PERU & BOLIVIA 2007 By Scott Nicholson Hmmm….does

9 May



By Scott Nicholson

Hmmm….does water really go down the drain in the opposite direction South of the Equator? Only one way to find out for sure: We’re going to South America!!

This odyssey started with a late-night phone call from Ryan. He and a friend were planning a trip to Machu Picchu…would I like to join them….I thought about it for less than a second and the trip was on!! I’ve been dreaming of a visit to Machu Picchu since around 1980 or so…. As an aside, my life from 1980 to the present has been an adventure almost beyond belief (!!!) and I consider myself the most blessed person on planet Earth to be where I am today…my life Rocks & I have a beautiful family and a thriving business and so the timing for this trip to Peru & Bolivia is serendipitous. The only potential kink in the plan is our decision to purchase a new home and sell our existing home…….did I mention serendipity already? 

We found, negotiated, and purchased, the perfect “new” house…..AND…..the first couple to see our home for sale (on the 4th of July nonetheless) Bought It! Both closings went smooth and the rehab of the new home was complete about 2 weeks before the August 9 departure date for my trip. The week(s) leading up to the trip were a veritable whirlwind with moving/business deals/Austin’s Antones gig/our housewarming party/training/Ryan’s return from his 2 month journey through Europe/unpacking/family stuff/etc/etc…

Finally, after almost 6 months since I bought our plane tickets from Austin, TX to La Paz, Bolivia, the day arrived for Ryan & I to pack up & fly out.

I’m nervous about landing in La Paz; the airport is at 13,400’ above sea level and I’m concerned about the altitude and lack of acclimatization…more for Ryan than me as he had some altitude issues one before in New Mexico. I’ve been running 3+ miles 1-4 times/week and swimming 400-800m sporadically for about 3 months and I feel like I’m in pretty good shape…considering I’m 45 and Ryan is 26….his friend (Maury) is 27 and, it turns out that our co-trekkers are 21/21/21/29. I’ll be over twice as old as 1/2 of our trekking group……Yikes! Hope I can keep up.

I wouldn’t bet against me…

Here we go.

August 9, 2007: Our flight departs Austin, TX at 5:40am CST so we are packed and ready and leaving our Cedar Park, TX home by 4:00am. Arrive at ABIA by 4:30am check our bags & I call Laura’s mobile to describe our parking space to facilitate the Subaru pickup tomorrow.

We fly to Houston, TX and smoothly transfer and fly on to Miami, FL. The Miami airport is crazy busy with tens of thousands of travelers going all over the World….it is Truly an International Airport! Our flight to La Paz is delayed for 2 hours so we wait…sleepy…

Finally, we board the American Airlines jet to La Paz. Smooth flight…(in-flight movie is “Blades of Glory”)….until….we arrive above La Paz (very very cool city at night from the air!!) and the pilot announces that we have a malfunction in the “pressurization system” which, due to the high elevation, prevents us from landing in La Paz, and we’re forced to fly to Santa Cruz….+/- 1 hour flight.

We land in Santa Cruz @ around 12:00 Midnight after AA staff derides us for being stupid passengers as we are given several different sets of instructions for de-planing…

After a 45 minute process AA sends us to hotel lodging overnight so we can sleep until we have to be back at the airport (a 20 minute cab ride..) by 6am for our replacement flight to La Paz. We meet a dude from La Paz, an e.r. nurse from Miami, and a chick from Ireland and go to the hotel together, at about 2am, where we wait over an hour for food. I crash around 3am while Ryan eats shitty burger at table with Bolivian dude, FL guy, Belgium girl, and Bolivian dudes chick friend.

August 10, 2007:_ Up at 5am……WHEW….re-negotiate with cabbies to our original pre-paid AA-arranged cab deal…and to airport, waiting for flight by 7am. Smooth flight and we land in La Paz +/-9am Bolivia time (EST). The La Paz airport (actually in El Alto) is at 13,400’and is small….we exit down stairs onto the tarmac…and bustling with activity. On the 1 hour flight I was seated next to a climbing guide from Oregon who was guiding a climb for a CO company. Nice guy…I was a zombie from no sleep….and didn’t get his name/e-mail.

We find our luggage and catch a taxi (shared with dude from FL…ER nurse…) to the bus terminal….cab ride costs 10 bolivianos. The bus terminal is near the huge (HUGE) market and is itself center for lotsa activity. We buy water, get some bolivianos (Note: $100US=783B…so it’s B7.83 to $1.), find a bus ticket for me & Ry to Copacabana leaving the terminal at 3:00pm and arriving in Copacabana by 7pm-ish, store our packs at the pack-storage place for $5B, and then off to walk the streets of La Paz and find some lunch. Keeping in mind that I was operating on about 4.5 hours of sleep in the last 48 hours I felt pretty good….no noticeable altitude issues although everywhere in La Paz is uphill, it seems, and little old ladies were passing us like we were standing still. 

We ate a killer lunch of chicken soup (the broth was unbelievably delicious) and a plate of grilled beef with fried wedge potatoes for about $15B……that’s under $2US…and we were full afterwards……oh, and we drank an orange Fanta each!!!

