Epic Journey. Part 11. The End.

4/30  Last Day:  Barranco

I love Barranco!  It’s a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima.  By the sea with a nice balance of chill and things to do.  The artistic and literary pedigree of this places shines through, if for no other reason; the good bars.  An air of Southern California beach town, with the weight of decades of people meeting, sharing ideas and creating art.  The Pacific Ocean crashes silently below the cliffs, and Barranco maintains the coziness of a suburb by the sea (although I hear on the weekends the bars are epic).

Last night I dropped my stuff at Hostal Gémina, a nicely situated hotel with friendly staff, fridge in the room (cold beers!), and awesome brick-a-brack decorations throughout.  I got in touch with Daniela and she met me after work at the Barranco Beer Company.  BBC is a 6 month old brewery right here in Lima (further solidifying the SoCal connection).  Modern and hip, all the beers are made in house.

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hostal gemina room

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hostal gemina decoration

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barranco beer company

We caught up over a couple tasty hefeweisen, giving me a preview of how difficult its going to be to answer the inevitable question;  “So how was the trip??”.  Thinking back there is so much, and for each moment words just don’t seem to do it justice.  In a lot of ways it was a very internal journey, punctuated by spectacular sights, good people and the fake Bolivian police.  But for now, I’m still here, and intend to soak it all in.  I could’ve skipped this whole entry thanks to a pic Daniela just sent me which portrays it expertly in illustration.

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daniela’s recap

 

So yes, next she took me to Juanito.  This place really hit the spot.  Good beer and literary weight all up in your face.  Daniela, forever awesome host, told me about the history of the joint.  Its current location was relatively new (originally next door, but after a family feud; moved a door down), but this would be the place to talk politics, arts and gossip over cheap pitchers of beer.  Behind the counter were surly men slicing ham into rolls for awesome looking sandwiches.  My plan was to start drinking at lunch here tomorrow, and definitely trying one of those suckers.

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barre juanito

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juanito’s jamon

 

Next stop was La Noche, also a good bar, and also felt like a place revolution can start.  A little less so tonight, must admit.  The wood walls are lined with characatures of public figures, but the population of Lonely Planetiers in the sparse crowd lowered the street cred a bit.  Ice cold beer, and good convo nonetheless.  By the way, pitchers of beer are called a “chopp”.  I thought I’d become pretty good in my beer related spanish, but this was new to me.

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barre la noche interior

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barre la noche art

***

So today I just did my usual.  Walking around taking in the beautiful colonial buildings, tree lined boulevards, and tiny back streets.  I walked down the stairs to the beach at the bottom of the cliffs to get some last sun and have a little beach time.  Who knew what shit weather was waiting for me back in New York.  With the cars hurdling passed behind the beach on the Circuito de Playas, I wouldn’t call it the most tranquil of beaches I’ve been to.  Nonetheless, it hit the spot.  I’ll NEVER complain about a vibrant city that also has a beach (when can we put NYC on top of LA?).

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On Daniela’s suggestion I went to Bisetti for a late morning coffee.  Its an airy cafe with fucking great coffee.  Outdoor patio and art/literature lining the walls.  Its about lunch time so about to head over to Juanito’s (praying its open) for lunch.  Hoping to strike up a conversation with a stranger over cold beer and sandwiches, and then just bumming around Barranco for the rest of my last night.

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I’ve never been at this point in a trip and wanted to go home so little.  Usually a point is reached, no matter how great the time’s been, that one is just ready to be back in one’s home turf.  I have NO feeling of readiness to return.  Its funny to think back to my trepidation in Lima those first days.  Now I feel like I could live here.  Especially Barranco.

Having lunch at Juanito, and this sandwich is hitting the spot!  My appetite hasn’t been 100% since Arequipa, but this is the shit. The barman said the jamon de norte is his favorite (as opposed to the jamon de pais), naturally got one of those with the works (onions and peppers).  Tasty and spicy, with the meat reminding me of an Easter Ham.  Wouldn’t mind coming back here for dinner, but there is one last bit of culinary exploration I need to try.

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juanito; left old location, right current location

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jamon del norte sandwich; juanito

***

After lunch and basically on a complete whim I decided I needed to document this trip on my skin.  I messaged Daniela about a tattoo shop around, and she turned me onto Zhimpa Tattoos in Miraflores.  Determined, I walked the 20 minutes to their studio, and asked for a tattoo of the The Condor from Nazca.  Simple but poignant, and a high flying symbol to represent my elevated connection with the Pachamama…or whatever.  My kind of souvenir.  Nice staff, clean studio, and this dude (I never got his name) put in some clean line work.  Every time I look down, I feel the stoke of Peru.

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So that night it was chifa time.  I met Daniela at her spot, Chifa Chun Yion.  Thanks to a huge Chinese immigration in the early 20th century, Lima has some amazing chinese food.  The recipes remain tradition chinese, more or less, but the addition of peruvian ingredients takes it to a new level of tastiness.  We got fried wantons and fried rice, and it was awesome.  In addition the whole experience had a certain nostalgia to my younger days going on family dinner trips to the neighborhood chinese place.

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That night after dinner we went hard.  It was the eve of Labor Day for Peru, and I got to see what Barranco is like when no one has to work the next day.  We met a few of Daniela’s friends at La Noche, and it was a different scene all together.  The place was over flowing with limeños sharing chopps and enjoying the night.  A great send off that involved jukebox dance party, many pitchers of beer, and lasted until about dawn.  Gracias por todo Daniela!!!  Me encanta tu cuidad y pais!

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daniela!

 

5/1  Este noche, me voy.

Was definitely slow to get up today, but relishing in the memories of a fun night last night.  I eventually got up, and went towards Bisetti for a coffee.  Sadly it was closed because of Labor Day, but the devil Starbucks next door was open.  I grabbed a coffee there and when I sat outside was treated to a fantastic morning cup of joe next to the public piano.  THE PUBLIC PIANO!  So dope!  Right there in the plaza people can come up and display they’re musical talents.  A crowd was gathered, and although I had told Daniela I would meet up soon, I was entranced.  Ocean air, wafting piano, coffee, all on a holiday morning.

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public piano

***

On the plane bound for New York City.  Home.  Struggling for words to sum this all up.  Good.  A re-set.  Informative.  Mystical.  Eye opening.  Fuck, what to say.

Perfect.

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first day/last day

***

I’ve been back now for about a month.  Great to catch up with friends, and enjoy the birth of another NYC summer.  At this point I’ve pretty much seen everyone, and my trip is old news.  But Jesus, how hard it was every time someone asked that question.  “How was the trip!?”.  “How much time do you have?” is what I wanted to say.  And then ramble for hours about history, politics, and the cosmos.  But to sum it up in a quick talk over beers without sounding like a hippy, self righteous or straight crazy has been tough.

I didn’t do anything special.  The route is well beaten by many, many tourists over the years.  But this was a person triumph for myself in light of how long I’ve been dreaming of it, and the sum of its parts are SO much more than I could’ve expected.  At first I’d half joke with friends back home that “I feel different”.  As cliche as it is there is a certain truth to it.  The truth is I don’t feel different in an “Eat, Pray, Love” sort of way, more exact;  I feel back to myself, and more myself than ever.  It had been a while since my last journey, and thanks to Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and all the people I’ve met along the way;  I’m reminded what I always knew are the important things in life.  Living is up there towards the top of the list.

Thanks for reading.  Looking forward to the next adventure.

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epic journey

Epic Journey. Part 10. Nazca

4/28  ARQ>NZCA

I’m a bit better today.  Mostly sticking to bread.  I was hoping to do a gastro tour or cooking class today before taking the night bus to Nazca, but never heard back from them so I’m on the afternoon bus out of town.  Arequipa was nice, but I’d missed my chance to take a tour to Colca Canyon by the time I found out about the cooking class and didn’t feel like wasting another day strolling around town.  Figured it would be more worth my rapidly ending time to cruise through Peru’s southwestern landscape by daylight.

So far the show hasn’t failed to impress.  We came out of the industrial valleys to this Mars-like desert plateau.  In both directions, as far as you can see is reddish sand dunes, and I think we are driving through some kind of dust storm.  We rose up and over one of the dunes, and there was the Pacific Ocean stretched out to the setting sun.  Hello old friend.  Happy to see her, but sad she’ll lead me to my final destination in a couple days.

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On another note, Cruz del Sur busses are the shit.  I got a pretty cheap seat ($30/8 hrs), and this comes with two meals, movies and beverage service.  Puts air travel to shame.  I opted for the vegetarian option (yes there is that!) due to my still iffy stomach situation. I didn’t have high hopes, but figured it would be less bad wasting shitty frozen veggies or equally frozen lasagna if my appetite wasn’t back.  The lunch meal was surprisingly tasty.  Sweet and sour seitan w/ white rice.  I took the risk and ate it, but have gone 6 hours with crapping!  Woo hoo!

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To my surprise and happiness, after the food the attendant passed out bingo cards!  I’d seen this in Argentina (and won!), but not since and no one seems to know what I’m talking about when I mention it.  So over the microphone the attendant reads off the number and letter combos, while the passengers tick off the boxes.  I’m proud to say I’m two-for-two on South American Bus Bingo, its a natural skill I guess.  In Argentina the prize was a bottle of wine, but here it was a discount on a future bus trip which I knew I wouldn’t have time to use, so game continued.  But you and I know I won…

Next stop Nazca!!  These lines have been an obsession of mine for years!  I’m booked in for a fly over and should be set to realize this dream tomorrow.  It sounds like a dicey flight, I don’t care if I shit my pants and puke on myself;  I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THOSE FUCKERS!!!

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4/29  Nazca Lines

Its been 8 or 9 years.  I remember sitting in my living room in Studio City and watching some late night Netflix.  I caught some Alien Mystery type show that featured the Nazca Lines.  Like ancient precursors to crop circles, locked into place for centuries here in the desert.  No one knows how or why they are there for sure.  Some say irrigation others say alien landing strips.  I don’t know.  Like I felt many times before on this trip, I’m less inclined to believe in alien intervention, but the fact that you can only take in these designs from the sky is a tough thing to explain.  I guess these are the “facts” more or less.  They were created around 400-600 AD in an area almost 200 square miles around.  They range from 150 feet long to 890 feet long, and have been preserved thanks to the consistent desert climate.

I can’t say I wasn’t a bit nervous going in.  My second night way-back-when with Daniela in Lima, I was warned about taking this flight.  She told me her dad works in aviation regulation, and the Nazca aerodrome is notorious for lax regulation and accidents. Before I could think about it too much, I was walking onto the tarmac to my chariot.  A 6 seat, one prop Cessna.  I had read all sorts of horror stories (besides Daniela’s warning) about turbulence and hard banks, but the flight itself was actually fun.  Yes the girl next to me got sick, but even though I’m no big fan of heights or flying, the excitement must’ve numbed my fear receptors.

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The lines are absolutely amazing.  The fly over was quick, but those sights were possibly the coolest fucking things I have ever seen.  Ancient structures are impressive and intresting, but soaring above these glyphs was like getting a glimpse into messages from another dimension.  ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!  Pictures don’t really do them justice, but after a hard bank, the pilot would say “right wing!” and there on the ground are these mystifying works of art for the gods.  I felt giddy.

