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Lucky escape from Cusco


I am in Cusco airport, about to board a flight for Lima.

I feel very fortunate to be able to do this, as a state of emergency has been declared due to the continuing heavy rains. Many previous flights were cancelled, and the airport is only going to get busier as the entire countryside around Cusco is a literal disaster area. Rivers overflowing, houses collapsing (a shop down the street from me in Cusco imploded), just yesterday bridges that I had crossed on Saturday were washed out. All routes, both rail and road, into and out of Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are now blocked. Machu Picchu itself has been closed off, and thousands of tourists are stranded in Aguas Calientes. Airlifts have started to bring out the most vulnerable people. I met a father and son couple who were airlifted out by helicopter last night, who told me that apparently the American military are bringing in their own helicopters to assist in the evacuation. Thousands more tourists who had planned to walk the Inca Trail, or who wanted to visit Machu Picchu, are milling around Cusco and most are evaluating where to go next. In a lot of cases the answer is Lima, so I was lucky to have booked my flight out today. It´s going to get messy around here soon, I sense chaos on the near horizon as everyone tries to leave the region. I feel lucky for having decided not to attempt to get to Machu Picchu by taxi on Saturday night – very likely I would still be there now, and miss my flight.

But the problems of me and a few thousand other tourists are insignificant. Whatever happens, eventually we will go on to other, sunnier destinations, to continue our vacations and our lives. The poor people who live here, especially the already poverty-stricken Quechuas in the valleys and the mountains, are the ones that have to live with all this devastation, and over 3000 of them have already lost their homes. We go away with a travel story to tell, but the people we leave behind have to pick up the pieces.

I will write more when I get to Lima.

Categories: South America Tags: , , ,

A beautiful day in the Sacred Valley, and a gamble fails


As you may know if you follow this blog or know me on Facebook, weather woes have dominated the last week or so of my trip. When Peru does the wet season, it doesn't mess about. However, ever the optimist, I arranged a 2-day tour this weekend: the Sacred Valley of the Incas on the first day, and another attempt on Machu Picchu for the second day. I hoped that the weather would be at least less crap than the first time round. I was half right.

Amazingly, to start the day, and for the first time in days, it was not raining in Cusco. I took this as a good sign, and boarded the tourist bus as 9AM hopeful of a break. We took off in the direction of Q'orao, one of these obligatory handicraft market stops on these tours. Just once I'd like to go on a tour that didn't involve being flogged cheaper tat than I see every day in whatever town I am staying in at the time. But I came away with some photographic goodies, in the case of one of the local market puppies and an old Quechua weaver woman.

We got back in the bus and headed for Pisac, our first set of Inca ruins for the day. Along the way we encountered many rockslides across the road that required careful negotiation, evidence of the bad weather of the previous days. Once at Pisac, while we hopped out and got our tickets checked at the gate, I spotted this kitten playing in the shadows:

An easyish climb along a short Inca path and we were among the ruins of Pisac. They were somewhat like a mini-Machu Picchu, situated on the saddle between two mountain rises, with terraces stretching away down the slopes to either side. I was a little more energetic / photo-driven than most so I managed to go up both rises in our allotted 15-minute "free time".

Soon enough our time was over, and we re-mounted the bus for an hour's drive to Urubamba, for a buffet lunch. Along the way, not only was it not raining, but unless our eyes deceived us, there was an appearance of actual, honest-to-god, blue sky. I finished my lunch quickly, bought a bottle of beer, and went outside to sit in the sun. I began to think that maybe my gamble would pay off, that the weather might have finally broken, and that I might at least get the chance to see Machu Picchu in something other than fog and torrential downpours.

We sallied forth down the road to Ollantaytambo, a town I was already familiar with from the previous week, where it had been the first stop on our Jungle Trek. This time, we sailed through the main square and on towards the ruins, which were much less remote than either Pisac or Machu Picchu. These literally rise out of the side of the town, terraces running up the side of a hill, with temples and guard houses sprinkled around the crest of the hill. I had a hard time deciding if the ruins themselves, or the setting (in a beautiful valley with staggering mountains surrounding the town of Ollantaytambo itself) were more impressive. The utterly brilliant sunshine was the overall winner, though.

At the end of the tour of the ruins, I parted company with the rest of the tour group as I was going to stay in Ollantaytambo until 7PM to catch the train out. That meant I had another 2-3 hours to play with and I intended to get as much shooting done as I could while the weather held. There are few things I enjoy more than plopping in the iPod headphones, getting in the zone, and clambering around ruins shooting away to my heart's content, getting into parts of sites I probably shouldn't be, and working to my own schedule. Total indulgence.

Eventually the light started to go, so I decided to go have a poke around the town itself. Ollantaytambo is an original Inca town so most of the streets and buildings have Inca stone foundations. It makes for a very charming base, despite the over-touristy facade. On that note, they seem to have a pretty entrepreneurial spirit:

On many of the houses were fertility totems, depicted as two bulls.

I wandered the streets a bit until I saw a wooden pole with a red plastic bag tied to it. This is the Andean sign indicating that chicha (an alcoholic drink of fermented corn) is brewed inside. I stepped through the plain entrance into a modest but welcoming courtyard, full of sunflowers and a snoozing German shepherd.

A woman stepped out to welcome me, and I asked for a vasito of chicha, something I was curious to try for the first time. She must have known I was no veteran, for instead of the plastic pint glass so often associated with the drink, she brought me a dainty juice glass and a pitcher full of maybe a pint's worth of the stuff. Bitter, yes, but drinkable. While we chatted I ended up draining almost all of it, but eventually the sourness got the better of me. I don't know if I could do a night on the stuff. I made my excuses, grabbed a coffee on the way, and shuffled down towards the train station. On the way, ominously, it began to rain.

My train was at 7pm, but they required that everyone be there a half hour early, to counter the Peruvian sense of punctuality. So it was that we waited around until nearly 7 in the pissing rain, with no word or hint of entry onto the platforms. That's when a serious-looking woman made her way out into the crowd, mounted a box, and summarily announced that the 7pm train – the last one of the night – was cancelled. This was due to no less than 6 different rockslides across the train tracks between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. I had an instant feeling of dread, that I was about to be thwarted at the last minute from my ambition to return to Machu Picchu.

We all made our way back up to the Peru Rail ticket office to see about getting refunds. Unfortunately, the ticket office was an utter shambles, with 4 different queues for 4 windows which seemed to arbitrarily open and close, literally seeming to process one person every 10-15 minutes each. There were 150 people at least trying to get refunds. The queues did not move. It continued to rain, with greater intensity. Some of the people in the queues were poor souls who had taken off at 7AM from Ollantaytambo and been trapped in the train between rockslides over the course of the day, and who had failed to get to Aguas Calientes. Those with multiple group members assigned some to go and see about accommodation in Ollantaytambo. I talked with some taxi drivers on options of how to get to Aguas. They wanted 100 soles, or about £25, per person. I thought that sounded reasonable, until we got into the details. That was for a best-case 4 hours, worst case 6 hours or not at all if the road was washed out, to get us not to Aguas but to Hidroelectrico, where we would have to walk the last 7 miles to Aguas. Now this is the same walk we did on the afternoon of Day 3 of the Jungle Trek, and it took 3 hours in the pissing rain then, along the dodgy sleepers and loose gravel of the railway tracks. This would be at night, still in the pissing rain, with active rockslides happening and rail crews working to clear them. Not my idea of fun. The rail staff refused to say if the trains would be running tomorrow, either.

