Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Layin' High

June 20 to 29, 2010 (by Swiss)

It's my pleasure to present to you my last blog post about our little adventure.  We are down to our last four cities, and Lawton will be covering Arequipa, or Albuquerque as I like to conveniently call it, as well as our anchor city Lima.

Which leaves me to cover Copacabana, Bolivia and Cusco, Peru.  The former "city" is located near the Peruvian border in a gorgeous setting on the shores of lake Titicaca.  The latter is located near the foothills of Machu Picchu, and thus serves as a popular base for Machu Picchu trekkers and day visitors.  The cities hover at altitudes ranging from 3310m to 3841m (10923 ft to 12675 ft), and luckily Jason and I have gotten fairly well acclimated to the altitude by now.

♫ ♪ Copa, Copa-ca-ba-na ♫ ♪
With rest/souvenir shopping complete in La Paz, we made a very timely departure on our "tourist bus" to Copacabana.  Although the bus was empty at first, we eventually picked up some south American stragglers (Chilean, we think) and by the time the bus stopped near "Loki" backpackers hostel, the bus was thoroughly westernized with American and European backpackers.  The upside was that we got to meet some American teachers who were spending time teaching in Guatemala city, so time was spent chatting with them a bit.  Well, to be fair, Lawton did most of the talking.  But you get my drift.  The bus ride was fairly pleasant and time pretty much flew by.

The biggest "challenge", if you want to call it that, was when we had to get off the bus about 50 minutes outside our destination and pay 1.5 Bs for a boat ride across part of the lake.  Our bus, on the other hand, got to enjoy the journey on top of what I would call, optimistically, a rickety barge.

Upon arrival in Copacabana, we said goodbye to the Yankees (some of whom were moving on to spend time on Isla del Sol) and were off to seek lodging.  Online inquiries prior to our arrival offered conflicting reports and thus led to the conclusion that we were probably best off just walking around until we found an acceptable place.  That little feat involved the visitation of 5-6 "hostals" with a range of crummy rooms and/or steep prices, and we finally ended up staying at Hostal Sonia.  The pad, costing us a total of Bs 50 (~USD 7.10) for a room with hot shower and (mainly Spanish) cable TV, was located a bit out of the center but rooms were clean and comfy and the walk into the center was under 5 minutes.  For some reason somebody had written a rather negative review of the place on, which we found to not be very accurate.  Bad wiki, bad.  Here's pics from their sun terrace:

Once settled, it was time to scope out the town a bit, grab lunch, and figure out bus tickets for our departure to Cusco 3 days later.  We had a cheap (Bs 15), semi-tasty set lunch with service that being described as "offered at snail's pace" would probably be considered a compliment.

Fearing painful chair-sores, we decided to skip desert and left after 1.5 hours of "eating" the first two courses.  From an American perspective, food service in Bolivia pretty much sucks.  So instead of sugary-desert, it was time to check out town and get some data on bus tickets to Cusco.

Unlike the popular Rio beach with which this high elevation town shares its namesake, bikinis are fairly hard to spot on the beaches of lake Titicaca.  So gents, no love for you.  Then again, it is winter;  perhaps we just happened to have come here during the wrong season.  Aside from that, the town is small, charming, with a good mix of shops, restaurants, bars, and vistas.  Certainly a good place to lay low for a couple of days.  Oh, and if you ever need to get your car blessed, apparently this is the place to do it (last pic.)

Since both of us had gone to bed fairly late in La Paz and had to be up early to catch the bus, we were ready for an afternoon nap.  This led to a late dinner, for which we decided to sample on of the many beach shacks on the lake.  On the way to grabbing grub, we were told of an early morning (5:30 am) hike up a local hill.  Since I am generally an early riser, enjoy climbing on rocks, and am not hindered by a robo-boot, I figured I'd give it a try if I got up in time.  Dinner was nice, though most shacks were closed by 9pm and neither of us was super hungry: a tasty fresh trout platter was therefore shared between the two of us.