The variety of images is interesting in itself.  Orca, monkey, hummingbird; all of which they don’t have in the middle of the desert. Not to mention the round-faced “astronaut” waving to the heavens, etched to the side of a mountain.

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the astronaut

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the monkey

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the hummingbird

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the spider

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the condor

Its hard to grasp the scale of these things by the photos.  For instance The Condor above is 440 feet, below is a zoom into the smaller glyph called The Hands coming in at about 50 feet.  After that is a photo I snapped from the ground level of The Hands when my bus went by.  Not much to see when you’re not in flight.

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The 30 minute or so flight went by in a snap, and before I knew it I was back on the ground glowing with happiness.  The over flight is not hard to do, dozens of tourists do it everyday.   But I feel like I had been let in on a secret.  As cheesy as it sounds, I feet different.  As the adventure winds down, a major booster shot in my enchantment with the heart of America.

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Even with my short time in Nazca, I have to say I liked the little town.  It was dirty, loud and pretty much lacking character, but something about it was familiar.  I guess the relative proximity to the ocean (you can feel it in the air), and the fact that I’m not in the altiplano anymore, lends itself to reminisce about tropical central american/caribbean locales I’m accustomed to.

Found a nice restaurant for lunch near the Plaza de Armas.  Mamashana has all sorts of options, but although my appetite and stomach hadn’t quite returned to normal;  I saw tacu tacu on the menu and couldn’t resist.  Tacu tacu al pobre to be exact.  Steak, egg, plantains all atop a mound of crispy, re-fried rice and beans.  Super tasty and VERY filling.  I’ll be making this one at home when I get back.

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***

I was in Nazca for little more than 24 hours.  Arriving at my $15 utility hotel (Hotel Juaregui) at 11:30 PM last night, leaving for my over flight at 8 AM this morning, and now on the bus to Lima at 12:30 PM.  I had booked it all ahead in Arequipa (although would’ve been cheaper if I had more time and booked in Nazca), and it went smoother than I could’ve imagined.

And here I am, on the final bus ride for this epic journey.  Destination Lima.  Snagged the wrap-around-view of the front seat of my bus and watching the Pan American Highway click by.  I’ll spend my last couple days in the beach suburb of Lima; Barranco.  Then its on to the next one, whatever that is.  Hard to think about this being over, but will soak in every last experience in Barranco.

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Little crappy video I made of the over-flight.

Epic Journey. Part 9. Arequipa, Peru

4/26  Arequipa

***Warning:  This post gets real.  Contains lots of references to poop***

The over-night bus to Arica, and border crossing back into Peru via Tacna all went smooth.  At the bus station in Arica is was relatively easy to find secure colectivo taxis in the “International Lot” adjacent to the main station.  I was whisked across the border in a cadillac with four other people.  Our driver was oddly chipper for this ungodly hour, and somehow his friendly conversation didn’t drive me nuts even though I hadn’t had any coffee.  He took care of all dealings with border guards and paper work.  For $5 total all we had to do was stand where he told us, fill out papers he gave us, and physically walk across the border.  

Once in Tacna is was easy to get a bus immediately to Arequipa.  They seemed to have one everyhour or so, and I walked into the bus station at 6:25 AM (you loose an hour coming across the border), and was sitting on a bus to Arequipa by 6:30.

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bus to arequipa view

***

I think we got to the bus station in Arequipa around noon and by the time I checked in and dropped my pack I was STARVING.  I chose Casa de Melgar for my hotel.  It was the “Writer’s Choice” in Lonely Planet, and I was in the mood for a nice, colonial home base here in the White City.

It did not disappoint.  Casa de Melgar is a beautiful stone labyrinth with unique rooms and courtyards hidden throughout.  Stay there.  It was a bit more expensive than I should be spending ($70) but fuck it.  Cozy like a vacation house for a royal.  Hot water, good breakfast, nice staff.  If I moved to Arequipa I’d live here.  

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casa de melgar room

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one of the courtyards

***

For lunch I figured I was close enough to the sea to start eating ceviche again.  This place Fory Fay was all the rage, and around the corner.  It felt nice and the staff was very patient with my sleep deprived and starving (aka shitty) spanish.  There were gringos and local couples alike enjoying lunch, and I was happy with the choice.  I ended up getting the ceviche de pescado con erizo.  “Erizo” means sea urchin, and after learning what it meant my mouth said “si por favor!” before my stomach had a chance to say “…I don’t know about that…”.  Never seen that in ceviche before.  

It was perfect though.  My how I missed ceviche over the last few weeks!  Big chunks of fish, the urchin a salty taste enhancer to every bite.  It came with a SUPER HOT red pepper the mesera was happy to replenish (as this gringo punished himself with unholy doses), and when the slices of sweet potato in my bowl ran out, she quickly added more.  I left full, satisfied, and ready for bed at about 4PM.  I may be too old for over night buses. 

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fory fay ceviche pescado

***

Tonight I wasn’t feeling quite right, and still full as hell (hashtag #foreshadowing).  Grabbed some bread and serrano ham from the grocery store on the Plaza de Armas, and hightailed by to my room.  Too bloated to even attempt a nightlife exploration.  I forced ham sandwiches into my face and used the internet to get my last couple day’s affaires in order.

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4/27 Bad times in Arequipa

Woke up earlier than I wanted to this morning.  Part of the whole point of this fancy hotel was relax, sleep in, and do the whole vacation thing.  But thanks to a gaggle of french tourists and their screaming/banging devil children, I was up at 6AM.  I was sure to give them all some serious stink-eye retribution as I walked out to have my brekkie next to them in the courtyard.  Control your fucking kids or don’t bring them around other humans people!

As I started to eat my eggs and bread, I began to realize something wasn’t quite right with my stomach.  Even though I’d barely had dinner, I felt super full and bloated.  I started getting stabbing cramps, and laid back down in my room for a bit.  I’ve only gotten food poisoning once before in my life (from a salad I made for myself in Austin), and this was scarily similar.  Soon enough, hot-lava diarrhea came a-calling.  I won’t go into detail but it was like a shock and awe campaign.  If it was food poisoning the likely culprit would’ve been the ceviche, but the late symptoms were suspicious.  Usually I think it hits you with 8 hours.  Plus it was flowing out the wrong end (sorry).  With dehydration, exhaustion from travel, and crappy beer as potential causes, I’m hesitant to blame peruvian sea urchin…to an extent.

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why can’t i stop shitting myself

Thanks to my condition, I couldn’t safely leave my hotel room for longer than one hour intervals.  After a couple bobs and weaves to pharmacies, coffee shop, the essentials I decided to go big.  I made it to the Museo Santuarios Andinos to see Juanita, the Ice Maiden of Ampato.  She’s a mummy found above Arequipa after some volcanic activity melted ice caps.  One of many young-child mummies found in the area that are thought to be sacrifices to the Inca gods.   After I had already paid, I learned that Juanita was away for study, and almost used my new found powers of molten shit stream on the dudes desk.  Thankfully I held off and ended up learning a lot from the brief movie/tour.  

There was a different mummy in the cryogenic display that usual houses Juanita.  I have to say, I found myself uncomfortable.  Even the photos of Juanita that hung in the small museum seemed wrong when one remembers that this is/was a human being.  Whether you believe in the spirit continuing on to one place or another after death, or hold the atheist card its undeniable that the mass in the refrigerated chamber was not more than bone, flesh and a poncho in the fetal position.  That said, I just felt wrong gawking at her.  

Sadly no pictures allowed but heres a link.

http://justinglanville.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Juanita.jpg

***

The best part of the museum tour was that is was exactly an hour long, giving me time to fast walk it back to my room/toilet to take care of business.  I got brave and walked out to the adjacent suburb, Yañahuara.  There was supposed to a be a mirador there to get a good view of Arequipa and El Misti; the imposing volcano (active!) looming over the city.  The idea was to get there by sunset and get some wide shots at golden-hour.  I got there a bit earlier than sunset so didn’t quite get the light I was looking for, but couldn’t risk sticking around too long. The neighborhood was cute, with lots of good looking restaurants, but I was a slave to my bowels at this point.  I took a few snaps as I hustled back to my hotel. 

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el misti over arequipa

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el misti looming

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streets at dusk

“Why always going back to your hotel?” you might ask. ” Why not handle it at a restaurant or something?”. Well it was partially out of respect for the city.  The phrase “blowing up the bathroom” doesn’t do it justice.  Plus I’ve found in my travels that men’s crapping facilities can be hit or miss, and in my particular case I wanted to know I was well stocked and comfortable when it all goes down.  

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That night I went to Ary Quepay for dinner.  Its in all the guide books, and was the closest place to me with traditional arequipeña food.  I was hurting, and had no appetite.  I sat down and flipped through the menu of all this stuff I wanted to try; rocota rellena, chupe de camorones, papas ocopa!  But my shitty stomach wasn’t feeling any of it.  In the end I stubbornly ordered alpaca in the house sauce; at this point alpaca was comfort food and I hoped “house sauce” was some arequipeña specialty.  It was fine I guess, but I was in rough shape.  Have to review Ary Quepay next time.  

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I was in bed by 8:30, wondering if they sold Depends in in Peru.  

***

Epic Journey. Part 8. San Pedro de Atacama; Chile

So after the easy border crossing east of Reserva Eduardo Avaroa we entered the barren backdoor to northern Chile;  the Atacama Desert.  I didn’t really know what to expect from San Pedro de Atacama being as it was a relatively impromptu change of course, but turns out I love it!.  The difference is apparent immediately (paved highways and road signs what?!?!), and SPdA feels worlds away from Bolivia even if we are in a desert community in the middle of nowhere.  It feels like Santa Fe or Taos.  Artsy, touristy, little dash of hippy.  All in a small colonial town with a pinch of european chic.  Gone was any kind of indeginous connection; nothing like cholitas walking around.  Mostly tourists and crunchy locals with dreadlocks and avant garde styles.

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The girls checked into their hostel, and Mark, Katie and I eventually settled into Hotel Corvatch.  Recently renovated, and super cozy.  The kitchen is new, and outdoor patio was my favorite spot.  Dogs, birds in cages, shady trees.  Nice place to use the good WiFi and try to catch up on life back home.  There is a whole hotel part with restaurant, BBQ pit, possibly pool, but all that was off limits to us mere hostel folk.  Either way at $25 a night (private room, shared showers) it was perfect.  Well to completely honest…not perfect.  The staff was dry, and they have a ridiculous no left-luggage policy.  And at risk of pissing off my Chilean friends, I’ll mention that during my brief stay in Chile the friendly factor was way down.  Especially after coming from Peru and Bolivia.  The Chilean demeanor in my short experience runs the gamut from cold to mocking.  Sorry, but I’d be ignoring my documentarian conscious without noting.

