Peru & Bolivia 2006
I can't say for certain why I felt so compelled to visit Machu Picchu. After all, going into this trip I knew very little history of the lost city of the Incas and even less about the people who once called it home. But, for whatever reason, it just kept calling me there. I suppose it's sort of like the Crosby Stills & Nash song, Southern Cross, which rejoices: "When you see the Southern Cross for the first time you understand now why you came this way." I decided to come this way in the middle of March, opting to take my chances toward the end of the region's rainy season. Just like anything else, this time of year has its pros and cons. On the positive side, there are considerably less tourists crawling over the ruins, the weather is a little warmer, and the mountainside is clean and green. In fact, the trail is actually closed throughout the entire month of February so repairs and upkeep can be done while the summer downpours give life to the flora and fauna. Prices during this part of the year are also discounted by most agencies, allowing some long-term travelers (who aren't strapped for time) to acquire great deals in Cuzco without pre-booking over the internet. Of course, the major drawback of hitting the trail in March is that it's wet. Very wet. Nevertheless, with only two weeks of travel away from work, I concentrated on the positives, visiting not only Machu Picchu, but also Lake Titicaca's Bolivian shore, Arequipa, and Lima. I hope that the information presented here will help others in their travels to understand why they came this way. (map: www.lonelyplanet.com)
Currency Exchange for Peruvian Soles and Bolivian Bolivianos:
$1 = S/. 3.25 = Bs 8.00
€1 = S/. 4.00 = Bs 9.60
£1 = S/. 5.80 = Bs 14.00
MARCH 14 :: CUZCO
My travels actually began on March 13th, arriving in Lima right around midnight. My connecting flight to Cuzco wasn't until six in the morning on the 14th. Sadly, most people trying to go straight into the old city sort of get stuck in this situation where there's a lot of time to kill, but not quite enough to justify going into Lima and getting a room for the night. By the time you get settled in, you have to be back at the airport. So, you camp out in the terminal. It's not so bad, really. Jorge Chavez International Airport is safe and clean, and you'll never find yourself alone. Your best bet is to just bring a book, have some Inca Kola, and talk to other travelers. It's all worth it once you get in the air and find yourself skimming over the snow-capped peaks of the Andes.
Upon arriving in Cuzco, and after sweating out a final mid-flight turn that brings the wings of the plane far closer to the mountains than one would ever wish them to be, I was met outside the airport by Michelle, the owner of my Inca Trail tour company - Llama Path. Transfer to my hostel was included as part of my package, and I was treated to a nice little 2-cent tour of the city. Now, if you're young, hip, and don't mind a little noise, the best place to crash in Cuzco is Loki Hostel... which is located at the top of Cuesta Santa Ana. Going down into the main part of the city isn't a problem, but getting back up takes commitment. Or a cab.
Having not slept for nearly 24 hours, I checked into the hostel, drank down some coca tea to help with any altitude sickness problems, and crashed out in my five person dorm room (S/. 28). When I finally woke up, I trudged down the hill to visit Cuzco's famous Plaza de Armas. A lively square in the center of town, the plaza is a great place to just hang out, watch people, and maybe have yourself a little a sunburn. Surrounded by gorgeous colonial architecture, there isn't a shortage of cafes, restaurants, and religious sites to keep you busy while you gasp for air at 11,600 feet (3,535 meters). You also won't find a shortage of little kids trying to sell you goddamn finger puppets.
With the help of a particularly friendly Peruvian on the BigSoccer message boards, I knew well before arriving in Cuzco that there was going to be a Copa Libertadores match on this night between Cienciano (the home side) and Caracas FC. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Copa Libertadores, this is the South American soccer championship between the best club teams throughout the entire continent - sort of like the European Champions League. Having assembled a rather large group from the hostel, we set off for a 9:30pm kickoff at Estadio Garcilaso de la Vega. Outside the stadium we purchased tickets for S/. 16. One actually doesn't obtain a specific seat, but rather a specific section. Once you are inside, you can sit anywhere you want among the hard, concrete terraces that circle the picture-perfect pitch. On this night, the local supporters provided a far better performance than the players as Cienciano defeated the Venezuelan club in a sloppy 2-1 game. We celebrated our victory by throwing back beers at Paddy Flaherty's Irish Pub.
MARCH 15 :: CUZCO
The hallmark sign of any truly great hostel is a bar with a view. Loki's fits the bill. With standard morning breakfast fare of bread, tea, and coffee, this upstairs room was the perfect place to meet other travelers or just have a beer at night while sitting by the fire. The kitchen also served nightly meals that, while I never managed to work one into my stay, I was told were quite good. Just off from the bar is a TV room and Internet room. Free internet is another modern-era hostel perk that separates the men from the boys.
I know it's strange to go on and on about some stupid hostel, but I found it quite impressive what the owners of Loki were able to do with this 450 year old house. The greatest thing about the whole place isn't even the architecture. It's the piping hot water that blasts out of their shower heads with such velocity that I fear it may have actually knocked ideas out of my head. A hot shower might not seem like much, but in certain parts of South America... it's royalty. My room is located, here, down in the middle with the open window. It gets cold at night in the Andes, but Loki's warm bed duvets certainly do the trick. And, with that, I'll stop singing their praises and let them do their own advertising. Besides, it's not all peaches and cream - it can get pretty loud at night. Of course, that's sorta why I stayed there.
With Peruvian elections being held on April 9th, campaigning was in full force. All throughout the cities and along painted rural walls, candidates, especially for President, were making their last efforts to win over voters. If I had a vote it would undoubtedly go to Javier Espinoza. I mean, just look at that poster. How can you not trust a guy giving you thumbs-up with a big toothy grin? Mark my words, Mr. Espinoza will soon be calling the shots. Interestingly, I learned that voting is mandatory in Peru, and failure to cast a ballot results in a fine. I don't exactly think forced democracy is the greatest idea, however I'm all in favor of voting day, in America, becoming a national holiday so that anyone who wants to be heard can enjoy the opportunity of going to the polls without having to ditch out of work. Viva Espinoza!
Leading up to my big hike on the Inca Trail, I spent this entire day relaxing by the plaza, exerting as little energy as possible. Norton Rat's Tavern, overlooking all the action, was a perfect place to throw down some more coca tea while diving into my book. Despite the wonderful medicinal qualities of the coca leaf, it remains illegal in the United States because, well, it can be turned into Cocaine. Of course, one could probably also take my pillow case, crush it up with a bunch of random chemicals, and blow lines of it off a mirror and get high... doesn't mean we shouldn't have pillow cases. Throughout my entire time spent at these super high altitudes, I never once felt altitude sickness. I think it only makes sense to attribute this to my constant consumption of coca tea. Not to support my government's policy, but it's possible that I developed a mild addiction to that sweet, hot water. Then again, it may have been the life-time supply of sugar I dumped into each mug.
Sure I had to be up at 6am to be picked up for the start of the Inca Trail, but what was the point in wasting a perfectly good evening? Here, with Emily from Denver, we shared a cold late-night cerveza by the upstairs fire after having a terrific Mexican dinner somewhere along one of the alleys just off of the Plaza de Armas. I find it a cruel reality of travel that, often, just when you start meeting some cool people to hang out with at the hostel it's time for you to move on down the road.
