Monday, October 26, 2009

Bring on Bolivia

The Floating Islands

On October 18th, a sunny but brisk day on Lake Titicaca (Peru-side), I woke up in a tiny hut made of reeds. The wake up call was brought on by a warm and sweet old lady (I call her my Island Abuela), who lived with her husband on the Uros islands a.k.a the Floating Islands. This string of tiny islands have been constructed entirely out of the reeds that grow in the lake. Everything on the islands is made of reeds, even the tiny hut for the reed-fed cuy.

Our Island Abuelos (grandparents) were gracious enough to let Yuval and I stay with them for the night. It was 7:00 in the morning when Abuela swung the reed door open with a smile and a bright, "Buenos dias!". She disappeared briefly and re-appeared with breakfast: sweetened tea, homemade bread and two dishes piled high with rice, fries and a large fried egg. I shook the sleep out of my eyes and said to Yuval, "you know, I don't think I've ever actually been brought breakfast in bed before." He replied, "well I doubt you've ever slept on an island made of reeds, in a hut made of reeds either." Touche.

We caught the dilapidated wooden boat that sputters its way from the Islands back to Puno, the small city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, after spending a sunny morning relaxing on the spongy, tiny island. It feels like walking on a slightly crunchy trampoline, but the reeds are incredibly comfortable to lay down on - I sat for a minute and almost fell asleep.

By nightfall that same day, we arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia. That's one of my favorite parts of traveling: one day can take you to all kinds of places. I wasn't actually planning on visiting Bolivia at all. Not for any particular reason, but it just wasn't on the original roster. However, after returning from Machu Picchu and deciding what the next step would be, it felt like a good choice.

In Which We Are Stranded in the Bolivian Altiplano:

Yuval had heard great things about a small town cradled in the mountains a few hours north of La Paz, called Sorata. It was purported to be a cute little oasis of a town that sucked travelers in, Cusco-style. So, we caught the bus that was going to La Paz and had the driver drop us off in a town called Huarina to catch a connecting bus to Sorata.

A few words on Huarina. It's a barren, windswept town placed as if by accident in the middle of the desolate altiplano, boasting only a smattering of lonely looking brick buildings. The only visible life was a handful of Aymari ladies running small snack shops, rough looking dogs and people waiting for buses. The buses - the ubiquitous collectivos - rumbled through the dirt road in quick succession but most were full. None were going to Sorata. For hours we stood on the street corner, shivering in the biting wind; waiting...

Finally an Aymari lady instructed us to get into a collectivo, promising "Sorata, Sorata!" She expressed a great surprise that we could not speak Aymari, but spoke to us in Spanish anyway, if a little begrudingly. The driver took us to another, less desolate town and instructed us to wait for the Sorata bus there. Patience and optimism were wearing thin, and we consoled ourselves with the tiny happy fact that if we should get stuck here, at least this town had a hostel.

Luckily the Sorata bus did come and rescue us from the frigid altiplano. The only downside was that it was already full so we had to squish ourselves into the space between the front seats and the first bench, balancing precariously between knees and large bags. It was a long drive to Sorata.

All that effort - erm, I mean, adventure - wasn't entirely for naught. Sorata was cute. Small, with palm trees waving cheerfully in the central plaza and streets lined with Italian pizzerias. But not exactly the oasis that was promised. The only activities available were hikes up to dizzying altitudes (not appealing to me as the high alitude still makes my heart whir like a blender on high) and kamikaze bike rides from the tops of the surrounding mountains.

The hostel we stayed in was an old Colonial number that looked and felt like something out of Pan's Labrynth. It was beautiful once, with high ceilings, alabaster white walls and courtyards teeming with plants and bright flowers, giant bees and hummingbirds. Time had crumbled the walls and imbued the rooms with a draughty, creepy atmosphere as though the ghosts of the Conquistadors were sitting beside you in your room, drinking coca tea and discussing strategies against the Incas. It was commandeered by an intimidating old lady who seemed to disappear into the walls after she was finished talking to you. I had the strangest dreams that night.

Side Note: Lonely Planet has strange recommendations. All of the hostels we've chosen via the Lonely Planet guide have either been a complete dump as the one in Puno (I don't even want to discuss it) or ancient, creepy and haunted. Sometimes I feel like the writers enjoy 'surprising' travelers with these odd and crumbling places. Har har, joke's on us!

Now we are in a much cuter, much friendlier hostel in La Paz (took the recommendations of one of Yuval's Israeli websites...).