The market in La Paz is almost indescribable in it’s size & scope of goods for sale….it was the most amazing market I’ve ever seen or heard of! I’ll do a poor job of painting the mental image…but, here goes… 300 square blocks of shops selling everything (EVERYTHING) from 40’ sections of rebar (all sizes) to toilet seats to fresh herbs to llama fetuses to soap to socks to sweaters/shirts/shoes/ties/etc to drain pipes of every size imaginable to mining/farming/paving/sewing equipment to anything (ANYTHING) else anyone might ever need!! There were probably 200 shops selling only sunglasses and 10 times as many selling daily household cleaning stuff!!! Imagine 50 Walmarts & 50 Home Depots & 100 large grocery stores and many hundreds of other stores all in very small booths spread over a square mile in the middle of a city of 1.2M people…………Very cool place…! We walked around for about 4 hours and then back to the bus terminal to chill & catch our bus @3pm.

At about 2:35 the ticket agent showed up and motioned for us to hurry and crawl under the counter and out the back door of her office to a waiting cab where we were joined by a chick from Taiwan. Turns out we had to taxi across town to catch the bus because they’d combined riders to make a full bus-load to Copacabana. We speed across La Paz and get on a small bus (it held about 25 people), the roof of which served as a delivery vehicle for sheets of plywood, some wrought iron, a large wooden door, and assorted bags of stuff. The bus went up & up & up to El Alto and stopped to pick up some other riders and I got off to buy some bottled water (2.5l cost $5B) and some chocolate cookies and vanilla wafers which I share with a lady dressed in traditional Bolivian fashion and her 10(?) y.o. son. Ryan meets two guys from Copacabana who sit behind us: they’re cool guys as we’ll find out later….

After about an hour of very busy traffic , on very bad roads (under construction) through the outskirts of La Paz we’re (finally) driving through rolling countryside with large mountains in the distance,,,Illimani & Huayna Potosi & Alpamayo Pequeno…….then, just as we were approaching Lake Titicaca and I was dozing off for some much-needed sleep there is a Loud “BOOM”……the driver’s side rear tire has exploded. Everyone gets off the bus (photo op & restroom break for me & Ry) while the tire is changed in a very efficient manner, taking less than 10 minutes. Back on the road, driving along the banks of Titicaca for about 20 minutes we stop and cross the lake. People in small motor skiffs and busses on large barges…the water is very very clear & cold. We eat a cool fried egg sandwich (small stand on town square…fried eggs with grilled red onions/fried potato wedges/mayo/ketchup/salsa/mustard) and then back on the bus and on the road.

We arrive in Copacabana at about 7:10pm to find a bustling de-bussing ritual unloading both passengers and cargo……and there are perhaps 10 kids handing out fliers for hostels & restaurants.Ryan arranges a ride to La Frontera (The Border), which closes at 7:30pm, with the 2 guys from Copacabana (they helped us Greatly by getting us to the border in time!!) and we rush off immediately when the bus stops in the main town square…!!! We hit the border with less than 5 minutes to spare…….WHEW!

The Bolivian border station is a small adobe & brick building with a metal roof and two offices in the middle of nowhere….except for a small store selling drinks & snacks and offering currency exchange. Believe it or not, we got the worst rate of exchange at this remote site. HAHA. The three Immigration Agents are ready to shut down for the day and so they rush us through. It’s about 1/2 mile to the Peruvian Immigration Station so we set off on foot, with packs on….it’s dark and about 8:15pm….

The Peruvian Agents are in a hurry too so we blaze through getting our passports stamped and paperwork in order…..only takes 2 or 3 minutes! Waiting outside the station is a decrepit Toyota taxi…..Carlos, offers to take us to Puno (+/- 150Km) for $150NS ($50US)

The trip starts off smoothly enough except that within about 2 minutes of travel time Carlos announces he needs $50NS of his fare, upfront, for gas…we agree and we pull over near a small house where an elderly lady delivers gasoline via several 1 gallon jugs and a funnel. After 10 minutes we’re on our way. After another 5 minutes Carlos asks if we minded turning around and picking up his wife, “we’re very close to my home and my wife will be worried if I’m gone all night taking you to Puno.” Hmmm…’s now almost 10pm and the town is dark, we MUST be in Puno to catch an 8:00am train to Cusco, and we’re driving down unlit streets for many blocks…..Hmmm…Ry and I exchange several (OK…more than several…!) nervous glances as Carlos stops the cab, gets out, and goes into a small 2-story adobe house.

We wait….and wait……and wait… It’s probably only 15 minutes but it felt like four hours! This was the only time in the entire trip where I felt any sense of alarm or danger. Finally….FINALLY…Carlos returns to the cab with his wife and infant son. Whew….our fears were unfounded…..and we set off for Puno.

Carlos drove very very very slowly. I’m guessing our average speed was 60km/hr. Several times we thought the cab would die going up steep hills…AND…it turns out the heater didn’t work and the temps were in the 30’s. Luckily, Carlos had several thick alpaca blankets for us.

