Monday, May 9, 2011

Peru - Doing it For America!

Cusco, Peru

With our adventure coming to a close, Pauline and I only had time for one last adventure.  That's right, you guess it, no trip to South America is complete without a visit to Machu Picchu.

In front of Machu Picchu before the crowds arrived

Some interesting history about Machu Picchu.............

So, this guy named Hiram Bingham, an archeologist from Yale and also inventor of the tweed jacket, "discovered" this place, although locals all knew all about it for a long time.  Bingham gave some local Peruvian kid the equivalent of an ice cream sandwich, and this kid showed Bingham the lost ruins.  Big mistake, little Peruvian dude!  Bingham then brings a team from Yale down to Peru and they find all this cool Inca shit, and he flies it back to Yale to "study it".  He promises to return it in a couple of years.  100 years later you can still see all of these artifacts at Yale.  Peru is actually suing Yale to get it back.  What is strange though, is that in the tourist office where we bought our tickets, we picked up some brochures on Machu Picchu.  We were obviously given brochures in English.  In these pamphlets Bingham is praised and credited with being a hero.  I really wish I could get my hands on one of the Spanish brochures.  

Scenes from Machu Picchu

This is great info if you think you're ever going to go to Machu Picchu.

1. You must take the most expensive train in South America to get to Aguas Calientes which is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes

2. Machu Picchu is at the top of a great big hill - it takes buses 30 minutes to get to the top
3. If you choose, you can hike to the top instead of taking a bus
4. Gates to trail open a little before 5am - buses don't depart until 5:30 am.
5.  First 400 people into the park are eligible for a stamp, which allows them to climb up another big ass mountain, where you can take the classic postcard photograph of Machu Picchu from above.
6.  The name of this big mountain is Wayna Picchu.
7.  The group of 400 is split into two time periods.  There are 200 people that can climb the mountain at 7am, and 200 people that can climb the mountain at 10am.
8. The 10am time is way better.  The 7am people routinely see nothing but fog and on the way down have to share the hike with the 10am people.

Clockwise from top left: Wayna Picchu (yep, it's that ridiculously high peak); hiking to top; view from top of Wayna Picchu looking down at Machu Picchu

So, out of the thousands of tourists that visit each day, Pauline and I have to be in the first 200, since everybody knows that the 10am is better.  We ask around and find out from various sources that to be one of the first 200 people, you have to wake up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am and hike to the top - if you take a bus there is no guarantee that you'll be in that first 200.

So our alarm goes off at 3:30am

"I'm thinking.....No," says I.

"Ditto," says Pauline.

So Pauline resets our alarm for 9am.  I'm laying in bed, and I can't help but to feel like a lazy piece of shit.  This is what my brain was doing while I lay in bed.......  "Mike, you are a LOSER!, a big fat LOSER!.  It's one of the 7 wonders of the world.  It's a freakin lost city that was the only Inca city to have miraculously avoided destruction by the Spaniards.  Get out of bed you disgrace!"

Machu Picchu

So I reluctantly call out to Pauline, and her brain is berating her as well.  We get up, pound some breakfast, and begin the most arduous part of our 3 month trip.

The hike to Machu Picchu was an hour and a half, straight up hill.  Over 1,800 steps.  And these weren't normal steps, some of them were real hamstring stretchers.  To be able to climb to the top of Wayna Picchu, we had to be one of the first 200 people in line, which means there was no time to stop and catch your breath on this hike.  Most people were college aged kids that appeared to be in good shape.  Besides surfing, I have done zero exercise since I've been in South America.  I have also drank about twice as much as College Mike.  I wanted to stop and catch my breath many, many times, but Pauline (who is a phenomenal athlete) didn't stop.  I didn't want the story to be....

Pauline:  "No, we didn't get to climb to the top of Wayna Picchu because my husband is a weakling.  I carried him in my arms for the last half of the hike, but when we got to the entrance Mike realized he forgot his binky so we went back and just stayed in the hotel all day.  We never saw Machu Picchu and we never will because I married a loser."

So I decided that I was going to keep going until I passed out or died.  So partly I was able to make the hike because of pride.  But what got me to keep going even more was something different than pride.  This may sound stupid, but it's absolutely true.  I needed to keep going, I needed to do this for America.  You see, while we were walking and waiting in line, we were talking to all these people from different countries.  No other Americans in sight.  Pauline and I were the sole representatives.  If the Germans, and Canadians, and the French can do it, so can 'Mericans!  I didn't want to reinforce any stereotypes of Americans being fat and lazy.  Freedom isn't free.

