Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bolivia Bound

So I'm off to Copacabana, Bolivia tonight.  This "Bolivia" concept is making me a little nervous, so I'm glad I'm travelling with someone else (an Israeli girl I met on my Machu Picchu trip).  I've heard too many horror stories of La Paz (robberies, muggings, various kinds of scams involving fake police) to want to set foot there.  I met a crazy Irish boy who tried very hard to sell me on a unique tourist opportunity in La Paz -- apparently you can bribe the guards in the prison to let you spend a weekend inside with the prisoners, and do all the fine Bolivian cocaine you can handle.  (They make it in the prison, apparently -- prisoners have to raise money to buy their way out so this is one way they do it.  That, and charging foolhardy tourists to stay in the prison overnight.) 

Yeah, I'll rush right out and do that.  I'm doing my best to stay OUT of jail in South America, why on earth would I pay to be locked in?

Even though Copacabana is supposed to be quite safe, I think La Paz's reputation has rubbed off on the rest of Bolivia for me.  And I'm not sure the border crossing is going to be quite as smooth as those I've encountered so far -- someone told me about encountering border guards who search his luggage and confiscated the "counterfeit" US dollars they found (in reality, the dollars were perfectly legitimate and the guards were blatantly thieving), so I'll be stuffing my emergency money in my socks or underwear for the trip across.

I'm expecting it will be somewhat more challenging than anywhere else I've been yet this trip ... Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere (likely just after Haiti and Nicaragua) so the infrastructure isn't likely to be well-developed.  There's a certain kind of backpacker snob who thinks that this automatically makes Bolivia more "authentic" -- if it's more difficult, it must be more real, more valid, as a travel destination -- but I choose not to subscribe to that.  I see nothing wrong with good buses and lots of tourist services -- if it makes my life easier, and lets me enjoy where I am more without worrying as much, isn't that a good thing?

Well, we'll see.  If I don't like it, I can always turn around and head back over the border into Peru.  I have to come back this way anyway, as I have to get to Quito in enough time to catch a flight to the Galapagos on July 4th.  But maybe it'll be great, and I'll wish I had more time in Bolivia ... in which case I'll chalk it up for another trip.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of ... Winter?

I may have mentioned that Cusco is cold at night.  Freakishly, unbelievably, wrap-yourself-in-three-blankets-and-woolly-underwear cold.  And for some reason no one believes in indoor heating here.  Couldn't tell ya why, except that it seems that the countries that have the coldest winters (e.g. Canada, any part of Scandinavia) are the only ones where you can actually go inside and GET WARM when it's hovering around zero.  The rest of the world hasn't cottoned on to the fact that it's nice to be warm indoors.  (Take England and its radiators ... please, that's not heat unless you're sitting two millimetres from them.)

But it's hot and sunny today, as I lounge on the hostel's rooftop terrace/sunroom thing-y.  Don't know quite what to call it, but it's pretty, and the view of Cusco is astounding.  It does give me a new appreciation, though, for all the work my legs have done the last few days, just getting up the stairs to get here -- we`re really high up.  Take a look if you don`t believe me.

I`m breaking every code of the backpacker bible today.  You know, the code that says travel must always involve seeing as many things as possible every day, and seeing them independently (organized tours being a cardinal sin), and preferably with as much difficulty as possible in order to provide the most ''authentic'' experience.  And then you must go out and drink heavily every night, meet as many new people as possible and where possible shag most of them.

I`m throwing the bible away.  It may be a sign that I am Getting On A Bit, but I am not going to budge from here, except possibly to go find some dinner later on.  I am spending the day reading, continuing to write some of the things I`ve half-started, and doing internet research about future travel and other things.  Oh, and submitting some stuff for a website I`ve been writing for -- they pay me and everything!  Not much, but it`s short stuff I can dash off in 10 or 15 minutes, and I`ve earned enough so far for maybe one night at the Hotel Killa.  74 more submissions (or so) and I may be able to cover the cost of my whole stay there.

I`m moving on to Copacabana, Bolivia, on Sunday on the night bus with the Israeli girl I met going to Machu Picchu.  No plan really except to have a look at the lake (Titicaca, that is) and find some pretty hikes and maybe have a Bolivian beer or two.  I`ll come back to Cusco, stopping in Puno on the way (probably) on the Peruvian side of the lake, then head onwards to Quito, Ecuador.

But before I do all that, I`m taking some down time.  There are ruins a-plenty in and around Cusco, but as I`ve already seen the granddaddy of them all (Machu Picchu) I`m not that bothered about getting to the rest.  Maybe when I come back from the lake.  I`ve done some of the requisite touristy stuff in Cuzco -- checked out some museums, hit a few churches, tried out some restaurants -- and some of it I`ve really enjoyed.  The Last Supper painting in Cusco cathedral particularly amused me:  Jesus and the apostles are sitting down to a meal of ... roast guinea pig.  Yum.

I've met a bunch of people so have been out and about a lot; I even met up with a friend from back home, the second one this trip!  Robin and I used to work together about two years ago, before she went off first to Vancouver and then to grad school in Sweden; by random chance, her southward journey from Ecuador and my northward journey from Argentina landed us in Cusco at the same time. So we hung out a couple of days ago to catch up.

But today, I`m not doing any of the that.  Because every so often you need a day just to chill ... it`s tempting to think you ''should'' (beware that word) jam-pack your days and squeeze in as much as possible, but you`ll run out of steam really quickly if you do.  And you`ll go into such sensory overload that you`ll forget what you saw where and lose your ability to appreciate anything new you do see.

So I`m chilling.  I`m picking up my mystery novel again and seeing where it takes me; not sure it will ever become anything much at all but it`s fun just making the attempt.  I like this writing thing and I can`t think why I wasn`t doing more of it before I left Toronto -- just tells you how disconnected I`d become from the things that really matter to me.  I even started looking at MFA programs today (that`s Master of Fine Arts to you non-arty types) in creative writing today; I`ve been toying with the idea of going back to school for a while now (years, really) but I hadn`t really thought of this before.  Could be fun, and hey, it would make me take this writing this a little more seriously instead of playing at it half-assedly as I have been doing for the last few years.

Of course, I have also contemplated at various times doing an MBA (till I realized it would cost me $60,000), an MPA (Master of Public Administration -- extremely useful if I stay in government somewhere, exceedingly useless otherwise), or some kind of environmental/economics thing.  Oh, and also an accounting designation because I thought maybe that would give me more flexibility in the finance world.  So who knows what I`ll actually end up doing.

I do think, though, that some kind of Very Big Change is in the works, whether it`s school or new job or something else entirely.  I don`t know how or where or what it will look like, but I think my life is going to wind up very different than it was.  Perhaps that`s been the reason for the last few years when I`ve felt discontent, even unhappy; it was the first stirrings that would eventually propel me up and out of my rut and on to ... something.,

What that ''something'' is, I don`t know.  Perhaps by the end of this year, I`ll find out.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Machu Picchu: Magical Mystery Tour

You may have read my earlier post about the misadventures of our little group trekking to Machu Picchu.  Despite all of those, it was absolutely, completely worth it.  There are few places on earth that can send an eerie tingle down your spine just by being there; Machu Picchu is one of those.