What I couldn't work out was any way in which I could responsibly visit Machu Picchu without jeopardising my flight from Cusco to Lima on Tuesday (non-changeable, non-refundable). In the best case of getting a taxi Saturday night and walking the 7 miles, starting at 8pm, I wouldn't get to Aguas Calientes until at least 4AM, and I would be already exhausted from the walk, wet, miserable, and I would then have to hike an hour up the hill, now 5AM, by which point I would have missed the tickets for the mountain Waynu Picchu, which I had tickets for last time but didn't use due to the weather. Without Waynu Picchu access, and with it raining, I would have exactly the same Machu Picchu experience as last time. The alternative was to stay the night in Ollantaytambo, and try to get to Aguas over the course of Sunday, making the Machu Picchu attempt on Monday. However, given the state of the weather and the undependability of the trains, I thought the risk of getting stranded in Aguas on Monday night after visiting Machu Picchu, and missing my flight to Lima, too great to accept. Reluctantly I accepted the offer of one of the collectivo drivers of 10 soles (£2.50) for a drive back to Cusco. Defeated, I sat next to a French couple who had enjoyed a beautiful sunny day on Machu Picchu, but who had then themselves been shunted onto a 50-seat diesel train car from Aguas, hours after they were meant to have returned. We drove back to Cusco through the rain and fog.

So now I am back in Cusco. I have to go back to the travel agency to see what kind of refunds I can get, though without much hope of cooperation. I have a feeling I will be sorting out refunds with Peru Rail and the Machu Picchu ticket folks myself tomorrow, when the offices open. Not exactly the end to my Cusco time I had in mind.

But I am feeling better than I did last night. After a night and morning of constant rain, there are hints of sun in Cusco, and knowing how fleeting this is likely to be, I am going to get out amongst it. And I know that when I look back, I will be thankful for the chance to have visited the Sacred Valley in sunshine, and to have taken one or two photos that go in the Keepers file.

A last word of advice: When the guidebook says a place is best avoided in the wet season, listen.

I think I shall have to return to Cusco and to Machu Picchu when things are a bit drier.

4-day Jungle Trek to Macchu Picchu


Here follows a tale of rain, pain, fun and adventure from my just-completed tour of the Urubumba Valley and Machu Picchu. As I have said before I chose to do the jungle trek rather than the “classic” Inca Trail trek for various reasons, but mostly it boiled down to me not wanting to be stuck on a 4-5 day hike with a bunch of package tourists fresh off the plane from wherever. Also the jungle trek came in at $160, or about 1/3rd the price of the Classic Inca Trail. And it involved some mountain biking the first day, so there was some variety and it wasn’t just a 3-4 day hike up the same trail. So it was right up my attention deficit suffering alley.

Day 1: Mountain Biking
A woman came to collect me from the hotel at 6:45AM, and we walked down to where a small bus was waiting in a square. We collected 4 Argentinean guys (students hereinafter referred to as “Los Chicos”) and 2 Argentinean couples, an older couple (Mauro and ?) and a younger student couple (Rodrigo and ?), a crazy Korean guy whose real name we later learned was Hwong, but wanted us to call him Salvador, and finally an Australian couple (Lewis and Jane). Well we thought it was final, but the bus wouldn’t leave. We sat around for ages and the final passenger showed up, a blonde Dutch doctor named Mieke, who had been misinformed about the departure time by her agency. We met our guide, a cheeky young Quechua named Angel (‘but everyone calls me Angelito”).

We set off towards Ollantaytambo, the jumping-off point for almost all tours heading in the direction of Machu Picchu. There was our last chance for the day to buy necessities (water, co

ca leaves, biscuits, etc) before we headed up into the hills. The weather began to worsen somewhat as we ascended, and the clouds closed in as we got into the mountains proper, to the point that visibility was seriously affected and all of us became somewhat uncomfortable at the driver’s speed and seeming lack of fear. It rained sporadically and we came across the occasional rockfall that had to be cleared away before we could proceed.

We headed upwards into thicker cloud and finally dismounted in a parking lot on a high pass (4300m / 14000ft) where some pretty old crappy mountain bikes of  varying makes were unloaded from the top of the bus and left out in the increasingly heavy rain. As were the helmets and gloves, so that by the time you got to put these on they were soaked and freezing, and remained so for the rest of the day. For some reason I was nominated as the leader, and the guide told us to just ride down the other side of the pass on the same road we had just driven up. I was a little annoyed at this, as I hadn’t realised this would be a road ride rather than cross country or on paths. But as we were to see, there were still challenges to confront. 

The first challenge was the weather. It was raining in heavy and light patches, but always raining, and at that altitude it was a cold rain. Almost as soon as we set off we were soaked through from head to toe (except for my chest under the raincoat), and freezing to the point of numbness (a couple of people didn’t complete the ride due to not being able to control the brakes with numb hands). And at different points the visibility dropped to as low as 20m so you just couldn’t see which way the road was going.

The rain was also causing all sorts of rock falls, so my initial disappointment at riding on a smooth road was quickly dispelled as we ended up having to thread through regular rock falls and emergency road works being carried out, and thread between traffic jams on either side to boot. The going got pretty unpleasant at times but once I got into it I was actually beginning to enjoy myself, in a perverse way, and from time to time the ride got easier. That is until we got to this:

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We had a couple of test steps to see if we could push the bikes across, but the water was thick and very strong, and was carrying all kinds of debris from further up the mountain, including rocks of up to 6 inches across, at the same speed. It was clear we would have to wait for the support van to catch up with us and ferry the bikes across the road/river. While we were waiting several vehicles attempted to go through, with some of the smaller vehicles having close calls. One very intrepid motorcyclist attempted to cross it slowly, then got stuck and nearly came off the bike in a disastrous miscalculation. He asked for help getting across the river, but when I and another guy started to walk out we quickly changed our minds and shrugged. He managed to gun it through in the end but I am sure he needed a new set of underwear afterwards. The van finally showed up (already containing several people who hadn’t made all of the journey so far) and through common consent we all agreed to skip ahead to the lunch village in the van. On the way there we passed several more areas where gullies had become raging rivers, though none as bad as that first one. We did have to thread through several more rock falls as well. 

I am not sure how it happened, but at lunch, somehow it was decided that we would put a stop to the biking for the day. I was of two minds about continuing with the bike thing, but I guess I was secretly happy that I could put on some dry clothes. I was worried about my hiking boots, which had had water streaming into the tops of them for the entire bike ride. They’re waterproof, but unfortunately that applies equally to water inside of them. There were lakes inside of my boots, and I had 2 days of hiking and an ascent of Machu Picchu still to come. 