MARCH 16 :: INCA TRAIL
When Michelle picked me up at the airport in Cuzco two days earlier, she explained to me that my four person group for the Inca Trail would include me and three Swedish girls. After I picked myself up off the floorboards of the car, I calmly replied something like, "Four people... that's a nice size group." A day later, me and the ladies met for the first time at the Llama Path office for our pre-trek meeting. From left to right: Anna, Johanna, Luckiest Man on the Planet, and Helen.
Having stayed up almost all night, I was less than coherent for my 6:30am pickup at the hostel. Packed into a large mini-van, me and the Swedes were joined by our guide - Flavio, our cook, and seven porters. Yes... seven porters. We drove about an hour and a half to the small town of Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast and the opportunity to purchase any last minute supplies. Pretty much every group stops here before hitting the trail, and it's nearly impossible to get even a toe out of the van without being bombarded by local merchants selling you walking sticks. Buy one. For S/. 2.50, you'll be happy you did. Around 10:30am, we reached the official starting point of the Inca Trail.
Over the past several years, as the Inca Trail's popularity among travelers reached outrageous proportions, new rules and regulations were implemented by the Peruvian government. One such rule limits the amount of weight a porter may carry to 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds). Here, at a separate checkpoint, porters from all groups weigh in before continuing on the trail. There simply isn't enough that can be said about these guys as they literally run up the mountain (often wearing old, worn out sandals) to set up camp for the hikers. I chose to carry my own pack - partly frugality, mostly honor. The girls, however, opted to pay the extra $30 for porter assistance. Somewhere in the middle of day-two, I began to question the merits of honor.
Meet Flavio, the guide. While most people sit behind a computer screen and a desk all day, wasting away the hours until it's safe to sneak out of that dreary maze of padded cubicle walls and industrial carpet, Falvio's office is the snowcapped peaks of the Andes Mountains. Whereas your payoff at the end of a long work week might be losing the tie for casual Friday, Flavio's reward is watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Despite the fact that we can all just go ahead and hate him for this, I'm still going to give Flavio a nice public thank-you for being a terrific guide.
When all was said and done, the first day of hiking turned out to be pretty much stress free. Passing through scenic countryside at a nice, leisurely pace, your hiking legs get a proper warm-up before the mighty beast that is day-two. Of course, the real moral of the story is that it's OK to enjoy a cerveza or two the night before you set off on the trail. Trust me... you'll be fine. Wayllabamba, our campsite on that first night, was a soft, grassy terrace with great sightlines of the surrounding mountains. Dinner was trout. Starting altitude: 8,923 feet (2,720 meters) Camp Altitude: 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) Total Distance: 6.8 miles (11 km)
MARCH 17 :: INCA TRAIL
This was the maiden voyage for my new REI Polar Pod +20 sleeping bag, and I'm happy to report that - wearing only boxer shorts - I stayed perfectly warm throughout the night. Outside the tent, things were a little less pleasing. It had started to rain sometime during the early morning hours, and we woke up at 6am to a steady drizzle. Of course, we also woke up to hot coca tea, served to us in our tents by the porters. Despite the fact that it was raining, I chose to dress, once again, in my nylon cargo shorts and red, polyester baseball shirt. I would actually wear this each and every day on the trail. The theory was that (A) I would warm up once I started moving and (B) there was little sense in mucking up my warm, dry camp attire. Basically, in the spirit of packing lightly, I had only brought along two changes of clothes. While there were some cold, uncomfortable moments, this line of thinking paid off each and every night when I slipped out of the stinky wetness into a perfectly dry, perfectly clean bliss. Brilliant!
An Irish guy at the hostel in Cuzco had warned me that the second day was one of the most difficult experiences of his life. Agreed. There's just no sugar coating it... day two is a bitch. Essentially, you start your morning going up, and then continue going up. Next, you go up a little more until you reach this spot where you keep going up. From there, you go up. After that, all you have to do is proceed in an upward direction. Honestly, it seemed like every time I turned a corner, it was just more and more incline. The worst of it comes after lunch (the final agonizing push starting somewhere below those clouds at the end of my stick). No talking... just pain. However, you do finally reach Dead Woman's Pass, and from there it's all downhill to the campsite. Though it was cold and rainy for most of the day, I couldn't even fathom what it would have been like under warm, sunny skies.
While we were certainly happy to have arrived in camp to lay back and throw our feet up, the site at Pacaymayu wasn't as soft and cozy as the night before. Fortunately, Flavio had sent one of the porters ahead of everyone else to secure a proper view. Spectacular. The sun had come out about two hours before we reached the tents, and we were greeted by the glistening glaciers atop the San Gabriel Mountains. Starting altitude: 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) Peak Altitude: 13,779 feet (4,200 meters) Camp Altitude: 11,646 feet (3,550 meters) Total Distance: 7.4 miles (12 km)
Each night, just as we arrived into camp, the cook had hot coffee and tea waiting for us in the dining tent, along with warm popcorn and various other snacks. We would usually set up our gear and then settle into full relaxation mode, tearing into whatever food had been prepared. By some freak of nature, on this particular night, Anna and I had each found some reserve storage of energy for a stick fight we had been promising each other. With the sun going down and an hour to kill until supper, the battle was on. The net result was a few whacks on the shins and two slighly out of breath hikers. As with any other childish idea conjured up in the Andes, I chalked this one up to the altitude. Anyway, I just get a kick out of this photo.
I'd love to be able to walk away from this whole experience with some false, inflated sense of ruggedness. However, it's hard to justify "mountain man" status when you have a team of porters hauling most of the gear and a cook serving up amazing meals like this. Not to take anything away from the difficulty of trudging up these mountains at high altitudes, but conquering the Inca Trail is sort of like conquering a Carnival Cruise. Just think of it as being on board one of the Fun Ships while spending almost every waking moment on the treadmill.
It only figures that St. Patrick's Day would fall on a Friday night this year, offering full potential to desperate party-goers around the world on the Super Bowl of drinking. And where would I be? Eleven-thousand feet on top of a mountain in South America, of course. To be honest, I wouldn't have had it any other way. Johanna, bless her heart, had the foresight to bring along a little hooch (though, as a Swede, I'm not entirely positive she had St. Paddy's day in mind). Either way, we sat up in the dining tent and polished off a colorful bottle of Anil (it sort of tasted like Ouzo). The girls sang traditional Swedish drinking songs, I belted out some of my favorite Irish tunes, and Flavio stared at us as though he was living through a bad dream. I blame the altitude. Skål!
MARCH 18 :: INCA TRAIL
Day two of the Inca Trail is traditionally the day from hell. However, if you ask most anyone who began the hike on March 16th, 2006, they'd likely tell you that it was day three that had them questioning the existence of God. From the moment we woke up to about an hour and a half before reaching camp, water came down from the skies as though it would never stop. Such is life during the Andean rainy season. That said, I believe it says a lot about this experience that the trail and the challenge continued to be enjoyable. We couldn't see much scenery through the low clouds that swept in and covered the mountain, but we still felt like we were a part of something truly amazing. It was that, or the altitude high.