Machu Picchu is a Quechua name; Quechua is the language of the Incas that is still in use today by Peru`s indigenous inhabitants.  Walking the streets of Cusco, you hear Quechua almost as often as Spanish (or English, from all the tourists); it took me a little while to clue in that I wasn`t understanding because I was hearing an entirely different language, not just because my Spanish comprehension needs some work. 

The name means ''old mountain'' in Quechua, which is the name of the peak that looms over the site; the nearby Huaynapicchu (which 400 hardy or foolish souls can opt to climb while at Machu Picchu) is the corresponding ''young mountain''.  No one knows the name of the actual village, as it was abandoned by the Inca about 500 years ago in the face of the invading Spanish.

It was largely unknown to the outside world until an adventurous American, Hiram Bingham, was led to the site by a local child in 1911.  Since then, it`s become a UNESCO World Heritage site and Peru`s most notable tourist attraction, with hundreds of thousands of foreigners visiting each year:  so many, in fact, that UNESCO (among other international organizations) is concerned that the site is being irretrievably damaged and is considering listing it as an ''endangered'' site.  The most blatant injury came from the crane used by the crew filming a beer commercial at the site, which smashed into the Intihuatana sun dial and chipped a piece off the stone; most of the deterioration is more subtle, as the site is trampled by a neverending stream of tourist feet.

But despite the hordes, Machu Picchu can hold you in such thrall that you forget you`re not the only one there.  No one is certain of the city`s original purpose; the quality of the construction is so fine, however, that it was almost certainly an important ceremonial site.  It may have also been used as a fortress in times of invasion as the two routes into the city would have been easy to defend -- one across the Inca drawbridge and one through the Sun Gate.  Its location high up in the mountains (at altitude about 2400m) would also have kept it well-hidden from invaders.

I arrived there right around the Winter Solstice, and we made it up to the observatory with its famous Intihuatana sundial in time to watch the sun rise over the site (we'd started out at 4 a.m., either to wait in line for the first bus or to hike the precipitous path from Aguas Calientes in the dark).  A religious group from Mexico (I was going to call them a cult, but perhaps that's unnecessarily judgmental) had gathered just below the observatory to greet the rising sun and perform a ceremony for the Solstice.

We had a guided tour of the major sights of Machu Picchu, then our group scattered to pursue their own interests for the rest of the day.  Some opted to do the climb up Huaynapicchu, with its 300-metre ascent up a very steep stone path; the rest of us listened to our complaining legs and opted to wander the rest of the site instead.

Even so, walking around Machu Picchu is not for the couch potato at heart; the site is essentially built on the side of a mountain and the stone stairs to carefully crafted by its Inca builders are challenging in their own right.  Worn by countless feet since they were built more than half a millenium ago, they can be slippery and your footing treacherous.  They also lead me to believe that the Inca may have been about 8 feet tall; at 5'6'', I'm not short, but some of those steps appeared designed for people much taller than me.

I hiked up to the Sun Gate in the afternoon, along a path that stretches about a mile uphill from the main part of the site.  This is where you enter Machu Picchu from the ''official'' Inca Trail, and what a sight that would be:  the entire city spread out before you, with the mountains behind it, as the sun rose over the site.  I was almost sorry I hadn't stuck with my original plan to hike the Inca Trail, but I was realistic enough to know that I probably wasn't yet in good enough shape to have enjoyed it very much.  It would have just been a long, hard slog.  (I will return to hike it at some point in the future; any adventurous souls out there who'd like to join me?)

I didn't want to leave, really, but they close the site at 6 pm.  I opted to hike down earlier than that, so I wouldn't be navigating the path in the dark (it seemed unnecessarily lazy and monetarily extravagant to take the $7 bus both ways); it's not an easy hike even downhill and in daylight, so I have enormous respect for my fellow trekkers who did it uphill, in the dark, at 4 a.m.!

There are a dozen ways to get to Machu Picchu, but whichever way you choose -- train, the Inca Trail, the Salkantay trek over ridiculously high mountain passes -- make sure you go.  It's one of those places that you have to see at least once in your lifetime.  Just be respectful of the site while you're there and tread carefully; it's lasted this long, and with luck it will last another 500 years for everyone to appreciate.

A Comedy of Errors

Sometimes I think that it's the travel experiences that go awry that give you the best stories and memories later.  When things go smoothly, what's there to tell?  "Oh, I had a great hike to Machu Picchu, beautiful scenery, loved the ruins, had a great time"?  It's the times that things don't go like clockwork that you end up with a story or two.

I had that kind of experience getting to Machu Picchu.  It definitely didn`t all go according to plan ... but fortunately Machu Picchu is worth any amount of trial and tribulation getting there, and in hindsight, some of it was pretty funny.  It started in the travel agency office when I was booking my 4-day trip on the Inca Jungle Trail.

The Jungle Trail includes 1 day of mountain biking and 2 days of hiking.  I ask the woman at the agency how hard the hiking part is, as I`m a little worried about my level of fitness (I`m a lot fitter than I was in March, but still have a long way to go).  She tells me, don`t worry, it`s flat and very easy (famous last words).  I ask about the biking portion; she tells me it`s 5 hours, all downhill from 4315 metres to 1300 metres in altitude.  This sounds pretty fun so I decide to sign up.

I go to pay ($180 USD), and the woman at the agency tells me there a 7% surcharge if I pay by credit card.  Fine, I say, how much is it in Peruvian soles to pay cash?  She looks at me like I have two heads and tries to convince me I want to pay in US dollars; I tell her I don`t have enough so it`s impossible.  She sighs and pulls out a calculator, figures out a generous (for them) exchange rate and tells me it`ll be 514 nuevo soles.  I tell her I don`t have that kind of cash on me; I`ll just pay the 7% charge and use a credit card.  She tells me that, er, actually it`s impossible to use a credit card, it has to be cash.  I sigh, ask where the nearest bank machine is and come back with a thick wad of soles to pay the tab.

So I`m booked.  I ask if the strikes will affect the trip; she says no, it will definitely go as scheduled.

The night before I`m supposed to leave, I get a call at the hostel from someone speaking in very rapid Spanish; when I can get a word in edgewise, I tell him I can`t speak Spanish well and could he repeat in English?  He does; it`s someone from the tour operator (a different company than the one I made the booking with) and he tells me that the strikes are expected to continue tomorrow and they`re not sure it will be safe to go.  They`re still deciding what to do, so someone will come tomorrow morning either to pick me up or to tell me what the new plan is.  Either way, I still have to be up and ready by 6:30 a.m.

Next day, I`m up well before 6:30.  By about 7:15, someone finally shows up; it`s my guide-to-be Carlos to tell me that the trip is delayed by a day and we`ll leave tomorrow morning instead.  I flop back in bed, wishing that they had decided this the day before instead of making me get up early for no reason.

Finally, on Saturday, the trip leaves.  I`m up and ready at 6:30 a.m., but Carlos shows up an hour late to pick me up; from there we walk first to the Plaza de Armas where the bus is supposed to be waiting.  It`s not there, so Carlos makes a call and we walk about 10 minutes more to another plaza.  There are two buses waiting; Carlos tells me and an American guy named Evan to get in one, while the rest of the group gets in the other.  We sit and wait for half an hour; Carlos comes back and tells me to get in the other bus.  Then we finally leave; by this time it`s nearly 9 a.m.