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Machu Picchu - the DIY way

Deciding to forgo the guided tours to Machu Picchu - which are a dime a dozen, expensive and more of the toursit herding that I am growing to despise - my Israeli rafting friend (heretofore called by his actual name, Yuval, instead of 'my Israeli friend') and I left the hostel early-ish in the morning with hastily scribbled directions from other Israeli's on how to get to Machu Picchu.

The Road to Machu Picchu:

Part one: For the four to five hour drive from Cusco to Santa Maria, we found a collectivo a.k.a. a cramped, rickety van stuffed to the brim with Peruvians, with a crate full of ducks strapped to the top, for good measure. They shunted "Los Gringos" to the very back seat, which wasn't quite attached to the floor, and the driver took off on the dusty road that twisted round the moutainside. Machu Picchu here we come!

We changed vans in Santa Maria, this time into a rickety tin can full of very friendly Chilean students (a couple of whom we ran into later in Cusco, and they tried to take us to a Peruvian strip club. Noooo gracias!), and were taken via slightly dodgy, narrow gravel road that hugged the sharp cliff sides through Santa Teresa and onto the hydroelectric station. In order to pass oncoming vehicles, the van had to back up into a small turnout and wait. Not quite the infamous Bolivian death road, however, and once we got used to it, it wasn't that bad. The best strategy is to close your eyes and hope you make it one piece.

Luckily, we did make it one piece, and were dropped off at a hydroelectric station nearby the train tracks that lead to Aguas Calientes (town at the base of Machu Picchu). You do, of course, have the option of riding the train to Aguas Calientes from just outside of Cusco. I've heard good things about it. Yuval, the Chileans and I, however, took the cheap and scenic route and walked along the train tracks, like hobos, for about 3 hours to Aguas Calientes. The Chileans were hilariously ill equiped for the walk: they had brought their giant suitcases and garment bags for their nice clothes. What they needed nice clothes for in MP was beyond me, but the poor things had to walk along the tracks with their suitcases uncomfortably perched on top of their heads.

The walk through the jungle was very scenic indeed, with bright green parrots swooping in and out of the trees, screeching happily and other invisible birds making sounds I've never heard before. The only downside was that we were plagued by hordes of tiny ravenous bugs (excellent reason to shave your legs in Machu Picchu: to give the bites a really good scratch). To pass the time, Yuval and I played his noun-song game, wherein one person picks a noun and the other has to come up with as many songs containing that noun as possible. Two songs in particular have become my Machu Picchu theme songs: Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues and Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me (Yuval insists that Frank says 'come fly with me to Peru'. I disagree. We remain at a standstill at time of writing).

We arrived in Aguas Calientes just as night was falling in the jungle; the horrid tiny bugs finally abated their onslaught and went to sleep, and were replaced by flickering fireflies, lighting the way.

For some reason, the Lonely Planet people hated Aguas Calientes. Both Yuval and I, however, found it to be adorable. Touristy, of course: Machu Picchu is a world wonder, after all. But for whatever reason, we did not spend much time with other gringos on the way to and from MP. Perhaps it's worse if you go on one of the tours. But Aguas Calientes is certainly not the hell hole Lonely Planet painted it out to be. Quite the contrary; its quaint, with loads of restaurants - for some reasons hordes of Mexican joints, a cute central square, and an atmosphere of happy anticipation.

The Swedish Wake up call:

After an excited pre Machu Picchu night in Aguas Calientes, we forgot to set an alarm for the following morning. Fortuitiously, right at 5 am (when we had planned to get up) a Swedish couple knocked on the door, looking for the front desk. Happy coincidences like that happened the entire time we were there. Thanks, Incas!

Stairway to Machu Picchu:

The mountains surrounding Aguas Calientes at 5:00 in the morning were swathed in clouds, the air was crisp but heavy with moisture, and the jungle was making its murmuring, shrieking noises, as though to encourage us. There's a tourist bus that climbs the last stretch of hill up to the ruins, but we, naturally, took the walking tour: 80 bajillion stairs straight up the mountain side. It took about an hour or less to crest the top - finally, after dodgy collectivos, crazy dirt roads,horrendous bug bites, 5 am Swedish wake up call, more stairs than I care to talk about - we were at Machu Picchu.