Over the past three days we had passed by and through several different Inca sites of varying size and majesty. All were interesting in their own rite, but, for me, it wasn't until we reached the Wiñay Huayna ruins at camp three that the history of this entire civilization burst into life. Though the sun had finally come up to warm the skies, we were still cold, wet, and terrifically exhausted, and it took every ounce of drive within us to drag our sorry butts just those few hundred feet past our campsite to see this magnificent site. Clearly, it was worth the extra effort. Like a schoolboy who finally found a subject he liked, I began rattling off questions for Flavio at an excited pace. What is this? What is that? How did they make those? In a single moment's glance, this whole thing became very real to me.
In trying to determine what made Wiñay Huayna stand out among all the other ruins I had seen thus far, I determined that it came down to one or more of the following: grandeur, space, and mental insanity. By and large, this site was just massive. With terraces lining the depth of the hill, falling down from the main structures, Wiñay Huayna fills your entire frame of your vision - it's big and it's grand. From within the ruins, standing behind one of the windows, you can look out on the furthest mountains leading out from the river below. That space creates a feeling of superiority, as though you might very well control the entire region before you - distance creating majesty. Of course, as completely exhausted as we were, it's also just possible that I could have found a medium-sized cardboard box to be the kingdom of heaven.
While the ruins, here, were all fine and good, it's worth stepping back for a moment to note that today's hike was, at times, just as daunting as the second day. Starting with some challenging uphill climbs through the pouring rain, we finally reached another pass that finally indicated the beginning of our long-awaited downward ascent. However, this is no easy task. Extended drop-offs, lined with slippery rocks, make the final stages of the day difficult on the knees. This is where your walking stick really begins to pay off in spades. The end, leading right into camp, is a series of stairs that, sort of without you even realizing it, beats the hell out of your legs. But, like I've already mentioned, it's all worth it when you get to Wiñay Huayna. Starting altitude: 11,646 feet (3,550 meters) Peak Altitude: 13,123 feet (4,000 meters) Camp Altitude: 8,792 feet (2,680 meters) Total Distance: 9.3 miles (15 km)
After two days of rain, we were all thoroughly soaked to the bone - our tents became poorly functioning dry lines. Still, no matter how wet and nasty we were feeling, and no matter how long we had gone without a good shower, there was always something really nice about showing up into camp to find bars of soap with buckets of hot, clean water for washing our face and hands. There were actual pay showers available to hikers at the third camp, but I was just as content to skip the long lines and splash myself down from the bucket on the ground. Then I chased my tail for twenty minutes and gnawed on a tennis ball.
After dinner with a little wine, we presented our cook and porters with their tip. Then the girls sang them a traditional Swedish song which may or may not have been about getting drunk. I really don't know. The porters returned the honor by singing us a traditional Andean tune which, for as best as we could tell, may or may not have been about hating wealthy foreigners who pack too much crap for a four-day hike. Since the only traditional American song I could think of that had anything to do with expressing gratitude was that horrible Whitney Houston song from The Bodyguard, I chose to remain silent. But I did do a lot of clapping...
The third night of the Inca Trail tends to be a rather special evening. Having completed all the really hard parts - all the giant uphill battles through horrible weather and dizzying altitudes - hikers are treated to, well, a bar. From day one, you end up passing, being passed by, and dining close to numerous other adventurers taking on this experience with different companies. While you never really get to know them as closely as you get to know the people in your own group, there's still sort of this shared sense of camaraderie. Perhaps it's just a quick glance at another tired backpacker that says, "I can't believe we paid to f-----g do this." But however small those connections may be, there's no greater catalyst for conversation and renewed spirits than cheap beer and bad salsa music. It's not a terribly late evening (everyone has to be up at 4am), but it's great to finally let loose a little with all the other travelers, your guide, and any porters who might wander into the cantina hoping for a complimentary drink... on you. Seriously, though, if anyone deserves a cold cerveza, it's the porters. Me and the girls ended up closing the bar down at 10:30pm. Yeah, we're pretty hard core.
I've included this picture for no other reason but to humiliate Helen and Anna.
MARCH 19 :: CUZCO (INCA TRAIL AND MACHU PICCHU)
The final day of the Inca Trail began at 4am. It was dark outside when that wakeup call came down from the porter, and for just a short time after breakfast I actually had to use my head torch. But it didn't take long for the sun to light up the sky, revealing the promise of a picture perfect afternoon. Perhaps we owe it to the stone offering Johanna made to the mountain on the second day (I asked for wealth beyond compare), but no matter what it was that brought us this good fortune, we couldn't have been happier to be out of the rain - certainly, we had paid our dues. With sore knees, I joined all of the other groups as we trudged along the trail in a single file line, quietly following the narrow path. Starting altitude: 8,792 feet (2,680 meters) Sun Gate: 8,956 feet (2,730 meters) Machu Picchu: 7,874 feet (2,400 meters) Total Distance: 3.7 miles (6 km)
It only takes about an hour and a half to reach the famous Sun Gate and your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Though it was still about 40 minutes to the actual ruins, everyone took a nice, long rest to enjoy the view as the sun rose at our backs. Twice a year, during the winter and summer solstice (June 21st and December 21st, respectively), the sun shines directly over this gate and through a window cut into the Temple of the Sun. So, if you plan your trip well, you can enjoy this little added bonus when you make your way down. Also seen here, the winding main road leading down to Machu Picchu City (often mistakenly referred to as Aguas Calientes).
I give you... Machu Picchu. The Incas, having thrived for only about a hundred years spanning the 15th and 16th century, lived, primarily, in Cuzco. However, Machu Picchu served as a spiritual city in the mountains. Though its importance somewhat pales in comparison to Cuzco, it's the most well recognized symbol of the empire because, well, it survived. As the Spanish came into Incan parts of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, an Chile in the early to mid 1500's, they began wiping our and enslaving the native people in their pursuit of acquiring gold. Cities, such as Cuzco, were taken over and destroyed so the Spanish could rebuild them using their own architecture. It is believed, then, that the Incas fled places like Machu Picchu for Vilcabamba (the last Incan stronghold) so that they might avoid further Spanish invasions and preserve their land. The Spanish never stumbled upon Machu Picchu, and, over time, the jungles grew wildly over the stonework. It wasn't until 1911 that Machu Picchu was finally "discovered" by an American, Hiram Bingham. Traveling for Yale University and National Geographic, Bingham stayed over on a ranch close to the covered ruins while on his way to Vilcabamba. When heavy rains forced him to stick around, he began speaking with the local farmers who told him about Machu Picchu. Those farmers had been there since 1902 and truly discovered the ancient city when one of them burned down the foliage. They shared their knowledge with Bingham, who then spread the word of his amazing discovery. To show his appreciation for the people, the country, and the land, he then borrowed a bunch of artifacts and never returned them. (Note: This is the history as best I understood it through Flavio's story-telling. Feel free to help me with any inaccuracies.)
Machu Picchu is quite big, and it's incredibly satisfying to stand back from the whole thing to take in all of its grandeur. However, I found it absolutely fascinating to get right up close to the masonry. This photo shows, in detail, the amazing precision of their stonework.