We continued by van, but had to stop for an overturned truck full of soft drinks, which had blocked the road. The local solution was to hack away at the inside bank of the road with spades and shovels and to remove any stubborn rocks and boulders by rolling them across the road (a 4 man job) and down the side of the mountain until a lane wide enough for one vehicle to pass was opened. It was at this point my little camera (the S90) had enough of the moisture and humidity and decided to fog up from the inside. Great. 

On to Santa Maria, a half-built town of newish but cheap-looking buildings, where we were to overnight. It continued to rain but not quite as badly as before. We got there a little earlier than planned due to the aborted bike trip, and settled ourselves into our hospedaje in this little outpost town next to the Urubamba River. Shoes and clothes were hung out to dry, but with the humidity topping 80-90% we were not hopeful. With our spare time, some of us had a little walk through the town, down a little path to the river, and across a foot bridge, which seemed to just fade off into the jungle on the other side. We marvelled at the rain-swollen Urubamba, which was throwing up plumes of water all over, and you could hear thundering booms as large rocks were tumbled invisibly down its river bed. Clearly falling into this river would be a death sentence, and it would be our constant companion for the next 2 days. Back to the hospedaje’s attached bar/restaurant for a simple meal of soup and estofado before an early retirement. It was good to start to get to know the rest of the group a bit – they seemed a good lot. 

Day 2: Inca Trail t

o Santa Theresa

An earlyish start, breakfast, and it was onto the first full day of hiking. We were only to cover 19km/12mi but it would take us 7 hours due to much of it being on an old Inca trail with lots of ascent and descent. We set off back the way we had come slightly, and went across a road bridge, though still made of loose slats of wood with the raging Urubamba clearly visible beneath. We crossed into the ghost town of Santa Maria Viejo, or Old Santa Maria, which was the original location of the town until a flash flood destroyed it in the 90s, killing 300 people outright. Three crosses stand near the bridge, representing the men, women and children who perished in the flood. 

We continued on down a dirt road, alongside the river, ascending slightly but having a pretty easy time of it for the first day – or so I thought at the time. We passed old pulley-driven basket bridges, and disturbed a flock of parakeets, who screeched off into the mountains. 

We left the road and took a very narrow mountain path, at times only 18 inches wide, up the side of the hill and down again, over boulders, into a gully by the river, and up a slight rise into a clearing. There we were informed that we were soon to join the network of Inca trails (28,000km covering the former empire) soon, and the going would get tougher. To use the Inca trail we would need to be marked. Angelito broke open a kind of nut which had a rich red interior, and one by one he marked us with the natural pigment, so that by the end we were all covered in orange tribal markings. 

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We carried on a little further, at times entering dense jungle, and came across several coca fields. Angelito stopped to tell us that these were not the same leaves we all had in our little baggies, which we bought for 1 or 2 soles ($.30/$.60) a pop. These were the cocaine-grade coca leaves, sought after by the immense Peruvian narco-trafficking organisations for their unique blend of 14 alkaloids. Reputedly these were the strongest in the world, and the same size bag would sell to the narco-traffickers for 35 soles, or over $10 a go. 

Soon we came to the point where we could join an Inca trail for a challenging 75 minute ascent punctuated by a rest stop.

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I would replace the word “challenging” with “punishing”. I am typically near the front of hiking groups due to my pace and the fact that I like to have time to take photos and not get left behind – but this climb handed me my ass on a platter. I don’t know if it was the altitude or general unfitness but the first 45 minute section saw me fall further and further behind and my lungs were on fire from start to finish. I ended up towards the rear of the group with the others who were having trouble. We finally emerged, gasping, up into the collection of huts that was the hiker’s rest stop (“the Monkey Lounge”). I took some time collecting myself and trying to feel human again. To amuse the resting trekkers, not only did the Monkey Lounge have the requisite monkey on a string, but they also had a wombat on a wooden perch, a large dog-sized rodent who we initially saw standing on hind legs and draining a bottle of Gatorade held in its front paws. Later he was let off the perch and snuffled around the hikers, begging for food here and there.

We slipped our packs back on, and headed back out onto the trail, this time for a gentler ascent, and we broke out of the tree line into the sunshine and the high Andes, where we got a fantastic view of the rest of the valley and the trail. The trail had perilous sections of thin ledges and precipitous drops, but it was too nice a day at the time to worry about such things.

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We stopped at a magical, wind-lashed outcropping called Condor Point, where we all gingerly climbed and and basked in the sun as Angelito regaled us with the history of the Incas, their empire, and their network of trails. We heard the story of the elite group of North American athletes who had come to do a time challenge of the last section of the Classic Inca Trail and managed to cover 32km in 8hrs. And then had been roundly beaten by a Quechuan porter who had completed it in 3.5hrs… with a pack on.

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We continued on down the trail and ventured back into the jungle, where we all began to notice small insect bites appearing without any associated pain or itch, in any place we had failed to apply repellent. These welts became a badge of pride, until the second or third day when they actually started to itch and became a source of irritation. We carried on down through the jungle to our lunch stop, almost at the river’s edge, a collection of small rustic buildings in which we were served a very hearty lunch of with a starter of popcorn, bread, and very tasty guacamole, followed by a creamy vegetable soup, and topped off by a basic but very edible spaghetti bolognese. There was even some music to accompany our meal. All the time we were eating, various hens, chicks, ducks, and ducklings clucked and quacked outside and inside, and we were glad that we had not had chicken as a main course. Afterwards was a bit of a siesta, with several hammocks to be had, and a couple more that could be had if you could be bothered to string them up to the trees. One of the Argentine guys did exactly that, but was not using his brain, and roped one end to a banana tree. Queue one broken banana tree, a sore bottom, and much hilarity at his expense. 

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We rallied the troops and continued on towards Aguas Termales, were we were to enjoy a frolic in some hot springs. But first it was more jungle, more Indiana-Jones style bridges, and some easier walking and a chance to enjoy the scenery.

We finally arrived at the Aguas Termales spa complex as it was getting dark. We paid our 15 soles entrance fee, changed, deposited our bags (cue one idiot cloakroom woman dropping my bag full of camera gear on the floor) and dropped into the large hot spring pool. This was a great experience as there was still enough light to see the massive Andean peaks towering over us. The pool itself was bounded on one side by a mountain, whose rock face continued right on down into the pool, where you could sit on boulders and lean back against its bulk. We made our way up into the properly hot pool, and alternated between it and the ice-cold dunking pool nearby, to get the blood flowing of course. We made our way in bits and pieces (and via a 10 minute power cut) into the changing rooms and eventually we all got in a bus for a short trip to Santa Theresa. 