There is an additional Inca site open to tourists, at the far end of the Lost City, called Waynapicchu, on top of a steep mountain overlooking the ruins. It's where most of the iconic MP pictures are taken from. Up to 400 tourists a day are allowed to climb the mountain and visit the additional ruins. We were numbers 165 and 166. For about another hour we climbed yet more stairs, some of them so small and so steep, falling off the side of the mountain seemed like a inevitability. The climb and the dizzying heights were well worth it: the view was nothing short of spectacular. We were literally at the top of this popsicle shaped mountain, sitting among old inca ruins with the lizards sunning themselves, looking out over all of Machu Picchu.

After the precarious climb down from Waynapicchu, we wandered amongst the ruins; the heat of the day rising, sweltering, and the tourists all milling about. Despite the hundreds of pink gringos, MP has a magical feel to it, a peaceful hum that seems to come out of the rocks themselves. A tour guide that we eavesdropped on said that MP is a major magnetic center of the world, and a few of the spots have healing properties. At the very least, our spirits were high that day. I highly recommend the trek.

We returned to Aguas Calientes in the early afternoon, more than ready for lunch, a shower and a siesta. Instead of making the trek back to Cusco right away, we decided to take the afternoon to relax, the evening to visit the hot springs (Aguas Calientes' namesake) and return in the morning.

The Way Back:

The walk along the train tracks was quieter than the way there, and a little melancholy. Leaving a wonderful place always seems to be that way. The van we took from Santa Maria back to Cusco was just terrible, though. The guy who was "driving" - if you can call it that - seemed to have never been behind the wheel of a vehicle before. The van jerked back and forth like he had a hornet in his pants. He dodged invisible rocks, braked for no apparent reason, and drove at breakneck speed around curves he should have slowed for. The drive was two hours longer than it should have been because of his spotty driving, and his constant stopping to pick up other passengers and snacks - he literally ate the entire six hour drive. We arrived in Cusco cold, frustrated, and our ears ringing with the same CD that he had played over and over and over again.

We arrived back at the Loki hostel, and the bar was in fine form: a bunch of guys were dancing shirtless on the bar, singing and hugging each other in an inebriated haze. Ahh home again.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


October 11, 2009

So, technically, I'm traveling alone, right? However, since I've left Canada, I've hardly ever actually been alone. The hostel I'm staying at in Cusco - the infamous social hub, Loki - is buzzing with backpackers and travelers from all over the world. You'd have to be the most unpleasant, antisocial person in the world to not make friends here. Each time I come back is like a little homecoming, a chorus of different accents asking, "how was your day?". Almost everyone hangs out together in the lounge or the bar, eats and drinks and shares their stories with each other. People that you've known for an hour become fast friends.
Oh, and for those of you who are a touch worried about me traveling alone, almost every other girl I've met at the hostel is traveling alone as well.

In the mornings, I've been waking up relatively early, as soon as the light comes through the windows and my dorm mates start rummaging around. I make plans for the day while getting ready and these plans are almost always shot as soon as I go down for breakfast. Why do laundry or talk to the pushy tour agencies when I can do it manana? Instead, I wind up wandering around town with a hostel friend, exploring the markets and eating at random little food stands that may or may not include the parasites for free.

Cusco in Quechua means "navel of the earth". To me, it has been a carnivorous navel, swallowing travelers whole and keeping them here long after they planned. A benevolent carnivorous navel, to be sure. But nevertheless, I had planned to stay for 5 days and now I have been here for a week and I have no concrete leaving date as of yet. Not that I'm complaining. Quite the contrary, I'm loving every minute of Cusco. It's an adorable european-style hotpodgeof Peruvians, Quechua and visitors from all over the globe. Most everyone speaks english but you'll hear a mulitude of different languages.
The Plaza del Armas is Gringo central, with hawkers of every shape and form peddling clothes, paintings, tours, and massages, among other things. Wandering outside of the center brings you into a more Peruvian experience: old Quechua ladies reading coca leaves on the sidewalks, endless tiny shops packed to the rafters, taxis zipping around at breakneck speed on the cobblestone roads. On Saturdays there is a thieves market, where Cusco sells it's pilfered goods. You can get literally anything you want here, from car parts and tools to cell phones and ipods, to socks and underwear, clothes, shoes, music, movies, food; everything. Makes me think all of the pre-trip shopping I did was for naught; I could have got it all here, for much cheaper.