Let's Go Worship the Sun
So for some reason I figured that this early morning hike was a daily activity for folks who want to catch the sunrise over the city.  I woke up at 4:45 debating whether it would be worth dragging my butt out of bed, but eventually decided to start wandering into town.  I was pretty sure which mountain was to be climbed, but had also been advised that I would see people hiking in the direction of the mountain (strange thing to do every morning, I thought, but figured "when in Rome....")   As I arrived at the base of "my mountain", I started to notice that folks seemed to be walking in the opposite direction.  Could I have picked the wrong mountain?  The answer became clear fairly quickly, as did the fact that this was June 21, which I suppose is the winter solstice in these parts of the world.  Ah ha!  Perhaps not a daily thing, but rather some kind of special celebration?  Long story short, I ended up following the crowds up the "other" mountain (fun to do in the dark, btw), where I managed to position myself in a great spot to observe the celebration of the advent of the Aymara culture year.  I'd say 500-800 folks ended-up joining me on top of the hill.  Locals brought various offerings, which were laid out on a wooden setup ready to be lit on fire.  Ceremonies were performed, including some kind of "welcoming of the sun" spiel where palms were raised towards the sun as it started to peek out over the mountain ridges in the distance.  Pretty.  Darn.  Cool.

The rest of the daylight hours was spent catching the Switzerland-Chile game (tough 1-0 loss, I've never seen that many cards handed out in such a fairly played game), Jason got his blog post written, and we scored us some bus tickets (Bs 90 to Cusco) and tickets for a tour of Isla del Sol (Bs 20.)  Dinner was had at a quaint little restaurant that offered good food, Coca tea, and again somewhat lax service.  I had trout (it's a local speciality) for the second day in a row, while Jason settled on their pizza.

Island of the Sun
Tuesday would mark our last full day in Copacabana, and we both got up nice and early to catch a 7:30am breakfast before departing for the famous Isla del Sol.  Located on the southern portion of lake Titicaca, the island is believed to be the birth place of the sun god in Inca religion and sports various ruins from back in the day.

As for breakfast options at that hour, well, they happen to be quite limited. We eventually did find a place run by a slightly senile lady who, after I helped her set up the shop, served us a rather disappointing (think popcorn "muesli"), slow, and a tad overpriced breakfast.  Having not endured enough punishment, we also decided to order two take-away sandwiches for lunch from her.  Yeah, we're smart that way.

Our boat left about 15 minutes after its scheduled departure of 8:30am, and provided a slightly cramped and uneventful 2.5 hour ride to the island.  The way the tours are set up is as follows:  Boat goes to south part of island to drop off overnight guests, then goes on to the north part to drop off day visitors.  Said visitors have the option to hike part of the island for ~2 hours and then return to the boat for a journey to the south port.  For the more motivated visitors, one can hike 3-4 hours from the north to the south and then be picked up by the boat later in the day.

Coming off a fresh boot repair in La Paz, Jason opted out of hiking the northern part for fear of re-destroying it, and instead chilled at the beach for a bit.  I did a quick hike up the hill to take some of the pictures below, before returning about an hour later.

Our senile-lady sandwiches were then consumed, though I think this guy would have enjoyed them more:

With lunch eaten, we worked our way back to the dock where the boat for the trip to the south port left about 20 minutes late once more.  The south part of the island was pretty much a waste of time for us, as we were all tired, sunburnt, and ready to head back to Copacabana.  As we departed for "home", we met some folks from England who had come from Cusco, and let us know that apparently the sun festival we were to witness there was a pretty big deal.  Score.

Now, for some strange reason the boat, instead of taking us straight back to town, did a quick detour to a "floating island", which for a fee of 3 Bs allowed folks to step foot on what I would describe as a straw covered barge for 15 minutes to take pics and drinks.  Yeah, we opted out.  As did most of the boat.  Overall the trip was so-so, especially since Jason couldn't do a whole lot of climbing and there just wasn't all that much to see.  Perhaps if I was an "Incaologist" the whole experience would have been more fun.