There’s no way to beat around the bush; Santa Theresa is a butt-ugly town that exists merely as a waypoint on the jungle trek to Machu Picchu. It’s a town of half-finished projects, and many of the streets are simply two sets of pavement on either side of what is basically a ditch. We checked into another basic alojamiento and then made our way up around to where we were to have dinner. This place, called Carnal, was a little can’t-be-arsed cafe whose owners seemed just to be in it for the little money that got thrown their way. The food was epically bad, and Mieke had a large and obvious hair on her plate. The bastards just didn’t care and we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We headed for the only place to be in town, the disco, where a bad DJ was beat-mixing so ineptly and so often that all the action on the dancefloor would come to a halt every time he changed tunes. But as is so often the case, alcohol seemed to ease the aural pain and soon enough everyone was dancing away. One of the Uruguayan guys from another group made good dancing buddies with one of the Argentine girls from our group, who turned out not to actually be the girlfriend of Mauro. I made it till about 1-2AM but apparently some of the Chicos and the Argentine girl were there till 4 or 5AM. Which didn’t seem to make much sense given our 7AM start, but horses for courses I say.

Day 3: Santa Theresa to Aguas Calientes
Another early start to the day, and some fairly flat trekking to be had for the morning. We were to cover 22km or so today. We hiked towards Hidroelectrico (yes, the real name of a place) where we would enter the Machu Picchu National Park. The morning’s walk was pretty easy, with nice if somewhat hot weather and beautiful scenery, and the most Indiana Jones-esque bridge yet. The Urubamba continued to flow strong and hard as the heavy rains of the past days drained from the mountains around it.

We stopped to register for entry into the Machu Picchu reserve in sight of the great mountain itself. In the distance you could just see an Inca train cutting across its face. We continued on to a lunch rest stop next to the hydro-electric power station, and waited ages for food or even cups to arrive. After lunch it was a walk along active train tracks (we had to get off the tracks 5 times to dodge trains and locomotives) towards Aguas Calientes, the staging point for Machu Picchu. 

Unfortunately, as we walked along the tracks, sporadic rain began and some heavy spells meant that further photography was impossible. Negotiating the rocks in the track bed became a bit tiring in the wet, and it was not possible to walk on the spacers as the Peru Rail folks seem to have thrown them onto the ground with no detectable pattern and nailed them down where they fell. Nevertheless I spent most of the afternoon in a private world, iPod half in (other ear open so I could hear oncoming trains) and for the most part I was usually at least 100m in front of everyone else. We were glad, 3 hours after lunch, to be able to leave the tracks and head up the final tiring hill to Aguas Calientes. Along the way Angelito showed us the path up the mountain that we would need to walk if we chose to hike up to Machu Picchu rather than take the bus up. It was 1700 steps up. I remember thinking distinctly, in my end-of-day fatigue, “bollocks to that.”

We got into Aguas Calientes, a raging ripoff of a town full of fake Inca-stone hotels and package tours, and were shunted into various different hospedajes of very basic standard. This was a little disappointing as we were told we would have a higher standard of place in Aguas. But hey – at least it had hot showers. We hung out our increasing loads of wet gear as best we could, with little hope of it drying. We had some down time which I used to check the internet, and then all met up for a pretty decent dinner/briefing in which we met our new guide, Jon, and got the low-down on how the next day would pan out. Basically you were looking at a very early day, and a march up the mountain. For reasons to be explained, I opted to walk up. A quick trip to the shops to stock up on food for the next day, and early to bed for a struggle to sleep between nervousness/excitement and some loud partying nearby.

Day 4: Machu Picchu
Day 4 started with a shock as the alarm went off on the stroke of 2AM. I had dressed, packed my leave-behind clothes (mostly wet, but one dry pair of jeans that would be a life saver later) and grabbed my day pack and was off. I was supposed to meet Mauro and his friend at 2:30 in front of last night’s restaurant but no sign of them, so I set off down the road at 2:45, alone. There was almost nobody to be seen in Aguas Calientes itself, and as soon as I got down the road and past the bus depot, I was utterly alone. This was an eerie experience as I had only my headtorch for illumination (there were no streetlamps). The head lamp’s beam shone through the early morning mist and the spray in the air from the nearby rapids, and every so often a glowing pair of unknown animal eyes would stare at me briefly before disappearing into the undergrowth. It was an unnerving experience. All the way down the road to the foot bridge and across to the trail head I was alone. It was only after I had prepared myself for the ascent up the 1700 steps that I finally saw two other headlamps appear back at the bridge. The wolves were at the door. It was time to ascend. 

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The reason I had gotten up so early was that you needed to be one of the first 400 people in the queue if you wanted to get a pass to hike up Wayna Picchu, the little mountain behind the city itself that you had to climb if you wanted to get the “classic” Machu Picchu photos. Since I had fared so poorly on my last big climb I thought I might get a properly early start just to give myself time to go up at my own pace. As it turns out I needn’t have worried much. For some reason my pace and endurance was much better this time, and I made a decent show of it, definitely not the fastest but not near the slowest either. I was alone for part of the ascent, until the steps crossed over the vehicle road and I lost the other trail head and had to walk around a long switchback in the road to pick the trail back up again, by which point the first group had caught up with me, including Mieke and Salvador. By this point a heavy rain had set in, and I broke out the poncho to cover me and the craptacular day pack I had bought in Cusco. The ascent was much easier than I had expected, and I was actually surprised to reach the top in just an hour when we had been led to believe 1hr20 or so. 

We reached the entrance gates in the pitch darkness and rain, at 4:15 or so. An hour and a half to wait before they would start looking at tickets, and and hour and 45 minutes until the gates opened. There were around 20-30 people there already, most of whom would have passed me during my little “lost period”. I stood shivering with Mieke and Salvador and we attempted to dry out our rain gear, and generally huddle under the guard shack roof as the rain backed and fulled, and the early chill set in. More and more people arrived, a queue began to stretch off down the road, and it became clear that even those arriving on the first bus wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the prized Waynu Picchu tickets. 

Eventually, though, the time came, our tickets were checked, and we triumphantly requested the 10AM Waynu Picchu slot. I was number 17 in the queue. We went through and waited for all of our group to assemble, and those of us whose English was stronger than Spanish went off with a rather indifferent guide named Washington to get an early-doors tour of the site. He was a bit surly, and it rained off and on (and got stronger and stronger) over the course of his 2-hour tour, but who cares? As we pushed through the masses of tour groups at the entrance, and climbed through to the first set of terraces, we finally saw what all the fuss was about: Machu Picchu. Staggering. The city seemed to just fall off the edge of the world on every side. It was encased in early morning fog and cloud which seemed come and go, and you had to be sharp with a camera to catch details. Unfortunately the rain made camera use a very hit and miss affair. The S90 was already fogged out and the SLR showed signs of impending moisture damage, so I was only able to grab the odd shot here and there:

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By the time we got to the end of the tour, it was bucketing down, and we hid in one of the temples. My wide angle lens was beginning to fog from the inside, not good. I had to put the camera away, finally.

We made our way to one of the peripheral temples that actually had a roof (a rare thing in Machu Picchu) and had a bit of lunch while our ponchos dried off a bit. The rain backed and filled but never quite stopped, and we headed back out the entrance to grab a hot chocolate and use the bathroom. While having our chocolate the rain turned it up a notch and became torrential showers. We waited it out for an hour or so. The girls headed back into the site, but I reckoned I wasn’t getting any drier, and I was concerned about my camera gear, so I decided to cut my losses and head back down to town. It was disappointing, but only mildly, as I was still awed by what I had seen, even if I couldn’t preserve it for posterity. 