We get to Abra Malaga pass (4315m in altitude) about 12 pm, where we`re starting the mountain biking part of the trip.  It`s cold and decidedly unpleasant out; the view would probably be spectacular except that a thick blanket of fog obscures it.  We can't see much more than 30 metres ahead of us on the road -- this should make for an interesting ride down a mountain highway with traffic!

Carlos tells us that the bike trip will be about two and a half hours; immediate vociferous protests from the group, as we were all told it would be 4-5 hours.  He shrugs, tells us there's construction that would make going the whole way dangerous so we have to cut it short.  None of us are pleased; you'd think our various travel agencies could've told us about this.

We set off and it's pretty enjoyable, despite the cold and fog.  I have one near-miss with a car coming around a corner at high speed and veering over into my lane; I swerve abruptly and nearly plow insto the sheer rock wall to my right.

After an hour and a half -- an hour less than promised -- we pull over and Carlos tells us we have to get a van the rest of the way to Santa Maria.  There's one van waiting, which seats 10 people (plus the driver); there are 12 in our group including Carlos the guide.  The second van that carried Evan and Carlos in the morning has carried on without us (and with Evan's backpack inside); Carlos tells us that it was another agency's van, not his, and they lent him a couple of seats since his van wasn't big enough.  He shrugs and says his cell phone doesn't work here so he can't call the driver and tell him to come back.  Evan doesn't look reassured about his backpack, even though Carlos says it will be waiting at our destination.

So 12 of us squish into 10 seats, with Carlos half sitting on me in the front seat and half hanging out the window.  We ride like this for a couple of hours to Santa Maria; no one is comfortable and everyone is cranky.  We finally get there about 4 pm and have a very late lunch; dinner is at 7:30 but no one is really hungry again by then.

Hiking starts the next day.  The morning is about 3 hours steeply uphill and up stairs; so much for the ''flat and easy'' I was promised by the travel agency!  I discover that my fitness level -- at least for uphill climbs -- is nowhere near I'd like it to be.  I lag behind the rest of the group with an Israeli girl; at least I'm not the only one!  Carlos the guide plows on ahead at a fast pace, heedless of the stragglers.

Crossing paths with the 'real' Inca Trail
We both get very annoyed by a know-it-all Swiss guy who tells us that we have to pick up the pace or we're not going to get to our destination before dark; he gives us lots of unwanted advice about how to breathe properly and pace ourselves (I tell him, thanks, I already know how to do this, I'm just not as fit as I'd like to be!)  He seems to think that we're slower because we're not trying that hard; I feel like smacking him upside the head.  Would I be red-faced, sweating and gasping for air if I wasn't working hard??

At the lunch stop (where, incidentally, we arrived 20 minutes early, despite how ''slow'' two of us were), the Israeli girl and I decide we're going to get a cab from there to Santa Teresa, that night's stop, as the afternoon is all uphill as well.  Carlos tries to convince us otherwise but we're adamant, and eventually he sorts out a taxi for us.  We climb in the taxi (really just some guy's car) with 4 people from another group:  a hilarious English girl, a couple of American guys who speak fluent Spanish, and an Irish guy.  None of them wanted to hike uphill anymore either; they'd also all been misled about the difficulty.

We make a deal with the driver for 8 soles (about $3) per person (48 soles altogether); we set off and drive for about 10 minutes in a circuitous route that gets us all quite lost.  The driver pulls over and stops the car; he begins haranguing us in loud, rapid Spanish.  The American guys translate:  he's demanding more money.  He wants 70 soles or we have to get out of his car right now, in the middle of the jungle with no idea of where we are or even how to get back to the lunch place.  We confer amonst ourselves and finally decide we don't really have a choice; we'll agree -- for now -- and argue the point when we get to our destination.

We tell the driver, fine, we'll pay; he then demands the money on the spot.  We refuse; he gets very agitated and says he'll call the cops if we don't pay him.  We finally convince him we're going to pay him when we get to our destination and he starts up the car again.

We get to Santa Teresa without further incident, and get out of the car.  After an unsuccessful argument, we give up and pay the higher amount; the difference is only about $5 total.  But it rankles; we know he'll try it again with other tourists.  We all agree that we hate walking around feeling like walking dollar signs; everyone thinks foreigners have lots of money and act as if we are obliged to share it with them.

We find out there's some natural hot springs near the town and hire a different taxi driver to take us there for 2 soles each.  The road there barely qualifies as such; it's really just a rough path cleared through a field of rocks, bumpy and rutted and winding.  But we get there and the hot springs are great, just what our sore muscles needed; we reluctantly get ready to leave at 6 pm when the taxi driver is supposed to return.

We wait, and wait, and wait, in the growing darkness -- there are no lights and the sun sets early here -- and the taxi driver still hasn't returned.  Another van shows up and the American guys ask him if he can take us back to town instead; he agrees, for a tourist-gouging price of 5 soles each.  We decide to start walking instead; it's dark but it's just one road back to town so we think we can't get lost.

We're about halfway back to town when the original taxi driver finally shows up.  We argue for a reduced rate -- 1 sole each intsead of the original 2 we agreed to -- since he was nearly 45 minutes late and we had to walk a long way in the dark.  He shrugs, rattles off a lot of excuses about why it's not his fault, and insists on the original deal.  We weigh the options of continuing to walk in the dark (it hasn't been particularly fun) or paying the higher amount; in the end we pile in the taxi and carry on to town.

Partway there, the taxi gets stuck in the sand and dirt.  After a few minutes of fruitlessly rocking back and forth, we all get out of the car and help push.  Eventually, after much grunting and heaving, the car is unstuck and we climb back in to carry on to town, where we go out for a big dinner and then to the local discoteca, playing old 1970's disco and pop.  One of the American guys in our group wakes up the next morning to discover that his dream about a rat on his chest was real; there's a big hole gnawed in his blanket.

The third day's hiking is much easier than the first.  It gets dull, actually, just following a river and then some railroad tracks the whole way to Aguas Calientes.  The Israeli girl is still struggling a bit; I think that I would be able to keep up with the group but I opt instead to stay with her.  No one -- least of all a small, slight foreign woman -- should have to hike alone down a deserted Peruvian road, and the guide Carlos once again doesn't seem to notice or care.

We get to the very unattractive town of Aguas Calientes by about 4 pm and check in to our hotel.  Carlos comes to find me about an hour later, tells me we have to go to the train station immediately.  My travel agency had booked my train ticket back for tonight, instead of tomorrow; when the trip was delayed by a day they hadn't changed the ticket.  We get to the station and join the line; after a hour's wait (which the ticket clerks appeared to spend on Facebook, judging by what was on their computer screens), I learn that there's a $3 US charge to change my ticket. 

Carlos shrugs -- I'm getting tired of his shrugs -- and says there's no other option.  I notice that he doesn't offer to pay it, even though he's the one in charge of this trip and should be sorting it out.  I dig out a 100-soles note (the only bill I have, I've spent everything smaller) and the ticket guy shakes his head; he can't make change.  I try to tell him that if he wants me to pay, he has to because I have nothing else, but he affects not to understand my Spanish.  I dig through all my pockets and finally come up with the equivalent 9 soles in small change.  The ticket clerk looks disgusted by the mountainous pile of coins and makes an elaborate show of counting them slowly.  Finally, I have a new ticket in hand for the correct day.