I participated in the requisite gringo activities that Cusco has to offer: the Sacred Valley Inca ruins (Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero). The city tour: Saqsaywaman - sounds like "sexy woman" but nothing sexy about it, Q'enqo - the Inca labrinth with (my favorite in this tour) and Puka Pukara, an administrative and road control center, and the Qorikancha Museum, a Spanish monastery/convent that was built right over top of an Inca temple, with some of the Inca walls still intact (the ones the Spanish didn't completely destroy).

The Sacred Valley is gorgeous, with ruins high up on the mountains, terraced farming and endless stairs. The Incas must have had a thing for stairs, and for making their buildings staggeringly difficult to get to. Probably a good defensive strategy, but now, even a million stone stairs can't keep the hordes of gringos away. Out of breath and complaining though they may be.
Ollantaytambo looks like a giant's stair case. As our tour group jumped out of the van and looked up at the second round of physical activity before us, you could hear a collective groan. (It is, of course, worth it in the end, but they really do make you work for it). A German guy in our group said, "Oh don't worry, there's an escalator over there". Before thinking, I said, "really?"with an excited smile on my face. In my defence, the tour began at 8 am and I had been out dancing with the hostel people until 4:30 am.

Our tour guide left a little to be desired. He lectured like a dull history teacher in grade school. He'd ask questions like, "Why do you think this rock is here". Um, is that a rhetorical question? A couple of us (myself, the german escalator comedian and an irish guy) eavesdropped on another tour guide who was wildly and excitedly explaining Inca construction methods, arms waving in the air; he looked like he was about to kiss the giant, perfectly chiseled stones. The Irish guy dubbed him the "Steve Irwin of Archeology".

Inca ruins, the good: The ruins themselves are spectacular. The Incas were brilliant, and insane. The sheer amount of work that went into their construction is amazing and mind boggling: Rolling masive rocks from one mountain to another, carving them laboriously and perfectly and piling them on top of each other. They must've been the most physically fit people ever to have lived. I got tired just thinking about it.

The Bad: being herded around by an unenthusiastic history teacher like camera toting cattle, with tons of other simiarly bovine tour groups milling about. All in all, though, sunburnt swarms of gringos aside, the ruins are still quite magical.

My Israeli Safari:

After returning to the hostel one night from another bout of cattle imitation, I agreed, very last minute, to sign up for a three day rafting tour with a friend from the hostel, starting early the next morning. Three days white water rafting and two nights of camping on the Apurimac River (Quechua: God of the talking river), navigating class 3, 4, and 5 rapids. Why not?

Unexpected randomness: the rafting group was comprised of me and 20 Israelis, with the Peruvian guides, who spoke a little hebrew themselves and even cooked kosher versions ofeach meal on the trip. It was like traveling to Israel while being in the middle of thePeruvian mountains.

The trip was fantastic; the river and the canyon were beautiful, the adrenaline rush from the rapids kept energy levels high (not that Israelis have any trouble with that), and each night we camped on the beach, under the stars, next to the talking river and ate Peruvian/kosher food. I learned a lot about Israeli culture, even a few words in Hebrew and told stories of Canada. They made fun of me for being the worst Canadian ever - I was the only one who was ever cold.

When I got back to Cusco it was sort of strange to understand the languages again - Spanish soundedmore familiar than it ever has before.

In a few hours, my Israeli friend and I are heading up to Machu Picchu. We decided against booking it with a tourgroup - I am very much over being herded and rushed through these things - and are going to take the bus on our own, stay the night in Agua Calientes and walk up to the ruins early in the morning.
To lower the admission price (machu picchu is crazy expensive) we both got student cards through an Israeli friendly travel agency (there are so many Israelis that come through here, that there are a handful of tour agencies that cater to them, Israeli run hostels and restaurants and even some of the 60 year old Peruvian ladies speak Hebrew) and they put my nationality as Israeli... so I guess after my three day crash course in Israeli culture, I get to be an honorary Israeli!

Well, I'm off to Machu Picchu! And afterwards, I will try to extricate myself from the Cusco vortex and continue on...