My attempt at black and white... One of the nice perks about doing the Inca Trail, rather than coming up to Machu Picchu on the gringo train, is that you get several hours of relative peace before the day-tourists arrive in their full safari gear (I still don't get this). The only drawback to hiking in is that you tend to be thoroughly exhausted by the time you get there. After our 2.5 hour tour with Flavio, I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring on my own, even taking a short nap in the shade. Around 1pm, the buses started arriving en masse and I knew it was time to take my leave. Turning away is more difficult than it sounds. Eventually, I was able to force myself onto the bus and down to Machu Picchu City. By the way, before you leave the park make sure to get your passport stamped at the main office. It's unnecessary, but kind of fun to have.
The bus snakes its way down the steep mountain from Machu Picchu to the village, and riders are amused by kids who run down, stopping at each bend in the road to wave and yell at the bus. By the time you reach the bottom, about twenty minutes, you realize that the kids have accomplished an amazing feat. The driver will let them on the bus and, so long as you have something that resembles a heart, you'll drop them a sole or two. Our group, which had splintered up during the day, met at a popular restaurant called Chaski, and from there we made our way over to the PeruRail train back to Cuzco (included by Llama Path). Unfortunately, on this particular day, our train took us only as far as Ollantaytambo where we then hopped into taxis (with Llama Path representatives... no extra charge on our end). By 7:30pm, we were back in Cuzco - thus ending the Inca Trail. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and went to bed... but only after a piping hot shower.
MARCH 20 :: PUNO
I woke up at 6:45am so I could get the earlierst possible bus south to Puno in hopes of pushing on through to the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Though I was told the earliest possible bus was at 8am, I managed to land a S/. 15 ride at 7:30am with the San Luis line. Of course, in true South American fashion, the 6-hour ride took 8 hours, getting me into Puno at 3:30pm. Bolivia is one hour ahead of Peru, but I still thought I could make it. However, a man pushing his hotel and tour company came on to our bus in Juliaca, 45 minutes shy of Puno, and explained to me that the Bolivian border closes at 5:30pm, making it impossible to get across. I abandoned hope of getting into Copacabana in one day, and buckled to the pressure of staying in the guy's hotel. I would later learn that the Bolivian border really closes at 7:30pm. So, perhaps it is possible to get to Bolivia in one day from Cuzco without taking an overnighter... I still just don't know. That was a lot of numbers - I'm sorry.
After checking into my crap-ass lodging for the night, La Casa Del Virrey, I was picked up and taken to the waterfront for my afternoon visit to the Uros Islands. In fact, my room, tour, and morning bus to Copacabana, Bolivia were all packaged together by the hotel guy for S./ 50. The Uros Islands, just a short ride out from the shore, are a group of actual floating islands constructed of reeds. People actually live and work on the islands, and they've even managed to harness a little solar power.
Anyone planning a visit to Lake Titicaca, at one point or another, hears about these islands. For that reason, they have become ultra touristy - sort of a floating junk market. So, leading up to my journey south, I was more than prepared to skip the whole thing. However, seeing as I had to spend the night in Puno, I decided - what the hell. Yes, it was touristy. However, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the unique experience - it feels like you're walking on the moon. It's a quick visit, and after the short bilingual seminar, we had a little free time to explore. If you can get past the sitting merchants with their commonplace tourist junk, the Uros Islands are actually sort of a good time. Cute, dirty kids are always a bonus.
For S/. 5, you can ride a reed raft over to one of the other islands (the tourist boat just sort of coasts over there to meet you). The money goes directly to the people - not the tour company - and it's quite soothing to glide slowly along the lake. The ladies even let each of us paddle for a bit... how very Tom Sawyer of them.
To my surprise, despite all the horrible things I had heard about Puno, I found the city to have more than enough charm for one evening out on the town. On Jr. Lima, a pedestrian street jutting out from the main plaza, I found numerous bars and restaurants - most offering free Cuba Libres just to get you in the door. It worked. After having two rounds with a fantastic Hawaiian pizza at a little joint called Deja Vu Pizzeria Pub (just off the main drag), I ended up having a couple more freebies on the balcony of Ekeko's Pub. It was totally void of any patrons, save for yours truly, so I made myself comfortable and enjoyed a sudden rainstorm. One night in Puno was more than enough, but I certainly didn't have a horrible time.
MARCH 21 :: COPACABANA
I'm not a violent person, but I could very easily have murdered the barking dogs outside my window at the Casa de Crap-o-la. Needless to say, I was quite happy to get back on the road and on my way to Bolivia. The gringo bus for Copacabana left Puno at 7:30am and arrived, here, at the border at 10am... which leads me to believe that, had my ride from Cuzco not taken 8 hours and had there been a 3 o'clock-ish bus to Copacabana, making the whole trip in one day may have been possible. Bygones. At the border I exchanged S/. 100 and received 220 Bolivianos (Bs)... which is about 18 Bs less than a perfect exchange. Of course, that's only two bucks. So, considering that there's always a fee involved with changing money, I can report that it’s perfectly fine to go ahead and make the transaction at the border. Once passing through Peruvian customs, everybody has to actually walk over the border and go through Bolivian customs. Both sides are quick and easy, and the bus is waiting, ready to take you the final 5 miles (8km) to Copacabana. By the way, it may be worth purchasing a candy bar at the border just so you can have small Boliviano change for the Bs 1 Copacabana city entrance fee that you end up paying on the bus.
Copacabana is a fantastic little town right on the shore of Lake Titicaca. That said, it’s in no way a true image of life in Bolivia. Much like, say, Montañita in Ecuador, this is gringo town. Fortunately, despite the fact that the locals know you’re coming, there are still plenty of dirt cheap places to stay while you relax for a couple of days. Because I wasn’t really counting my every last penny on this short, two-week vacation, I ended up splurging on a proper hotel. By that I mean a $5 private room overlooking the water. Hey, big spender! My Xanadu was the Hotel Mirador, pictured below… it’s the two-tiered salmon colored one along the shore, just below that large green patch of grass. After checking in, I spent much of the morning exploring the town, watching organized court soccer by the water, and having lunch at the popular Restaurant Colonial.
Sadly, for those who get bored easily, there really isn’t much to do in Copacabana after you’ve walked up and down the main strip four or five times. However, if you are perfectly content just to climb a tall hill and enjoy a spectacular view, there’s Cerro Calvario (Calvary Hill). From a distance it seems like a nice, leisurely stroll, but it’s actually kind of a strenuous 30 minute hike to the top. Once you make it up, your efforts are rewarded by some interesting monuments and crosses that, I believe, may represent Jesus’ last procession through Jerusalem. It's also entirely possible that these are gravesites for travelers who underestimated both the Cerro and the altitude. Honestly, though, it's not that bad, and definitely worth the effort.
Of course, you are also rewarded by a 360 degree panorama view of Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. I ended up spending three hours on top of the hill, staring out over the water, reading my book, and relaxing under a perfectly sunny sky. There’s a strange, unwritten code of silence up there, and I found everyone to be incredibly respectful of other people’s tranquility. I only managed to peel myself down when it became quite clear that I wasn’t going to get my sunset… low clouds over the horizon. Later that night I had a decent meal at Mankha Uta with a lone Argentinean traveler I had met earlier. The town was pretty dead, actually, but we still enjoyed some live guitar-n-bongo music with our dinner.