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hotel corvatch room

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hotel corvatch courtyard

That night Mark and Katie joined me to meet up with Leonie and Niahm, two fellow Lares Trek group-mates from back in Peru.  We had run into each other randomly along the way, and this was a theme for everyone’s journey whether long or short.  Once you set out on the Gringo trail, you’re bound to see familiar faces along the way. You meet for drinks, compare notes, and say hasta luego, meaning “until later” in the truest sense of the words.  We met at Casa de Piedra on their recommendation.  The ambiance and pizza made the night!  While pisco sours flowed, and good conversations bounced around, the fire-pit and outdoor seating created a perfect storm for a having a couple more drinks than we all were probably meaning to.  We shut the place down, and it was then that I learned the town closes down at midnight.

This became the SPdA routine for my few nights in town.  Breakfast (usually bread; see below), relaxed activity by day, dinner, drinks by a fire til midnight, sleep.

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***

4/23  Laguna Cejar

You can book tours to many of the unique lands and lagunas around SPdA, but we chose to do what the locals do and rented bikes to get around.  That first full day we set out in the morning for the closest laguna; Cejar.  The trip over was a warm ride through the Atacama Desert along the main highway leading to the Argentine/Bolivian border.  Nice little cruise, about 22 KM (altough I think thanks to my shitty translation there is a shorter route that doesn’t involve cars whizzing by every once in a while).

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By the time we got there the desert sun was full on BLAZING, so we set up shop under a palapa and took a dip in the icy lagoon.  The shit is freezing, and I have no idea how or why considering the surface-of-the-sun temps on land.  The high salinity of the laguna makes it impossible NOT to float, and despite the frigid temp it is a very refreshing dip.  We brought bread, meat and cheese for a picnic lunch, and the afternoon was more than sublime.

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laguna cejar

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picnic palapa

We named the dog who posted up with us Salty, and to our amazement she jogged THE ENTIRE WAY BACK TO TOWN WITH US!  So I’m saying this dog trotted next to our bikes in the BRUTAL desert sun for around 10 miles.  Every time we’d stop to give her a rest, she’d look at us, tongue wagging, like “bring it you pussies”.  I was amazed, and back in SPdA she often appeared out of no-where to nuzzle on our calf and say hello.  Salty became our Ambassador to SPdA.

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salty

That night, after an evening siesta, we met for dinner at Adobe. Another super-cozy, lodge like establishment.  All wood, brick, and saliva enducing aromas. The food and wine was good all around.  I got the Lomo Pil Pil, with no idea what the hell that meant and happy with the choice.  Turned out is was a cazuela with chunks of succulent beef, potatoes, and a really tasty broth.  I wished there was more broth!  Spicy, white wine, garlic.  Very refined.

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adobe interior

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terrible lomo pil pil pic

After that we found another outdoor spot with a fire, and shared stories over drinks until the inevitable midnight closing hour.

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4/24  And then there where four

I ran into Julie, Jessica, Hope and Emma in the street on my way to coffee.  They (besides Julie) had decided to hop the afternoon bus to La Serna, and it was time to say goodbye.  Such is the way in the world of the traveler.  Me and Julie walked them to the bus station, and saw them off.  We had known each other for no more than four days, but there’s something about these kind of trips that grows people close even if in the hindsight of life its all very fleeting.

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That evening, Mark, Julie and I took our bikes out to Valle de la Luna for sunset.  Again (I’m getting repetitive, but its true) an other-worldly landscape.  It came alive as the sun dipped, colors deepend, and shadows stretched.  Sitting high up on a dune with a Paceña, not a bad place to be.

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For dinner we went to La Casona.  Same owners as Adobe, and Katie had been researching while we were on the bike ride.  Same rustic decor, same good wine, and same ubiquitous fire pit. Mark and I shared a parrillada, a dish meant for 3, and goddamnit I’m glad I agreed.  Out came a sizzling cauldron heaped with meats.  Beef, chicken, pork, chorizo, blood sausage, tripe, and grilled veg. Jesus, I’ve got the meat sweats just thinking about it.  Everything was amazing, although have to admit I’m still too much of a pussy to say I like tripe.  Bourdain is my idol, but failed him in trying to like grilled pig asshole.

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la casona interior

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la parrillada

The first hours we got to SPdA, while wandering town looking for a hotel, we walked passed this girl who was munching on an amazing looking baguette.  Mark and Katie inquired about such a find, and the girl turned us on to La Franchuteria, a panaderia outside of the middle of the town.  I am not exaggerating when I say it’s possible the best bread I’ve ever had.  Baguettes, olive loaves, croissants, just to name a few.  Get there early or the shit is gone.   In NYC and Philly we always say “we have the best bread/bagels/pizza because of the water”, and especially after finding out the place was run by a young french ex-pat with these non-Philly conditions I was intrigued.  I decided to ask Arturo/Arthur, the creator of this phenomenon, if I could do a little documentary on him.  He was fine with it, and now I’m looking at a 3:30 AM call time.  Art is hard.

***

4/25  Pan doco/hasta luego SPdA

I got up at 4 AM today to meet the bread maker. As I trudged through the dark town I really had no idea what I was doing. All my optimistic and inspired ideas where nonexistent at this ungodly hour.  It all turned out pretty goddamn cool.  Once I entered, Arthur said he and his staff would just pretend I wasn’t there, and I even though my lens was busted, I was shooting on a Nikon D90, and I was half awake; I was actually documenting something people would rarely see.

He had Celine (French), Romane (French), and Eduardo (Chilean) working with him. They expertly kneaded, rolled, and baked these amazing breads/croissants/pan du chocolat before the world was even awake.  It would’ve been fun to watch/document even if is wasn’t in a homemade bakery in the middle of the Atacama, but reminding myself where I was heightened it all.  Arthur took me on his runs delivering his bread to the top hotels around, which he does personally, included the hotel rated the #1 in all of Chile.  In the still predawn hours, he told me his story as we bounced through the streets of San Pedro.

Arthur is from Burgundy and learned his craft on a semi-military base in Antarctica.  So I suppose he knows his shit about baking it harsh environments.  He came to SPdA on a vacation three years ago, and one night he baked a loaf of bread in his hostel.  His hostel-mates raved, and the next day he made 2.  Day after that 8.  Two years later he owns La Franchuteria, he built himself on the site of that hostel, and is making a name for himself.  In the last minute-ness of my decision to to this mini-doc, I hope I have everything I need, and can’t wait to cut together his story.

Bottom line, book a flight to Chile just for Arthur’s bread.

(I’ll cut the documentary and post it soon!)

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best bread ever

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stop at this sign for the best bread ever

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bread used at sandwich art restaurant

***

After what was already a super long ass day, I wrapped my little production and met Julie, Mark and Katie for lunch before we all were to part ways tonight.  We ended up on the plaza with a pitcher of beer in the pleasant desert sun.  The vibe was european somehow.  Por fin it was the end of this short but memorable group.  Julie and I walked Mark and Katie to the bus station.  After hugs, well wishes, and the like; it was down to two.  My bus was four hours later so Julie and I passed the time over another pitcher and a pizza at Blanco shooting the shit as ever.

I was sad to leave, I have to say.  Julie was kind enough to walk me back to the bus station (our third or fourth trip in 36 hours), and one more goodbye hug to put me here on this over night bus to Arica, Chile.  I’m on the home stretch now.  When I get to Arica around dawn (assuming the road is open, this is the epicenter area for those earthquakes a month ago), I’ll hopefully negotiate a ride across the border back to Peru and then on to Tacna.  My goal is to then go straight to Arequipa from Tacna.  All in all about 16 hours of bus.  I’m short on time at this point, with my flight looming.  In theory totally possible, but in the back of my mind it sounds too easy to be true.

***

Epic Journey. Part 7. Salar de Uyuni

4/18  Over-night bus La Paz>Uyuni

So the time came to say hasta luego to La Paz.  I’m already hoping to come back and use it as a jumping off point for exploring the eastern half of the middle of this continent.  Next time with different expectations, and hopefully more Red Cap tours.

At the moment I’m on an EXTREMELY bumpy and swaying bus powering through the darkness on what feels like some rough fucking terrain.  The windows are fogged up, making it impossible to see anything the large moon is lighting up, but I’m pretty sure this driver is taking us straight off-roading through the desert.  JESUS!  The bus pitches to and fro like a ship in high seas and rattles like the “highway” (or whatever we are driving on) is pure rumble strip.  Whelp….only 8 more hours of this to Uyuni….

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bus writing

 

4/19  Uyuni

That was BY FAR the bumpiest bus ride I’ve ever been on!.  I could’ve sworn we were going to tip over or break down every couple minutes.  And to piss me off further, while I was kept up all night despite 2 melatonin pills and a couple beers, the whole rest of the bus slept right through it!  Once the sun came up and I could see where we were, I’m very happy we didn’t break down or tip.  We are in the middle of NO-WHERE.  I would equate the ride to being in a paint mixer thats in the crows nest of a listing boat for 9 hours.

Dear Presidente Evo Morales:

I have an idea.  Before you go and launch another pointless satellite (yes he launched a satellite), how ’bout PAVING THE ROAD TO YOUR COUNTY’S BIGGEST TOURIST ATTRACTION!!!  You’re doing good things for Bolivia, but think how much easier it would be to get money from us white devils if there was a cozy express ride to the salt flats.  It took 11 hours on the shitty road, but I’m guessing if it was paved it would be less than 6. Oh yeah, and your proposal to mine lithium from the salt flats for batteries is a good way to nationalize the mining industry and keep the money for Bolivians, but HOW THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO GET THE BATTERIES ANYWHERE???  Put them on the satellite?

Anyway…

I like Uyuni so far.  Its like a wild west boom town long forgotten.  I’m guess between the mining booms and busts it has a simular origin and destiny as the gold inspired ghosts towns in the US West.  Staying at Hotel Jardines de Uyuni, a bit more expensive than I’ve been paying, but very cozy looking.  I can’t check in for 6 hours (we got in at 7AM), so I guess I’ll wander around eating, drinking coffee and taking snaps as long as I can.

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wild wild west

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uyuni plaza

***

Wow.  Uyuni, Bolivia; the town that time forgot.  I’ve ended up in some sleepy towns in my travels, but honestly surprised that this gateway to a national treasure is this much of a ghost town.  For better or worse there’s usually some ex-pat coffee house or pub in these kinds of places, but in Uyuni doesn’t seem like thats going on.  A handful of crappy pizzerias and tourist shops in the center, but besides that dust, dogs and downtrodden infrastructure.  There’s even a creepy, underused “amusement park” near the center that looks like a relic from another age.  My hotel is nice and cozy.  Fireplaces, sunny courtyard, feels like it would fit in at the Grand Canyon or Taos.  Looking forward to a nightcap by the fire after the sunsets and the chill sets in.  Gonna try this place La Loco for dinner.  Looks like a western saloon.  Hopefully it opens eventually…

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hotel de jardines room

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hotel jardines courtyard

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uyuni track to nowhere

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uyuni dog

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sad playground

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la loco

***

La Loco

This was a surprise.  La Loco serves french cuisine.  And damn fancy french food at that.  Not the rowdy roadhouse I was expecting.  The only other people in the place are a few groups of people speaking french.  It looks and feels like the basement of a bomb shelter, but the service is amazing.  The mesero has on a baseball hat and baggy jeans, but serves with the airs and skill of a maitre d’.  Got llama in a roquefort béchamel and sautéed quinoa.  Damn luxurious.  Its like a post apocalyptic Paris bistro that serves llama for some reason.