Love and miss you all,

Friday, October 2, 2009

Walking with the Dead

San Francisco Monastery and Catacombs

In downtown Lima, yet another religious building takes up another city block. This time, the San Francisco Catacombs, housing some 25 thousand skeletons (or what's left of the skeletons) as well as present day Franciscan monks. The tour, I'm sad to say, was too short. We barely spent any time at all in catacombs, and didn't get to go in very far. I did, however, see my fair share of old, crumbly, dark skulls and long, hardy bones like femurs. The monastery/church part was quite nice as well. There are frescos on the wall were someone has removed the heads of all of the people - must've been ugly people! My favorite piece of artwork was the Last Supper, Peruvian style. As a main dish, Jesus and the 12 apostles ate cuy/guinea pig and were surrounded by children and dogs.
Fun fact: in both the Lima Cathedral and the San Francisco, the tour guides have said that there may or may not be tunnels connecting the crypts and catacombs under the churches and right underneath the crazy streets of Lima. The official story is that they dont know - its too dangerous to look because the structure is unsteady.
The unofficial story: Sergio's grandfather was commissioned to rebuild some of Lima's roads downtown and sure enough, he found these hypothetical tunnels. The reason the Church is vague on the subject is because the nuns used to go into to the tunnels to have and discard their babies. Evidently, abstinence-only education doesn't even work for nuns!

Continuing on in this macabre vein (started it, may as well finish it!), the next night we took a tour of Lima's oldest cemetery. We rode on the roofless top of a double decker tourist bus (bright red, so that everyone knew we were tourists) and were driven through downtown - beautiful at night - and through some neighborhoods few would dare to venture into on foot and/or alone.
With the San Cristobal cross keeping watch on a nearby hill, the cemetery is a staggering 20 acres and chock full of Peruvian history, literally: Presidents, famous artists, heros and more have all been laid to rest here, with their families, in gorgeous mausoleums. The artwork is eerily breathtaking - rivaling or even beating anything you'd find in a gallery. The heady feeling of so many important figures all buried in one place makes it a mecca for any history buff.

By the time the bus pulled up in front of the wrought iron gates, it was dark and coupled with Lima's perpetual fog, it was the perfect setting for either a zombie movie or a thriller tribute.

Flashlights in hand, tour guide chattering away into his megaphone, we explored. The cemetary is so large, and especially in the muggy dark, you can't see the end of it. It appears to go on, statue after statue, crypt after crypt forever.

Those who were not important enough to get an intricate mausoleum, crypt or statue were laid to rest in a manner that reminded me of a library. Above ground, the coffins, with face plates stating the who and the when and sometimes a poem, were stacked five high into a white wall that ran on into the night until it disappeared. Like archives of Human Beings Past.

The largest, most intricate mausoleum was for Peru's heroes. 300 of Peru's best and bravest were all buried in the same monolithic mausoleum. Unfortunately, it is owned by the Army and therefore locked. So we could only peer through the chained gates and glass to see the first floor. Which, naturally, was awe inspiring.

After walking with the dead, our faces cold with the wind and the kisses of spirits, we went to Barranco - the bohemian/bar district - to have a warming pisco and listen to some very much alive Criollo (afro-peruvian) music.

Lima's Huaca Pacllana:
Before getting on the bus to Cusco, Sergio wanted me to see one of Lima's intra-city huacas (ruins from old old civilizations, right in the city!). This particular huaca is quite close to Sergio's house in Miraflores and is surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings. It was uncovered in the 1980s. Before that it was just a large mound of dirt, that building construction used to dump their discarded dirt onto.
The huaca dates back to 500 A.D., and was built by the Lima civilization (200-700 A.D.). The religious section is large trapezoidal pyramid made of vertical adobe bricks and mud mortar. The bricks are structured into trapezoids as well and have withstood Peru's earthquakes since they were originally built.

The remains of between 20 and 30 young women have been found- sacrifices to the sea and moon gods (female dieties). The Limas used to make sacrifices when undergoing some sort of change in their society. Women were considered pure and symbols of fertility and all that, and so they got to be the lucky sacrifices. The whole village would gather to watch the young woman be beaten around the head with sticks and rocks.
If they wanted to thank the gods for something, the priest would smash pottery with religious insignia on it.

The huaca's ongoing excavation is partially funded by a portion of the proceeds of a restaurant that looks directly onto the ruins. Dinner in front of thousands of years of history, anyone?

October 2nd, 2009 (Today)

Arrived in Cusco after a 20 bajillion hour bus ride. Am officially on my own now, which is a little daunting, but I'm so excited to explore Cusco, this city is adorable.
I haggled with my first taxi driver, and probably still paid more than I could have, but this haggling concept seems to impinge on my polite canadian sensibilites. I'm sure I'll get over that though.
My hostel is on a steep hill a few blocks away from the Plaza del Armas. So the walk down to the plaza was fine, but the way back was wretched. Hill + out of shape + altitude = rough walk. I decided to take it easy the rest of the day, allow myself to acclimatize to the altitude, and catch up on some sleep!