Dinner is good, and by about 8:30 we're all finished and ready to go back to our rooms, as we have a 4 a.m. start for Machu Picchu the next day.  But we don't have our entrance tickets yet and Carlos has disappeared; finally, about 10 pm, he returns and hands them out.  We're all nearly asleep by this point and stumble off to bed in a stupor.  The news that Carlos wouldn't actually be leading the hike up to Machu Picchu in the morning -- he says his job is finished now -- was news to all of us, but everyone's too tired to protest.  He gives us vague directions about how to find the trail and disappears again.

But the next day, we see Machu Picchu, and despite all the aggravation it is worth it.  It is a mystical, magical, marvelous place and we spent the entire day roaming around -- I'll tell you all about it in the next post.  But right now, I have to continue the saga of our misadventures.

We hang around Aguas Calientes till 9 pm (it's not that exciting a town, and prices are very inflated), and head to the train station.  We got on the so-called ''backpacker'' train (slightly less expensive and less comfortable than the ''regular'' train) without difficulty, but after about half an hour the train stops dead; it's broken down.  We wait for about 3 hours and eventually get underway again, but instead of getting all the way to Ollantaytambo (the intended final stop), we have to get off one stop earlier.  A bridge has washed out further down the line and we can't carry on.  So we pile on the waiting minibuses and head off again down rough mountain roads; by this time it's about 2 a.m. (we were originally supposed to be back in Cusco by 12:30).

In Ollantaytambo, there's a bus waiting for all of us, so the tour operator at least got that part of it right.  It's another two hours to Cusco, and we finally roll back into the city at 4:45 a.m.  I stumble to the hostal on the Plaza de Armas where I've booked my room (I didn't want to climb all those stairs up to my original hostel in the middle of the night), and they can't seem to find any record of my reservation.  I finally take the reservation book from the guy at the desk and flip through it till I find my name; I point it out and he seems very surprised.  He waffles another 20 minutes or so, going off to consult with someone else at one point, before he figures out what room I'm supposed to be in.  (I could have told him in one glance -- there was only one key still hanging on their pegboard.)

I ask him what time breakfast is served and he says 6:30.  Obviously I don't want to get up again in less than two hours, so I ask how late it is served till -- I can say this much in Spanish so I'm pretty sure I get it right!  But he doesn't seem to understand me and starts flipping through his reservation book again.  I attempt to explain a couple more times what I want to know, but he still doesn't get it; I eventually give up and go off to bed, figuring I'll take my chances in the morning.

The next morning, I'm up about 9:30 and surprisingly wide awake, considering I was awake for 25 hours straight the previous day.  I go to the breakfast room and help myself to coffee; hotel staff keep going past me so I know they've seen me sitting there.  After waiting about 20 minutes, I finally stop one of them and ask if there is food for breakfast too; she looks very surprised and hustles off to find someone else, who eventually brings me a couple of rolls and some jam.  I'm starving so I wolf it down.

I get back to my original hostel later that morning, and sit down to sort through my pictures of Machu Picchu.  They just make me smile; I realize that it was all worth it, after all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Puffing up hills in La Ciudad Imperial

People have been living in this city for nearly a millenium, from the Killke who pre-dated the Inca, to the conquering Incan empire, to the Spanish in the 16th century who finally seized the Incas' territory.  They were probably all really fit people, judging by the hills and stairs I had to climb up this morning to reach my hostel.  Add to that the fact that it's at about 3,300 metres above sea level, and this would be a fabulous place to train for a marathon.  I think I'll come back here when I'm ready to think about running another one.

I just arrived in Cuzco, Peru, off a night bus from Arequipa this morning.  I was pleasantly surprised by Peruvian night buses -- for about a third of the price of Argentina, I travelled nearly as comfortably as "cama" class there.  The seats were a bit closer together (so they overlapped when reclining) but the backs went down far enough to allow for a comfortable sleep, and dinner was even served on board.  It wasn't nearly so lavish as what I sometimes received in Argentina -- just a small piece of chicken, rice and a handful of vegetables -- but it was enough to tide me over.  My only mistake was accepting a cup of mate de coca (tea made with coca leaves) after dinner; it kept me awake more effectively than coffee ever does, and I was still tossing and turning at 2:30 a.m.

My hostel in Arequipa arranged a bed for me here at their sister establishment, and someone came to pick me up from the bus station this morning.  As the collectivo wended its way through the centre of town and uphill through the narrow cobblestone streets to the barrio of San Blas, I was very glad to have an escort;  I think I'd have gotten lost in the maze had I tried to get here on my own.  The hostel is up a couple of steep sets of stairs from the nearest street navigable by cars, and as I trudged up, huffing and puffing, I thought disgustedly that I wasn't nearly so fit as I thought I was becoming.  Then I remember where I was:  Cuzco is perched well above sea level, and if you've never been above 3000 metres, take it from me that you notice the difference when trying to breathe.  (Particularly when lugging a backpack up the aforementioned steep stairs.)

View over Cusco from my hostel
But the upside of the uphill hike is the view from the hostel -- it offers a panorama of the city from its top floor, and now that the sun's come out, it's warm enough to sit and drink it all in.  Suitably wrapped in a couple of layers of fleece, of course; it's winter in Peru at high altitude, and, while there's no snow on the ground, it's definitely not Teva-and-T-shirt weather.

So I think I'll sit here for a while, just looking at the city; then I might wander downstairs and watch some very beautiful men play soccer (you really must check out the Portuguese team!).

Oh, and I'll be trying to remember how to breathe.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Flying High in Arequipa

It’s dark already in Arequipa, Peru, at about 5:30 pm as I wait for my night bus at 9:00 to Cuzco. I’m hanging out at my friendly hostel, where internet access is a bit hit and miss – so if all goes well, you`ll be reading this on the night of the 14th, but if it shows up later, you`ll know what happened.

You (I hope) have read my previous post about Arequipa – so you know how happy I was to get here after HATING Arica, Chile. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru (after Lima) at about 750,000 people, but not nearly so well known outside Peru as the smaller city of Cuzco, the former Incan capital and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. (Santo Domingo, where I went a couple of years ago, wins as the oldest European city in the Americas ... but the Incas built Cuzco long before that.)

I spent a relaxing day in Arequipa today enjoying the hot sunshine – it gets cold after dark and I bundle up in a fleece or two, but days are lovely and I can stroll around in a t-shirt. Went back to the Cusco Coffee Company and hung out for a few hours (and a couple of grande cafe americanos) with my Aussie buddy John. I still think it`s Starbucks in disguise, but the prices at least are different , with coffee costing less than $2.

I spent the weekend in the Colca Canyon, just outside Arequipa. “Just outside” is a relative term – it`s not a long distance away, but the highway twists and turns (and at some points becomes a dirt road) as it meanders its way through the mountains, and at the highest point hitting 4,800 metres above sea level. I bought coca leaves on the way, since they are reputed to help prevent altitude sickness (known as “soroche” here); whether or not they really work, I don`t know, but I didn`t suffer any ill effects (I might’ve been okay anyway, since I`ve been all right previously at high altitude).

Colca is deeper than the Grand Canyon in the U.S. at nearly 3,200 metres, surrounding by towering mountains and volcanoes that stretch as much as 6,300 metres into the air. You have the option to climb these volcanoes (not all are active) or mountain-bike down into the crater of some; I opted to admire from a distance and ventured further into the canyon instead.