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la loco llama roquefort

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la loco bar

***

4/20 Salar de Uyuni

I took the Red Planet tour company because I had heard their food was the best, but turns out they are the best for many reasons.  The food was indeed fine (we would get sad looks from other groups as we took our plates from the truck at lunch), but the amount paid extra ($175 compared to $100ish) was well worth every penny in experience (and probably safety).  Our group was fantastic.  A welcome melding of travelers from the States, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and England.  Mark, Katie, Romane, Emma, Hope, Jessica, Belle, Allison, Leah, Julie and our pimping/informative guide; Rolando. The fact that I retained everyone’s name is something in itself.

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group vs dinosaur

I have to admit to feeling a little bummed during my first moments of the tour.  We hopped into our two 4x4s and stopped a few minutes away at Uyuni’s Train Graveyard.  There were at least a dozen other 4x4s, and dozens upon dozens of tourists from all the groups scampering around the rusting beasts of burden.  From there though, Red Planet’s superior itinerary took over, and for the next couple days overcrowding was never an issue.  Not even close.  Once and a while a Mad Max-ian 4×4 would zoom through the empty landscapes in the distance, but this just added to the feeling of adventure.

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train graveyard

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mad max

Once in the middle of the white nothingness, we hopped out to take it all in.  It is insanely bright, white, and salty for as far as you can see in any direction.  We took our obligatory perspective photos (see above), but since the dry season had begun there was no water above the salt that creates the crazy reflections.  I had heard along the way (can’t confirm if its true) that when asked what the first thing Neil Armstrong wanted to do after getting back from the moon he said he wanted to come here to the Salar.  He saw it from the moon and called it “Earth’s Diamond” as it glistened into the cosmos.  Earth’s Diamond is literally dazzling to take in even from a terrestrial vantage point.  After the fact we all kind of agreed that more time in the flats would’ve been nice, but turns out this was just one of a group of amazing sights in the area.

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earth’s diamond

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middle of salt

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behind the scenes

Next stop after a zooming through the flats was “Island” Incahuasi.  A small peak of land left over from when this was an actual sea which is covered in ancient cactus.  Fucking bizarre!  Just one of many examples of Mother Nature getting cheeky in this quirky landscape.

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cruising

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salt bay

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incahuasi cacti

The first night we stayed in a salt hotel on the outskirts of the flats.  The building, made of blocks of salt, had about 10 rooms with a long corridor in the middle for dinner tables.  As with each night we had tea and soon after a huge dinner.  This night was made especially awesome thanks to the cabinet of booze a cholita was stationed at to sell us libations.  Plus we discovered A POOL TABLE!  Unfortunately I did not do NYC proud and completely sucked, but with Paceñas flowing, music playing and laughter it was a nice social after weeks of solo travel.

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salt hotel

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hotel room made of salt

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pool hall, salar de uyuni

The stars were amazing out there, and as the rest of the group drifted off to sleep, Mark and I cracked a pint of whiskey and had some fun with astral photography.  He had a laser pointer which made things even more exciting for this star photo nerd.  Over talk of f-stops, ISOs and lenses, bromance was born.

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cruz rojo

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devil truck

***

4/21 To the Moon, Mars and Beyond

After brekkie and a nice sunrise over the surrounding salt flats, we pushed onward.  The terrain became more mountainous as we climbed elevation.  When stopping at the last “town” of the trip, we were advised to stock up on booze if we wanted to have a celebration under the stars tonight.  We all heeded this advice.  The rest of the day was a cruise (12 hours or so with a handful of stops and lunch) through some alien worlds.  Parts looked like Utah, parts the Moon, parts other worlds entirely.  Every kilometer the landscape seemed to change completely.  Volcanos, multi-colored lagoons, pink flamingos that eat radioactive bugs, vacunas, geysers and every form of rock formation one could imagine.   To go into detail of the pleasant day would go on for pages.

One thing we did notice through out the day as we ran into other groups, was how much better our experience with Red Planet was than other companies.  Horror stories of dickhead drivers, 10 people smushed into one car, and a general lack of caring about their customers abounded.  Around mid day, we even saw a couple drivers that seemed wasted.  They came over to talk to our driver, and creepily commented about all the “pretty girls in <his> group”.  This is not a place I would want to be driving around with a drunk douchebag at the wheel.

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vacunas

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pink flamingo

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rock tree

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laguna colorada

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geisers

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mars

We stopped for the night at a basic but cozy lodge by a lagoon just as the sun was dipping behind the surrounding mountains.  While all the other groups had stopped hours back, another perk of Red Planet is their exclusive access to spend the night here.  There is a hot spring pool here, and while the other hordes would be stopping here tomorrow, we had it all to ourselves.  Rolando suggested we have dinner, and bring our booze stockpile down there to enjoy the stars.

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second night lodge

So after dinner we grabbed said stockpile, threw on swim gear, and ran across the road in the cold darkness.  We measured the air temp later and it was about -5 F (-21 C), but as soon as we submerged ourselves into the steaming water, the immense beauty of the situation washed over me.  Floating in a pool of hot spring water after a dusty two days drive, with the stars draped out over us in the middle of nowhere, and new friends to enjoy it with.  Sublime.  The stelar display was more breathtaking than any planetarium or CG Imax scene you’ve ever seen.  This evening will go down as a life highlight (even with the later trouble).  On the terrestrial level it was dark, but floating from conversation to conversation in the natural hot tub, drinking Paceñas wine or whiskey, this is the epitome of my “debajo de las estrellas” sentiment.  People always ask me what my tattoo means.  Well this was it.  International exchange of ideas in an unbelievable location, and some ice cold beers.  My only regret is not being able to take pictures, thankfully we have this one (also should be an ad to all dudes out there that Red Planet is the tour company to go with…just saying).

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salar hot springs

 

What followed was a bit of a bummer, but being that nothing terrible happened, it ends up just being a good story and equally eye opening.  I feel like this was 90% drunken weirdness, and 10% danger, but goes to show that one should always be on their guard.  It was dark and confusing, but I’ll try to just stick to the facts as I saw them.

The two drivers we had seen this afternoon wasted came out of nowhere with a box of beer, and started to talk to a couple of the girls who didn’t speak spanish.  Rolando ended up taking over as the girls were a bit creeped out.  I tried to listen in, but the conversation was rapid fire.  Obviously a roundabout dialogue with Rolando trying to talk sense to the two drunk dudes.

Something like:

Drunk Dudes- “Yo bro! Let us party with the chicks in your group!”

Rolando-  “Nah man, we’re just chilling, They don’t want strangers around. Don’t you have to drive at 4AM tomorrow?”

Drunk Dudes-  “Commmmmmeee on!  We’ll be cool we promise!”

Blah, blah, blah.  Eventually it all chilled out and the drunk guys got in but kept to themselves for the most part.  I pretty much forgot they were there and beers resumed.  In the darkness I’m not sure how it amped up a bit, but at some point Mark asked me to hold the flashlight over our stuff and I realized a “police officer” had come to into the situation.  It seemed like the “cop” was busting the drunk guys, but he kept interrogating some of the girls from our group.  He kept saying to them “Hablas espincas?  Hablas espinacas?!”.  I don’t know exactly what he was trying to do, but he was saying “Do you speak spinach?”.  I butted in and told him no one spoke spinach here, and to get the drunk guys out of here.  In the growing hubbub one of the drunk guys in his skivvies came out of the darkness and started asking me where his socks were; adding an dose of absurdity to the situation.

So I has a dude in his underwear asking where his socks are, two wasted drivers getting in my face, and now the “cop” was saying we had to pay a fine for each beer and bottle we had with us; holding up the box the drunk guys had brought insisting it was ours.  The drunk driver guys could barely stand, and the naked guy was just ridiculous, but the cop was a dick.  Eventually some how, the cop and drunk locals walked away into the darkness.  I grabbed one of their unopened beers and was happy to get out of the freezing air and continue our fun night.

Before that could happen lights of a 4×4 appeared heading straight to our lodge.  Someone yelled “They’re going for our stuff!!!”, and instantly it was like “AWWW HELL NO!!!!”.  7 angry women in bikinis and myself stormed through the darkness to protect our shit.  As we arrived at the door Allison and Leah were forcing the dudes out the door (luckily they had gone the lodge for more beer or something right before this happened).  Mark and Rolando had stayed back at the hot spring to check on our stuff, and at the doorway from my view it was becoming a melee with these guys trying to get into the lodge and the girls yelling at them.  Don’t really know why or where it came from, but happy in the face of a shitstorm I had balls.  I got all the ladies inside, they said they’d find the lodge owner, and I slammed the door shut behind me.  Crossed my arms, and stood there barring these guys from entering.  The cop and his drunk friends were berating me in spanish, “Respect the police!!”, “We want your passports!”, “You owe us a fine!” blah blah blah.  I kept telling them we didn’t owe them shit, while trying to retain some semblance of respect for authority to not give them any reason to “arrest” me.  I wasn’t budging.

Sounds pretty tough right?  Well let me draw you a mental picture.  I’m standing there with my hair frozen into a Einstein-esque formation, dripping wet in the below freezing air.  Besides my glasses (reeaaal tough), all I have on is my wet bathing suit which is curled up around my wasted (and rapidly freezing solid) because it doesn’t fit right.  I’m FUCKING FREEZING.  My diamond hard nipples must have been the thing that kept these idiots at bay, afraid I’d gouge their eyes out if they got any closer.

Eventually the owner came out and took over.  I threw on clothes all amped up and ready for a fight but preferring to throw down less naked.  Shortly the owner sorted it, and we watched the guys pull away (scary thought after how drunk they were).  In the end all they got away with was half a pack of smokes (which would’ve been nice after all the adrenaline), my lighter and possibly one of Mark’s socks.  So no harm done.  But what a weird way to end an awesome night.

***

4/22

The next day I got up early to clean up the mess we left at the hot spring before storming the castle, and take some snaps of the sunrise.  I’m pretty pissed I didn’t get to take some shots of the stars last night, but I guess we got a good story out of it.  After an early breakfast we headed out to our last stop together.  As we packed out vehicles it became apparent that Red Planet has their shit down.  Dozens of 4x4s and hordes of travelers began to swarm “our” little hot spring.  As we pulled away from the scene, it was hard not to feel a little smug.

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sunrise post shakedown

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our car

***

The time came all too soon to say goodbye to some of the group.  Mark, Katie, Jessica, Hope, Emma, Julie and I were all heading onward to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile which was nice personally for the camaraderie and the fact that this spur of my trip was relatively spontaneous.  I only found out you could get dropped off at the border a couple days prior to booking my trip.  I was considering this the “dark-side of the moon” for my trip.  Once I committed to the Chile route I wouldn’t have time to backtrack to Lima through Bolivia if the roads near the epicenters of the recent chilean earthquakes were closed.  I figured the gamble was minor, but nice to friends to hang with along the way was a nice bonus at this point in my trip.  We hugged adios to the members of the group heading back to Uyuni and beyond, and got dropped off at the frontera.  Next stop; Chile!