Finally….(I’ll use this word a lot!!)….we got to Puno and checked into a ghetto hostel…..we crash about Midnight…on mashy, lumpy, slanted, and uncomfortable mattresses…..rarely has a bed felt more comfortable!

August 11, 2007: Ahhh…we wake up from the longest stretch of horizontal sleep we’ve for several days……and then, after glancing at my watch we have a complete panic attack!! It’s 8am and we’re gonna miss our train to Cusco, Peru!!!! After all our work yesterday we’ve overslept!! We are dressed with packs loaded and on the street hailing a taxi within 3 minutes of waking up…!!!

Then….we remember a snippet of a conversation we had yesterday with someone I don’t remember in which a mention was made that Peru is in the same time-zone as Austin, TX….CST…while Bolivia is on EST. My watch is still on CST…..WHEW…..What a Relief….It’s really 7am and the train station is not even open yet…!!! 

We walk through Puno and find an ATM (we spent all our Soles for the cab-ride last night) and some breakfast. Breakfast was street food: empanadas with sort of curry-meat-vegetable combination….very tasty although somewhat shocking as I bit into it thinking it was filled with fruit!

We get to the train station as the doors open @ 7:30am (CST!!) and wait while several tour groups arrive and pick up tickets & load luggage into the staging area…… we wait…and wait….and wait. We finally are beckoned to the ticket window where we’re told all the tickets to the backpacker class train ($19/each) are sold out but some tickets remain on the Inca Express ($90/ea)….about this time a lady came up to us and offered to sell us two tickets. Apparently two persons on a group tour had cancelled and so their seats were available. The ticket lady heard this exchange and while telling us we couldn’t use the cancelled tickets because the passport numbers wouldn’t match ours “magically” discovered two available tickets!! Ryan was invaluable in this situation (and many others on this trip) with his total fluency in Spanish…!

So, tickets in hand we board the train and, although our seats were not together, are able to switch seats so that we are seated together, facing forward, across from a very cool & interesting couple from the Czech Republic.

The train ride is spectacular as we wind up and up through open fields with small communities in the distance and an occasional small town with schools & amazing markets as seen from the train @ 5mph. The foothills give way to larger mountains and then we’re on the Altiplano and snow-capped peaks begin to appear. After about 6 hours we arrive at a siding where we sit for +/-10 minutes while the Cusco-Puno train passes.

Within 10 minutes we stop again at the highest point..+/-14,000’…..and we get out and walk through a small market selling alpaca sweaters/stuff for too much money.

Back on the train we begin to descend, snow-capped peaks give way to green mountains and open fields and the tracks follow a river which gradually becomes bigger and bigger the lower we get. It’s very beautiful scenery….and 10+ hours of it…!

Finally we reach the outskirts of Cusco where we pass through agricultural areas and then into the Peruvian version of suburbs (lots & lots of small adobe houses connected by dirt streets and dotted with small stores & shops. At about 6:30pm we arrive at the Cusco train station and face a very crowded & jostling scene where everyone tries to gather their luggage/backpacks and board the waiting fleet of hostel vans/busses.

The Czech couple hook us up with a lead, the van driver from their hostel, and we find a very cool place to crash: Hostal Urpi. We check in and then go to check out Cusco…which is hopping with activity @ +/- 8pm. Ry & I find a restaurant and it turns out to be excellent…and then we walk to La Plaza De Armas and hang out around a beautiful plaza with a very cool fountain (lit up at night) with park benches and many many people walking around. The plaza is surrounded by shops & restaurants & internet cafes & etc/etc…and is the center of activity for Cusco.

By 10pm we’re tired and walk back to our hostel to crash & by 10:30 we’re asleep….pleasantly dreaming & thankful the 1st leg of our journey has been a successful (ad)venture. We’ve successfully arrived in Cusco. Tomorrow we’ll check in with AndeanLife(.com) to confirm our trek….and we’ll try to find Maury who’s hopefully flown into Cusco from Lima earlier today. Good Night….!

August 12, 2007: After a good night’s sleep, although my bed was slightly slanted, we awake to a cool version of the standard Peruvian breakfast of bread (imagine a hamburger bun but not fluffy…say…6” across and 1/3” tall….you carefully slice it in half on the horizontal axis) with butter and jam (usually strawberry jam but later it is some unknown delicious local fruit) and fruit juice.

Rested & fed we put on our packs and walk uphill into central Cusco to find Loki Backpacker Hostel where we’ll crash tonight. On the way, within a short distance from La Plaza del Armas, we walk past the offices of AndeanLife, our trek-tour operator….so we check in and confirm our Salkantay-Machu Picchu Trek reservations….we’re confirmed(!!)…and arrange to attend a 5:30pm Trek Orientation where we’ll meet our guide & fellow trekkers.

Armed with a hand-drawn map of how to reach the Loki hostel we set off uphill (Note: It’s Uphill everywhere in Peru & Bolivia!!), past some Incan walls with buildings constructed on top of them, a naked lady statue, a cool small church, a small square, several small shops, and some tour-guide companies, as the street narrows and goes up so steeply that the sidewalks are stairs. It is steep and we’re carrying ALL our stuff so we’re immediately winded because Cusco is very high…over 12,000’!