My Spanish got a workout on the 2-day trip, as everyone else in my group spoke that as a first language (and mostly not much English); one 7-year-old girl from Lima in the group took a particular fancy to me and peppered me with questions about Canada and what I was doing in Peru. (It’s humbling when, despite your best efforts, you can’t always understand a child speaking the language you’re trying to learn.) She seemed particularly fascinated by the fact that I have blue eyes and red hair (this combination not being common in Peru), and by the sunscreen I kept slathering on; when I explained that I had to use it to prevent myself from turning ‘rojo’ in the sun, she asked if everybody in Canada was as white as me (I assured her that no, they weren’t).

I spent Saturday night in the tiny village of Chivay, after chilling out in the nearby hot springs; we went as a group to a ‘peña’, a folkloric show with traditional music, dance and food. The costumes (traditional local dress) were incredibly elaborate, on the women particularly in their colourful layered skirts and embroidered shirts. They pulled audience members up to participate at some points, and all of us were dragged up for a conga-line kind of finale; my 7-year-old friend found this especially amusing and wanted me to stay and dance with her after the show finished. (Her parents, however, dragged her back to the hotel to go to sleep, much to her chagrin.)

Sunday morning we got up really early (5 a.m. early) to get to the Cruz del Condor lookout while the condors were still active; the best times to se them are early morning and late afternoon. The birds are amazing – about a 3-metre wingspan giving them graceful, seemingly effortless flight high above the canyon floor. Too many of the spectators (the lookout was overrun with tourists) seemed to forget about watching the birds and enjoying the moment, with their cameras glued to their eyes the entire time. Sometimes, I think, you just have to put the camera away and relish the experience; otherwise, it’s too easy to get focused on how it looks on your digital camera screen, instead of seeing it in real life.

Tonight, I’m off to Cuzco on a night bus; I’m curious to see how the experience compares to Argentina and Chile. At about one-third the cost, I’m not expecting the same level of luxury – but I am hoping at least for a bathroom and heat on board. Otherwise, it will be a miserable and grumpy Carol who arrives in Cuzco, and you may want to skip the whining in my next post.

Friday, June 11, 2010

If You Don't Like Where You Are ... Just Go Somewhere Else

I like Arequipa very, very, very much better than Arica.  It was a long travel day yesterday, and my bus got here about two hours later than it was supposed to, but I was so happy to get here that it didn't really matter.  Arequipa, in southern Peru, is in the midst of mountains and canyons (including at least two deeper than the Grand Canyon), and is a lovely, lively city which is actually HOT during the day.  I could walk around in a T-shirt and Tevas quite comfortably.

I caught the train from Arica at 9 a.m. yesterday -- there are two a day that make the two-hour trip to Tacna, just over the border in Peru.  Border crossing is extremely easy this way -- you get "stamped out" of Chile at the station in Arica, and "stamped in" to Peru at the station in Tacna.  It's not a long distance -- only 60 km or so -- but the train is an antique wooden one-car variety that chugs along at a leisurely pace.  It's a charming way to go, though, as long as you're not in a hurry, and I doubt I would have enjoyed a collectivo ride to Tacna as much.

From Tacna train station, I caught a taxi to the bus station and, forgetting I was now in Peru and was supposed to bargain for my taxi fare, paid well over the odds for the ride.  I probably made the taxi driver's day when I just paid what he asked, instead of trying to bargain him down; Chile and Argentina both have metered taxis so I'll have to get used to a different way of operating.

Taxis aren't the only difference.  The bus was much more comfortable than I expected -- a double-decker semi-cama almost as nice as an Argentine or Chilean one, instead of a chicken bus -- but they don't serve you on Peruvian buses, it seems.  Instead, people bearing all manner of drinks and snacks swarm aboard the bus every time it stops; one guy was even selling hot chicken dinners, carefully packaged in tinfoil trays.  I had a tasty empanada con pollo for the princely sum of 1.5 soles (about 50 cents).  (I have to change my Spanish pronounciation, though; I said "po-zho" for "chicken" like an Argentine instead of "poy-yo" like the rest of the Spanish speaking world.  I'll have people thoroughly baffled as to where I'm from if I walk around talking with an Argentine accent.)

My hostel -- the charmingly named "Home Sweet Home" -- is great, but oddly bereft of Australians.  They are the most common backpacker species everywhere else I've been in the world, but the only one here is my San Pedro buddy John, who just got here tonight on the bus from Arica.  Lots of Canadians, which is also unusual -- either we as a nation haven't embraced the whole backpacker culture, or we mostly choose to go to different parts of the world, because there haven't been many in South America. 

Main square of Arequipa
I'm off to the Colca Canyon tomorrow for a two-day trip (the one-day option left at 3 a.m., so I nixed that idea), and spend today wandering around Arequipa.  The main square and cathedral are breathtakingly lovely, built mostly of sillar, a white-ish volcanic stone that glowed softly in the hot sun.  The interior of the cathedral is light and airy, unless most cathedrals here which are heavy, dark, and Gothic; Arequipa`s is cream with white molding, remindering me strongly of a wedding cake but appealing nonetheless.

Iglesia de la Compania (yet another Jesuit church) is also stunning -- the original sacristy is completely covered, all over its walls and dome, with vivid, multi-coloured painting in a jungle motif with flowers and gaudy tropical birds.  Apparently the Jesuits did this because the missionaries would head out into the jungle from here to convert the locals, so the decoration would prepare and remind them of where they were going.  Who knew that strict 17-century Catholic priests could be so whimsical?

There is a gorgeous 400-year-old convent nearby, too, which I spent a couple of hours wandering around.  It`s a maze of tiny but comfortable-looking cells, airy open patios and narrow cobblestone streets that meanders over a few city blocks.  It was founded in the early 17th century but not opened to the public until 1970; the Dominican nuns kept the building firmly for themselves for a few centuries.  About 30 nuns of the order still live in cloistered quarters in the convent.

Even older religious traditions are on display as well, in the Museo Santuario at the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria.  It`s devoted to the discovery of Incan child sacrifices unearthed at nearly 6,000 metres altitude on a nearby volcano, and has a wealth of detail about the Incan ritual and the objects obtained from the burial sites.  The Inca believed that the mountains were gods, and if their gods exhibited any signs of displeasure (such as an eruption) they would offer sacrifices as appeasement.  Children of noble blood were usually selected and carefully prepared for the ceremony; they were given sedative drinks before their death so (in theory) would not have suffered. 

Looking at the face of the mummy on display in the museum -- a 12-year-old girl sacrificed about 500 years ago and buried on top of the mountain -- I wasn`t so sure she died peacefully.  But is it any worse that the Inca did this in the name of their gods, than what the Spanish of the same time did in the name of theirs?  The Inquisition would have been happening in Europe at about the same time as this girl died, and it would be hard to make any argument that the Catholic Church was any more "civilized" in this endeavour.

I`m back in the hostel now, and I must go make dinner soon.  I only had coffee for an afternoon snack, at a place that looked suspiciously like Starbucks but was called the "Cuzco Coffee Company" (actually, I think it WAS Starbucks, cleverly disguised so no one will know they`re attempting to take over South America too.)  So I`m a little hungry -- but I have to remind myself how to cook quinoa first, though, since it`s been a while.  I was tired of rice and pasta, and it seemed appropriate to try the local grain, so I`ll give it a whirl.  I found broccoli again, too, so I`m jazzed.  (Funny, I never used to get excited about buying green vegetables in Toronto.)