The evening involved a quick email check (we're still trying to figure out our professional future), followed by some more trout from one of the beach shacks.  The food, again, was excellent and at Bs 18 (USD 2.6) for a full trout, fries, and rice quite reasonably priced.  This would also mark trout #3 in as many days for me.  Yum.

Since this would essentially mark the end of our stay in Bolivia, it was time to add up how much money we had left over.  The town lacks ATMs and given it was our last stop in Bolivia, we had tried to come up with a budget a few days earlier in hopes of getting sufficient cash in La Paz.  Well, our math was wrong, and we quickly realized that we had about Bs 100 too much on our hands.  As neither of us are big fans of money exchanges, we headed off for one last snack and souvenir shopping spree, before heading to bed for an early departure for Cusco the following morning.

A Slightly Strange Trip to Cusco
We awoke early once more, this time to head to the travel agency that sold us the Cusco bus tickets.  Hostal Sonia was nice enough to give us a quick ride to said location (better than carrying bags), once again confirming that Sonia's is a very good option if you stay in that town.  It was about 8am at that time, and our tickets instructed us to be at the agency at 8:45.  Time for breakfast, which we had across the street from the office and was loads better than the previous day's "desayuno."  With our last meal consumed, we were down to 10 Bs (Lawton) and 5 Bs (me) that was spent on a couple more snacks.

At about 8:35, with the tourist office still closed, a random guy without credentials came up to us and let us know that he was going to take us with a minivan to the border and then Puno, where we'd switch to a big "semi-cama" bus.  That was not the story we had gotten from the agent the previous day:  we were supposed to take a semi-cama bus from Copacabana to Puno, and then switch to a similar bus for the final leg to Cusco.  With the office still being closed, we were unsure if this was a scam or a genuine request.  We respectfully declined, figuring the office would open shortly (8:45am as per our ticket) and we would get clarification.

Well, we were wrong, as the office didn't open, and by 8:55 we had to scramble to find the guy from earlier. He subsequently got us to the border by taxi, where we changed to a minivan for the two hour ride to Puno  (he came along as well.)  As in Asia, the van continuously picked up folks along the way, with the occupancy of the 12 passenger vehicle varying anywhere from a pleasant 3 to a smelly 15 or so people.  Sure enough, the guy got us to the proper bus in Puno without charging and/or robbing us.  Contrary to that, he was actually quite nice and helpful.  He even managed to let us to skip the line at passport control in Peru for a super fast border crossing :) An "interesting" first segment, for sure.

Part two of our journey came courtesy of a fairly modern and comfy semi-cama bus pictured below.  The most memorable/funny highlight was two random ladies boarding the bus about 3 hours into the ride and commencing to happily chop away at what smelled and looked like a chicken carcass.  We figure this was the optional - not free - lunch service.  This all happened while the bus continued on with the rather bouncy journey.  It was one of the more odd things we had seen on our travels;  both of us declined to sample the food.  Oh, and we are happy to report that no limbs were lost during that little exercise.  The last picture below was my (failed) attempt at documenting this experience.

Contrary to the chicken on the block, we arrived at the Cusco bus station safe, sound, and in one piece (each.)  Tired, we paid the 10 soles cab ride to the "Southern Comfort" hostel (cheaper "matchbox" cabs can be found outside the station that offer the same service for 3 soles.)  A quick dinner was consumed before catching some Z's.

More Sun Worshipping courtesy of "Inti Raymi"
Since we have been steadily working our way into the heart of Inca-land, it came to little surprise that we would luck out and hit one of the biggest Cusco festivals:  Inti Raymi.  Inti Raymi, or "Festival of the Sun", is an old Incan religious ceremony in honor the the god Inti.  The Spanish (and Catholics) put an end to the celebration initially in 1535 and ultimately in 1572, claiming the pagan ceremony opposed the catholic faith.  A theatrical representation of the ceremony now has been going down near Cusco since 1944.