As we start up the stairs a very tall person with long hair & beard is going down the opposite side of the street….It’s Maury!!! He’s just arrived from Lima and our timing is near perfect. Rock & Roll…We check into Loki Hostel and head out into Cusco…note that this is the first day Ryan & I are able to pretty much chill/relax and casually check things out. 

Our first stop is a large food market which is adjacent to a cool-looking catholic church and a wide plaza.

The market is Amazing! It covers an area roughly 10 basketball courts…more or less. There are hundreds of small vendor-shops and hundreds of people, locals & tourists, shopping and eating…did I mention Amazing?? 

As you walk in there are 30+ fresh-fruit juice smoothie venders selling papaya/strawberry/banana/orange/etc/etc/etc Fresh smoothies. Ryan buys one and it is fantastic! The next section of the market is chicken/beef/alpaca/fish meat…fresh & salted. We sample some salted alpaca…it’s pretty tough & gamey…

There’s cheese section where we bought small hunks of local cheese…then next is a large vegetable section and large spice section. All along the outer ring of the market are small shops selling candy bars, cookies, water, sodas, etc….inside are more shops selling touristy trinkets.

After wandering through the market long enough to develop a hearty appetite we came to the “restaurant” area of the market. There were 60+ countertop/communal picnic table booths clustered around small grills with cooks & servers putting out plates (Large Portions!!) of ceviche, soups of all kinds, grilled alpaca/beef/chicken plates with rice & fried potato wedges. I’m guessing there were 500+ people eating here alongside us and another 500+ over the next half hour….very busy place! The food was good…..sorta curry-ish grilled thin-cut beef (flank steaks??) atop a bed of fried potato wedges and lightly seasoned rice. I ate about 1/2 of my plate and Ryan ate 2/3 of his.

As we walk out of the market there’s a crowd gathered to watch a performance (a play, like a comedy…sorta) by a 20-ish girl and a 12-ish boy bantering back and forth making jokes….the crowd loved it!

We wander around and after some cool people-watching time on the steps up to one of the Large churches on the Plaza Del Armas, and some hacky-sack on the front porch of the largest church with two local kids we decide to head back to Loki to chill and rest. Ryan & Maury land in the bar….a pretty cool place and the center of social activity at this very social hostel….! They have a few beers and we meet Dez from Great Britain. He’s a cool guy, a civil engineer by trade, and so he & I talk shop….he does road modification plans in England where they can’t build any new roads but must modify existing roads to accommodate additional traffic impact by new development.

As those guys drink several beers I drink a 2.5liter bottle of water….imagine a 3 liter bottle of Sprite….only water. I know we’re climbing up to +/-13,600’ for our campsite tomorrow night and I wanna be hydrated. And….after about an hour in the bar I decide to walk through Cusco (remember…everywhere is uphill in Peru/Bolivia) to see the sites and get some conditioning. Cusco is +11,000’ altitude…and I set out to visit a museum in a large Spanish/catholic church & monastery built atop the main Incan temple in Cusco…..note…Cusco was very central to the Incan culture and, in fact, was the Capitol of the Incan Empire. The artwork in this church is as amazing as it is Large & Imposing……note…’large & imposing’ is the prevalent theme in everything Spanish/catholic in Cusco!

We’re due at AndeanLife for our pre-trip meeting at 5:30pm so about 3pm I hit a roasted chicken place (los angeles chicken) where they rotisserie-grill whole chickens then sell them as whole, 1/4, or 1/8 chickens….the 1/4 chicken with fries&salad is $6NS (exchange rate is roughly $3NS=$1US). Cusco is sorta expensive due to the fact that it’s the jump-off point for Machu Picchu and therefore is Tourist Central…!

By 5:00pm I’m finished with my 1/4 chicken meal, (the cheapest meal in Cusco!!!) and I’m chillin’ on a park bench near the naked lady statue (and, coincidentally, near the AndeanLife office) when up walk Ryan & Maury. They are very friendly & animated… for our meeting and our impending trek! A lady emerges from the AndeanLife office and leads us uphill (no surprise here!) to the main office for our meeting.

We meet our trekking group and our very cool/capable/confident guide, Guido. Besides Ryan(26), Maury(27), and me(45) our group is Cynthia (29 y.o. from CA), Robin (21 y.o. guy from Alabama), Sarah (21 y.o. vegan chick from Alabama….girlfriend of Robin), and Brian (21 y.o. from Alabama)….there are some porters/cooks/asst. guide we’ll meet tomorrow.

Guido does a great job of convincing everyone that our impending trek is no walk in the park but rather a fairly strenuous 5 day hike up & down mountains….for many miles! I’ve been acutely aware of this fact for several months and have been training very hard. I’ve also been thinking a lot (a lot!) about gear and packing! Ryan & Maury are sorta nervous about gear….so we go back to Loki and spend an hour or so going through all our gear and packing our packs. That having been accomplished we retire to the bar…I drink one liter of beer and I think Ryan & Maury have 2-3 each. We crash about 11pm….we have to be up very very early to catch the AndeanLife van which will whisk us away to the start of our adventure, as Guido refers to the trek.