Line at 4am to begin trek to Machu Picchu; bus route to MP (hiking trail cuts straight up center); Mike after completing trek

Wildlife of Machu Picchu

Stonework of Machu Picchu was amazing - condor shaped stone in Inca temple; example of how closely stones fit together - they were so tight that no mortar was needed to hold them together

One random note...

So we get back to Cusco, which is the jumping off point to Machu Picchu.

Food in Cusco - Alpaca Meatballs; Mike's favorite - fried Cuy (yes, that's a guinea pig!); Chicha Morada: a delicious spiced drink made from purple corn that tasted similar to my grandma's spiced tea...yum!!; breakfast in Peru - round bread with jelly - day, after day, after day...

I'm sitting at the hostel bar around 11pm, talking with the two owners and a couple fellow travelers.  The national makeup is 1 'Merican (me), 1 Australian, 1 Spaniard, and 2 Peruvians (the owners).  The Australian guy, who I had noticed was drinking during a soccer match at noon, was feeling pretty good.  So we're talking about Machu Picchu, and the Australian says with a big smile, "You know what's really impressive, is that the Spaniards, with only less than 150 men, were able to massacre all those Indians.  I mean, that's terrible what they did, but you have to be impressed that so few men killed all those millions!"  After that the Spaniard went to bed and the conversation turned a little angry.  I guess you could say that it was pretty hostile in the hostel.   bbbwahahaha!  Nailed it!

Other Inca ruins: Sacsayuaman (pronounced "Sexy Woman")
Ollantaytambo ruins

Mike loves jumping in pictures and it is contagious!

Thursday, May 5, 2011


During stays in hostels, sightseeing on our own, and taking tours, Pauline and I have talked with a lot fellow travelers.  To my surprise, most travelers are staying way longer than the three months that P and I are traveling.  We've met numerous people traveling for a year or more and we even met a Canadian fellow that has been traveling for over 4.5 years!  He was sitting next to us on the bus ride from Mendoza to Chile.  Naturally, when you meet someone that has been traveling for that long, and has been to 84 different countries (more by now), you ask him what what are his five most memorable trips. 

"Well, let me see, eh," said the Canadian journeyman of 4.5 years. He proceeded to tell us his top 5 destinations. Only one was in South America...... (the others if you're curious: middle of China in the forested area, Namib desert in Africa, New Zealand, and Cincinnati, OH).

"The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, definitely top 5.  It's even more impressive than a Vancouver Canucks power play, eh," said our friend from up north.

A few of the reasons Bolivia ranked in the Canadian's Top 5

Bolivia???  This place wasn't even on our agenda!

Bolivia - fast facts

1. Poorest country in South America (and one of the top 5 countries for receiving international aid despite an abundance of natural resources)
2. Highest percentage of indigenous people in South America (Quecha Indians)

Bolivian women in traditional dress

3. One of two landlocked countries in South America
4. Bolivia is the world's third-largest cultivator of coca

Mike and Mike with coca leaves - chewing them helps with altitude sickness

5. Salar de Uyuni, a huge salt desert in the high altitudes of southwestern Bolivia, was once a giant salt lake that dried up thousands of years ago, leaving behind more than 10 billion tons of salt.

Salt flats

A four day tour, leaving San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (Atacama = the driest desert in the world), and ultimately arriving at the Salar de Uyuni (salt flat near a Bolivian city called Uyuni), was in the Canadian's top 5 in world.  We had to do it.

Cheesing in our awesome hats bought just for our trip to Bolivia

We did some research.  This was apparently a pretty popular tour, with 80 or more operators to choose from.  Most of these were fly by night operations.  Drivers of this popular 4x4 excursion usually spoke no English (like our driver).  There had been many reports of drunk driving.  18 tourists had been killed in the last two years on this tour (as of the publishing of my guidebook).  Numerous more injured.  My guide book recommended going to the tourist office and reading the current feedback from fellow travelers before signing up for this excursion, as quality of service for a tour group would rise and fall dramatically (like Oprah's weight, ZZZIINNNGGGG!!!).

So we head to the tourist office and ask for the book.  Stories of jeeps flipping over in the last month, check.  Drunk drivers, check. 

We also talk to travelers to get information.... 4 tourists killed in the last month.  Current demonstrations in Bolivia, with protesters blocking main roads and gas stations, police using tear gas, protesters slinging dynamite......Sign us up.