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Epic Journey. Part 6. La Paz, Bolivia

4/16  Deeper into the Heart of the Americas

Just crossed the border into Bolivia.  A dream 7 years in the making!  Checked out of Peru, walked across the Rio Desaguadero Bridge, and here I am.  I wouldn’t want to be in Desaguadero at night per se, but definetly not the sketchiest border crossing I’ve been through.  The $135 visa burns a little, but should be cheap living here.  Next stop La Paz!

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***

La Paz First Thoughts

Holy shit!  This place is crazy.  I over heard this on the bus as it pulled into the station.

“Is La Paz dangerous?”

“Well……its not as bad as San Pedro.  In La Paz the taxi drivers will just rob you.  In San Pedro, they’ll kill you.”

 

Jesus.  Welcome to La Paz.

 

I’m staying at the Panamerican Hotel, and although the staff is super friendly the street feels sketch.  As I dropped my stuff I heard gunshots ringing out, and later saw there was a protest/roadblock downstairs and the police were firing warning shots all day.   I am quickly jolted out of my mystic mountain thoughts and back to things like personal safety and watching all my stuff like a hawk.  The sidewalks around the Prado are INSANE!  Throngs of people shuffling around clogging the walkway.  Traffic is JAM-PACKED, and constantly honking.  And there seems to be a lack of…things.  Restaurants, supermarkets?  Any refuge from the melee?  It took me the entire evening to find a tienda that sold beer and water.  There is a thriving sidewalk economy with tons of kiosks selling water, smokes, snacks (but no beer I don’t think).  Street food vendors have started coming out as night has fallen.  Its been such a dream to come here, but I find myself taken aback.

I must be missing something.

 

One very important high point was the HOT SHOWER!!  Not just tepid, but HOT, and with good water pressure.  I was literally giddy, exclaiming “shit yeah shit yeah” to myself.  My first hot shower in these frigid altitudes in 2 and a half weeks.

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Panamerican Hotel room

Not really sure what I’ll do tonight.  Figure grab dinner, hopefully find a chill place for a couple beers and call it an early one I suppose.  I booked a trip to Tiwanaku for tomorrow, so that should be more my current speed. Hopefully I can find my spots here in La Paz.  I’m sure I’m just being a pussy, and there are spots around I just have to go out and find them.

***

I ended up getting dinner at Restaurante Sol y Luna in the touristy 4 Corners intersection.  The place was definitely on the Lonely Planet crowd’s radar, but it was one of the more inviting places I saw on my evening hunt for food.  I sat at the bar, and enjoyed some of their draft beer (a rarity in my past weeks).  The menu was pretty extensive, but with a relatively small “Traditional” section (its Dutch run).  I blindly ordered the silpancho cochabambino.  A delicious mammoth of a meal, egg, fried steak, potatoes, on a mound of rice.  Topped with a tasty pico de gallo type salsa.  I was happy with my first Bolivian meal, and possibly full for the rest of the trip.

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silpancho cochabambino

After dinner I brought some beers back to the hotel, and found the front desk girl (who I had a crush on), and a couple guys watching Bolivar (big La Paz team) vs Leon for an important Copa Libertador match.  Its always fun to get wrapped up with some locals when their team is playing a big game.  I joined them for the ups and downs of what ended up being an exciting game.  First night in La Paz turned out pretty damn good!

***

4/17 Tiwanaku

Today was the trip to Tiwanku, one of the most important ancient sites you’ve never heard of.  Our guide, Carlos, was a short, round man you could tell had lived through some shit.  He hinted at being a revolutionary in his early days as a professor in La Paz until he had to leave Bolivia for New York City when the government closed the universities in the 70s.  He lived in Greenwich Village when it was still cool, saw the Beatles at MSG, and ended up at Woodstock by accident.  His story was the fodder for a movie to rival Forrest Gump.  Tiwanku was made by the pre-Inca ancestors of the Aymara people who still inhabit the area.  The site is impressive; started around 1500 BC and flourishing 300-1000 AD.

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Besides the sheer antiquity of it all, and the skilled handiwork, the craziest thing to me was the Templete Semisubterraneo (Semi Sub-terrain Temple).  It is insane! And another secret of the past that is hard to explain away/unknown to most people.  I’ll just give the facts, and show you the pictures.  You can decide.  The about 90 X 90 foot temple is dug down 5 or 6 feet below ground.  Its square, and lining the walls are heads carved of stone.  Most look the same to my eye and are thought to be important priests of Tiwanaku.  Then there are some that are clearly different.  Not to be racists or whatever, but the facial structure of these odd ones are distinctly a viking, a grecian, a polynesian, and lastly a FUCKING ALIEN.  

Hey man, I’m not that into the idea of aliens creating all this ancient stuff anymore (its shocking that we’d choose boogiemen over the ability of humankind), but take a look and decide what this is for yourself.  My lens decided to break just prior to entering the temple so sadly I don’t have a wide shot, but the place has dozens and dozens of “normal” heads with just a handful of these mysterious outliers. 

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the gallery detail

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tiwanaku holy man

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the viking

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the grecian

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the polynesian

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the “alien”

***

4/18  Last Day in La Paz

Had booked a night bus to Uyuni tonight, so didn’t have anything to do until 9PM today.  Took advantage of the chance to sleep in, and when I went out around 10AM to find a quick coffee and maybe some bread I found a fucking ghost town.  It was Thursday of Semana Santa (Holy week before Easter), and EVERYTHING was shut.  I had found out last night at dinner that no booze was allowed to be served for the entirety of Holy Thursday and Sacred Friday (or whatever they’re called) which was annoying enough, but I didn’t expect the whole city to close its doors.  I was seconds away from eating at an open McDonalds (oh the humanity!) when I stumbled across Alexander Coffee on the Prado. Thank god.  This place is a nice, modern cafe chain with good brekkie and strong coffee.  Life saver.

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la paz semana santa procession

***

I decided to hop on the 2PM Red Cap Walking Tour (they do 11 and 2 everyday), and super glad I did it.  Should’ve been the first thing I did here in La Paz.  It was awesome, informative, and FREE.  I felt a bit obnoxious walking with a group of 30 gringos through the narrow streets, but the guides were very spacialy aware (a pet peeve of mine).  They picked their spots to stop and chat expertly, never clogging the way with their herd.  We saw the San Pedro Prison, a fucked up commune of criminals with their own government and culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pedro_prison).  You used to be able to do clandestine tours of the place, but due to violence and rapes the government has cracked down.  Didn’t see that coming…

 

We perused the main markets, including the touristy yet eery Witches Market where Bolivians go to get their voodoo-esque commodities to appease the spirits.  They told us that the Prado used to be a river (where gold was found, hence the Spanish choosing this unlikely spot for a city).  On one side (my hotel’s side) it was all indigenous folks, and on the other it was for the Spanish.  When we crossed over the now highway (my first time), you can tell the difference.  Still fairly run down on the “Spanish side”, but obvious at one time this was probably a grand colonial settlement built on the rape of the minerals of the land.

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la paz street market

We ended the tour with a great view of La Paz on the top floor of the Presidente Hotel.  In true bizzare Bolivia fashion this also happens to be the place you can repel out the top floor window and down the 17 stories to the sidewalk.  A bunch of the youngsters in the group clamored to be next, but I had enough adrenaline pumping from the jenky elevator up and down.  The tour was great, view was nice, but happy to be back on tierra firma.

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presidente hotel repel

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view from above

***

On the bus, pues hasta luego La Paz.  I’m already hoping to come back and use it as a jumping off point for exploring the eastern portions of Bolivia.  I’d like to see the last view of Che in La Higuera, see the jungle, and have a chance to eat more traditional food.  Next time different expectations, and hopefully another Red Cap Tour.

I’ve told my friends now back in NYC that I didn’t really like La Paz, but as I re-read what I wrote at the time and think back on what was really going on I realize it was a matter of timing.  I wasn’t ready for urban life after the recent fantastic experiences in the Peruvian highlands.  I didn’t do La Paz justice, and hope for a second go-round.

Epic Journey. Part 5. Lago Titicaca

4/12 Cusco>Puno

I shelled out the $55 to take the “tourist bus” from Cusco to Puno.  The other option was a lot cheaper, but was a night bus arrving in Puno at 4:30AM (which sucks), and I figured I’d get to stop at a couple places along the way.  Plus it included lunch, always a bonus.  Good choice.  The trip takes 6-7 hours on the direct overnight, and with the stops only 10.  First site was an insanely ornate church (St. Peter and Paul in Andahuaylillas).  Sadly no pictures allowed in the interior, but it was insane inside.  Early Baroque Cusco art at its finest.

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Next up, the Temple of Wariqocha called Raqch’i.  Wariqocha was the God of gods to the Inca (and earlier dynasties in the area), and this was thought to have been an important religious, astrological and scientific site.  The remains of what was an enormous campo to their HBIC are there, as well as around 200 circular houses for sheltering travelers or religious service.  Truth is we don’t know shit.  Our guide was Marita was awesome, and it was here that she showed us the kawaj ñan, or route of the Wariqocha (back home internet searches aren’t revealing much more about this, but this is what she said and had maps).  Its crazy!  All the major Inca sites are in a straight line 45 degrees from the equator (going south).  From Ecuador to Bolivia the main metropolises are laid out in a row.  Marita definitely had a spiritual/alien slant (although she never used the “A” word), but seeing the places at the very its apparent what we thought we knew about “pre-Colombian” culture barely scratches the surface.  Stoked on the “tourist bus”, but next time I’ll rent a car.  The road between Cusco and Puno is well a paved, and gorgeous jaunt up to and through the altiplano.

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wariqocha temple

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Marita was full of energy, incredibly informative and obviously super passionate about Lago Titicaca and the centuries of human history surrounding it.  During one of her last talks about the beauty/significance of the place she was actually tearing up.  Peru definitely feels like a spiritual way point and Marita further stoked this perception with her brimming emotion to a bunch of tourists on a bus.  She talked about a huge temple complex under the waters of Lago Titicaca near where the Inca creation myth states humans emerged.  After getting to internet and a quick Googling, turns out its true!  What the fuck is that?!?!  Never heard about that in class, or on the news.  Atlantis?  Noah’s Flood?  Seems like it fits with some ancient stories we have floating around.  Blowing my mind.

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puno first view

Puno is WAY more chill than Cusco.  For better or worse.  I’m digging it.  Part ski lodge, part beach town.  It’s dark and I have no grasp of the enormous holy lake I’m perched on, but happy to be in a new town.

***

4/13  Islas Flotantes

Got up today, and walked to the docks to find a boat to the Floating Islands.  Pretty easy.  Found the first captain I made eye contact with and was whisked away.  I use “whisked” lightly as this boat chugged into the lake at about 3 miles an hour.  I have to say that the whole experience was SUPER touristy.  The boat ride itself was cool (although I realized later that we hadn’t even entered the immense Lago proper at all), floating through the dozens of man made islands was surreal.  Eventually we docked at one of them, and thats when it got weird.  The “mayor” of the island met us and explained how they make EVERYTHING (houses, boats, LAND) with the reeds that grow in the shallow water around the bay.  We all got to eat the juicy “fruit” of the reed and feel real authentic.