It takes me an hour or so to fall asleep and even then my sleep is fitful…I have visions of mountains….and of thin air at high altitude….and steep switchbacks…of mist shrouded Machu Picchu…..then I finally sleep.

August 13, 2007: We wake up at 5:45 to find there’s no water in the hostel…so….no beginning shower. By 6am we’ve stored our large expedition packs in the storage room at Loki and are waiting near the front entrance for the AndeanLife van. It arrives promptly at 6:15am and we pick our seats…..and wait for the Alabama group. We wait & wait…..for over 15 minutes….the porters are angry and getting impatient….we have a time schedule to keep and it’s a 4 hour ride to the trailhead. Note: This late-ness by the Alabama group is a sad harbinger of things to come as Robin & Sarah are weak and needy for the remainder of the trek…..stay tuned.

The streets of Cusco are empty this early so we zip through the winding narrow streets, picking up Guido & Carmen, going up & up, until we are on the outskirts of town and then traveling on well-paved winding roads through rolling hills past small settlements. After an hour or so, I’ve been semi-dozing off, we stop in a small town so the cooks/porters can buy food&supplies. Ryan buys some bread & fruit: Thank You Ryan!! The combination of bread & apples really energized me and I’m enjoying the van ride. A very large snow-capped mountain comes into view and it grows very slowly as we turn off of asphalt onto a thin dusty dirt road and continue to go up & up.

Shortly we come to a small village where we walk around, buy coca leaves, and eat breakfast in a small restaurant. This is where we are first introduced to Sarah’s vegan requirements….nothing, nada, nothing from animals. The rest of us, except for Robin…he’s starting to look pale and is complaining of a slight headache, enjoy a hearty meal and then board the van…. Again, up & up on narrow dusty dirt-track for about 1.5 more hours listening to rock & roll music that sounds like Ronnie James Dio fronting Megadeath & Kansas and singing in Spanish!!!

It should be noted that the dirt road we’re on is narrow and close to the edge of many cliffs and steep hills for much of the time. Our driver must have Baja 2000 experience as he masterfully drove the van over some fairly rough terrain and we made it safely to the trailhead.

Finally…! Ryan & I left Austin Thursday am (8/9) and have traveled almost non-stop to arrive here, at our trailhead for our trek on Monday (8/13). The view from the trailhead is breathtaking and, by itself, is almost worth the challenges of our efforts so far! We’re in a broad pampa (mountain meadow), above tree-line, with two Huge mountains looming over us….white with glaciers, +/- 21,000’ tall, jagged/imposing & angular in the Andes style.

There are tarps spread for us to put gear on, for the horses to carry so we sort through our stuff and, having accomplished that, we chill out & soak in the scene while we wait to begin our hike. The altitude here is +/-12,300’ and, so far I don’t really feel the altitude. Then, after 30 minutes or so, Guido announces, “Please, everyone get ready to begin our adventure”. With that, we all gather our +/-30lb packs and start off….

Guido starts quickly uphill on a well-defined trail and I’m immediately slammed! But then he stops…and I recover very quickly. Ryan feels pretty good too. We ascend a series of long steep switchbacks over the next 3.5 hours….like hiking very high trails in NM or CO…only higher!…I feel great and I almost match pace with Guido. As we get higher it gets downright cold…we’re also entering the shadow of the looming Huamantay on our left. Soon we top the ridge and see tents in the distance…we’re arrived at Salkantay Pampa…the first campsite (and the highest camp) of our trek.

It’s freaking COLD and we pile on clothes layers!! The view from this site is Breathtaking: Salkantay dominates the view and is a Very imposing and Very impressive and Very tall Huge chunk of rock! Guido tells us the Incans worshipped Salkantay…it’s an angry mountain, always sending avalanches (we saw 4 today) and rockslides…making lots of noise! He also tells us Salkantay has never been climbed….I call BS on this….any big mountain visible from a major city (Cusco, in this instance) has probably been climbed many times. Turns out I’m right….Salkantay (+/-21,000’) is climbed by several small groups every year. Doesn’t really matter either way….I can’t believe I’m standing here looking at this mountain!!!

The porters have the tents set up, including a cook tent, and so we unpack & set up our tent. I put on every piece of clothing I have (I packed pretty light…my heavy layer is my Northface polartec 300 with my Marmot shell over it) and very soon wish I had another layer! We watch the sun fade off Salkantay while the cooks prepare our dinner. Finally we’re called into the cook tent (it’s very very warm inside: it’s divided into halves by a canvas screen and we sit around a table on one side while the cooks cook on the other side) to eat a three-course meal with soup, fried chicken, and an apple desert….there’s tea/coffee also!

A quick peek at the amazing stars and we’re all in the tent by 9pm….It’s Freaking Cold! I sleep soundly until about 1am when I wake up with a headache and rapid heartbeat (130+)…I take 400mg ibuprofen, 250mg diamox, and drink a whole liter of water…then back to sleep with no further problems!!