Hope all`s well in your respective corners of the world.  I`ll let you know how the canyon is -- it`s supposed to be spectacular, and there`s one point called the Cruz del Condor where you can see the magnificent Andean birds in action.  Can`t wait!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

If you´ve ever considered going to Arica ...


I´ve liked pretty much everywhere I´ve been this trip (some more than others, of course) ... until now.   I just arrived in Arica, Chile, this morning off an overnight semi-cama bus from San Pedro de Atacama this morning, so I´ve been here a grand total of about 8 hours now.  And I can´t stand it!

It´s ugly, grimy, and grey, and the weather is overcast and chilly so I can´t even take advantage of the beaches nearby.  It COULD be a nice city to hang out in for a while -- it´s got a great location on the Pacific coast, the climate is mild, and the pace is pretty laidback -- but it´s gone the tacky route for beach-front development and the results are not attractive.  Streets are crowded and I was hassled innumerable times in a three-block stretch to buy something, give them money, hire them as guides, whatever.  I´m already tired of it -- I actually ate in McDonald´s this afternoon (yes, I´m ashamed of myself) just because it was nearly empty and I could sit in peace and quiet.

I get out of here tomorrow, thank God.  Had I been more awake when I arrived at the bus station this morning, I might have decided to press onward to Arequipa, Peru immediately instead of stopping here for a night -- I had no particular desire to come to Arica, it just happens to be on the way.  But I was a zombie after that night bus ride and I wasn´t prepared to cope with border crossings in that state, so I opted to come into town, get a room (over-priced as it is, at least I have my own) and get some sleep before I cross into Peru. 

There´s a train that goes at 9 a.m. to Tacna just over the border, so I think I´m going to do that -- I haven´t been able to take many trains this trip (I think the only one was the Tren de la Costa to the Tigre suburb of Buenos Aires) so it would be a pleasant way to go.  Ticket sales open at 4 p.m. so I´m hoping they have some left for tomorrow morning´s train; otherwise it´s a collectivo across the border (sort of a shared taxi), or another night in Arica.  You can guess which I´ll probably choose if it comes to that!

Wish me luck ... about 17 more hours to endure in this godforsaken town.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Below Zero and Above 4,000 in the Atacama Desert

It's a warm, sunny afternoon in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile as I type this.  I'm lounging in a hammock on the hostel's patio, catching up on reading, writing in my journal, emails, and of course this blog.  My bus to Arica (also in Chile, near the Peruvian border) isn't till 8:45 tonight, so I have lots of time. 

No cushy cama buses this time, though -- one of my travelling companions of the last few days headed on to Arica yesterday and he sent me a message warning that there's no dinner and no blankets on the bus.  So I'll be stocking up on fruit and chocolate bars (the dinner of champions) and adding a few layers of clothes before I board the bus -- it gets awfully cold in this part of the world when the sun goes down.  But it's dramatically beautiful scenery, with mountains and desert and salt plains and vast open sky -- gorgeous to behold as long as you don't mind occasionally shivering uncontrollably.

It was actually below zero one morning, as we stood on the street at 4 a.m. waiting to be picked up for a sunrise geyser tour.  I'd had enough of freezing so had splurged on a warm NorthFace jacket with fleece the night before, and without it I might have died of exposure (or at least would have been very, very uncomfortable) -- so well worth the exorbitant price I paid.  (I don't even want to think about how much cheaper it would have been at home ... warmth was worth the extravagance.  I bought an alpaca sweater, too, but, while that will also help keep me warm, it was mostly just because I really liked it -- and it at least was cheap.)

But the geysers were very cool, as well as cold, although the sunrise wasn't much of anything.  It's not the largest geyser field in the world -- it doesn't begin to compare in scale to Yellowstone or Rotorua -- but it's the highest altitude one at 4,300 metres.  San Pedro is perched at about 2,400 metres above sea level, so it was quite a climb up to the plateau where we found the geysers.

I hit even higher altitudes yesterday, as I went up to the high altiplano at nearly 4,500.  There are some pristine, beautiful lakes -- tiny but lovely -- way up there, and wildlife abounds.  I saw many vicuna (related to the llama, but daintier and more graceful -- llamas are goofy, ungainly creatures) and even a desert fox, whose brown and gold colouring blended perfectly with the stunted bushes and grasses of the altiplano.  The villages way up high are a different world and time entirely -- life is much more primitive than the suphisticated south of Chile. 

Lower down in the plateau, in the vast Salar de Atacama (a salt plain), the ponds are filled with flamingoes -- the bright pink kind that I'm familiar with, and a couple of other species that are black and white.  They spend summers higher up in the mountains, but this time of year come down to the lower plains where it's a little warmer.

Further away from San Pedro, but also in the Salar, there's a small lake -- Laguna Cejar -- that's saltier than the Dead Sea (85% salt) and considerably colder.  I took the plunge anyway, just to see what it felt like to float effortlessly on top of the water; once I got over the initial shock of the cold water on the surface, it was actually quite relaxing, and the water under the surface was warm as it was fed by springs underground.  The only unpleasant part was getting changed out of our wet swimsuits afterwards -- Annie (one of my recent travelling companions) and I, as the only two girls who went in the water, ducked behind the bus to change as there was nowhere else to go.  Awkwardly changing underneath towels and sarongs, we managed to be pretty discreet -- to the dismay, I think, of the four bus drivers who were quite openly gawking at us as we changed.  (Please, boys, it's nothing you haven't seen before -- foreign women have all the same parts as locals.  Give us a break.)

So it's been a lovely few days, and I'm loathe to leave this mellow and chilled-out little town in the middle of nowhere.  I've even been able to have real coffee (not Nescafe) and real breakfast (not pastry with dulce de leche) here, and we discovered a cool little bar that serves a fine Chilean microbrewery beer called Austral Calafate, so it's been an enjoyable time.  But I'm going onward tonight, to Arica in the far north of Chile -- from there I might try to go directly to Arequipa, instead of spending the night in Arica.  But I'll decide once I get there.  My travel buddy John the Aussie went on to Arica yesterday, so has promised to report back on whether the town's worth a visit.

From Arequipa, I'll head into Cuzco and figure out the Machu Picchu thing -- hoping to hike, but I won't be too upset if it doesn't work out and I have to go by train instead (but I'd definitely come back and hike another time).  So far, I'm still coping well with altitude and have suffered no ill effects, so I'm hoping that continues in Peru.

I'll probably spend a few days more touring around southern Peru -- Puno on Lake Titicaca, maybe Nazca for the famous lines -- and might venture over the border into Bolivia as far as Copacabana on the lake (but not to La Paz).  From Cuzco, I think I'll fly to Quito, since I'll otherwise have to spend about 4 days straight on the bus -- potentially enjoyable on a pampered Argentine bus ride, but in Peru and Ecuador likely to be decidedly less comfortable.

Then a Galapagos tour from Quito, and some side trips in Ecuador as time permits ... then home for about the middle of July.  That sounded so far away when I started this trip, but it's sneaking up on me fast -- just a few weeks to go.  *sigh*

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oh, the Randomness ...

