew, then lunch under a big family tent, during which we got to know each other more.  Our group consisted of Australians, Dutch, Brazilians, Argentinians, Spanish, Taiwanese, Irish, and me the American.  After resting by a grassy brook and dawdling around a bit, we moved on towards our next campsite. In total we walked about 9 kim the first day; the last uphill stretch to the camp already left me exhausted.  In dire times, your body does some surprising things, even if your mind doesn´t agree.

6 o´clock tea time with popcorn and warm drinks, then dinner at 8.  I was a zombie by that time and just wanted to sleep.  The first day was the haziest — I don´t remember too much of the road or the scenery, which was beautiful but pretty much the same all throughout, but we must have walked quite a bit to leave me so utterly destroyed.  Good night’s sleep in a warm sleeping bag under a cozy tent for two.


Day 4

We were woken up at 5:00 in the morning by porters who knocked on our tent offering us coca tea. A more or less pleasant way to wake up in the mountains, I guess. Breakfast with pancakes, oatmeal, coffee, bread and butter – we could tell it was going to be a hard day. Hard doesn’t even begin to describe it. Day 2 was pretty much an uphill hike for about 5 hours, then down another 2 hours until we reached the campsite for lunch. Going up an endless mountain on steep stone stairs is one of the most hellish things one can think of doing. Throw in the cold and rain and it just makes you want to throw yourself off the side of the mountain. Equally discouraging are the porters who zoom past you with a house on their back.

It was a foggy day, with not much to see, just an endless valley and the same scenery. I really didn’t think I would make it, especially with the altitude and me be being in bad shape. I was exhausted after every dozen or so steps and had to sit or catch my breath. Javi stayed with me and encouraged me to keep going, even if they were baby steps, and he eventually had to carry my bag. I erupted into tears several times, pushed to the extreme of cold and exhaustion. I hated being there so much, especially as an idea of a vacation. I didn’t think it was possible for me to make it, but I also was NOT going back after having climbed all that way. Javi was right – I should’ve concentrated on how many stairs I was climbing rather than how many stairs there were left. I guess a lot of it is mental – if you’re not motivated it’s twice as hard. But when you’re winded and at your physical limit, it’s hard to be positive.

After lots of stopping and starting, sighs, extreme pain, encouragement, dizziness, near faint spells, tears, and curses, I somehow made it up to the very top of Dead Woman’s Pass (very apt name indeed), at 4300 meters. I couldn’t believe (and still can’t believe) that I’d climbed a fucking mountain. What seemed impossible was not behind me. I looked back at the misty valley and just felt relief. Next came the descent down treacherous stone steps, made even more dangerous by the rain that began to fall.

The whole descent was clothed in a thick fog that seemed almost mystical – in the midst of my desperation I thought of the Incas traversing the same stone steps in the same kind of fog. How does one feel in that kind of sacred environment, walking alone? Does it just become habit? With my walking sticks in my freezing gloved hands, the descent was easier but not so much easier. Hard on the knees, painstakingly slow. The company of Sandra comforted me, the only other person in the group who had troubles. After an endless descent, finally arrival at the camp. Rest in the tent, then dinner. End of one of the hardest and craziest days of my life.

Day 5. 

The beginning of day 3 wasn’t any easier. The rain was pouring down cold, and we had to walk uphill in rivers of falling water that left our feet and boots entirely drenched. After the exercise of the two days before, my body was already battered. The climb must have been at least 2 hours, maybe 3. I was not a happy camper – freezing and completely wet. When we arrived at camp for lunch we were all soaked to the bone and shivering while eating. I wanted so badly to get out of my clothes and boots – a hot shower at the point would be asking too much.

After lunch, a stroke of luck gave us a dry sunny spell for the best and most scenic part of the trail. The road was mostly flat, easy to walk, and led us through jungle foliage, caves, tunnels, winding cliffs, shady groves with flowers and birds. We stopped at an archaelogical site and took a photo. We were all generally in good spirits with the change of weather, pausing to look at things, to converse and laugh. Stan the Dutch guy gave me some candy exactly like Werther’s originals which worked like a charm. Either that, or the fact that it stopped raining, the sunshine, or the flat trail – I definitely felt much better, even cheerful. The first time I started to actually enjoy the trip (and probably the only time).