MARCH 22 :: COPACABANA (ISLE DEL SOL)
Most everyone who visits Copacabana spends at least one full day on Isle del Sol – many spend the night. From here, it’s the lakes biggest attraction. While one can just show up at the harbor at around 8:00am and grab a boat ticket, I chose to purchase mine the day before (Grace Tours: Bs 20). The cost is the same whether you buy at the harbor or in town… perhaps there are availability issues in the high season. It was a horrible, rainy morning when we set off at 8:30am, packed like sardines inside this old, wooden vessel containing nothing that resembled a life jacket. If this thing went Titanic on us, we were pretty much doomed. The rain seeping in through the boards of the ceiling didn’t help ease this fear, nor did it make for a particularly pleasant two-hour ride. I just held on to my hope that this weather would clear away – others explained to me that it was like this every morning. Clearly, from looking at this photograph, things got better.
Arriving at the north end of the island, we were greeted by a guide who herded us over to a ticket booth and museum. The Bs 10 ticket, we were told, was for access to the trail and the exhibit. Many of us, however, had our doubts. Nevertheless, we paid up and perused the lackluster artifacts and photographs of what, despite the unspectacular display, was actually quite an interesting story about newly discovered underwater artifacts – sort of like the remains of a Titicaca Atlantis. From there, as the sun burst through the parting clouds, we took to the trail. Most hikers chose to ditch the tour guide because it was slow and in Spanish, and enjoyed the 3-plus hour journey to the south end of the island. Along the way, when I wasn’t busy getting lost, there was plenty of terrific views of the reflective water and old Inca sites along the arid hills. For those, such as myself, who were only doing the day trip, the boat leaves for Copacabana a little after 3:30pm. Many of us sat on the roof, soaking in the warm rays of the setting sun… which then dipped below some distant clouds, once again shattering the possibility of seeing a sunset.
Back on the mainland, I watched a little organized court soccer as the sky grew darker into the night. It was there, while watching the game, that I ran into Cecilia and Lena, two (entirely new) Swedish girls that I had actually first met on the bus into Puno. They had just arrived in Copa and, having just spoken to a Danish girl about some great place to have dinner, invited me to join them for a little chili con carne. After the relatively quiet evening I had experienced the night before, I was pleased that things were already looking up. The town, itself, even seemed to be buzzing with a little more energy. Who knows… maybe Wednesday night is when things start to pick up around here.
The restaurant the girls had been told to visit was a little place called Chirlmoskl. I have no idea what the name means, nor can I find any mention of it on the internet, but I have no reservations in giving it two enthusiastic thumbs up. Situated right on the waterfront, close the soccer court, this little hole in the wall joint served up some fantastic vittles. The chef is this tall, quirky, bearded German guy (seen here in the window) who may or may not also be the owner. I really have no idea. Either way, he speaks English, and can make one hell of a chili con carne. With lightning storm blasting out over the lake, we sat in there next to our large open window, sharing a couple large beers, listening to jazz and Bob Marley, and savoring the food. Besides the chili, he also serves all of his patrons some soft chunks of bread for dipping in two different garlic sauces and two different hot sauces. Just a great restaurant – go for the chili!
After dinner, we walked up the main strip and settled into Copa’s coziest little hangout café, Akwaaba. With pillows on the floor and low tables, this is the ideal bohemian place to sip tea, drink beer, play cards, and have a great philosophical discussion about just about anything. Cecila, on the left, and Lena were great company for the evening, and I found myself wanting to bottle up the atmosphere to take home to The States… it was the anti-Starbucks. Even after the girls retired for the evening, I stuck around until late, chatting it up with a group of five travelers from Ireland. No other country, at least from what I have experienced, has provided me with friendlier, livelier, more intelligent people than the Emerald Isle.
MARCH 23 :: AREQUIPA (TRAVEL DAY)
For whatever reason, buses don't depart from Copa until 1:30pm. The likely reason for this is because they need to come in from La Paz and Puno, but my gut tells me that city officials are just trying to suck out a few more Bolivianos from the tourists before they let you jet out of town. If the latter theory holds any truth - it worked. However, before spending the last of my currency on a cheap bag and giant lunch pizza at Pueblo Viejo, I stood around the waterfront for a short while, enjoying a festival that included marching bands and a parade. I have no idea what they were celebrating, but there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on the city and the lake.
Before lunch, I finally managed to check out Copa's church - an attraction that dates back to the 16th century, and boasts both Spanish and Islamic architecture. Apparently, the big thing to do is have your car blessed outside the church, but I didn't really notice any of this going on. The church is also known for its dark virgin which, for whatever reason, seems to attract pilgrims from both Bolivia and Peru. Anyway, it's worth checking out while you're in Copa... especially when you have to kill time before your 1:30pm bus. I had actually purchased my ticket to Arequipa from Turismo Yaneth late in the afternoon on my first day in Copa. Pretty much all the different tour companies sell this for about Bs 80, and they say it takes about 9 hours to make your way over to Peru's "White City." However, by the end of the night all I was seeing was red.
Every traveler has at least one really bad day every couple of weeks - one of those days where nothing runs on time and nothing goes well. This was that day. The only solace one can hope to take from such a miserable experience is that perhaps all the bad vibes have been packed neatly into one awful 24-hour period. Of course, everything seemed fine at first. I even managed a good laugh at this large, painted wall outside the public bathroom by the Bolivian immigration office. However, once I got to Puno it all went downhill. We arrived at 4pm, and, according to my purchased itinerary from Yaneth, my connection was set to leave half an hour later. Not so much. At first I was told that I would have to wait until 6 or 7pm, but I insisted that they get me on an earlier bus. Well aware that this was South America, and cognizant of the fact that these kind of delays are pretty commonplace, I was still willing to push the matter in hopes of persuading the ticket guy from my first bus into getting me out there a little closer to the time I was promised. The best I could do was a 5:30pm ride with Julsa lines. The trip, which is only supposed to take about five hours, ended up lasting an excruciating seven. At times we just sat there on the side of the highway for no apparent reason, cold and damp from leaking rain water, while frustrated passengers banged on the floorboards of the upper level. When we finally arrived in Arequipa (well past midnight) I ended up splitting a cab with a young British couple into the main part of the city. After dropping them off at a randomly chosen guesthouse by the Plaza de Armas, the driver took me over to The Point Hostel. Only to make things worse, the dark roads seemed to pull me far out of the way into the suburbs. When I got to the hostel and peaked inside, I found the place empty and quiet... a total ghost town. I actually had the driver turn around and go back to the plaza because there was no way I was going to be that alone and that far away from all the action during my final days in Peru. However, motivated by my obligation to honor a reservation I had made over a month ago (and persuaded by the fact that all the rat-trap rooms I checked out along the plaza seemed less than cheerful), I sucked it up and returned to The Point, finally settling into a bed for the night and hoping to wake up to a better day.
