The Inca Trail (Peru and Bolivia)

Trip Start Feb 18, 2004
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Let's start with a little history and geography lesson. In case you don't already know, Peru is on the western side of South America just below the Equator. It's landscape is more varied than I realized - desert in the southwest, Andes mountains passing through the middle and east, and the Amazon rainforest in the northeast. There are some really tall mountains here (the highest is 6768m - that's over 22,000ft!). And I hope you know that Peru is where the Inca empire was centered. It's believed the Inca empire began in the 12th century and began expanding in the 1430s. I heard what made the Incas great is that they pooled the knowledge from various other civilizations from the area (e.g., Nazca for astronomy). The somewhat recent history is similar between the countries here. The Spanish arrived in the early 1500s and were very mean. :) They destroyed temples (God bless those pagans), stole priceless treasures, exploited the resources, killed lots of the locals and setup puppet governments with Spain really in control. In the early 1800s along came José de San Martin and Simón Bolívar who led rebellions in various countries that led to their independence from Spain. More recent politics has seen dictatorships, military coups, incompetent "democratic" leaders, corrupt democratic leaders and a lot of inbetween. Of course, none of these politicians are looking out for the best interest of the people so there's a lot of poverty and unemployment.

I had the pleasure of waking up at 4am to catch my flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Miami. That's American Airlines' shortcut to South America. Got to spend a few hours there passing time before my flight to Lima, Peru. There was a guy from Lima next to me on the plane giving me some recommendations on places to go...and all the places not to go, especially at night.
The plane arrived around 9:30pm, I got my bags and through customs then bought a ticket for the shuttle bus. Had to wait around an hour for that to leave and it took another hour for it to get me to my hostel, so I didn't arrive 'til almost midnight. I wasn't staying in the central area as it's not supposed to be safe at night. I opted for the neighborhood of Mireflores which is safe (or safer). The hostel was nice and I was the only one in the dorm. I just went to bed that first night.
In the morning, I caught the bus to the center of Lima. Wandered around checking out the plazas, cathedrals and such. The city has a European feel to it (at least in the city center). Guess that would be the influence of the Spanish. There are also lots of casinos around town. Not sure why that is. Guess what? I'm tall here! :) In the evening I went out to a couple bars in the Mireflores area and tried the national drink, pisco sour. The nightlife doesn't really pick up in Latin American countries 'til past midnight so it wasn't too happenin' while I was out. I don't know how I'm supposed to adjust my sleeping for staying out late when I always have to be up early for buses, trains or planes. Hmmm, I guess there is the option of not continuously moving...

I rode on a swanky bus for 4 hours through vast stretches of desert and sand dunes to Ica. From there I caught a taxi to the nearby resort/town of Huacachina. It's surrounded by huge sand dunes and has a little oasis (lake) in the middle.

The hostel I stayed at there wasn't the nicest, but did have a pool and bar. It's actually rather warm here! Got another taxi back to Ica to check on a bus to Nazca for the following day and if it's possible to fly from Nazca to Cuzco (it's not). Checked out the town a bit and went out to a winery, but all they did was sell stuff (no tour or samples). It was late afternoon by the time I got back to Huacachina so figured it a bit late for sandboarding (I should've gone anyways). I wandered the dunes and wee town a bit instead...some Peruvian girls wanted my picture with one of them. I have to wonder what these girls around the world are doing with these pictures of me. I should make weird faces in all the pictures from now on. That'll teach 'em! As soon as the sunset, it cooled down really fast and got a bit chilly. The hostel had a bbq that evening so I just hung out around the bar chatting with some folks, eatin' and having too much pisco sour.

The bus to Nazca wasn't happening so I just caught a taxi into Ica and had the guy drop me off where the locals get their rides. It was in some 1970s behemoth car that probably gets like 2mpg. They crammed 6 of us in there and we drove through a desert wasteland. Luckily, it wasn't too hot yet since it was morning. In Nazca I hooked up with a travel company for a flight over the Nazca Lines. Those are the drawings in the desert of animals, shapes and an astronaut. You gotta wonder why they made those designs when they can only be viewed from the sky. The theories I read sound a bit silly (like why would you draw a huge spider in the desert to indicate when harvest is?)'s crazy when the aliens hypothesis makes more sense than the scientific theories. We flew in a little prop plane and you'd really feel every little drop and turn. A German girl behind me was spewing from motion sickness (the banking left and right were rough). The shapes were a bit hard to spot - someone should go out and highlight them. :)

I had the afternoon to kill in Nazca before my bus, though the city doesn't have much to offer. I attempted to spend some time catching up on i-net stuff, but me eyes were really tired from not sleeping well and I was dozing off. Did get a haircut. That's always exciting. Somehow the time passed and I got my bus to Cuzco at 8pm. Not nearly as comfortable as my fancy bus from a couple days ago and sleeping was tough (the road was switchback like for almost 12 hours).