 

When he was done his speech he assigned one of the lurking ladies on the island to each group.  Being alone I had the one on one experience.  My lady showed me her house which was interesting, but then the racket started.  First she had me put on local clothes  for “the picture”.  I was too polite to say “fuck this lady! I’m not on a selfie vacation TELL ME ABOUT YOUR REAL LIFE!”;  but thats what I was thinking.  Then she made me look at her “handmade craftwork”, which was the same crap I’d seen in the airport in Lima.  I was grudgingly still polite and bought some stupid throw pillow cover of Pachamama as a shitty gift for some one…(maybe you!).  It was 40 soles, and when I gave her a 50 she disappeared with out change.  I decided that was my take photos which out tipping fee, and took full advantage.

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Next the Mayor, suggests a ride on the “Mercedes Benz”, a pimped out boat made of reeds of course.  This would be cool, but felt like a trap as another fee was levied.  I feel kind of shitty bitching about a $3 fee to ride an indigenous boat hand made from reeds, but I guess I’d just say I’d prefer a less rehearsed presentation.  I’d pay $20 just to chill and hear about life on the Floating Islands, with out the hard sell to buy bullshit.

 

So the “Mercedes Benz” took us to the “Capitol”, a larger reed island with a couple stores, more ladies selling the same shit, and a reed restaurant.  I bought a beer from the reed-store, and sat down at the reed-dock, watching the reed-boats come and go.  I reminded myself that out there somewhere out the die-hard Uros still life a simple life on the hand made floating islands of reeds.  Thats pretty amazing.  These closed off clans reject the influx of tourism, so its that old give and take.  It was easy to get here, but I had to deal with the consequences of tourism, whereas if it wasn’t for these places I’d never see this life.  Paying 12 bucks for a crappy pillow cover is a small fee I suppose.

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4/14 Isla Taquile Trip

Super tired, and writing by candle light, but today was a special day.  This morning I woke up at 6AM and all I wanted to do was sleep in, exhausted from adventure, altitude, and Cusqueñas.  But the goal was Isla Taquile so I dragged my lame ass down to the port and hopped the first boat out there.  I think I accidently snuck onto a tourist boat with service I didn’t pay for.  As opposed to yesterday’s trip to the Islas Flotantes, this one came with a toilet and bilingual guide; Javier.  Javier was awesome, and made a lot of the stuff that was probably said yesterday more entertaining and (although I fancy myself a spanish speaker) more clear.  We made the obligatory stop in another floating island (this time way further into the lake), and the schtick was EXACTLY the same.  Word for word.  Re-enforcing my feeling of the Islas Flotantes tour being basically the Disneyland version of what its really like on the floating islands.  But still cool to see.

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floating reed island

***

It was another couple hours cruising through the interior of Lake Titicaca until we got to Isla Taquile, and quite lovely.  I kept to the roof to take in every moment of the mini-voyage, and sunburn-be-damned don’t regret a second.  The sun had a halo, the birds surfed air around us, and the mere moment of entering the lake proper was something I couldn’t miss.  This was the birthplace of the universe according to the ancients, and I wasn’t going to fail to give it the due respect.

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Once we docked at Isla Taquile, I stuck with my adopted group, and poached their lunch spot.  We trudged up the immediate hill, and stopped at a long table under a tarp.  As the lady who owned the “restaurant” prepared our lunch (grilled trucha and tea), I sat back and started to take in the beauty of the island.

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After lunch I secured a bed with the dueña, Julia, of the house/restaurant.  She showed me my digs, and told me dinner was promptly at 8.  The room was a simple, but cozy, adobe room with two beds on a straw floor.  I dropped my bags, and headed out to explore the island.  It was around 2 o’clock so the tourists were scampering back down the hills to their waiting boats.  It was quite satisfying watching them have to flee, and seeing their boats churn away I continued to explore this other world.

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isla taquile bed

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bye bye boats

I ended up doing an entire circuit of the small island.  My first quest was to get to the beach I had heard about.  As I walked the paths across this pastural island it was like I’d stepped into a time warp.  Everyone I encountered was super friendly, albiet a bit curious of the random gringo who must’ve missed his boat.  The men more-so, and the women seemed shy like they weren’t suposed to talk to me (or I wasn’t supposed to be talking to them…).  Eventually after an hour of walking the path ended at a gate.  I figured that was the end of the line, and I must’ve misunderstood how to get to this sandy beach.  Sounded like a pipe dream anyway.  When I turned back I ran into a guy named Hector and his sister/girlfriend/cousin/who knows.  He was quick to ask if I was looking for the beach, and said they were heading in that direction.  Hector and I chatted in Spanish as we ambled along the cliff top path.  Turns out the gate was to keep the animals on one side or the other of the island.  Smartly, half the year they plant the crops on one side, letting the animals graze on the other side, and then switch to keep the soil good.  Hector was soft spoken, but interesting to talk to.

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potato farmers

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hector guides me

The beach was something special.  Surf, sand, waves lapping, and across the water looms Bolivia’s Cordillera Real.  I might be wrong, but probably the only beach on earth you can dig your feet into the warm sand and see snow capped mountains across the way.

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***

I meandered my way back through the hamlets to my house for the night.  I asked Julia where the best place to watch the sunset would be, and she told me to go up.  Not much more direction than that, she said if you go up the hill above us it would be tough to miss the “chapel” on top.  The walk was fucking STEEP, but easy enough to navigate I guess.  Once I got up there, I saw this creepy “chapel” was more of a ruin.  Hand written on the entrance it said “do not enter”.  I was bugged out by the place, but stepped in anyway.  This place felt heavy, I immediately regretted ignoring the sign and stepping in.  I saw as I turned to get the hell out of there that there were burial mounds in the back.  As I quickly walked away I heard a shriek pierce the dust sky (I swear to god).  The noise sounded like a baby scream, and kept happening for the next bit while I was watching the sunset.  It was probably a bird or something but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shook.

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This was a moment I’ll never forget.  After I found a nice spot, the sunset to the west was a bit thwarted by clouds.  The bonus was seeing the dazzling lightening show striking over the Peruvian Andes.  I happened to look east, and there before my eyes was the biggest, fullest moon I’ve ever seen emerging behind the Cordillera Real.

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To my left an impressive moonrise over Bolivia.  To my right a dramatic sunset over Peru.  And Lake Titicaca all around.  I did a little jig on my rock, poured out some beer in thanks, and enjoyed the show.  All you could hear was the wind (besides the unnerving shriek noise every once and a while), and in 360 degrees a beautiful natural show of the cosmos.  Thanks to the Pachamama.

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The walk back down to my house was eery.  The huge moon cast sufficient light ot navigate, but around every couple turns a cloaked figure would walk past.  In the lunar light Isla Taquile is even more other-worldly; another bonus to going beyond the standard tour boat.

***

Back at my house I hung out with Julia while she made dinner.  She was stoked on my head-lamp, so I ended up giving it to her.  Beats the candle light when the wind kicks up thats for sure.  She gave me a thankful hug, and it was nice to see how proud she was as she zoomed around the kitchen.  I’m thinking I’m the only gringo on the whole island.  Sure feels that way.  I haven’t seen a non-islander since the boats left.  I figure I would’ve bumped into someone on the beach, or the sunset, or somewhere along the way.  There isn’t much else to do.

 

Anyway, my “mom” made a tasty barley soup and omelette.  Julia told me the only proteins they eat here are eggs and trout to keep from exhausting the land with livestock.  Pretty smart.  Tasty dinner nonetheless.  Don’t know if its the sun, the walking or the altitude but after a couple Cusqueños I’m DONE!  This bed is amazing, and outside its pure silence.

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julia making dinner

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***

After my best night sleep in Peru and a nice breakfast from Julia, I thanked her and her family, and headed to the dock to catch a boat back to Puno.  She gave me the strongest hug!  I didn’t really want to leave, but had to hitch a ride back to get my things in order to get to Bolivia tomorrow.  On the way to the dock I stopped to take a couple photos of the men working.  On this island the men do the weaving, and take great pride in their creations.  Each hat lets the rest of the community know marital status, and various other social details.

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glimpse into a weaving party

Back in Puno I figured I’d grab a beer, and write a little before getting an early dinner and hitting the sack.  That didn’t happen.  As soon as I sat down at Kamizaraky Rock Pub I was roped into a conversation with a shaman named Gerald.  In retrospect I’m pleasantly surprised I was able to keep up a couple hours of conversation in spanish, especially in the abstract subjects we discussed.  We talked about the mysteries of Peru and the universe.  Every time Gerald would leave the bar the bartender would acknowledge me, and comment “El es loco”.  He’s right, but it didn’t bother me.  We shared a bunch of beers, and it was fun to talk to a stranger.  With the mystical feeling I took back from Isla Taquile, a shaman was perfect bar company for my last night by Lago Titicaca.

***

 

 

Epic Journey. Part 4. Machu Picchu

4/10 The Main Event

Here it was, the main event.  This morning we rose at 4:30 AM and got in line (yes there is a line already!) for the first busses up the mountain to Machu Picchu.  We were all excited to see the place as the sun rose about the sacred grounds.  Just think of how great the photo of sunrise over Machu Picchu would be!

 

 

Whelp, to quote Andre 3000;  you can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.  As we boarded the bus, the still dark skies opened up.  By the time we got to the top, and as the sky was starting to lighten, it was full-on pouring.  Even worse, as the predawn started to crack, it was apparent that there was a heavy fog.  You could barely see 10 feet in front of you, let alone the majestic view of the site I was looking forward to.  I hoped it would clear eventually, and our guide Eddie took the time to drop some knowledge about the Incas under the shelter of a restored room.

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Soon the fog receded a bit and when we walked into the urban district we found ourselves in some sort of fantasy world.  As the sun crests over the surrounding mountain peaks, wisps of cloud dance around us.  An ever changing ballet of light, cloud and mountain.  We were on top of the world, and the sacredness of this place was on breathtaking display.  The fog was showing her beauty, and slightly lessened the feeling of disappointment I couldn’t help feeling at not getting that iconic sunrise view.

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urban district at dawn

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the view to the right. a snapshot of the ballet

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Eddie continued the informative tour through the grounds and it was all captivating, but difficult to grasp the enormity of the site with the heavy shroud of fog. The desire for that postcard photo loomed in my brain. As quickly as it cleared, the fog returned and when it came time for free time we charged up to the iconic vista only to find a sea of pea soup. Visibility was close to 8 feet. I sat stubbornly at my chosen viewpoint for almost an hour. Desperate for that perfect photo. That Instagram gold! It became apparent that the clouds weren’t going anywhere. I felt a bit foolish for being so adamant for this damn Kodak moment, and figured I’d let it go to take in the full site on the ground level.  There were other sights to see.

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my view of machu picchu

Reluctantly I headed up to the Inca bridge, a harrowing 15 minute walk up and around a neighboring mountain.  As Mother Nature was royally fucking with me, on THIS side of the mountain it was perfectly clear, and I was WELL aware of the 6000 foot sheer drop next to the 3 foot “path” that leads to the bridge.  Pictures don’t do the insanity justice.  Most of the walk (especially when no one was looking), I was literally hugging the rocks to the left scared shitless.   The bridge was cool, but I must sheepishly admit I was more pre-occupied by fear of heights and its lovely companion; vertigo.