MARCH 24 :: AREQUIPA
(Note: As I tell the story of this particular day, I'm using several images from the Santa Catalina Convent as a backdrop. Though, chronologically, I'm not quite there yet, it was just too amazing not to show as many photographs as possible.) I woke up to a perfect Arequipa morning, sunshine blasting in through the window of my single room (S/. 35.75). Simply opening my eyes to this clean slate made me feel a million times better than the day before. Determined to have a great day, I strolled downstairs to the dining room and enjoyed a complimentary breakfast of tea, bread, and fruit. Unlike the previous night when I first came into the hostel, there now seemed to be more signs of life - granted, most of these signs appeared to be nursing Arequipa hangovers.
I explored the hostel a bit more and found it to be everything one could possibly ask for in a budget travel accommodation... free internet, ping pong, TV room, bar, grassy courtyard, and more. Feeling completely relaxed, I began speaking with a friendly Dutch girl, and we decided to walk on over to the Plaza de Armas. This was my only remaining fear about The Point. At least judging from my cab ride over, I expected this to be a rather long walk just to get out of our residential neighborhood and into the heart of the city. Fifteen minutes. That's all it took. It was quite nice, actually. Too often, while traveling in countries like Peru, you find yourself in one of two types of places - the ultra touristy, or the ultra impoverished. Cuzco and Copacabana are perfect examples of the former. Conversely, most of Puno and various villages along the way represent the latter. Strolling along these middle class streets of Arequipa I felt as though I had a better idea as to what life was really like in this country. It wasn't a tourist trap, and it wasn't a slum (or basic needs community). It was just Peruvian life at, perhaps, its more common level.
The Plaza de Armas was spectacular. Arequipa gets its nickname "The White City" because of the white volcanic rock (sillar) that is used in the construction of many of its buildings. With almost 300 days of sun every year, that sun reflects off the walls around town creating an explosion of bright light. Dutch girl (who probably has an actual name) and I decided to, first, check out the San Francisco Cathedral. I sort of tired on Cathedrals somewhere around number ten million during my 2003 trip to Europe, but I was, nevertheless, quite impressed with Arequipa's. Outside, the square was teeming with life on this glorious day. Dutch girl, on the other hand, was teeming with parasites and decided to head back to the hostel. Back on my own, I decided to check out some of the local shops, first searching for an acoustic bass guitar and then some food. Though I found plenty of guitars and music shops right around the square, my ongoing search for a decent acoustic bass would have to wait until I got back to The States. Food, however, was plentiful. I chose to eat at El Turko, a small dönor kebab joint with a cozy, outdoor patio. Two things that need to happen in America: dönor kebabs and large, share-able beers.
After lunch I finally made my way over to Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Not to downplay Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca, but this was undoubtedly one of the top highlights of the entire trip. As far as tourist activities go in South America, a tour of the convent is a little pricy. At S/. 25, I spoke with several backpackers who were actually opting not to go. Horrible idea... just pony up the eight bucks and enjoy one of the most beautiful architectural wonders you might ever see. Construction of the monastery began in 1579, forty years after the founding of Arequipa. Over the centuries, as it continued to grow and expand, it became a city within the city - a citadel that encompasses a large city block. Give yourself at least a couple of hours as there's really no point in rushing through this one.
The streets within the monastery honor several cities in Spain, their names etched into the brightly painted walls. At one time, 450 nuns resided here, and their unique lifestyle is beautifully preserved in each of the rooms one encounters along the walking self-tour. From the gorgeous courtyards to the remarkable cloisters, there's nothing about this place that doesn't make you appreciate the time and effort that went into both it's design and construction. The monastery is open from 9:00am to 4:00pm... the final exit time is 5:00pm.
After the monastery, I decided to chill out for a little while at one of the many upstairs restaurants overlooking the Plaza de Armas. I randomly chose a place called Sonccollay. Sitting on the balcony, enjoying my view of all the action down below, I ordered a mug of gourmet chicha, the Andean fermented corn beer. The chicha I had tried from the villagers on the Inca Trail was quite foul, but my S/. 3 Jora Aha (Purple Corn Beer) was delicious and sweet. While I nursed my low alcohol beverage and wrote in my journal, I enjoyed an Andean folk band playing further down the balcony at a different restaurant. It was a perfectly laid back afternoon, and I couldn't have been happier with the way things had turned out in Arequipa.
As I was finishing my chicha, the owner of the restaurant came out to say hello. He was a large, burly man with lots of hair and great pork chop sideburns - a Peruvian Elvis. His name was Walter Bustamante, and he invited me to come tour his kitchen. I was well aware that he was just trying to convince me to order dinner, but I was rather interested in checking the place out. What I figured to be just a hard sales pitch turned out to be a great experience. A small, dark room with a fireplace and large grill is where all the magic happens. With no modern cooking tools, and with no pre-prepared dishes, Walter explained the unique cooking process he had learned from his family elders. Then he opened up the grill to reveal a giant alpaca leg, glistening on top of large, black volcanic river rocks heated by hot coals underneath. I was sold. Having promised Walter that I would return the following night for an alpaca dinner, he sent me up to the roof with one of his servers to enjoy the view.
I decided to walk back to The Point before it got to dark, and found almost every guest in the TV room watching The Constant Gardener. I joined the group for an hour or so and then showered up for what I hoped would be a good night out on the town. Friday night is rum night at the hostel, and, between the hours of 8 and 10, one could throw back as many cuba libres as humanly possible for S/. 12. Danny, the Irish bartender, made quite sure that everybody got enough. Eventually, after ordering a pizza with another British guy, several of us settled in for some pre-going-out foosball and extreme Jenga. Extreme Jenga is pretty much like regular Jenga, except for the fact that the blocks are sawed off 2X4s that get dangerously restacked on top after they are pulled. People in other countries can actually hear the crash when the tower finally collapses, but only the faulty puller has to digest the horrible, green penalty shot. I have no idea what kind of liquor was in the glass, but it didn't seem to go down easy for any of the punished. Finally, around 11:30pm, we set off in multiple cabs for the Plaza de Armas. My remaining memories from the rest of the night involve cuba libre pitchers at Brewhouse, a nightclub called Deja Vu, and a taxi ride home while eating the spiciest dönor kebab known to mankind. I must've asked for it with everything. I don't even want to think about what everything may have actually been.
MARCH 25 :: AREQUIPA
Spent a greater part of the morning watching English Premier League soccer in the TV room (Liverpool v Everton and Chelsea v Manchester City). One of my favorite perks of traveling is that I can always find soccer on TV, whereas in The States I'd be stuck with anything but. After having my fill, I ventured out into another perfect Arequipa day. I killed a little time wandering around the Plaza de Armas, and then settled into a small cafe on a back alley to read my book. My solitude was interrupted by a parade that grew larger and louder as it poured in closer to the main square. Ever the voyeur, I settled my bill and watched the remainder of this presidential campaign rally for Pastor Humberto Lay Sun of the National Restoration Party. My support still lies with Javier Espinoza... the man who says everything he needs to say with a toothy grin and a thumbs up!
I had held out on eating pretty much all day in anticipation of my alpaca dinner at Sonccollay. When I made my way upstairs, I found Walter in his kitchen, standing intensely over his grill. He greeted me with a giant, hearty handshake, and proceeded to explain the alpaca options on the menu before having his server show me to my table on the patio. I settled on the alpaca leg dinner for S/. 18... this included two giant pieces of alpaca served on hot, volcanic rocks, a salad of tomatoes, potatoes, avocado, and several other tasty bits, and a dipping sauce for everything. Walter arrived at my table as the meal was being served, and gave me a menacing smile as I searched the table for eating utensils. With giant fists extending out from his massive frame, he growled, "Now, attack with hands!"