...didn't sleep much at all on the bus. There was some pretty scenery on the way to Cuzco (Andes mountains and all). Checked into my hostel then went for a wander around town. Cuzco is at an elevation of 3326m so it's quite cold most the time (especially at night). Cuzco was once the heart of the Inca empire and was founded back in the 12th century. It's a nice city - the central plaza has two pretty churches and there's lots of touristy shops and restaurants. Many of the walls and foundations of buildings were actually built by the Incas. The city is the pass-through point for Machu Picchu so has plenty of travel agents selling tours. The tours are overpriced compared to everything else in Peru. In order to visit some of the ruins in the area, you have to buy a tourist ticket ($20). The churches have their own, separate tourist ticket. I went to a couple museums in town then hiked up the hill to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. I quickly discovered that I'm not acclimitized for hiking at high altitude (got tired easily). Halfway up there's a church with a good view over the city. There were a few people in their traditional clothes with a llama wanting you to take their picture for money. A cute little girl was among them holding a lamb...I probably should've spent the $0.50 for the photo. I made it up to the ruins which were once a fort/temple. Some people in costume came up for a tv commercial or something so I got pics of them dressed up.

i-net in the cities is really cheap - $0.30/hr. That's about the best anywhere (besides hostels with free access). Back to town for dinner and didn't find much going on before 10pm so just went back to the hostel.

The next morning I went on a tour of the Sacred Valley (this one wasn't too terribly priced). We got some good views of the valley before visiting Pisac. The ruins there are kinda cool with terraced landscaping in the area.

The guide gave us a bit of history and showed us where the major temples were. The Spanish were nice enough to destroy most of them when they came over to pillage and plunder. One interesting thing is the walls made by the Incas have survived many earthquakes with hardly a crack but the modern buildings in the area have been damaged. Them Incan architects were quite smarts like. After Pisac, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant turistica. I had leftovers while the others had to pay $5 for food. I'm cheap! ;) I sat and chatted with a pair of Colombian sisters, a guy from Canada and a French girl. They were all nice. Our next spot to visit was Ollantaytambo's ruins. These are also in a terraced design. On the mountain nearby was a carved sculpture of a head. An English couple and myself stayed around in Ollantaytambo to catch the evening train to Machu Picchu while the others continued on the tour. I checked out the town a little then had dinner. The same English couple turned out to be right next to me on the train (the seats sat facing each other and were cramped). Couldn't see any scenery since it was night so I chatted with the English a bit before they passed out then I spaced out 'til we arrived in Aguas Calientes (the town by Machu Picchu). Got myself a place to stay, checked out the town then went to bed.

Machu Picchu is often at the top of people's lists when visiting South America, as it was mine. Researchers still aren't sure what exactly Machu Picchu was built for or when during the Inca empire (at the end to preserve the Incan history?). One of the options for getting to Machu Picchu is to do a four day hike through the mountains. You get some great scenery and visit some villages along the way. I was too late booking this though (it fills up about 3 months in advance). It is probably a good thing I didn't do the 4 day hike as I really didn't feel in shape for hiking at high altitude and already had blisters on my feet. I was awake before 5am to catch the early bus up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. I could have walked to the base of the mountain and then up a bunch of steps but knew I'd be hiking up plenty more steps and didn't need to tire myself out early. Glad I chose the bus as when I arrived some people came up the steps drenched in sweat and tired. Most everybody went straight to the funerary rock where you get the "classic" Machu Picchu photo.