That's the best part about travel ... the random things that happen that you don't plan for, that turn out to be pretty cool.  If you've read some of my previous posts closely, dear reader, you may have gathered that I had become somewhat cranky and disillusioned with the whole travel extravaganza, and was almost ready to pack it all in and go home.   Well, I'm over that.  I feel like an entirely new person and I've been having FUN again with this travel thing. 

I came to San Pedro de Atacama on Friday, which I already told you (if you read my last post -- if not, keep up with the times!).  I met a couple of backpackers on the bus here from Salta -- Annie from New York and John the Aussie from "Melbun" -- and have been hanging out with them for the past few days.  (So, in travel terms, they've become my closest friends :) )  It's been really nice having people to plan things with -- whether that is drinks in the bar down the street, going on a day trip, or finding somewhere for dinner -- rather than sorting it all out on my own.

Oh, I don't mean that I never meet people or that I'm a total recluse on the road.  I'm not, by any stretch -- it's just the consistency of having the SAME people to hang around with for more than a day or two at a time that's novel.  Usually I'm moving on, or they're moving on, and it's a 24-hour friendship at best.  And it gets hard always saying goodbye to the good people I meet.

I went with John the Aussie tonight to our "local", a very cool little bar called La Cave that's just down the street from the hostel, to see him off in traditional Aussie fashion with a beer or two, before he went off to catch a night bus tonight.  As you do when travelling, we started chatting to the guy at the next table.  He turned out to be Adrian the Calgarian, originally in Chile for work (for an oil company, big surprise for an Albertan) but extending his trip for a couple of weeks for personal travel.
Adrian the Albertan (left) and John the Aussie

Adrian looked like the quintessential computer nerd (and was, by profession), but also turned out to be an avid rock climber, ice climber and extreme backcountry skier.  So we kept chatting after John left for his bus, and what was originally going to be a quiet night in the hostel reading my novel instead became a long conversation with a random Calgarian about the best huts in the Rockies for backcountry skiing and camping.  (Bow Lake wins as the Taj Mahal of backcountry huts, should you wish to know.)

It was just fun, in a strange and random way.   Chatting up strange Albertans in a bar is not how I usually spend my time -- I can't remember the last time I went to a bar in Toronto and started talking to any guy at the table next to me, just on a whim (much less an Albertan).  But it was good -- no pressure, no one trying to pick anyone up or flirt or anything, just a couple of people passing an evening together because they happened to wash up in the same bar in the same town at the same time in a foreign land.  That's all it was, all it will ever be ... but I liked it.

I like the Carol I am on the road better than I liked the Carol I'd become back home.  This Carol appears to be a lot more willing to engage with the world outside her comfort zone, live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is ... without over-analyzing it or taking any of it too seriously as Toronto Carol was prone to do. 

I just have to figure out how to bring this back with me when I become Toronto Carol again.  I have realized that I don`t have enough people in my life back home -- no, I don`t mean that exactly, I mean that I don`t make enough time for the people in my life back home and I haven't been willing enough to let new people in.  I had become closed off and insular and hid from the world in many ways, and I don`t want to turn into that person again.  I don`t necessarily need to make a habit of chatting up Albertans in random bars ... but I`d like to remain the person who doesn`t automatically say no to the possibility.

So remind me -- Toronto people especially -- that the other Carol needs to come back from the road with me.  I used to know her well -- the Carol who would seize the chance to go dancing at midnight instead of going to bed early, or try something new and laugh at failure instead of refusing to take the chance.  Or open her heart to the chance to make a new friend or to fall in love, instead of withdrawing from the rest of the world. 

She's still here; I caught a glimpse again tonight.  Just gotta keep her around more often.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Dark Side of the Moon

This is wild, wacky and beautiful country around here.  I just arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile late this afternoon, and I feel like I've landed on another planet.  It's a tiny, dusty, frontier town in the middle of the Atacama desert -- the driest in the world -- that looks like the Wild, Wild West, gaucho style.  The sky now, at about 8:00 at night, is unbelievably dark and full of stars, as there is no other outpost of civilization for a hundred miles in any direction.  Calling San Pedro "civilization" is a bit of a stretch in itself -- I feel like I've landed on the edge of the world.

The bus ride from Salta is stunning, taking you high up through the mountains -- at the highest point, the road hits an altitude of about 4,500 metres.  This was too much for some of the passengers, who were nauseous, dizzy and close to fainting, but the bus crew came prepared with oxygen tanks and were able to avert any major health crises.  (Fortunately I was fine; this bodes well for a successful trip later to Machu Picchu if I can cope well with altitude!)

The landscape is lunar in places, particularly at the high altitudes.  You ascend up through the mountains from Salta through Jujuy and beyond, and eventually reach a immense plateau.  At first glance, you think that the ground is covered with snow, but on closer inspection you see that it's salt -- dry, cracked salt plains stretching in every direction, out to the mountains ringing the horizon. 

Then you eventually reach San Pedro, an outpost in the middle of the vast empty nothingness of the Atacama desert.  To the south is the Salar de Atacama, an enormous salt plain rivalled only by the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia; there are brilliantly coloured lakes, geysers, hot springs and the Valley of the Moon in other directions.  The town itself has one main street, about six blocks long, and probably 4,000 residents (not counting tourists, who in high season probably double the numbers).  Stray dogs chase things blown in the wind down the dirt-packed streets, and fast, incomprehensible Chilean Spanish* flies at you from every direction, as the locals try to sell you a day trip, feed you at their restaurant, change your pesky Argentine pesos for fine Chilean ones, or load you up with an assortment of local handicrafts.

It's another world, really.  I've landed at a relaxed little hostel with hammocks swinging in its gorgeous central patio, in the company of a couple of backpackers I met on the bus.  We're thinking about heading back out to the little bar we discovered across the street (one of the backpackers is an Aussie, so beer is always on the agenda), and tomorrow we'll probably set out to discover some of the countryside. 

But right now, I just have to go get warm.  It's bloody freezing in the desert when the sun goes down!

*NOTE:  Chilean Spanish is another language.  It fell off the boat somewhere along the way when current South American speech was developing; it sounds nothing like the rest of the continent, or European Spanish.  It's unbelievably fast, slurred, and slangy, and words are invariably chopped off into short forms or twisted into something unrecognizable.  So I may have to give up on actually understanding anyone again until I get to Peru!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Above the Clouds in Northern Argentina

It`s hard to find anything wrong with scenery out the bus window that includes towering mountains, giant cacti, isolated farmhouses that look like life there hasn't changed in 100 years, and postcard-pretty colonial villages.  Throw in a crazily twisting mountain road that takes you up, up, up -- till you're looking down on those fluffy white clouds -- and it's pretty much perfect.

Up, up, up to 3,348 metres, to be precise.  That's how high you get on the trip from Salta to Cachi, a little town in the Calchaqui valley; the clouds were at about 2,000 metres.  It's only about a 150-kilometre trip, but most of it's through the mountains so takes a little longer than the same distance might, say, speeding down the 401.

The only sour note to the day was the fact that the temperature was actually below zero when I left at 7:30 in the morning, before the sun rose.  Fortunately it warmed up nicely by the afternoon so I didn't entirely freeze; I don't have the wardrobe for winter temperatures!  (I may have to break down and buy a jacket one day soon -- the fleece alone isn't quite cutting it.  I was going to rent in Cuzco for the hike to Machu Picchu, but I'm not sure I'll last that long.)