Meet Walter Bustamante, the culinary brains behind "magic ancient cuisine." After dinner, we snapped a couple photos in his kitchen - in my hands I hold the giant alpaca leg from which came my dinner, and below us lies the grill from which my dinner became yummy. Before leaving, we stepped over to his bar and had a shot of Pisco. Before throwing it down, Walter instructed me, several times, to dip my finger in the liquor and flick a drop to the ground. Each time we toasted something different... mother Earth, our parents, our friends, our health, and so on and so forth until I feared that there may not be any more Pisco left in my glass. I guess this is sort of a common practice, for even on the Inca Trail Flavio had made a point of offering both food and drink to the ground. Finally, I took my leave and returned to the hostel.
Back at the hostel, I sat down at one of the low-sit tables with Nina (German / Polish), John (English), and Max (Austrian) to teach them how to play Hearts. A game that sort of became our college lifeblood for me and my roomies in the famous Macomb House in Washington, DC, Hearts was completely new to my foreign friends. Amazingly, Max managed to win the damn game by accidentally shooting the moon (taking all the hearts and the queen of spades in one turn). Before that, Nina earned the nickname "The Bitch" for her uncanny ability to ruin my attempts at shooting the moon. "The Bitch" is what we used to call the queen of spades. Anyway, it was a great way to kill time during happy hour at The Point.
John, The Bitch, and Ugly American. Later that evening, me and Irish bartender Danny set off for the plaza with two new Aussie travelers, a local Peruvian señorita, and a Norwegian girl who was living (temporarily) in Arequipa. Our first stop was a dance club along the Plaza de Armas called Daddy-O's. It's free entry for gringos, but I have no idea what locals pay to get in. Upon entering, gringos (or perhaps everyone) are given tickets that you can turn in to the bartender with S/. 1 for a beer. Then, when you go to purchase your next round, you bring up the empty bottle from your previous beer with S/. 1 and you get another beer. It's a brilliant system, actually. Our night was rather short, however, when Danny (who, like the Dutch girl and my Hearts partners, was also suffering from parasites) became horribly ill. Clenching his stomach and sweating profusely, he began to stumble and looked as though he was about to pass out. We managed to get him out of the club to some fresh air. Sitting on the steps, he proclaimed, "I think I'll go back to the hostel for half an hour and then come back out." God bless the Irish. Still tired from the previous night, I decided to call it an evening and go to bed.
MARCH 26 :: LIMA
My last full day in Peru began with an early cab ride to the Arequipa airport. Strangely, it was there that I finally got my first glimpse of El Misti, the nation's most well known volcano. This was one of two natural wonders that I failed to check out while I was in Arequipa, the other being Colca Canyon. I simply didn't have enough time to pack it all in while relaxing at the end of my trip. Two weeks was nice, but three weeks would have been absolutely perfect. Anyway, El Misti hasn't erupted in well over a hundred years and stands at 19,101 feet (5,822 meters).
After paying my S/. 12 airport tax for a domestic departure, I hopped onto my Lan Peru flight to Lima, arriving around 10:30am. Before leaving on this trip, I had made plans to meet up with a friend of a Peruvian co-worker of mine in The States. His name was Edgar, and my instructions were to look for a guy in a red shirt and blue hat. I finally found him inside the airport, and we set off in his car for my full day in Peru's capitol. Our first stop was Lima's Plaza de Armas, which, flanked by colorful colonial buildings, was quite big and quite nice. This was an incredibly warm, sunny day, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the weather.
After the Plaza de Armas and a short walk down one of the walking streets, we hopped back in Edgar's car and drove west to the beach. My big plan was to find a nice cafe along the water and settle into a long, relaxing meal. That was my theory, anyway. Driving to the Pacific, I began to understand the enormity of this city. Not only is it massive, it's also quite busy and dirty. Automobile exhaust, mixed with smog and a marine layer, creates a terrible haze that overtakes the city. You can almost taste it when you breathe. Unlike Cuzco or Arequipa, this clearly wasn't a very walkable city. Needless to say, I was quite appreciative of the fact that I had Edgar to drive me around. When we finally arrived at the beach, we drove down the coastline looking for a place to eat. There were a couple restaurants here and there, but I found nothing that resembled a developed boardwalk with shops and cafes. It was just sort of plain, dirty, and boring. Perhaps there is a good reason for this lack of development, but I was thoroughly disappointed in the city planning. With about nine hours to go until I needed to be back at the airport for my flight home, it was beginning to look like a long day.
On our way to the beach we had passed through the famous Miraflores part of Lima. Being as it looked like a fairly decent place to spend a few hours, I suggested to Edgar that we go back to have our lunch. For whatever reason I was craving a burrito with chips and salsa. Truth be told, I'm almost always craving chips and salsa. The burning desire to have a burrito was something new. It doesn't matter. We found a little Mexican restaurant along a charming little alley close to the central park. After eating, we sat there for a while and watched soccer on TV. Really, I was just killing time until the NCAA Basketball Tournament games started from the United States. As tip-off time drew closer, we called our friend Pepe, back in Atlanta. I explained to him that I wanted to watch the tourney games, and Pepe helped me out by giving Edgar directions to a sports bar near where we were having lunch. My only communication with Edgar was in Spanish, so it was helpful to have a native speaker work that one out for me.
If I hadn't already had my fill of whatever it was that Lima had to offer, I might have felt badly about spending the next six hours in a sports bar. The Corner (or as I believe it should be called: Gringo McGringoson's), was styled exactly like every other sports bar in America... multiple TVs, slutty waitresses, and giant towers of beer. With a small table just a few feet from the bar, we watched the Argentinean Superclassico - Boca Juniors v River Plate - and both quarterfinal games from the NCAA Tourney. I ended up meeting a British guy named Paul who, thankfully, gave me someone to speak a little English with on the side. Even better than that, I had an opportunity to explain March Madness to someone who really had no idea how big of a deal it is to people in The States. George Mason upset Connecticut and Florida toppled Villanova, the former going into overtime, causing even the funny talkers get excited over American college basketball.
Edgar finally drove me to the airport after we left the bar around 8:30pm. My flight wasn't until 12:40am, but I figured there was no harm in getting to the airport a little earlier than necessary. Of course, it was nightfall when we piled out of The Corner, and I have to say that Lima is one of those cities that really improves with darkness. Then again, most cities become far more charming at night. But in the case of Lima, perhaps it's just that you can't really see the foul air, but I think it has more to do with the fact that the streets ight up well and the neighborhoods enjoy a renewed sense of calm. Miraflores, seen here from Central Park, looks quite inviting, actually. Still, my overall impressions of Peru's capitol were somewhat disappointing. Earlier, as we drove around for what seemed like forever under that brown, nasty sky, I would have argued that should an assembly be made of 100 city planners, each asked to create the world's worst city, 99 of them would come back with a detailed model of Lima. Los Angeles would get the other vote. So, overall, I'd say that it's certainly worth a visit... but no more than a day or two. And if you must spend the night, there seems little reason to stay anywhere but Miraflores. Granted, one cannot really make bold statements like this having spent a mere 14 hours in a major city (six of which in a sports bar), but I think my first overall impression jibes with most everything I had heard from other travelers.