Luckily, it was clear to see the ruins and some of the mountains behind (though it was mostly cloudy otherwise). It's really quite cool to actually be there and see it for yourself. I'd been anticipating getting Spanky's pic there for quite some time. I hiked around a while, seeing some llama, wandering a path to nowhere and then a trail to the Inca Drawbridge. That last one wasn't terribly exciting but I guess it's impressive that they made this bridge on a sheer rock cliff. I wandered through the ruins then up to Huayna Picchu...that was definately a tough climb up. The views from there of Machu Picchu are awesome. I hiked down, down, down (knew this was bad as I'd have to hike back up) to the Temple of the Moon. It was just ok. Hiked another path up and up back to the ruins (I was really freakin' tired by this point). Looked around the ruins some more then back by the classic vantage point to just chill out a while. It was around then that I discovered my lower legs had been eaten alive by bugs (I zipped off my lower pant legs but didn't put on bug repellant). My legs would continue to itch for days to come. Saw a couple condors while in that area. A guide was telling people it's rare to see's also bad luck. D'oh! Back down to Aguas Calientes about 1pm. I was going to see about catching the train back to Cuzco that day, but it was full. Late in the afternoon it started raining. I went to the hot springs in town which were relaxing, but mostly filled with men (and the water smelled kinda funny). The restaurants around town offer set menu meals which are quite a bargain (about $3). You get appetizer, soup, entree and a drink. Stopped by a couple bars in the evening but no one seemed to be out.
I had most the next day to do whatever in Aguas Calientes. Went to the market area and shopped around at the stalls that all seem to have the same stuff. These Peruvian hats, bags and blankets must be mass-produced somewhere. I did find a small alpaca sweater for our dear pal, Spanky (though it's a bit big). There's some cool looking pottery and tableware in the markets (I like the designs), but I'd never be able to transport something like that around in my bag. Found a restaurant that had movies so watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while eating lunch. I thought their version of the Willy Wonka character was just too weird. I like the original movie better. By the time the movie was over, it was about time for my train. I was told it's a very scenic ride so kept staring out the window for fantasic scenery but it was just alright. Made it to Cuzco around 7:30pm and checked back into the same hostel. Into town for another set menu dinner and then went by a couple places for happy hour or free drinks. Again, there wasn't much happening even at 11pm. I'm trying to figure out this late night revelry when do you nap, eat dinner, etc? The Spanish have their siesta time in the afternoon, but then what do you do around 6pm-dinner (10pm)? I get bored so I go get dinner. That's probably my first mistake. And if you have dinner at 10pm and you're done at 11pm, what do you do between then and going out? I think I need to follow a local around and figure out their schedule. Yes, it should probably be an attractive, young lady. You may call it stalking, but I'll call it "cultural research". ;)

Caught the bus to Puno the following morning. There was some pretty mountain scenery along the way. The ride was a bit scary as the driver was going fast and the bus was wobbling quite a bit...enough that it felt like it could tip. People all around me were fastening their seatbelts. Puno is next to Lake Titicaca (hee, hee) and not so pretty a town. While I was there it was cold, grey and rainy. It's the gateway to Isla Taquille, an island made of layers of floating reeds. I didn't go there though (it requires a full day and I had little interest in staying longer in Puno). There really wasn't much to see in town - port, cathedral, pedestrian shopping street. Soon after I started wandering, a local lady asked me if I could help her translate some English to Spanish(phone and email). Seeing as I had nothing better to do, I said ok. First she called a number she had in the U.S. and asked me what the message was saying ("phone number is no longer in service"). Then she had me help her with some questions in an email (missionaries were coming over with supplies for her church and had some questions about what to bring). I wrote up a nice reply for her to send to the people (yes, lots of profanity...i'm joking). After that I just wandered more. Found myself a new daypack as the one I got in China has crappy zippers (the main compartment wasn't zipping shut at all anymore). There's a problem with counterfeiting in these parts - people are always checking the bills and I even had someone tell me one of my 1 sole coins was counterfeit (it's only worth about $0.25). Problem for me is I don't know how to tell if it's a fake. By evening, the rain was a bit more like sleet...the wind was blowing it around. Yap, damn cold out! Ate dinner and checked out the nightlife here - again just a couple people in the bars/clubs. Oh well.

Yet another morning bus ride, this time across to Copacabana, Bolivia. The border crossing was a bit of a joke as I really could have just walked across w/o getting stamped out of Peru or into Bolivia. No guards or nothing to check. Once out of Peru, the sun came out. Copacabana is a cute little town on Lake Titicaca with a definite backpacker element to it. I quickly discovered that Bolivia is damn cheap! My room was only $2 and food is generally under $4 for a meal. Sweeeeeet! I like it already! I hiked up Cerro Calvario for views over the town and lake.

Caught a boat over to Isla del Sol...the boat was sloooow and we were only left with about 45 min to look around. I sped up the stairs and along a path for viewpoints. There were some lovely views of snowcapped mountains over the lake.

The one set of ruins I saw on the island weren't too exciting. Boat back to town and I checked out the cathedral with its Virgen de Copacabana statue. There are lots of stray dogs around the towns down here. One of them came chasing after me barking, which I didn't think anything of 'til it bit me on the leg. Luckily, it was just a light bite and didn't puncture skin. Damn dog! Something I didn't think about 'til I got into Bolivia is the lack of McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks in this part of the world. It's quite nice not seeing those on every other corner. Went to a restaurant in Copacabana for dinner and tried some local food. stomach wasn't doing so well for the next few hours. So just back to the hotel for the evening.