It seems a great number of other folks were also ready to call it a day, because the queue for the buses reached gargantuan proportions. So, together with 2 British doctors (Chris and Paul) from another group, we decided to hoof it back down the 1700 steps in the driving rain. This was easier for obvious reasons than going up, but complicated by the fact the path was now a river. We arrived, soaked, in Aguas Calientes, and stopped off for a meal in a touristy pizzeria. It was noon, and I had been awake for 10 hours already. Our train reservation was at 6pm. What to do with the rest of the time? I ended up back at the internet cafe for a bit, and then went to change into my dry jeans. Every single other piece of clothing I had was wet, as was my passport, and much of my money. I sat with the Argentine guys and we all dropped off to sleep at various points. Finally we made our way to the train station and settled in for the short journey to Ollantaytambo. Almost everyone slept on the way back, with a brief interruption to transfer to a coach to take us back to Cusco. We said our goodbyes there, and a few email addresses were exchanged, but most everyone was dead on their feet, and dying for a hot shower and a warm bed. I returned to the Los Ninos Hotel, where a nice double bed awaited me. Deep sleep ensued. 

While the first and final days were somewhat of a disappointment due to the weather, overall I really enjoyed the trek and would recommend it to anyone. And because I have some time to play with here in Cusco, I am going to re-attempt Machu Picchu sometime in the next few days, and hope for a break in the weather. This will be a simple round-trip to Aguas Calientes rather than the full trek all over again, but that will be perfect for what I want to do. At least I can say I’ve tried!

Off to Macchu Picchu, and first thoughts on Cusco


It is now my third night in Cusco, and now that I've finally blurted out the last blog post about Bolivia, it is fair to turn my sights on my present abode, Cusco.

Cusco has the reputation of being the "gringo capital of South America" and so I was prejudiced against it from the start, prepared to wave it aside dismissively as just the South American equivalent of the Khao San Road in Bangkok. My previous experiences of high gringo concentrations in South America (e.g. Copacabana and Uyuni) touched a raw nerve of self-loathing. I had steeled myself for the worst.

However Cusco turns out to be (mostly) chilled out, cool, and stylish. Sure, there are a lot of tourists here, and there are a lot of lowest common denominator rip-off operations going on, but the bigger tourist market means that there is a wide variety of choices in restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops, and it's possible to find something more up one's particular alley and not just generic one-size-fits-all joints.

I have already met some cool folks randomly through exploring some of the peripheral cafes etc (Las Blas is the nighlife area for instance with a bit of a boho vibe) and it seems pretty easy to meet randoms here. And I've managed to get the feel for the city's layout very quickly; it's a great walking city, even taking into account the hills. Just wandering from street to street, admiring the Inca foundations of almost all the modern buildings, is a treat unto itself. I have managed to explore some of the Inca temples around town, including the Temple of the Sun that was superseded by the Dominican Church, and the hilltop ruins of Sacsayhuaman.

Tomorrow (Friday) I am starting the Inca Jungle Trek, which is 1 day mountain biking, 2 days trekking, and the final day visiting Macchu Picchu. I hope the weather holds up as it has been raining on and off again, but occasionally when it is on, it is ON. See below:

I will be out of contact until (probably) Sunday evening when we get to Aguas Calientes. I am thinking of seeing out most of the rest of my trip in the Cusco region so I will be sure to post some thoughts and pictures etc of the trip – and of Cusco – next week.

Report and photos from our tour of the Salar de Uyuni and Coloured Lakes


[EDIT April 27th, 2010 – I have updated and replaced many of the photos herein since I’ve had access to my proper computer kit. Ahhh, Lightroom….]

Come round my friends and listen to a tale of high adventure, comedy, awe-inspiring scenery, and sunburnt lips. Bear with me as I try to recall the sequence of events some days after the fact and in a different country. 

 
As you will recall, the main players were myself, my old colleague Peter Hahndorf, and an older Australian horse trainer named Ken who I had first encountered in the Pampas in northern Bolivia. We had all made our way down to Uyuni on the ill-fated bus from Potosi, and we had entered Uyuni together, full of hope for the coming days. 
 
 
Uyuni is not a place that inspires hope. It is a dusty, fly-blown, windy, barren, frontier town of the sort that makes you expect everyone to scurry indoors when the regular shootouts between the sherriff and the cowboys take place. In short, it is a shithole. And it is completely, utterly overrun by a daily tide of backpackers, who ooze through the streets, drifting from hotel to tour agency to restaurant, sitting in groups in every available outdoor space, playing guitars, drinking, and swapping stories. 
 
 
So it was that we arrived, part of the great unwashed, and as per usual not having reserved either a hotel for the night or a tour for the next days. We had our hand forced on the hotel front by lack of availability, so we had to settle for a distinctly average place called the Hotel Mozon. Once settled in we went out in search of a tour to reserve. After some dicking about we settled on Oasis Tours as they had come highly recommended both in guidebooks and from fellow travellers. My dream of doing a 4-day tour was dashed on the shores of reality as a 4-day tour would have been greatly more expensive than the 3-day tour, and nobody was really up for it. Ah well. So we agreed to the 3-day tour and agreed to show up the next morning. 
 
Day 1 – Train Cemetery, Salar de Uyuni, San Juan
And so the next morning came and the first little shock was that the hotel had no water. At all. In the taps, in the shower, nothing to fill the toilet tank, nada. Not exactly ideal when you are already facing a few days of ropey or nonexistent plumbing yet to come. I ended up washing face and hands with bottled water. Felt like Glastonbury. Had my next shock when I got to the tour office only to be told that my rucksack was too big and could I please bring a smaller one. Thanks for fucking telling me that now! I had to race up to the market, grab the cheapest day pack I could ($4.50) and start cramming stuff into it, trying not to forget anything along the way. Not what you need at the last minute. 
 
But all news was not bad. To fill the other 3 seats in the Land Cruiser, the tour agency had helpfully recruited 3 20/21-year old Swiss girls (Anneux, Marie, and Virginie), who, if nothing else, would provide a youthful, feminine counterpart to our elderly, gruff and masculine presence. I am not sure how they felt with being lumbered with 3 guys who could have been their uncle, father, and grandfather. But we all seemed to get along so it worked out well in the end. Our guide was a Quechua with a lazy eye named Christian Castro (“soy el hijo de Fidel!” he joked) and we had a Quechuan whose name I never caught, who was our cook (and a fine one at that).
 
We finally got all our gear packed into the Land Cruiser and set off for our first stop just out of town – the Train Cemetery. This contains old rusting heaps of trains from the first era of train transportation in Bolivia, from the late 1800s. There we were allowed to clamber all over them (somewhat risky given all the sharp metal edges and rust) and I tried in vain to get some shots without other people in – which would become a recurring theme along this trip. As a lot of the 3-day trips followed roughly the same itinerary, at many points in this trip you would either arrive to find a dozen or more other Land Cruisers at the same spot, or they would be arriving imminently. 
 