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inca bridge

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inca bridge path

Cloud cover not-budging, I backtracked up the official Inca Trail to the Sun Gate.  As I sweated and gasped my way up the steps I still hoped in my heart of hearts that it would clear up.  I liked the mysteriousness of cloud cover, and it was cool to literally be walking in the clouds, but….DAMNIT!  Its like getting to Paris and the Eiffel Tower is removed for maintenance or something.

 

30 minutes later, drenched in sweat I reached the Sun Gate.  I didn’t even realize it until I almost tripped over it because the fog was thicker than ever.  To further piss me off, a group of tourists had decided to plop down in the middle on the ancient gateway for a rowdy picnic.  I would be lying if I said I retained my spiritual bliss.  I was fucking pissed.  I’ve I crossed the world, and have been up since 4:30 and this is what I get!???!  AHHHHHH?!?!?  <insert multiple terrible curses>

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foggy sun gate

I started back down.  Defeated.  I was literally thinking about coming back tomorrow for THE SHOT, when I got held up on the path by an elderly couple descending in front of me.  They were American, or at least speaking English with an American accent.  The woman was a well aged 70 something, and the man was at least 75.  He labored with his cane and all free limbs to slowly but tenaciously navigate each step.  If you haven’t been there, let me tell you that the walk up to the Sun Gate from Machu Picchu is FUCKING HARD.  Even for the able bodied.  I have NO idea how, or how long, it took for this man to get up here, or how on earth he was going to get down.

A member of their group (I assume), came around the bend and exclaimed her delight at seeing the couple up here.  “Oh my gawd Bob!  It’s amazing that you’re up here!  You guys are incredible!  Sure is a shame about this fog!”.  “Bob” accepts her praise, leans against the rocks to our left, takes a look out into the fog, and blows my mind.

“Oh well.  We sure are blessed to be here”, he says smiling pensively.

Goddamn.  I was totally taken aback by this random exchange I heard I passed.  This man’s positivity and sheer will to get up here!  Fuck the photo, we sure are blessed to JUST BE HERE!  Setting aside all benefits of upbringing, financial ability to travel, and gift of health; we are experiencing a day like many for Machu Picchu’s inhabitants.  This is the real deal.  She is a hidden fortress, not just by jungle, altitude and time; but by the clouds themselves.  I spent the walk back down feeling like an idiot and counting my blessings.

***

As I came through the last tree line, and re-entered Machu Picchu proper I realized as I looked down that in front of me was the once in a life time, post card view I had only seen on TV and in photos.  I literally ran to the nearest terrance, and looked down at Machu Picchu in all her wonder and glory.  A life’s dream surprisingly laid out before my eyes.

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fog parts m.p. first view

I got my postcard photo (dozens of them!), but almost felt guilty as I relished the angles and exposures I was snapping.  Machu Picchu showed me her wonder, but taught me a lesson first.  She made me earn it.  I’m kind of sick of the cliche “its about the journey, not the destination” sentiment, but I had so many amazing experiences during my Lares trek.  No one bit should eclipse that, not even missing the money shot in the end.  Experience does not require documentation (says the dude typing this blog).  Just like a Lady  she (Machu Picchu) waited for me to give up my selfish desires before revealing her full beauty.

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m.p. 3

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m.p. 2

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m.p. 1

So yes, Machu Picchu granted me my wish, but I was sure to thank her before I left.  I put the camera away, and sat on a terrace to watch the swallows zip about.  I listened to the Urubamba River churn thousands of feet below.  I ran my hand alone the ancient stones to feel their story.  You can feel the weight of the centuries.  I lingered, wanting to do more to thank the Wiracocha (Inca supreme god) for setting me straight.

sheer drop

sheer drop

chinchilla chilling

chinchilla chinchilling

stone work detail

stone work detail

 

***

In the end of course I had to leave.  Looking back, this was the moment this trip turned into an adventure.  Can’t claim to have blazed any new trails as I followed the traditional Gringo Trail, but the exploration was of a personal nature.  The Lares Trek had been a spiritual amuse bouche, but at this point I was full on taken by the wonders of this land.  It was less about the sights and more about the feelings and revelations that came with them.

 

Machu Picchu, checked off the list; but my god what a gratifying experience.

***

Epic Journey. Part 3. Lares Trek

4/7 Lares Trek Day 1

4AM wake up today.  Another shitty night of sleep, but this time thanks to excitement.  Sleepy nods hello to my group as we climb into the bus.  We picked up our chef and two porters along the pre-dawn drive.  Tried to appreciate the sunrise over the Sacred Valley, but too sleepy…

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***

Chef and his homies whipped up a quick breakfast and tea, and as our brains started to come to life, introductions were re-made around the pop-up table.  Leonie and Niahm were friends from Ireland that had been doing the whole of Central and South America.  Mark, Niahm’s boyfriend, had flown in to meet them at some point, and after this trip was done it was back to work for him.  Carol and Katrina were a mother/daughter duo from Houston.  Pretty cool place to see with your mom (hey mom wanna go climb a mountain??).  Our guide was Eddie, and he was the man.  Also seemed very connected to and knowledgeable about the history and terrain.  We found out later that basically 2/3’s of the month he’s on one the hikes to Machu Picchu.

 

So after the pancakes and tea it was time to get this show on the road.  Whack in a cud of coca leaves, and up we went.  Up.  For a day and a half it was up.  With every step less oxygen.  I will tell you this;  hiking to Machu Picchu is easy, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.  But don’t forget to breath, because if you forget to, you won’t.  These mountains don’t give up their scarce air without a little effort…

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the beginning of up

As we climbed the terrain and flora slowly changed around us.  We were basically following a river valley cutting up and through the peaks.  Conversation was actually pretty tough to sustain for long, but when we stopped at some ruins Eddie dropped some knowledge about the life of the Incas.  One thing that stuck with me was when he described the Inca’s cashless economy.  The empire was wealthy beyond belief in pure natural abundance, but they didn’t use money.  Instead they used a work for property system.  Build a temple, lay a road, etch an agricultural terrance and you get a house and land for your family.  This struck me as socialist to the core.  The Quechua descendants still follow the mantra “Ayni”, which basically means “today for you, tomorrow for me”.  It made me wonder if the frequent socialist uprisings that pop up in Latin America (only to be crushed) have some connection to this ancient sentiment.  Imagine if one of the greatest societies to exist in antiquity was a functioning communist model.  That wouldn’t look good in the history books…

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thinking socialism in ruins

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Lunch Day 1_Near Callorumiyoc ruins_3600 meters/11,800 feet

We learned a valuable lesson that first lunch, PACE YOURSELF!  The Llama Path meals are amazing, and each course I couldn’t stop myself from gorging.  “Problem” is the COURSES NEVER STOP!!  It was one of the best meals I’d had in Peru, and by far the biggest including mango ceviche (definitely making that one at home), pumpkin soup, rice, peruvian corn, potatoes, yucca, stuffed avocados, quiche, AND stuffed trout!  Ended with nap time right?  No Eddie passed out snack bags (in case we some how got hungry ever again), and it was back to the climb.  Another half day up to our night’s camp.

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day one lunch spot

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***

During that last push into and over the clouds, more and more evidence of the Quechua people that still live and farm in these mountains popped up.  It’s pretty amazing that people still hold it down up here.

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After breathlessly dragging ourselves up a final brutal climb, we found ourselves in a meadow on top of the world.  The amazing porters and horsemen, who would somehow run ahead of us after every stop to have everything ready when we showed up, were already getting to work for tea-time and dinner.  All we had to was drop our pack, put on some layers (it was getting cold up here!), and enjoy some coca tea before another gut busting and delicious dinner.

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***

Night 1_Puyoc_4300 meters/14100 feet

Dark out, and itching to get out of the tent and photograph these amazing stars!  Its like you could just about touch the milky way from here.  The Southern Cross and a bunch of unfamiliar sights all dot the bright sky.  The Big Dipper is UPSIDE-DOWN!  Amazing.  I’m already at my new altitude record (I think Mt. Massive was a bit less than this…), but tomorrow is the big climb.  Over 15,000 to our summit!  Its about 8PM, everyone else is asleep and I’m exhausted but gotta get those STARS!

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above the cloud line

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puyoc camp

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4/8  Sicllakasa Pass.  15,800 feet

Out of breath.  But not as bad as I thought.  Powered up to my altitude record stubbornly not giving in to lack of oxygen.  Thanks to a consistent cud of coca leaves still don’t believe in altitude sickness.  Amazing sea of mountains in front of us, and miles of descending valleys in our wake.  Incredibly satisfying.  The Inca worshipped the mountains as gods, and even today the local people make pilgrimages up here to give offerings to the now hybrid Christian/Ancient gods.  Quite a commitment, those last couple hundred feet were gnarly.   Although they probably trot up here like its a trip to the grocery store.  Awesome, awesome.  On top of the world.

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behind us

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in front of us

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“take in the greatness of God. this is his love.”

***

So then we started back down the other side.  This side of the mountain is much more lush with vegetation.  I think its because the wet air comes in from the coast and is shot into higher altitudes by the slopes we just climbed creating rain clouds on this side.  Had a nice chat in spanish with Eddie on the way down.  Just shooting the shit, but good to keep up the practice.  Eventually we descended into a breathtaking nook amongst the cliffs where our lunch was being prepared.  Stunning place to relax, felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings.  A herd of sheep/llamas/alpacas cruised past our spot, herded by a distant Quechua woman and her dogs scurrying about the cliffs like it was nothing.  Another gut busting lunch of lomo saltado (with a delish vegan option of seitan!), arepas, pasta w/ chicken, and ubiquitous rice mound.  God the food was good!  Then we continued down through hilly green pastures amongst the llama, chinchillas, increasing local folks going about their business.

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the red dot is camp

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***

Night 2_Cunkani_3800 meters/12,426 feet

This is fucking rad.  After the pleasant descent we enter the village of Cunkani.  Quechua kids eying us up and offering a curious “hola” as the gringos passed.  We stepped into a stone corral and thats where we would set up shop for the night.  I can’t lie I felt a little weird at first.  Women are posting up with stuff for sale, but I don’t really need anything.  Also back in Cusco it had been suggested to bring candies for the kids, and I had a bag, but that didn’t really seem right.  With all the natural good food around, giving kids a bunch of shitty sugar treats felt wrong.  So as my hike mates took a nap, I’m kindof just sitting here watching as the camp fills up with Quechua women and kids.  Looks like there will be another group joining us tonight going the other direction.  It is so crazy to be here right now.  This is why I chose this trek.  Although they just see me as another tourist, for me it is very special to be spending the night in this village.