We realized that it would be a big deal (in part indicated by the occupany rates among the hostels we had researched), although I think neither of us imagined the crowds that we would encounter during the day.  We teamed up with our new-found friends/roomies Annika and Katharina to check out one of the performances at the main square - Plaza de Armas - where we also met up with a Kiwi named Darren.  The five of us managed to form a little tourist group, first witnessing the performance at the square ...

... and then trekking up through the city and then a semi-steep hill (good work Lawton) for a rather distant witnessing of yet another performance:

The performers btw, we discovered earlier, were more lazy than us as they took the "bus" to the top of the hill:

What stunned us more than the actual acts were the masses of people who had climbed up the hill to try to catch a glimpse of the show, sunbathe, and people watch.  The latter two activities were much more successful than the first, as our location prohibited decent views and proper audio consumption of the ongoing festival.  Part 1 at the plaza was much more intimate in that regard.  But it was fun none-the-less.  So here's us hanging out and pics of the crowds:

Sun-soaked and tired, we navigated back down the hill in the latter parts of the afternoon to catch a decent S/. 15 set lunch at one of the many restaurants touting what usually was a mix of Mexican, Italian, and Peruvian food.  Yeah, I ordered some grilled Alpaca (think mini-llama.)  A bit tough, but tasty.

The evening was then spent socializing at the hostel, which was pretty much packed to the brim courtesy of the festival.  In all, Southern Comfort was a nice hostel with decently comfy beds, cleanliness, foosball table, and free brekkie pancakes.  The biggest downside was that the hot water heater was a tad strained during peak showering hours.  Oh, and they do have a cute dog (for you, Selah.)  She was absolutely in love with Jason, constantly seeking his lap for nap time :)

Chores and Soccer
Although we are nearing the end of our journey, we did have one more "tourist attraction" that had to be hit before wrapping things up.  That attraction is Machu Picchu, which can be visited in a variety of ways, ranging from day trips to a 4 day hike along the official Inca trail.   Since neither of us booked the official trail permit ahead of time (for high season, you have to get that up to 6 months in advance given limited supply), we were basically down to doing an unofficial trek or just taking the train.  Yeah, we opted for the train.  Though the trip can be done in one day, we decided to hop on the train - currently it's actually a 60% bus journey due to land slide related rail damage earlier this year - from Cusco, spend a night in Aguas Calientes, head up to MP in the early morning, and take the train back in the eve.

While we originally had planned on returning on Sunday, the return train was booked, so we settled for a Sunday departure and Monday return instead.  Wouldn't really matter, right?  Tickets were easily booked at the train station in Cusco (USD 96 for a return ticket.)  They do take Visa.

With our tickets sorted, it was time to head to Paddy's, the highest elevation Irish pub in the world (or something like that), where we were to catch the Switzerland-Honduras game which the Swiss tied, thus causing them to be eliminated from the world cup.  Yeah, I was bummed but at least the US had qualified, right?  The Sheperds pie (below), thankfully, was delicious.  Jason sampled their Quesedillas (with fresh Guac), also quite good, though not cheesy enough for his taste.

Upon return to the hostel, now having a good sense of when we'd be leaving Cusco, Jason went ahead and booked our last hostel for the trip in Arequipa.  We were both glad to be done with that piece of traveling.  Our last two nights in Lima will be spent at the Hilton Doubletree courtesy of an earlier reservation made with our combined Hilton loyalty program points.  Flashpackers we are.

We awoke Saturday with a mission to book the second to last set of bus tickets, this time from Cusco to Arequipa.  Annika joined us, splitting the 3 soles cab fare to the bus station three ways.  Bus prices ranged from 60 to 120 soles (20 to 40 USD), but unfortunately we were there too soon to book a Tuesday ticket with the bus company we had settled on.  It would have to wait until we returned from our Machu Picchu trip.