So Bolivia has some of the most psychedelic landscapes we've ever seen.  It doesn't even look like earth.  Endless desert, big ass rocks, red/blue/green lagoons, boiling mud, geysers.  All this at more than 5000 meters above sea level (that's over 15,000 feet for all you Yankees).

The beautiful Bolivian landscapes

Our group consisted of 18 tourists and 3 Bolivian 4x4 drivers.  Six tourists rode in each 4x4. 

Our transportation

Our car was definitely the awesomest.  We had an Irish couple and a Czech couple in our group.  4 of the coolest people we've met since we've been in South America. 

Our nightly accommodations were not of the 5 star variety.  No heat, no hot water, flickering light bulb dangling from a long cord attached to a partial roof, and a blood stain somewhere in the room was the norm.

Our lodging during the trip - welcome written in blood on the wall of our room, basic dining facilities, concrete blocks for beds, llama legs on the windowsill, staying in tiny almost deserted towns

During the day, the weather would be nice, but at 15,000 feet plus, the night was bitterly cold at -10.  Thirst and pounding headaches at that altitude were very common and we were lucky enough to enjoy both.

Bolivia is the first country that I have ever been in illegally.  You see, when we arrived at the border, we were supposed to pay $135 each for a visa to enter the country.  The Bolivian immigration official, who was suited up in army fatigues complete with gun, looked straight out of a Rambo movie.  He explained to us in Spanish that since we would only be in Bolivia a short time, he would only make us pay $40 each.  A swell deal, thank you kind sir. I accepted and handed him the cash.  After we had left Bolivian Immigration, we realized that the guy from one of the Rambos never actually stamped our passports, thus making us illegal aliens in the poorest country in South America.  And Bolivian prisoners are notorious.  The government offers tours of their worse prisons.  At anytime, anyone with a gun in Bolivian can ask for your passport.  Failure to produce said passport can result in them hauling your ass directly to jail. 

The Bolivian boarder control - the building says it all

At one point our driver, Javier, who was going more than double the speed limit, passed what appeared to be a cop car.  Our driver apparently thought the same thing, since he immediately slammed on his brakes.  It turned out the car was just an ambulance but if it was a cop, I'm sure Johnny Law (or Juan Law) would have asked to see our passports.  "Gringo, where is your stamp?"

The fun did not stop there.  Javier was the Bolivian version of Ricky Bobby.  I've ridden in overnight buses in Latin America, tuk-tuks in Thailand, and been the passenger in Pauline's 20 year old station wagon on I-75.  I thought I had nerves of steel.  I, along with everyone else in the 4x4, made peace with our God during this trip.  I accepted and even welcomed Death with open arms.  Ricky Bobby was off-roading in the Bolivian outback in the complete darkness of night.  Driving through creeks and taking hairpin turns at excessive speeds.  The local fauna was darting left and right to get out of Javier's path of destruction and recklessness.  We were literally in the middle of nowhere.  If the 4x4 flipped, it might have been days before anybody found our mangled bodies.  Maybe weeks would have gone by, and Bolivia CSI would have to match our DNA samples to the bones and teeth they found in alpaca droppings near the crash site.  To get through the hours and hours of terror, I just went with the flow and kept repeating to myself over and over again, "I am Bond, James Bond."

Road during the day - just imagine this, but more twisty, more potholes, and no light

In closing, I have to say that Bolivia was one of the highlights of our trip.  Not only is Bolivia beautiful, raw, and awesome, but also it gave us the opportunity to meet some great people.  When you spend every waking moment with someone for 4 days, you get to know them pretty well.  The Irish couple (Willie and Aisling) reconfirmed that the Irish are some of the friendliest and funniest people in the world.  Unfortunately our itineraries didn't match up again, but I hope that our paths will someday cross again.  As for the Czech couple (Michal and Dominika), We were actually lucky enough to meet up with them on two separate occasions (surfing and beach day in Chile and dinner and drinks in Peru).

Weeks ago, when I was talking to the Canadian journeyman on that bus ride, he mentioned that when he first started traveling, he was more interested in the landscape, the tourist sites, and the culture.  But after awhile, all of that beauty and culture started to blend together.  Majestic landscape didn't really do it for him anymore; that wasn't the reason he was still traveling after all these years.  It was the people that he met on his journey that ultimately decided the enjoyment he received from a journey.  After almost 3 months of traveling, I would have to concur with him.  Random people in your hostel, or someone you meet during a tour, more than likely has something interesting to say that will add value to your day.  Maybe that guy with a maple leaf on his backpack, sitting next to you on a bus, will be the catalyst for one of the greatest adventures of your life.