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4/9  Durián

Sunrise at Cunkani.  Last night was pretty special.  We were playing cards in the mess tent to kill time before going to sleep.  “Bullshit” to be exact.  After a while, in sneaks this little Quechua kid.  He literally shimmied under the tent flap, and just stood there smiling.  No one, myself included, really knew what to do, so I figured I’d teach him how to play the game.  I had him “help” me play my hand and eventually gave him his own.  For the record I told him the game was called “mentiroso”, just saying.  He never really got it, not for lack of trying, more my inability to explain the sophisticated nuances of bullshitting in spanish.  Eventually we all headed to bed, but the cloud cover had lifted and the stars were dazzling and the Conquecruz (*never figured out how to spell it properly) glacier topped peak was shimmering in the distance.

 

I grabbed my camera and before I could turn around, there was Durián, smiling silently.  I asked him if he wanted to take pictures of the stars, and he was ALL ABOUT IT!  When I showed him what it looked like on the screen he was ecstatic!   I taught him a few things of which he caught on really quick, and just let him walk around the camp taking shots of the night sky.  He didn’t want to head my advice about keeping the camera steady, preferring the post-modern blurry look.  Fuck giving kids candy, last night was a sharing of information.  He told me the names of the mountains and stars and I showed him how to photograph.  I’ll print up his work and send it to him when I get home.  He said he was going to come walk with us for a bit tomorrow, and I hope he does.  Its WAY easier to take pics in the day time.

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me and durian collaboration

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durian 1

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durian 2

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durian at work

 

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Kids lined up this morning in front of one of the other groups.  The guide gives each of the tourists a bag of candy and they go down the line handing out crap feeling good about themselves.  I don’t like it.  Durian was one of them.  By the time I was done brekkie they were gone.  Durián had his backpack on.  Hopefully he was going to school.

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Well, after we started our days bit of hiking, no sign of Durián.  Shortly into the hike, Eddie pointed out the villages elementary school.  Relatively basic, but surprisingly complete layout.  Out ran a bunch of kids to gawk at us, and sure enough there was Durián.  He was apparently too shy to say much, or maybe last nights fun wasn’t as cool for him as it was for me.  Either way I’m going to send him his pics.  And maybe a Polaroid cam or something.

***

The days hike was more of leisurely stroll through the rolling hills compared to previous days.  The final stop was the hot baths in Lares proper.  Good lord I can’t imagine a more heavenly way to end a trek through the Andes.  Warm shower flowing from the rocks (warmest shower I’ve had in Peru!) and free range of four pools ranging from tepid to scalding to soak our aching bodies.  Down below there is a cold bath if you’re into that and lap pool to boot.  Tucked into a serene alpine valley, with a raging river down below.  One last lunch from Chef and the porters, and that was it.  Trek over, back to the bus.

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hot springs at lares

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***

After the springs, we took a bus to Ollantaytambo.  The ride through the Sacred Valley was amazing on its own.  I like the town here at Ollantaytambo.  Its cute, and the ancient Inca bastions still standing on the surrounding cliffs are pretty impressive.  After a short walk through town we got dinner there, and I got to see a more traditional cuy presentation…aka the whole guy (my verdict: a lot of work for not much meat).  Now we are on the train to Aguas Calientes, where we will sleep in a hotel for a couple hours before getting that first pre-dawn bus to the Main Event; Machu Picchu.

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ollantaytambo ruins

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cuy

***

All in all I would say 1000% do the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu.  And go with Llama Path.  I’ve obviously never gone to M.P. any other way, but it can’t get much better.  For those of you puritans, it IS true that you don’t actually walk your ass right up to the Sun Gate, but dealing with the throngs of people one must endure on the Inca Trail seems like a terrible option just to say you did it.  Shit if you want to pay more to shuffle up there with the idiot masses be my guest.  You walked to Machu Picchu.  Great.  But what did you experience?

 

I’ll stop hating and go to sleep.

***

 

Epic Journey. Part 2. Cusco

4/5  Cusco the Heart of the Americas

Landed in Cusco smooth as silk.  Descended through the clouds into this Mecca perched high in the Andes.  Checked into Hotel Rojas just around the corner from the Plaza de Armas, and I really like it.  Cheap as hell (which is tough here in Cusco), well situated and stately-comfy.  There’s free coca leafs and hot water for tea for those ailing from altitude sickness, but for me so far so good.  I actually don’t believe in altitude sickness.  Its a myth.  I drink lots of beer, occasionally smoke a cigarette and suck at staying hydrated, and I’ve never got a symptom.  So if I didn’t get it, you won’t get it.  PMA.

 

Walked around a bit this evening, figuring I’d keep it chill in case I was wrong about the whole “altitude sickness is a myth” thing and needed to acclimate.  Tomorrow I’ll do a full on walk about before I leave for my Machu Picchu trek on Monday.  I’m surprised by the party town aspect of Cusco.  Daniela and her friends in Lima had told me that this is a destination to party for Limeños, but gawddamn!  Its a Saturday night and already the old streets are packed with kids, with house music shaking the Inca foundations.

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hotel rojas

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hotel rojas room

Having dinner at Victor Victoria, which just happens to be the closest restaurant to my hotel and I’m starving.  It’s nice!  Super friendly dueña and a huge menu of trucha (trout), alpaca, cuy (guinea pig), ceviche, and a myriad of other options that cater more to less adventurous gringos.  I ordered the alpaca a la chorrillana.  I think the chorrillana sauce is usually for fish, but who knows.  First time for alpaca so maybe it tastes like fish.  The salad bar here is another nice perk.  Rarely south of San Diego have I seen such a nice variety of fresh veggies.  Cabbage, beets, radi….-

 

Holy shit.  THIS ALPACA IS FUCKING AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!

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***After devouring the plate, my exact words…***

BY FAR the best and most unexpected meal I’ve had in a long, long time!  And for $20 with a couple beers.  The alpaca is tender, lean.  Part filet mignon, part pork tenderloin in texture and flavor.  The marinade and/or spices were reminiscent of chimichurri somehow.  Oh my god SO FUCKING GOOD.  I’m out of bread.  Tempted to pour the juices into my face.  Holy shit am I glad I came in here!  Jesus lord.  This is a game changer, and totally out of the blue.

***Crappy iPhone pictures don’t do it justice!***

 

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alpaca a la chorrillana

So yeah, if you get a chance; eat alpaca.  I wasn’t exaggerating.  For the rest of my trip I ate alpaca (or llama in Bolivia) basically once a day.  Chorrillana style is something I definitely want to make at home, and seems easy enough.  Grilled tomatoes, onions with a slightly tangy/spicy aspect that must be based in wine or white vinegar and oregano.  When I had regained my ability to speak, I asked the dueña how to make this amazing dish.  With a gleam in her eye she said, “Just cook the meat, tomatoes and onions until they’re done.”.  DRATS!  Secret recipes be damned, I’m going to figure this one out back home.

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4/6 Exploring Cusco

Had a shitty night sleep last night thanks to the raging party that was going on til at least dawn.  Also got back from dinner around 9PM and found the door locked.  Had to bang on the door for 20 minutes before the night guy woke up and let me in.  So although the bed was comfy as hell, two points against Hotel Rojas.  Once I made it out and about this morning, the day was perfect.  Warm sun and white clouds against a dark blue sky.  There was a parade in Plaza de Armas, for what I have no idea, but fun to watch none the less.

 

I trudged up to and past the artistic San Blas section of town, and kept going up in the hopes of finding a good view point of Cusco as a whole.  Can’t say I found anything great view-wise, but I figure plodding up the hilly streets was good practice for my trek.  On the way down, I happily lost myself in the labyrinthian back alleys.  Headed in the general direction of Qorikancha/Santo Domingo.  All along the way its amazing to see the uniform, precisely engineered rock foundations that still support hap-hazard and often adobe extensions that the Spaniards started after they destroyed the formidable metropolis the Inca had created.  To add to the mystical vibe (to a gringo at least); the Quechua men and women.  Here in Cusco was where I first noticed what would become routine in the journey.  Great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of the indigenous people that ruled these lands are not relegated to reservations in the high plain.  To this day they hold it down in the city, and have plenty of open land in the country side.  It was a weird to think about the decedents of the original people in the States.  You probably won’t see a Lenape woman walking in Manhattan, or a Camanche warrior in Dallas.  Sadly you’d probably be hard pressed to find someone speaking the original language on many of the reservations we moved our originals to.

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plaza de armas

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cusco parade

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cusco view

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quechua ladies

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inca stone work, modern patchwork

A perfect example of the Spaniards building on the broken backs of the Inca is at the aforementioned Qorikancha/Santo Domingo site.  Back in the day, Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire.  Literally all roads led to Cusco.  The divine leader (called The Inca), presided over his land, stretching from Ecuador to Chile, from this government seat.  Originally Qorikancha was the grandest temple in the Inca empire.  Hundreds of pounds of gold and other precious metals decorated this center for ritual and science.  Francisco Pizzaro and his men conquered Cusco, ransacked the place, and destroyed most of the mighty Inca structures.  Eventually the sight was bequeathed to the Dominican monks who built a church on the stone foundation of Qorikancha.  The original temple was built in the 1400s and what’s left has stood strong while the subsequent church has been destroyed twice by earthquake (1650 and 1950), and severely damaged in 1986.

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qorikancha/santo domingo

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Ducked into Jardín Secreto on the road between my hotel and the plaza.  Really cool little local joint, or so it seems.  Through the walkway from the sidewalk leads to a nice outdoor courtyard with bar, and tables for food.  A local football match is projected on the wall and it seems like everyone knows each other and are meeting up for some Sunday afternoon beers and grub.  Old men order rounds of Pilsen beer, kids run around, and large tables of friends and family (I assume) eat ceviche and chat.  I got the ceviche, and  it came with a seafood consume.  I am a lover of all things ceviche, but after my first try of trout ceviche I must report it was a bit much for me.  It came garnished with frilly seaweed, and had a nice ginger/spice kick to it, but the fresh water gamey-ness was undeniable.  I decided I’d stick to cooked trout and alpaca during my time in the highlands.

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the secret garden

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For my last meal in civilization for a while, I treated myself to a fancy dinner at Chicha.  Gastón Acurio is probably Peru’s most famous chef.  He had an early hand in elevating Peruvian cuisine, utilizing the abundance of natural ingredients the various climates of Peru provide.  The name for the “new” style is novaandina, and sounded pretty damn good to me.  It was a splurge for sure ($40 with couple beers), but gawddamn it was good.  I figured if anywhere, here was the place to try cuy (guinea pig).  The plate was amazing, but I’m guessing not very traditional.  The cuy itself was cut off the body, and in strips; topped with what looked like quail eggs.  Taste wise cuy was almost fishy.  I guess the word is gamey.  Kind of the texture of chicharron.  More skin than meat.  Not that bad though.  Underneath amazing.  A quinoa “fried rice” kind of action with broccoli, plaintain, and an asian slaw.  Tastes of hoisin, mirin, chili oil, anise (?).  Very light and cohesive.  A fusion (barf that word) of asian and caribbean, with strictly Peruvian ingredients.  Crisp, prompt service and looked like a high end variety of drinks (I stuck to Cusqueñas).

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chicha cuy

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Left Chicha full and ready for bed, but spent the next couple hours gathering supplies for tomorrow’s trek.  Water, rum, coca leaves, CHECK.  Can’t wait for what feels like the REAL beginning of adventure.  Tomorrow night I will write by starlight on top of the Andes mountains!

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