 
 
In any case it was back in the car and up the road for 20km or so, stopping to photograph a herd of llamas, and then onto the Salar de Uyuni itself. But hang on, first the obligatory stop at a town on the edge of the Salar to peruse the market there and visit the poxy salt museum therein. I think we were all fairly keen to get out onto the Salar itself and nobody was particularly in the mood to buy salt llamas, salt cholitas, or salt dioramas.
 
Finally we reached the edge of the Salar and drove onto its shimmering white surface. Thin pools of water here and there betrayed the start of the rainy season. But my fears from weeks ago, that my visit would be too late and that we would be forced to skirt round the edges of the salt lakes as they would have filled in by now, were totally unfounded. The Salar was still totally navigable in mid January, happily. 
 
 
As we drove out onto the blinding salt, we saw a few campesinos here and there harvesting salt from the surface and piling it up for later collection. 
 
 
We stopped the car and got out to take pictures of these salt mounds floating eerily above millimetre-thin pools of water. Instantly I knew the tour was already worth it for me. 
 
 
 
 
We carried on into the Salar, and as we got further into it, we made the obligatory stop at the salt hotel, built out of (you guessed it) blocks of salt. All the furnishings, tables, beds etc were made from blocks of salt. Well I imagine they were, anyway, as you had to pay to go in and look, and that was a ripoff too far for me. I was happy to stay outside and marvel at the signs on every exterior wall reading “please don’t piss here” – I suppose for reasons of structural integrity. 
 
 
We remounted the jeep and sallied forth deep into the Salar. Soon we were far enough away from all reference points that distance became relative and all horizons became mirages, reflecting the faraway islands and mountains in mirror images. 
 
 
Soon we came to the Isla Pescado, which in the proper wet season is an actual island, but in the dry season is a hill jutting abruptly out of the salt bed. Covered with cactii and their attendant bird life, it is a marvellous little interruption in the otherworldly journey through the salt. 
 
 
 
 
While we clambered, breathless at altitude, to the top of the hill, our guide and cook set up a lunch table in proper style (table cloths and proper plates and cups) and we chowed down with smug smiles on our face. 
 
Later we wandered out onto the salt lake for our obligatory “crazy photos” using the forced-perspective possibilities offered by an unbroken white surface stretching for miles in every direction. Much fun was to be had photographing people fighting with toy lizards 1/10th their size, or appearing to spring out of Pringles cans, or standing on each others’ heads. What nobody told us beforehand though was that the surface of the salt was not exactly bone-dry, and a recent rain meant that sitting or lying on the surface left a healthy coating of damp salt on every affected body part.
 
Soon it was time to remount the jeep and head off South again, exiting the Salar, but not before a fun interlude at the southern edge where we sailed through millimetre-thin water, giving us a small taste of what it would have been like in the proper wet season. I wasted no time sticking my head up through the sunroof.
 
 
We left the Salar and joined one of the dirt roads running along the periphery of the lake, occasionally having to dodge trucks or other jeeps coming the other way. After a while we left the Salar entirely and headed south into the foothills, finally coming to a small village called San Juan, where we were to overnight in a very basic alojamiento (basic bed, one light bulb on a wire, 5 Bolivianos to have a shower in a concrete square). It is a testament to our era that the first thing many people did upon entering is enquire after electrical sockets to charge camera batteries and iPhones. I had charged all my gear and spare batteries before leaving, so I was OK for the duration of the trip. 
 
While the cook was preparing our dinner, Snr Castro suggested we go and have a look at “the caverns”, saying something about Inca ruins, and vaguely pointed out the direction for us to walk, pointing at some faraway hills. He neglected to join us, and so of course we set off in a slightly wonky direction, walking through a large herd of llamas and generally getting a bit lost. We did find a big rock, but nothing suggesting caverns. We turned back at a tangent and  eventually came across a rock wall surrounding some oddly shaped volcanic rock formations, almost like eggs standing upright. We climbed over the wall, increasingly sure this had something to do with the “caverns” and the Incas. We were also reasonably sure that this looked like something we should be paying to enter. But we were feeling adventurous and cheeky. And also slightly cynical. The “eggs” were meant to be Inca burial chambers, but the bones inside could not have been more than 50 years old. Inca, my arse. One of the skulls was wearing a hat, for Christ’s sake. 
 
 
Ken was so nonplussed by this that he climbed inside one of the crypts and held up one of the thigh bones for a photo, which everyone else thought was a bit much. But he expunged his guilt, and a possible Inca curse, by being the only one to pay the entry fee on the way out. The rest of us just strode out, unwilling to pay 10 Bolivianos for something which was so clearly a tourist rip-off put into place simply due to San Juan being a stop-off point for the Salar tours. 
 
All was well though, because there was a spectacular sunset to be had on the way back.
 
 
 
 
Afterwards we had our dinner (lasagna, pretty decent except for the everpresent foul Bolivian cheese) and Peter, myself, and the Swiss girls decided to walk into the village as we were convinced we had seen a bar on the way in. However, the town was in utter pitch black darkness, we could quite easily have gotten very lost, and there was nary a person, dog, or bar to be seen anywhere. We found the one open grocery store, bought some beer, and headed back. We were the last ones up at 9:30PM. 
 
Day 2 – The Lagunas
It was up earlyish (7AM) to get a head start on visiting the Lagunas, but first off was a quick stop to get a view of the volcano Ollague, looming in the horizon. The volcanoes and rock formations were to dominate the rest of the trip, and every time we turned a corner a new otherworldly scene would take our breath away. 
 
 
 
We headed ever south, visiting the Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Chiarcota, and the Laguna Honda. Each lake had a slightly different setting, but all were surrounded by lush mountain scenery, and all contained a unique brew of volcanic minerals that gave each a certain sheen or colour, and attracted all manner of birdlife and other fauna, with thousands of flamengos feeding and frolicking on each lake, and llamas surrounding a couple of the lakes. I took advantage of my waterproof boots and was able to get up close and personal with some of the flamengos, though I am not sure they were that happy about it. This was a spectacular day, and every time we got out of the car there was a fresh intake of breath. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
After lunch at one of the lakes (Honda, I think), we set off into the Desierto de Siloli, where we stopped momentarily to admire the Wolf’s Mouth, a rock formation in the surrounding foothills. We continued on to another cluster of volcanic rocks jutting out of the desert floor, amongst them the famous Arbol de Piedra, or Rock Tree. This is a free standing rock formation with a tiny base and a large top. My guidebook says it is in danger of imminent collapse and should not be touched, let alone climbed upon. However, some prick Argentinean teenagers were doing just that, attempting to climb on it, throwing reasonable sized stones at it, and generally hanging about and spoiling other peoples photos. So I told them to piss off, and felt very smug. The old problem of dozens of jeeps showing up at the same time reared its head again though, and it was very difficult trying to get a shot of the thing without people in the way. I ended up spending more time wandering off by myself in the other rocks. We continued south, through ever more impressive scenery. 
 