I’m guessing the low temperature overnight is +/-10 degrees farenheit…..maybe colder…our water bottles froze solid outside and partially froze in the tent….!

August 14, 2007: We’re up early at 6am with hot tea delivered to our tents….and then breakfast by 6:30. The Alabama group is all sick (Brian less sick…) and weak….they don’t eat. Sarah, the vegan, is already looking pale & hungry…the cooks do a great job of trying to make animal-less food but she is very picky….maybe it’s the altitude….maybe not….read on. We should also note here that Robin rode a horse 75% of the way up yesterday and looks pretty weak this morning too….

We depart camp at 7:30am and go up & up & up for the next three or four hours on steep rocky switchbacks…again, the altitude is not adversely effecting me and I feel very strong…I’m the first of our group to reach the pass….it’s about 11am.

The pass between Salkantay & Huamantay is 4600 meters above sea level (15,150’) and is home to many cairns left as offerings to Salkantay. I place a rock I’ve carried up on a cairn and give special respect to Salkantay…then we cross a large boulder field and scramble for 10 minutes…no easy task at 15,350….! This is the highest altitude we’ll reach on this trip. For reference, the highest point in the contiguous 48 States is Mt. Whitney, CA at 14,505’, and the tallest mountain in CO is Mt. Elbert at 14,433’….I feel like I could go much higher…so Ryan & I are certain we should try to summit El Misti (19,101’) when we travel down to Arequipa, Peru next week…..Fantastic!!!

After about an hour at the pass we head down & down & down until we reach our lunch spot on the banks of the stream we’ve been following for the last two hours. Again, as at every meal on the trek, we sit down to a three-course meal with soup, a main course, and then desert & tea. And, once again, as at every meal on the trek, the Alabama contingency eats very little of the delicious & plentiful food.

After lunch we continue down past small isolated communities…very small clusters of adobe huts tucked behind moraines & large rock outcroppings. The trail become gradually steep & more rocky as we drop below tree line and approach the mountainous jungle called the “cloud forest”. It’s moderately densely wooded and very steep with the small stream (now a small river) down below us…our trail is well-maintained and serves as the foot/horse “highway” connecting many small villages.

Maury pukes a few times but recovers enough to continue down under his own power.

There’s a sharp turn in the trail ahead with a view framed by a canopy of trees/vines….like someone flipped a switch mosquitoes started biting us and Guido announces we’ve officially entered the Cloud Forest. The vegetation thickens dramatically and, once again, the trail steepens & becomes more rocky. Down & down & down…..

We camp on the banks of the river near our porter’s house. Maury chills in the tent while we all eat super and have some animated conversations where we share slang words/terms in Cechua & English….fun stuff. While we eat the porters gather a huge pile of firewood and soon a large campfire is lit.

A bottle of locally-made (sugar cane based) moonshine is produced as well as a bottle of pisco….the Peruvian version of mescal is my impression. Soon we’re sharing’s important to make a small offering to Pachamama (the Incan version of Mother Earth) before you drink! The fire is wonderful as are the astronomy lessons from Guido. The Milky Way dominates the entire skyscape and the sky is very dark with no light pollution…darker than Big Bend & CO!

Guido busts out an i-pod and we jam out to rock & roll music…Bon Jovi, Pink Floyd, etc!! Many jokes & tales are told and the evening winds down with several of us spitting moonshine into the fire for a very dramatic fireworks show! 

While we party, the cooks are catching trout from the small river…they catch +/- 50 small trout about 6” long.

August 15, 2007: Up at 6am with hot tea to our tents and then breakfast in the cook tent. Maury is up to full speed after much rest while 2/3 of the Alabama group is still sick & not eating. Note that Alabama Brian was up partying with us around the campfire last night while Robin & Sarah slept.

We depart camp by means of a log bridge consisting of 5 or 6 thigh-sized logs lain across the small river. Ryan & I are glad to have our trekking poles! The trail immediately turns steeply upward (almost vertical enough to require hands & feet scrambling) through very dense jungle vegetation…it’s warm & humid now too…. I stay on Guido’s heels, having learned the only way to get rest breaks is to stay at the front of the trekking group, and we climb for over 2 hours.

We finally reach the ridge and are greeted by an amazing & fantastic view of lush green (steep) river valleys on both sides of us, snow-capped peaks all around us, and, in the waaay distance…down…down (I must emphasize…WAY DOWN!!) is a tumbling river (lunch spot) and, even farther into the distance, a small settlement where we’ll camp tonight.

We traverse the ridge and begin our long scramble down.

The way down is on cow trails barely discernible even by Guido & our head porter….and very very steep. I’m edging and stomping steps in the hillside…keeping pace, barely, with Guido and our lead porter….the trail is overhung with thorny vines/trees/bushes, and it’s very rocky & poorly defined…..and steep!