Here are a few additional pictures from our adventure in Bolivia:

The salt flats made a great background for taking "perspective photos"

Mike learned a new photo pose - jumping...and Pauline learned that Mike used to be a cheerleader

Train cemetery; lots of rock climbing

Wildlife of Bolivia: llamas (with ribbons in their hair), flamingos, viscachas (related to chinchillas), vicunas

Monday, May 2, 2011

Santiago to Arica - Exploring the Upper Half of Chile

We're a little behind on our blog so we decided to cover all of Chile in one post. We spent over 2 weeks traveling the country so to keep this from becoming a never ending post, we're giving a quick recap and pictures of the different places we visited.

We began our adventure with a bus ride over the Andes. Just like a roller coaster, we went for the front seats so we would get the biggest thrill as we rapidly descended through the Andes in a double-decker bus, our driver taking hairpin turns like he was in a race car...did I mention no guardrails! 

Descending through the Andes

Our time in Santiago was unique from the rest of our trip as we stayed with family friends instead of in a hostel.  As Patricio (the dad) put it...we harnessed our boy/girl scout spirits and camped out on their couch for 5 days. 

Our home in Santiago

The Hinrichsens were wonderful hosts and gave us a taste of Chilean family life and the opportunity to experience some really authentic, non-touristy activities.

The Hinrichsens

L-R: The wildlife of Santiago (tarantulas on the sidewalk!); Patricio showing us how to eat cactus - called tuna; a traditional Chilean eatery having something similar to tamale pie called Pastel de Choclo

A few of the highlights:
- Birthday party for a neighbor where they prepared paella.  I wish our cookouts included food this good!

Patricio sampling the paella

- A visit to a "horse breaking" event with "gauchos" equipped with capes, hats, lassos, and huge spurs.  The gauchos were amazing riders and it was incredible to see them mount the untrained horses and ride them around until they were bucked off.  Following this we went to a friend's almond farm and were able to shuck and eat fresh almonds.

Those are almonds behind me

- Hiking to the top of Cerro Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia

View of downtown Santiago

- Rodelbahn: basically flying down a large slide in a sled


- Visiting the museum of Pre-Columbian artifacts and the Plaza de Armas square in downtown Santiago


City of Valparaiso

Valparaiso is a port city about 1.5 hours from Santiago.  Our first thought upon arrival - how could anyone be overweight here!  Valparaiso is known as the city of 48 hills so anywhere you go is very much uphill or downhill.  Scattered around the city are these old elevators from the 1800's that will take you up some of the hills.  Our hotel was at the top of a hill with one of these so we were counting on using it to get up there.  Of course, the day we arrived, it was shut down for servicing.  We had to hoof it up the hill (felt more like a mountain) with our 100 lbs of luggage.  At one point I couldn't make it with my bag so Mike carried both.  He makes a great pack mule!

The non-functioning elevator and my pack mule

We spent two days in Valparaiso exploring and enjoying the views.  The city is very grimy, but somehow also very picturesque.

Colorful views in Valparaiso

La Serena
In La Serena we rented a car and drove north to Punta de Choros to visit Isla Damas and two other uninhabited islands off the coast.  The drive included 30km on a dirt and gravel road in a VW Golf - We felt every bump.  We when arrived, we found some local fisherman willing to take us and a small group out to visit the islands.  As we circled them, we could see penguins, sea lions, seals - it was awesome (although floating around the ocean in a tiny little boat was a little unnerving).

Isla Damas

A fishing boat similar to the one we were in

Some of the wildlife we saw

The route to Punta de Choros was unpaved and obviously windy

The next day we traveled to the Elqui Valley and visited a Pisco distillery.  The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Chile. However, the Peruvians also claim Pisco and there is definitely some tension between the two countries over it.  For example, when entering Peru, you are not allowed to bring in any alcohol called Pisco that isn't from Peru.

Pisco sampling - 65% alcohol and 45% - this was some strong stuff!

Arica was an afterthought for us...a jumping off point for Peru after change in plans due to protests in Bolivia.  As the next day was Easter and this made flights expensive we ended up spending almost 3 full days here.  Lucky us!  It turned out an awesome beach was only a 10 minute walk from our hostel and it was actually warm enough to swim.  We could get used to spending Easter laying out on the beach!!  Our friends from the Czech Republic were also in town so we spent the last day hanging out with them, playing beach tennis, boogie boarding and surfing.  Yes, that's right, Mike is now a surfer.  He is also still black and blue from the experience.