 
 
 
 
Our last lake of the day was the biggest and in some ways the most famous – the Laguna Colorado, or Coloured Lake. But before we got there we had to face down the rangers at the park entrance, who were in danger of being overrun by an angry mob of gringos and tour guides, incensed at the recent price hike for the park entrance. Prior to January 1st it had been 30 Bolivianos. However the new year saw a new price – a 5x increase to 150 Bolivianos. There was a tense standoff, when everyone was ejected from the park office while the rangers went into closed conference. A half hour later the chief emerged and said that he had been on the radio with La Paz and that he was authorised – for one day only – to charge 30 Bolivianos again. Applause all round. 
 
We finally got to the lake shore and I must admit to a bit of lake fatigue, as I didn’t find it all that impressive. However there was much fun to be had down on the proper shore, as there were several families of llama grazing, and some young or newborn llamas were cavorting around, generally being cute. Of course, that was until the same dickhead Argentinean teenagers showed up and started hurling rocks in the vicinity of the llamas, scaring them. Once again, I told them to piss off, and once again, I felt smug. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Well, I felt smug until we headed up to our lodging for the night, an alojamiento complex even more basic than the last, with apparently no running water, non-functional toilets, and a big six-bed room for all of us. Fantastic. Ken was in a bad way too, as a wobbly dental bridge was coming loose in his mouth, and he opted out of the rest of the evening. We were sharing our building with one other tour group from Oasis, and then a large, maybe 15-person Japanese tour group down the hall. The Japanese were not holding up well in the altitude (we were generally between 4000m-4500m all day) and several of them looked distinctly ropey. We wondered if they had flown in directly and not had time to acclimatize. We had a dinner of pique macho and 3 bottles of red wine between 5, not to mention the surprise addition of mulled wine from the cook as a little bit of a last night treat. While we were winding down our evening, the Japanese were not getting any better, with one little teenage boy in a really bad way, being massaged by their group medic. I offered them some of my Sorojchi altitude pills (they are bloody life savers) and suggested to the medic that the boy really ought to be taken down to a lower altitude. But the medic simply replied, “No, he has to go up tomorrow”. I must admit this was a surprising response from someone in charge of the group’s health.
 
Day 3 – Hot springs, Salvador Dali, Chilean border, and return to Uyuni
Day 3 started dark and early at 4AM. I had had a bad sleep and was awake anyway, so I was out in the freezing dark helping the cook and the guide stow the gear on the jeep while the others packed and dressed. We were on the road by 4:40 or so and I marvelled at the guide’s ability to pick the right dirt track out of dozens as we crested sand dune after sand dune and made seemingly random turns in the middle of the desert, in pitch darkness. 
 
We came to a set of volcanic steam vents and geysers, and, still in darkness, ventured into the cold to muck around with the geysers a bit. I had seen pictures in the brochure, so I walked right up to the main geyser and stuck my hand into it, which elicited a shock from the Swiss girls, who didn’t know better and were expecting me to come away with a stump where my hand had been. 
 
 
As dawn approached, we made our way to the Aguas Termales, where we were offered the chance to bathe in a hot spring and watch the sun come up. To be brutally honest, the little pool they had set up by the edge of the lake did not look that inviting, and I much preferred to keep shooting pictures of the fumes and gases coming off the lake proper as the sun rose. I had a grand time walking out into the lake, but I broke through the mineral crust into the chemical ooze a couple of times and I am sure that at some point in the future my boots will actually just up and disintegrate. Soon enough the jeep invasion arrived and the hot spring pool was full of cavorting South Americans, some of whom didn’t look terribly bad in bikinis. A quick breakfast in the lodge and then it was back in the jeep and South again, towards the Chilean border. 
 
 
 
 
First off though was a ride through the Desierto Salvador Dali, so named for the strange rock formations found in its valley, then on to the final lake of the trip, the Laguna Verde, where we hopped out for a final photo opp. Once again, there was otherworldly grandeur in every direction, though to a degree we were suffering from awe fatigue. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The time had come for one of us to part ways – Peter was continuing on to Chile via the border crossing at Hito Cajones. This is a pretty amusing little frontier crossing, it being two buildings and two bar gates smack in the middle of a desert pass, with miles of open ground on either side. Not exactly lock tight security, but I guess it would be hard to sneak by without somebody noticing. We left Peter to wait for the bus that would take him into Chile. 
 
We started heading North again, and covered a lot of the same ground, until veering to the East towards the Valle de Rocas, another random volcanic rock formation sprouting out of the desert floor. 
 
It was off then through some mountain passes (encountering a lost motorcyclist along the way) to the Villa Alota for lunch, where we were able to wander off for a bit through the valley-floor oasis of a stream with peat bog around it, upon which yet more llamas were grazing. Randomly, on a rock outcropping above the town was a tail section of a small Bolivian Air Force plane. 
 
 
From lunch onwards was a relatively uneventful trek back through the desert back to Uyuni. The weather was kicking up a bit, and we saw many dust devils, as well as one mini-tornado (a funnel actually coming from the cloud above). 
 
 
 
We stopped at a little shithole town called San Cristobal, I think just so Snr Castro could take a break from driving, and the only positive I got from it was this photo of a little kid who was actually riding along in one of the other tour groups’ jeep. 
 
 
The last stretch of road before Uyuni took a bit longer than it should have, mostly due to the gigantic dust storm and mini-tornado we had to dodge along the way. We were going to drive right into it, but it got a bit hairy, as you can see from this video. 
 
 
Once the worst of it passed, we headed back to Uyuni through the choking dust, and emerged out of the other side to see the leading edge of the storm pointed straight at Uyuni. 
 
 
Once back in town, we tipped the guide and the cook, collected our stuff, and Ken and I said goodbye to the girls. Then it was off to catch the bus to La Paz. 
 
I was truly blown away by everything we saw on this trip – it was an out-of-this-world experience and I cannot recommend a tour of southwest Bolivia highly enough.
 
 
 
 
 

In Peru, barely


So I managed to catch an 8AM bus from La Paz to Cusco, Peru today. This was meant to be a 12 hour journey, but ended up being nearly 16. This may be down to the 2 hours spent at the border getting everyone through entry immigration on the Peru side at Desaguadero. 1.5hrs of standing in a 100m-long queue snaking through a bustling street market in the midday sun. Then further into Peru, massive tailbacks due to an overturned truck. Got into Cusco at 11PM, as per usual I had not reserved anything in advance and the first couple places I tried were full. I ended up having to take a dorm room in a youth hostel, something I have managed to avoid thus far on this trip. It is loud and rambunctious here, and I feel like an old fart in a bar full of 20 year olds. Gonna have to change to a decent place tomorrow night methinks. Probably will have to anyway, once the other poor unsuspecting fools in my dorm room get a load of my snoring!

This place seems to have decent internet access (first time in 3 or 4 weeks I've had this) so I may be able to upload some of the Salar tour photos from here. Will have to sit down and actually put my thoughts down in writing before I start looking into Macchu Picchu options. 

Back from a fantastic tour, now off to La Paz and thence Peru


A quick note while we´re waiting for the overnight bus to La Paz:

We made it back safely from a spellbinding, harrowing, jaw dropping
tour of the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni, the various coloured
lakes, and the Martian volcanic landscape and desert of Southwestern
Bolivia. A full report with photos will come in the next day or two
when I have a chance to upload photos and put my thoughts down.