After over an hour (at about the halfway mark) of sketchy downhill I ask our porter how fasts he does this trail by himself….and he said 30 minutes down and then 1.5 hours to backtrack uphill back to his home. WOW….That pace is unimaginable to me! I tell him, “Tu eres muy fuerte” (you are very strong) and he replies, in a very confidently “Si”..! Hahaha…Period….end of discussion! He’s 39 years old, about 5’4” and 120lbs…and can carry 80lbs up & down tall mountains All Day Long, Every Day…and then kick your ass!! 

Finally we reach our lunch spot & I dip my feet in the very cold river and wash my shirt. Maury & Guido both get all the way in the water….it is very very friggin cold glacial melt water!!! Lunch consists of soup & fried fresh (from last night) trout with rice…followed by jello desert and juice & tea. This is a beautiful river we’re following…it reminds me of CO/NM rivers. It’s clear and tumbling with large boulders and calm pools.

After lunch we cross the river on a cool log bridge and climb steeply up the river bank to reach a well-defined trail that hugs the jungle mountainside and follows the river down & down. We hike along and cross dozens of tributary creeks (they’re steep steep & boulder-strewn) and the river gradually transforms into a fairly large river…reminds me of the Animas in CO. Along the trail we walk through 4 or 5 small settlements with a few dwellings and a “concession stand” selling snacks & drinks to trekkers. We also see evidence of small logging activities…Huge piles of large 6×6 and 4×12 planks 10-20 feet long…..

The trail winds through lush jungle dotted with an occasional coffee plantation, avocado trees, and citrus trees. Eventually we reach a large (30’ diameter) “Cul-de-Sac” gravel clearing which marks the terminus/beginning of a 25’ wide unpaved truck road.

This road is a clear sign that progress into the jungle is being made….Quido said the local villages are excited because the ability to bring goods in by truck instead of horseback will make their lives much easier. And, in my estimation, judging by the relatively large piles of freshly cut & milled lumber we’ve walked past, the rate of logging will accelerate in these areas. Tourism will grow into a large industry here also I’d predict.

After about 3 more hours hiking along the new dirt road we enter the small village of Playa. Remember that the new dirt road is very very new….and Playa seems to be adjusting from a small village connected to other small villages by footpaths into a small village with a dirt road running through the middle of it!

This presents some real estate & business opportunities. 

I can’t help but take note of some emerging markets….haha.

As we enter the village we pass perhaps 8 small roughly built “bars” (each is a small shed with a counter with stools and maybe one or two small tables out front on the dirt) which appear to be fairly recently built. The customers are obviously locals…..all men lounging with Cusquena beers in hand.

The rest of the town is small one-story adobe huts, mostly with attached shed/barns and metal roofs. Besides the dirt road all other paths are footpaths. There is also a school…the kids are playing soccer as we hike by.

We walk maybe 1/2 mile through the sparsely developed village and come to several campsites set up and run by the trekking companies in conjunction with the locals. We enter the fenced enclosure of our “campsite” and unload our packs. The campsite is a flat area about as big as a basketball court with a +/- 15×30 covered pole barn with a small “store” built on one end. The store sells beer, water, orange Fanta, and Inca Cola….there is also a small b&w TV in the store….also a cot where the operator sleeps.

It takes a very long time for the cooks to prepare supper so we have a few beers…I’m drinking water mostly….and share stories seated around a picnic table. Finally we eat supper….then begin to celebrate the completion of the hardest/longest hike of our trek!

Suddenly, Ryan says he feels his chair shaking as if one of the roaming dogs is bumping against it. We all take notice and begin to feel the ground shake! The hanging lights were swaying and the bottles on the store shelves were rocking and clanging against each other! Guido suggested we go outside and so we walked out onto the flat yard where we felt the ground shaking for about two minutes.

For me, in retrospect, it was a very unsettling experience. For an hour or so afterwards I felt tense & had a weird unnatural sense of impending doom…I was distractedly worried about a lot of seemingly unrelated stuff. Very strange cognitive and somatic experience: I felt the Earth move under my feet and (almost) felt the Sky tumbling down.

As we watched the news (on the small b&w TV with rabbit-ear antennae) we learned we’d felt a Huge Earthquake (near Ica, Peru) that devastated a large area and left several millions of Peruvians without shelter, food, or water……..and thousands killed…..Wow…Very Tragic!

Turns out the earthquake was a very large quake: 8.1…actually a series of fairly large quakes more correctly called a “mega-thrust”. There were many hundreds of aftershocks and the devastation was widespread. We were +/- 300 miles away from the epicenter and still felt the quake!

August 16, 2007: We’re up early for a long (7+ hours) hike up over the towering ridge above us and then down to Hidroelectric where we’ll catch a train at 3:30pm for a 45 minute ride to Aquacalientes. As we drink our daily morning tea Cynthia discovers her boots were stolen during the night. Ryan talks with the local ladies and tries to find out who took them…they do not know, or at least they tell us they don’t know. Cynthia, shod in a new pair of cheap knock-off Converse “Chuck Taylor” shoes gamely decides to join us for today’s long hike. Alabama Sarah & Robin opt for the bus ride as they are too weak to join us………..