The weather turned crappy the next morning and I was originally intending to go to a mountain town called Sorata, but while on the bus I decided to go to La Paz instead. It was probably that I wanted to spend more time sitting next to the stinky guy by me. Actually, I figured it wouldn't be so pleasant being in a hiking town in the rain. La Paz is in a valley with the city spreading out all over and beyond. Beyond includes the poor suburb of El Alto on the lip of the valley (it's the fastest growing city in South America). The guys running the hostel I was staying at were very friendly and helpful (gave me maps and ideas of where to go). I wandered the town visiting Plaza San Francisco, Plaza Murillo and the backpacker area around Sagarnaga. The art museum was closed that day so didn't visit there. In the evening I walked and walked to go to an ex-pat restaurant called Mongo's, only it isn't there anymore (at least I couldn't find it even with the exact address). So I walked and walked back to the main strip and just got an overpriced sandwich (well, overpriced by Bolivian standards). It's amazing how cheap I get even in these inexpensive countries. I feel ripped off when I have to pay more than $3 for food here. I gotta a couple cheap movies at the street markets but when I tried to play them back at the hostel one didn't work and the other was in French with Spanish subtitles (and poor quality). Oh well, they were only $0.50.

The weather was supposed to clear up so I rode the [locals] bus to Sorata. The first half wasn't so bad, but then you go down a windy dirt road for a couple hours and it just seems to go on and on. It was actually sunny and kind of warm in Sorata. The town is small and has a cute main square. Wandered the wrong direction a bit then found the hostel. Dumped my stuff off then went for a bit of a wander. Back at the hostel I chatted with an older Aussie couple for a while. Dinner was just mediocre western food. I tried the Bolivian national beer, Paseña, but it's awful stuff. Blecgh!
In the morning, the weather was clear and you could see the mountains, Illampu and Ancohuma (both around 6400m). Unfortunately, the sun rises right behind them so not so great for pics. Most the hikes in the Sorata area are multi-day ones, at least to the better places. I decided to go on the hike out to the cave. I had planned on stopping by a Swiss pastry chef's cafe along the way for breakfast but it was closed. So I hiked along without any breakfast thinking it was 6km each way. I kept going and going and going. Turns out it's a bit over 12km each way (that's around 8 miles!). And the cave wasn't even that exciting - dark with some bats and a dirty pool of water at the bottom. Though the scenery along the way to the cave was nice.

I was completely worn out and starving on the hike back. Stopped in at a restaurant just before town for some much needed food. After that I was ready for a rest so went back to the hostel for a nap. Wandered a bit above town but I was tired so that didn't last long. Found the Aussie couple at a restaurant by the plaza and chatted with them a while, had a shower at the hostel then out for dinner. In the evening just talked to the Aussie couple more at the hostel.

Got the morning bus out of Sorata for the fun ride back to La Paz. The bus was packed with lots of people standing. In El Alto, a poor suburb of La Paz, there were people all lined up with their [bbq size] propane tanks blocking the road. I'm not sure if this was some sort of protest or them just wanting their propane tanks filled. Bolivia has a lot of political protests. I went back to the same hostel and just after getting there it started to rain. I wandered into town - first stop was to get a slice of cheesecake at Alexander Coffee. Yum! Off to the LanChile office to confirm my flights, tried to find a bookstore that wasn't there (Lonely Planet has outdated info) and went searching for a magnet. I couldn't find much good in the touristy area and had to settle for a llama one. By this time the sky had completely cleared and it was lovely out. I caught a taxi up to the "mirador" viewpoint for pics of Mt Illimani behind the city. The evening was spent updating this (since i-net is cheap here).

Before my flight to Santiago, I had a delicious cinnamon roll from Alexander Coffee. Nice way to start the day. The guy at the hostel helped me get a good price on a taxi to the airport. It's just a small airport so really didn't need to be there 2 hours early. I had plenty of time to waste before the flight.

I may remember Peru and Bolivia as much for the places I did see as for the places I missed. I kept hearing reports from other travelers of the cool places they went. Huaraz north of Lima sounds beautiful - tall mountains, pristine lakes, great hiking. It was in the opposite direction I was going though. The Inca Trail hike has fantastic scenery along the way. Bolivia is another country much more diverse than I realized - Andes mountains (of course), various types of forests, the salt flats, Amazon basin, etc. The people who visited the salt flats said it was just amazing and great for photos. So it sounds like there are plenty of places for me to come back and visit.

Next up is a visit to Chile and the island of the Easter Bunny.

p.s. - a couple more of my pictures made it to Travelpod's featured pic of the day
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