Although that was deceiving too, because the descent to the camp was the longest yet. Stone step and step, until infinity, until I was sure I would need rehabilitation for my knees. I never wanted to badly to just stop walking and to get out of my still-soaking-wet boots. Finally, arrival at camp, which seemed like a party station for American campers. Special X-mas dinner (it was X-mas eve!) and a salute to the porters.

Day 6. 

Last day of the Inca trail and arrival at Macchu Picchu. At first the thick fog prevented us from seeing it clearly but it soon cleared up. The structure itself isn’t as nearly amazing as its context – wedged between soaring green misty mountains which to this day still seem god-like and evoke an unearthly power that the Incas recognized. We sat at the top of it all just to take in the view. I couldn’t imagine having that place as a home, to wake up every morning to the patterned sunrise and see the same view of the mountains, which hide this sacred city and separate it from any other place on earth. It must be an awesome feeling to know there is a place like that waiting at the end of the trail, at the end of days of walking, of climbing through rain or shine, after a seemingly endless road. That majestic city is there, and waited there for centuries to be discovered, known only by Peruvian farmers who were familiar with the mountains. To know a place so well it almost becomes part of you. There’s something much more spiritual about the mountains, especially these Andean mountains – no wonder the Incas felt the need to be closer to their gods by building structures that would last. Anyone who sat atop with that view would recognize the existence of something powerful and awesome.

These people were incredibly brilliant, with their knowledge of stonework (and their 14th century tools!) and the way they made use of nature as a component to their architecture. They cut walls following the natural shape of the mountains, and created a drainage system to collect rain water. How did they even record their architectural plans? Absolutely astonishing. Every stone has its special place and is collocated perfectly where it needs to be. We wandered the city until afternoon, when we took a bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. It seemed so strange after 4 days of walking. Lunch, beers, and the long way back to Cuzco by train and bus. Back to where we began.

Day 7. 

Woke up early so we could return all the hiking gear we’d rented and wash our clothes. Then private taxi to visit the rest of the monuments in the Sacred Valley – Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Maras Moray. Visiting Inca sites always means there will be an excruciating amount of uphill step-climbing. Not fun, especially when just finished the bloody Inca trail. Long day, alpaca meat for dinner, which was delicious.

Day 8. 

Morning flight to Puerto Maldonado, town in the tropics. Took a tuc-tuc to Hostal Tambopata, by the side of the river of the same name. This town is full of taxi tuc-tucs and motorbikes – no sign of cars. The weather has just changed from cold to stiflingly hot and humid. We had a walk around the main marketplace – selling fruits and veggies, electronics, soap, meat, spices. Similar to the one we saw in Morocco. Ate some slices of watermelon, bought some necessities.

Day 9. 

Start of 3-day jungle tour, with a Mexican couple and a tour guide. Took a boat down the river then walked an hour and a half through the jungle to get to our lodge. After lunch we took the boat out into Lake Sandoval, saw a family of otters fishing and playing, and fished for piranhas. It’s difficult to catch them because they’re so quick at eating the bait. Our tour guide Johnny managed to catch 3 and another fish. Night fell, and it was time to look for caymans. At night they lurk at the edge of the lake under the foliage, and you can see their eyes like orange fireflies if you shine a flashlight directly at them. Our boat grazed the foliage when Johnny managed to catch an 8-month old by the neck. It say still with open yellow unblinking eyes as we all had a turn at holding it. Then we let it back into the water. Dinner, then long night’s sleep in a dark unlit cabin full of creepy crawlers.

Day 10. 