MARCH 27 :: ATLANTA
After paying a relatively hefty airport departure tax of $31.25, I dozed off at the gate until my flight left at 12:40am. Fortunately, I slept most of the way into Houston, arriving early enough in the morning to avoid any long lines at immigration and customs. Based on my previous experience, coming back from Costa Rica in 2003 and missing my next flight due to a mixture of human incompetence and construction in the international terminal, this was quite a surprise. What was even more amazing than this was the fact that my Inca Trail walking stick had somehow managed to survive the flight unharmed. The icing on the cake, however, was being given a first class seat for my connection to Atlanta. I had originally volunteered my coach seat (somewhere in the back with all them less civilized folk), but was upgraded when they found out, just before departure, that they didn't actually need my seat for this overbooked flight. So, that was nice. Additionally, unlike my return from Thailand just six months earlier, all of my luggage arrived safely in Atlanta. Not a bad finish to a spectacular trip. (photo: www.spsu.edu)
Packing for South America often involves taking clothes for different climate zones. Such is the case for Peru - especially if you plan to conquer the Andes on your way to Machu Picchu. Here, I will share the contents of my pack for both everyday travel and the Inca Trail. Contents in italics are things I could have done without... notes are in bold. I know this looks like a lot of stuff for two weeks, but it's really not that bad. Remember: Most of this junk is small and lightweight. Also, this backpack photograph is taken off the web... mine was never this full.
01. Kelty Redcloud 5600 Backpack
02. Personal Information Sheets (Main Pack, Money Belt, & Day Pack)
03. Loose Items (Generally Placed in Various Pack Pockets)
03a. REI Duck's Back (100L) -- Rain Cover for Pack
03a. REI Polar Pod +20 Sleeping Bag
03a. Toilet Paper THIS IS A MUST!
03a. Merrell Low-Cut Hiking Boots
03a. Teva Flip Flops
03a. "Fat Tire" Hat
03a. Wool Hat & Gloves
03a. Small Quick-Dry Towel
03a. Travel Alarm Clock
03a. Extra Ziplock Bags
04. Money Belt
04a. Airline Ticket
04a. Driver's License
04a. Debit Card
04a. Healthcare Card
04a. MARTA Token
05. JanSport Day Pack
05a. Day Pack Belt Loop Connector (Self-Made Lock for Cafes, etc.)
05a. "How Soccer Explains the World" by Franklin Foer
05a. Mini Notepad
05a. Playing Cards
05a. Mini Tri-Pod
05a. Canon PowerShot A80 Digital Camera
05a. 512 MB Compact Flash Memory Card
05a. 32 MB Compact Flash Memory Card
05a. AA Batteries for Camera
05a. (2) Pens
05a. (2) Mini Purell Sanitizer Bottles
05a. Small Lock
05a. Everyday Wallet
05aa. Credit Card
05aa. Old American University ID
05a. Fake Wallet
05aa. Expired Credit Card
05aa. Small Amount of Cash
06. Self Care Supplies (In Ziplock Bags in Top Compartment of Pack)
06a. Main Bag
06aa. Toothbrush (in Holder)
06aa. Small Mouthwash Bottle
06b. Shower Bag
06bb. Body wash
06c. Meds Bag
06cc. 14 Daily Vitamins Always bring 'em, never take 'em
06cc. Throat Drops
06cc. Sinus Pills
06cc. Pain Pills
06d. Everything Else Bag
06dd. Mini Hand Lotion
06dd. Band Aids
06dd. Gold Bond Mini Bottle
06dd. Carmex Chap Stick
06dd. Potable Aqua - Water Tablets
06e. Sanitizer Bag
06ee. (2) Mini Purell Sanitizer Bottles
06f. Bug Spray Bag
06ff. OFF! Fresh Scent 15% Deet
06g. Sunscreen Bag
06gg. Banana Boat Sport SPF 30
07. Eagle Creek Cube: Red
07a. Red Bandana
07a. Green Bandana
07a. (5) Boxer Shorts
07a. (3) Short Black Socks
07a. (2) Long Black Socks
08. Eagle Creek Cube: Blue
08a. Red Baseball Shirt (100% Polyester)
08a. Navy Baseball Shirt (100% Polyester)
08a. Blue Baseball Shirt (Cotton)
08a. Green Hurley T-Shirt
09. Eagle Creek Cube: Black
09a. Mesh Shorts
09a. REI Cargo Shorts
09a. Loose Thailand Pants
10. Eagle Creek Flat Fold
10a. Rain Coat
10a. Brown Button-Up Shirt
10a. Blue Jeans
10a. Cargo Pants
(Other Gear Left in Hostel Storage)
01. Kelty Redcloud 5600 Backpack
02. Personal Information Sheet (Main Pack)
03. Loose Items (Generally Placed in Various Pack Pockets)
03a. REI Duck's Back (100L) -- Rain Cover for Pack
03a. REI Polar Pod +20 Sleeping Bag
03a. Toilet Paper
03a. Merrell Low-Cut Hiking Boots
03a. Teva Flip Flops
03a. "Fat Tire" Hat
03a. Wool Hat & Gloves
03a. Small Quick-Dry Towel
03a. Extra Ziplock Bags
03a. "How Soccer Explains the World" by Franklin Foer
03a. Playing Cards
03a. Mini Tri-Pod
03a. Canon PowerShot A80 Digital Camera
03a. 512 MB Compact Flash Memory Card
03a. 32 MB Compact Flash Memory Card
03a. AA Batteries for Camera
03a. (2) Pens
03b. Everyday Wallet
03bb. Credit Card
03bb. Old American University ID
03c. Money Belt
03cc. Airline Ticket
03cc. Driver's License
03cc. Debit Card
03cc. Healthcare Card
03cc. MARTA Token
04. Self Care Supplies (In Ziplock Bags in Top Compartment of Pack)
04a. Main Bag
04aa. Toothbrush (in Holder)
04b. Meds Bag
04bb. Throat Drops
04bb. Sinus Pills
04bb. Pain Pills
04c. Everything Else Bag
04cc. Band Aids
04cc. Gold Bond Mini Bottle
04cc. Carmex Chap Stick
04cc. Potable Aqua - Water Tablets
04d. Sanitizer Bag
04dd. (2) Mini Purell Sanitizer Bottles
04e. Bug Spray Bag
04ee. OFF! Fresh Scent 15% Deet
04f. Sunscreen Bag
04ff. Banana Boat Sport SPF 30
05. Eagle Creek Cube: Red
05a. Red Bandana
05a. (2) Boxer Shorts
05a. (2) Short Black Socks
06. Eagle Creek Cube: Blue
06a. Red Baseball Shirt (100% Polyester)
06a. Navy Baseball Shirt (100% Polyester)
07. Eagle Creek Cube: Black
07a. REI Cargo Shorts
08. Eagle Creek Flat Fold
08a. Rain Coat
08a. Cargo Pants