So why not go check out some more soccer?  The US, having qualified out of the group stages, was scheduled to play against Ghana in the 1/8 finals at 1:30pm.  First off, however, it was time to check out town a bit more, specifically Inca civil engineering/architecture and the famous 12 angled/sided stone.  They even had a guard firmly discouraging us touching any of the stones, though I did manage to sneak in a quick cusp.  The masonry was actually quite impressive, and apparently the walls are so strong that the Spaniards often used old Inca walls as foundations for their buildings.  I can see why.

We scoured town for a good 30-40 minutes to find a decent spot that would offer lunch (veg for Annika) and show the game, but ended up settling on good ol' Paddy's from the day before.  The food again was quite good, as was the US-laced atmosphere.  The game, as you probably know by now, was lost by the US and therefore a bit of a downer.  Oh well.  After the game the three of us hung at the Plaza de Armas to watch the sun set while listening to a random musical performance, before heading to the grocery store to purchase dinner supplies.

Dinner, would consist of Mac-n-cheese (yup, it was basically a "western food day" of yore), capped off by chilling at the still full hostel and movie night (Up! and The Shining) for me, Annika, and a couple of Austrians.

Off to Machu Picchu - Rise and Shine?  
Sunday and our departure to our sixth (of eight) "New Modern Wonders of the World", Machu Picchu, had arrived.  Built in 1400 in a classical Incan style, Machu Picchu's existence for the longest time was only locally known. It was brought to international attention by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when he "re-discovered" it with help from some locals, and is sometimes referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas."  With its beautiful architecture and stunning location, it was a must-see attraction for us.

We checked out, put our bags in storage at the hostel, caught a 2 hour partially jarring mini-bus ride to a temporary train station, and concluded with the final 1.5 hour train ride to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes.  The train ride, because we were sitting on the right side, was fairly dull and resulted in at least me nodding off.  Lawton wasn't that lucky.  But we got there safely shortly before 1pm on what turned out to be a gorgeous day.

We quickly arranged lodging, and were off to explore the town a bit and catch the Mexico-Argentina game.  We also scored bus up the hill (USD 14, return) and MP entrance tickets (126 soles or about 40 USD) for the following day.  Jason made the mistake of saying something along the lines of "if this weather holds up, tomorrow will be a great day to check out Machu Picchu."  I'll let you guess the consequence of that little statement.  Or you can just read on.

Bedtime came fairly early after some Chinese food (yeah, we were eating Chinese in Peru), as we wanted to be at the bus station by 5:30 in hopes of me maybe being able to climb up to Wayna Picchu.  They limit permits for that climb to 400 per day, so the moral of the story is to the to the gate early.  Surely not too many people would have the same idea, yes?  So the alarm was set for 4:45am and lights killed at a decent hour.

The shower in our cheap hotel the next morning, surprisingly enough, was actually quite hot, and we managed to be at the bus station by 5:35.  During initial approach, three main revelations hit:  1)  The ground was wet, indicating rain during the night.   2) It was strangely cloudy.  3)  The lines for the bus were INSANELY (~100 yards) long.

Upon queuing for a good 20 minutes, we ended up getting on bus #15, which by our calculations made us approximately guests number 510 and 511.  This excludes folks staying the night at the hotel near the entrance or hiking up the curvy path to the gate.  Lines at the gate were also long (below.)  Worse yet, it started to rain.  We've had gorgeous weather for the last couple weeks, but sure enough, the one day we were to visit one of the new wonders of the world, sun-love would not be on our side.  Nor were permits for Wayna Picchu, which had sold out by the time we made it through the gate.

We later met up with a Scottish girl from our Cusco hostel, Laura, who had gotten a permit but had been at the bus station at 4:30am (!!!) and managed to get on bus #6, or just over 175 people in.  For reference, buses start running at 5:30 and the gate opens at 6am.  Yikes.  So no permits, and crummy weather.  Boy, were we happy.  Moral of the story:  Get up early (3:30 or so) and get some sun-god praying in.  We did neither and paid accordingly.