We (myself and a new trip buddy, an older Aussie horse trainer named
Ken) are shortly off to La Paz, arriving 7AM or so. I plan to have at
least 1 night back in La Paz so I can have a “down day” to sort out
internet stuff, do laundry, etc, before another overnight bus over
into Peru with a final destination of Cusco, where I hope to sort out
some sort of expedition to Macchu Picchu. I doubt I will do the “full”
Inca Trail (thought of being stuck with strangers for a 5 day hike
does not appeal) but I may do the “jungle trail” which involves
mountain biking, bits of the Inca Trail, and some more varied
activities to suit my total lack of attention span. Anyway that is
another country, and a few days from now. For the time being I need to
try and stay conscious long enough to make it on tonight´s bus, it´s
been a hell of a 3 days and we were up at 4AM today to play with
geysers.

Oh and for everyone who´s emailed or Facebook´d me recently: I will
try to catch up in the next couple of days as well. Cheers y´all!

In Uyuni, preparing to tour the Salar


We arrived in Uyuni today after a harrowing 7 hour bus journey
involving two tire changes (one to change the original tire, the
second to put the original, knackered tire back on) and many extra
passengers in the aisles, including children and pet dogs, and some
Quechua peasants who hadn´t seen the inside of a shower in a few
weeks. The road was dirt all the way, and had been washed away at
several points. Our bags were on the top of the bus, which was
somewhat concerning as we passed through a hail storm. What was more
concerning is that we were travelling with the same company that had
last night taken a corner at speed and tipped the bus over on its
side, scaring everyone to death, requiring another truck to winch it
upright, and continuing the rest of the journey, at least 2 hours,
with no headlights. Genius.

We arrived in Uyuni, at the edge of the great salt flats, with no
small relief. We had to settle for a random hotel ($7 per night) but
that´s ok as we take off first thing Friday for a 3 day tour of the
salt flats and the coloured lakes. I will therefore probably be out of
all contact (my phone doesnt work in this town either) until at least
Sunday or Monday. But I will in all probability be returning with some
very full, satisfied memory cards from my cameras. Can´t wait!

Visiting the mines of Cerro Rico, Potosi


Today we finally got around to taking the tour of the Cerro Rico mines. Various folks on the road had said that this was simultaneously a horrific and an essential experience to have. Other folks had said that you didn't know Potosi until you knew the mines, so we put all excuses aside and went for it.

I was game for it, but slightly anxious due to my faint knowledge of the 470-year history of the mines and the number of people (estimated at 8 million) who had perished inside the great Cerro Rico mountain during the colonial period of Spanish rule. Today around 25 miners a year die in accidents within these mines (compare that to 45 a year in all of the USA for all mines nationwide). And many more die from post-mine complications such as lung disease.

Our tour began at 8:45AM. We were led from the hostel up to a waiting bus, which whisked us up to the foot of the massive, imposing Cerro Rico, home of all the storied riches of Potosi.

There the tour company had a staging area where we were all to change into "miner's kit" consisting of gum boots, over trousers, jacket, hardhat, and web belt with battery for the headlamp. Then it was off to the miner's market, where our guide, Efraim, proceeded to throw sticks of dynamite at us, hold the sticks over an open flame, hold them in his mouth, and generally try to reassure us that without the requisite detonators and fuses, the dynamite was relatively safe.

So we all bought "gift bags" of dynamite+detonator+fuse together with a 2L bottle of soft drink, to give to the miners we encountered along the way. We were also encouraged to by big bags of coca leaves, at 5 Bolivianos a go, partly to help us through the mines, but partly to give out handfuls to miners as gifts.

Next stop was the processing plants, where the extracted rock from the mines was separated into silver, zinc, lead, and waste product. In a good load the waste product was only 85%, and that wasn't so common these days. The processing plants were mud huts with real Rube Goldberg devices separating out the various minerals through use of different chemical solvents – including several open tanks full to the brim with liquid cyanide, which was splashing out onto the floor every once in a while. We saw the extracted product, which didn't look like much, but I suppose it's enough to keep 120 families, and 5000 miners working in appalling conditions.

Finally it was D-Day, H-Hour, and we made our way slowly up the side of Cerro Rico to the entrance of the Candelaria mine, which has been in use since Conquistador days. Just as we were about to enter the mine, a motorised mine car train shot out of the entrance and missed us by inches. We entered, excited and nervous.

What followed was an incursion into the mines that took us 800m into the mountain and 55m down from the entrance – 4 levels. The passageways varied from spacious near the entrance to downright cramped – on several occasions we were on hands and knees and even then our backs were scraping the ceiling. And the passageways by which you made your descents and ascents were often little more than slanted tunnels, which due to the helmets and headlamps getting in the way, often meant you couldn't really see more than a few feet ahead of you. Dust filled the air, and rubble from those above you cascaded down around you. Soon you were filthy, hands caked in dust and grime, and you wondered if it were worth it to use your precious water for cleanliness rather than thirst. All the while, lungs bursting from the closeness of the air, the dust, and the all-pervading altitude – the entrance to Candelaria being around 4300m up – the highest I had ever been.

But this was all part of the experience, and any self-pity any of us might have indulged in was completely erased by the knowledge – and regular reminders – that generations of Potosians -almost all Quechuas – had spent the majority of their adolescent and adult lives in these very trying conditions.

We met a number of miners, from a 14-year-old boy to a 45-year-old veteran who had been working the mines since age 10. He was definitely at the upper end of the age range of the miners, as most of his contemporaries would have retired by then, either voluntarily or through the onset of lung disease. These were gruff fellows, but became friendly after a gift of dynamite and cola.

Our last stop was to pay a visit to Tio ("Uncle") also known as El Diablo, though in a "Lord of the Underground" sense rather than a Prince of Evil sense. This was a life-sized, clay figure wearing miner's gumboots, with an open mouth in which cigarettes could be placed, and an immense phallus – in this case broken, one hopes not as an omen. Every Friday and on special occasions, offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and other mining necessities are placed on and around the icon. Every mine in Cerro Rico has at least one, if not more of these icons. I offered a few coca leaves, just to be on the safe side. I seem to have made it back, so I guess it can't have hurted.

We have bought our bus tickets to Uyuni tomorrow, as apparently have the entire rest of this hostel. With luck this means we should be able to start a 4-day tour of the Uyuni salt flats and the coloured lakes on Friday, finishing Monday. Then for me it is looking like a large trek up back through Oruro, La Paz, and then onto Peru. My whole planned itinerary has been turned on its arse: rather than 2 weeks in Bolivia and 4 in Peru, it looks to end up the other way round. I'll be lucky to get Cuzco and Macchu Picchu in before I have to head for Lima and my flight back to Buenos Aires.

Off into the Potosi mines


We’ve bought our dynamite, detonators, fuses, bags of coca leaves, and soft drinks as gifts for the miners. Now it’s off for two hours in the pit of hell!

Categories: South America