Dawn wake-up call, and off to see the parrots in the grove. The jungle is incredibly noisy, especially in the morning and at dusk. Full of birds screaming, monkeys and insects and whatever other creatures may be lurking. The parrots were pretty, but birds really don’t attract me too much, especially not at dawn. Our next hike was after breakfast, when we went to see a giant tree wrapped with roots. We saw more interesting trees and some monkeys, a spiky palm with spines that the natives used as hunting weapons. Talks about anacondas, and forest spirits, and elves. In the afternoon we took the boat to a looking tower and spotted a sloth in a distant tree. Both an exciting and boring sight as usual. Nightfall, and the hunt for more caymans. We managed to get extremely close to a large one hidden in the foliage, when it suddenly swam away at full speed by the side of our boat. Didn’t actually see it, but from the way it grazed our boat, it was big and scary. More attempts, but to no avail. They are smart and fast.

In the afternoon we also went for a nice swim in the lake, after a sweltering nap in our cabins. Warm, brown water, so opaque you never know what may be lurking beneath. A caiman out for a swim, a sting ray, or some large piranhas maybe. Lake Sandoval is a treasure trove of Amazonian animals, so peaceful on the surface.

Day 11.

Up at dawn in an attempt to see the otters again. They didn’t appear, but we did see some caymans out of a swim. Our boat was peacefully gliding on the lake when suddenly, a giant fish named “paiche” peeked its head above the water to breathe, saw our boat inches away, and hastily dove back into the water with its huge fin spraying us with a wave of water that splashed into our boat. I caught a glimpse of its wide, orange and silver speckled body sliding away into the depths and thought at first that it was a cayman. But it was really one of the biggest fish in the world. Not bad for a morning’s boat ride on the lake.

After breakfast we went to look for chestnuts. They grow in round coconut-like shells and fall off trees unexpectedly, with a speed able to crack your head open. The chestnuts are delicious. We also saw a plant that makes a reddish dye when you rub the leaves together, and a big termites nest (good for sting ray injuries). Finally in the afternoon a rainy trek back through the forest to get on the boat to Puerto Maldonado. Three days in the jungle I think was enough.

Back at the Hostal Tampopata. Dinner near the Plaza de Armas at this cute cozy place called El Asadazo, which makes the best avocado salad.

Day 12.

New Year’s Eve! A very relaxing one, thank god, filled with sleep, naps, and lazy walks. In the morning we went to the local zoo. You would’ve even have noticed that you’d walked into a zoo, with its simple rickety cages outdoors. Parrots and strange jungle dogs on the loose. We saw a giant cayman, a beautiful puma (which started purring at me like a friendly housecat), a jaguar, anacondas, a vulture, a deer, a tapir, and some other marsupial creatures. The big cats are so amazing, exactly like George at home except 10 times his size. They just look so incredibly cute and cuddly, and it’s a pity they’re locked up in tiny cages without the freedom to roam the jungle where they were born.

Lunch at a cevicheria place across the street, awesome fish and a nice view of the river. Another visit to the market – there were plenty of people out, getting ready for New Year’s and buying yellow underwear. We watched Madrid’s countdown on tv, at Puerta del Sol. About 2 hours left now until the New Year here. As usual I will celebrate with a good night’s sleep! Goodbye, 2010.

Day 13. 

Flight back to Cuzco, private taxi up to some horse-riding grounds, just like in Costa Rica, minus the crazy waterfalls and jungle. I’ve decided that mountain sight-seeing is loads more enjoyable when you’re on a strong, able-bodied horse rather than on your own two feet. The views are much more majestic – well they are incredibly anyway, valleys a lush green during the rainy season.

There seem to be boys all over the world who know intimately their part of the earth, their animals, their sacred plants. boys of the Andean mountains bred on horses who race with breakneck speed in the valleys on trails already familiar a thousand times over. Boys bred in the jungle on bare feet, with arrows and guns in their hands ready to hunt pumas and jaguars, who know the names of the trees and grew up with the mythical stories of jungle spirits and a superstitious condition called “mal aire.” Boys who climb slippery rocks up to waterfalls barefoot, who leap from cliff into rushing pools of water doing somersaults. They are everywhere we travel, impressing tourists with their know-how, their natural intimacy with Mother Nature. Pachamama, they call her here. They respect her and yet know she is slowly being exploited by people like us, curious travelers who want in on these sacred places, too.

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