On the upside, besides Laura, we ran into some cool dudes from DC (and later one Canadian) who were sharing our frustrations and fondness of making fun of Scottish folks.  Misery does love company, and we made the best of it.  After waiting for about an hour for the rain to subside, it was concluded that a poncho run was needed and the weather would have to be braved as is.  Prior to braving the wetness, we also ran into the English teachers from our La Paz-Copacabana bus ride: they had been hiking the Inka trail for the last 3 days, and this was their finale.  We did feel bad for them.  So without further ado, I present to you the exclusive premiere of "The drenching of Jason and Swiss at Machu Picchu":

It must be said that the site is actually quite stunning and beautiful, despite the bad weather.  Also, considering we've had great weather at The Great Wall, Petra, Ankor Wat, and the Taj Mahal, there really isn't too much room for complainging :)

We, along with plenty of other tourists, hopped on the return bus sometime around 10 am to dry off and catch the end of the Holland-Slovenia soccer game.  Multiple restaurants offered us their "deals", with prices dropping in rapid fashion as locales were trying to lure us in.  It is just another feature of the tourist saturated town of Aguas Calientes, but I suppose it it what it is.  A somewhat disappointing lunch was had later, before killing some time in the afternoon catching the Brazil-Chile game.  The skies slowly started opening up around 4pm, or about an hour before we had to be at the train station to head back towards Cusco.  Maybe next time...

We arrived back in Cusco at 9:30pm, and decided to try to book our bus tickets from Arequipa for the following day before returning to our hostel.  A 3 soles "matchbox taxi" cab ride got us to the bus station, where we found Flores, our company of choice, already closed.  So we ended up settling for Carhuamayo instead.  60 soles should, in theory, get us to Arequipa by 5am on June 30.  Jason will let you know how that plan worked out :)

We got back to the hostel a bit after 10, cooked up our second box of Mac-n-Cheese, before catching up with stuff online and ultimately heading to bed.  The hostel, contrary to just two days prior when we had left, was dead.  Apparently all the "Inti Raymi" folks had moved on.  The upside:  the entire dorm room was ours, resulting in a very quiet night's sleep.

The last day in Cusco was uneventful, save for lunch at "The Real McCoy" where Jason had pie and mash and I had  the "creatively arranged" Bangers and mash.

And yes, we've been on an English/Irish pub food kick for some reason.  Lacking any scientific proof, I figure it's a function of a desire of "home"-like food, cold beer, and good coverage of the world cup.  The food was pretty good and we did catch the Spain-Portugal game.  Plus they have food and beer specials until the first goal is scored.  See, we're being cultural watching soccer and all.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing, blog writing (the stuff you're currently reading), and waiting for our 8:45pm bus departure for Arequipa.

If all goes well, the next time you'll be hearing from me will be after my return to the US.  Thanks for all the folks following our blog and I hope you enjoyed a small glimpse of our trip around the world.  As mentioned in the intro, Jason will wrap up our blog with the summary of our visits to Araquipa and Lima.  Greetings to all our friends, fellow travelers, and well-wishers!



Unknown said...

I'm glad to see that Jason's leg is sufficiently healed enough to continue the leg crossing whenever he is sitting down.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say thanks for keeping this up throughout the last year - it's been interesting and inspiring. Have a safe trip back!

Swiss said...

thanks paul! it's been our pleasure.

Selah said...

I recommend doing the 3 days hike to Machu Picchu next time-- there is a lot to see on the way and we learned a ton from the guides.

Did you visit the ruins outside of Cusco called Sacsayhuaman (Sexywoman)? Those were pretty cool, too.

Anonymous said...

thanks guys, really enjoy reading your blog. awesome journey. Rob from NZ

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