I realized part way through the day that this is my last full day in Argentina for this trip -- I'll be back at some point, but no idea when that might be.  I'm off to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile tomorrow, and from there will head north into Peru after a few days checking out the area; I think I'm giving up on the idea of the Bolivia salt flats as it's going to be just too complicated and time-consuming to get into Peru after that (since I refuse to go to La Paz).  Another trip ...

It's kind of sad, actually, to be leaving.  I really like Argentina, and the time I've spent here has only scratched the surface of what the country has to offer -- from rainforests and jungle, to windswept pampas, to vibrant urban life, to the long and lonely Ruta 40 that runs the length of the country, to fjords and beaches and raging rivers, to glaciers and mountains that nearly reach the sky, to prehistoric cave art and pre-Inca ruins and remnants of Spanish colonial life.  It's an interesting mix and I could easily spend the rest of the year here, getting to know all of its corners and byways.

But I'm thinking of this year more as an overview -- although I've travelled a lot, there's still so much of the world left to explore that I'll be spending the rest of my days doing just that!  (When work allows, anyway -- at some point I'm going to have to start earning a living again.)  I plan to be 75 and still travelling with a backpack; any other crotchety old women in the year 2044 are welcome to join me! 

It's impossible to see everything this year, as I keep trying to remind myself, but I can get a taste of some new places.  And for the ones I like -- such as Argentina -- I'll just have to figure out how and when to come back.

Anyway, I had a good last day in Argentina.  I was very sad to leave Cafayate, but I think I found what I needed from that little indulgence and am ready to go again.  Martha -- the owner of Hotel Killa, a.k.a. heaven on earth -- is charming and was very enthusiastic about helping me plan my next destination, and was convinced that I should go stay at a lovely hotel/spa in San Lorenzo near Salta.  I checked out the website, and it did look lovely -- but I will quickly go broke if I keep travelling that way!  So I chose a slightly different option for my final stint in Argentina, with a hostel in Salta for a couple of nights and a day trip to Cachi today.

Cachi is an adorably pretty little colonial town, with one main square and a handful of streets radiating from it.  The drive there is the real attraction, though -- you wind your way up through the mountains from Salta, and over to the valley where Cachi is nestled.  At one point on the trip, the gravel road ascends more than 1300 metres in less than 20 kilometres, doubling back on itself at least 200 times in a crazy circuitous route around the peaks.  There's not much of a guardrail, usually, and the bus driver didn't always slow down, much ... so it makes for an interesting ride when the road looks like this:

The crazy curve of the Cuesta del Obispo
Then you get to the top of the Cuesta del Obispo (the "Bishop's Way"), as the sinuous route is called, and the road changes:  straight as an arrow across the plateau, along the old Inca road for about 11 kilometres.  From there, it winds gently down into the valley and passes through even smaller towns than Cachi on the way.  Life looks very basic in these towns (aside from the giant satellite dishes on some tumbledown shacks), and it's probably not an easy place to live; but does that matter as much if you get to wake up to views of the Andes in your backyard?  It's gotta help, anyway.

Ah, well ...must head off to bed soon, as my bus leaves at the ungodly hour of 6:45 a.m. tomorrow.  I'm more of a morning person now than I was at work, but that's pushing it.  *SIGH*

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It's Not Paranoia if They Really Are After You

I was thinking about this yesterday -- well, not "paranoia" exactly, but where exactly the line is drawn between good sense in trusting your instincts, and being overly cautious, seeing potential danger where none might exist.  I pretty much go with my gut; if something feels "off" or makes me uncomfortable, I don't do it or I get the hell out of wherever it is.  I like to think that, after 20 years of looking after myself and navigating big-city life, that my instincts are pretty reliable.

I'm fine with things that make other women I know nervous -- walking around downtown Toronto late at night, for example -- because I have enough experience to tell me that it'll be fine.  Hey, I used to live at the corner of Jarvis and Gerrard, right near the "hooker Harvey's", when I first moved to Toronto, and walked home many a night by myself with no incidents.  (Except for one night I was mistaken for a hooker myself and almost arrested, but it was the fault of my Hallowe'en costume and some unfortunate coincidences.  But that's another story.)   I can travel other strange cities with ease and without worrying; I remember going to Washington with my Jeansmarines women for the marathon and realizing just how much more seasoned a traveller I was than many of them.  Some of them were overwhelmed just by the task of getting on the Metro and I had to shepherd them through it.

I`m conscious when I'm travelling that a women alone is more vulnerable -- I hate it, but it's a reality any female backpacker has to live with -- so there are things I choose not to do by myself.  Sometimes this means passing up things that I want to do, and I wonder if I play it too safe sometimes -- am I missing out on experiences that could have been rewarding, am I worrying for no reason?  I was thinking about this yesterday, after I came back from my hike. 

I went southwest of Cafayate heading for the Rio Colorado, and from there I was going to carry on up the river to a waterfall about an hour and half upstream.  While I was still about two kilometres from the river, though, a man appeared out of a side trail and started walking along with me, on the other side of the road.  At first, it was fine -- he seemed nice enough, we chatted amiably and I enjoyed the chance to practice my Spanish.  I held up my end of the conversation pretty well, although once in a while what I had to say was dictated more by what words I know than what I actually wanted to say!

By the time we got to the river, though, it started to feel ... off.  I don't mean threatening, exactly, just that something didn't quite feel right.  His questions were getting much more personal -- how many boyfriends did I have in Canada?  Did I have any boyfriends in Argentina?  Where was I staying?  Was I staying alone?  Did I know anybody here?  Why didn`t my friends come hiking with me?

He urged me to carry on with him on the path to the waterfall.  "It's a short walk, just up ahead -- it will only take 10 minutes -- and it's very beautiful, you will love it," he insisted. 

I took a look at the narrow, overgrown path leading off into the woods.  I looked around and realized there was no one else for miles around.  I remembered that my guidebook had said it was at least an hour and a half to walk to the waterfall ... not ten minutes.

So I "suddenly" noticed how late it was getting and exclaimed that I had to get back to town to meet my husband.  (Fake husbands or boyfriends are very useful things to bring travelling.)  I was already going to be late and he would be worried if I was any later.  With a hasty good-bye, I started back down the road towards Cafayate, and I never did get to see the waterfall.

He didn't follow me.  So if he was really just a nice guy who only wanted to help out a tourist or who was only looking for conversation with an interesting foreigner, then I'm sorry for thinking ill of him.   (But, really, I couldn't stand up my imaginary husband, could I?)  However, if he wasn't actually a nice guy ... then it could've gone very, very wrong had I not turned around and walked away.

But that's the thing about trusting your instincts.  You won't ever know what would have happened if you hadn't listened to them, if you'd made a different choice.  You can't tell whether anything bad would've happened, or not, so you can't judge whether you're being sensible or overly paranoid.  But I figure that, if I do something contrary to what my instincts tell me, then I'm going to be uncomfortable and worried the whole time anyway -- so even if it turns out to have been perfectly safe, I won't really have enjoyed it.

I have a pretty good idea, now, of what's a good idea for me and what isn't, but I'm sure everyone's comfort level or sense of security is different.  Where do you draw that line?