After a quick breakfast we set out along the river out of town but very soon we turn uphill on a series of paved steps…a sign tells us we are at the beginning of an Incan Trail and, as we ascend up the steep trail, we cross obvious Incan paving along the way. We pass a crippled old lady and give her some $$…

Finally, we make the pass and eat our sack lunches. We’re in very dense cloud forest now and soon we come upon a recently discovered Incan Ruin where we also are treated to our first view of Machu Picchu far across a seemingly impassable series of steep valleys!

Llactapata was only recently discovered, perhaps as recently as within the last 10-15 years. A small portion of the ruin has been restored but much of the site (+/-10acres) is completely overrun by jungle and you could walk right by it, several feet away from it you’d never see it unless someone (Guido) brought it to your attention!

After a short break here, punctuated by a very animated presentation of key events in Incan history and especially the history of Cusco by Guido, we continued our journey down down down….the trail gets rockier and steeper. Our knees and feet are feeling this looong day. Ahead, streaming out of the mountainside we see a twin waterfall: it’s the outlet for the hydroelectric plant in the small town, Hidroelectric, which is our destination for today…we’ll catch a train to Aquascalientes there. We can see, far below us in the distance, but growing closer with each painful step, a small road which runs alongside the winding river to Hidroelectric.

Finally, we reach the river we’ve seen in the distance all day. To cross the river we traverse a homemade suspension bridge some 100’ above the river. The bridge is made of 2×4’s spanning two L-beams which hang from bent rebar from two thick steel cables….it’s wobbly and it sways under us with each step. Slightly disconcerting…but very cool. We chill in the middle to soak in the view of the river below us.

An easy hour’s hike takes us to the railroad station: A small hut where the cooks from several trekking groups are feverishly working to prepare lunch before the train departs. The train is about 8 cars long with armed Peruvian soldiers milling about. There’s rumor of a strike which may disrupt rail service and, presumably, the soldiers are there to prevent that from happening.

Our Alabama contingency, having opted for a bus ride instead of hiking with the group, is waiting for us at a small group of tables set under an’s +/- 90 degrees and the shade is much welcome! After a few minutes our cooks arrive to serve the now standard soup, chicken & rice dish, hot tea/coca/coffee, and desert. We’re ravenously hungry after the long hike and the food is more delicious than normal.

After an hour or so we’re directed to board the train and the soldiers check our passports and tickets. We stash our packs, which we are responsible for from now on….for the entire trek our large duffle bags (with spare clothes and supplies) have been carried by the horses, on the overhead storage bins and the train rumbles off. The tracks follow a winding river through a very narrow canyon with impossibly steep & high mountains on both sides. I’m more than amazed at the engineering feat it must have been to construct this railway!!

The trip to Aquascalientes takes about an hour and we pull up to an amazing bustling scene as the tracks are lined on both sides with shops and vendors of all types!! It bears mentioning that Aquascalientes can only be reached, from the outside world, by train, horse, or foot…there are no roads leading to it…!!! The only roads in the area connect Aquascalientes to Machu Picchu.

We get off the train and, lugging our packs & duffels, follow Quido UPHILL through the very very cool (and crowded) town to our hotel for the night. The streets are more like wide sidewalks than streets…remember there are no cars at all in Aquascalientes…! There are hundreds of shops and restaurants catering to the thousand or so trekkers in town preparing for Machu Picchu. This town is the final jumping-off spot for Machu Picchu and so does a bang-up business selling food and curios of all types to the trekkers. Oh, and again, by some strange quirk of physics it’s steeply uphill everywhere you go!

We eat, all together, at one of the restaurants and take a group vote on a departure time for in-the-morning and decide on 6am. That should put us at Machu Picchu ahead of both the sunrise and teeming throngs. After we eat Quido asks Ryan, Maury, Alabama Brian, and me to join him at one of the cooler nightclubs…this one is owned by a friend of his and there is a cool band playing.

The club is long and narrow with couches and low tables along the walls and two bars, one in front (street-side) and one in the back. We’re invited into the owner’s private suite and he offers a joint (no disclosure here on who partook…it’s just part of the story…) then we all go back into the club where the musicians are beginning to stream in. The band is a bass guitar, a telecaster, two djimbe drums, a cello, and a pan flute. They play rock & roll Peruvian folk music and the lead instrument is one guy on the djimbe: very very cool music!! Because we’re guests of the club owner we meet the players and share several drinks….cuba libres all around with Cusquena beers sprinkled in between!! The party could have lasted all night….the atmosphere was freaking Kicking(!!)…but 6am will come very early so reluctantly we stumble uphill to our hotel.

Note that we spent some time earlier walking through town and bought touristy stuff…and generally saw the sights. Interesting town!!

 August 17, 2007: Whew. 6am comes very early and Ryan and I find breakfast upstairs in the hotel…then we rush to meet the group who is waiting in a long line to board one of the many busses leaving every 3 minutes for the 20 minute switchback journey to the entrance gate to Machu Picchu. The sun is not quite up yet when we climb on our bus and we arrive at the entrance with much anticipation!!!

Once on we file through a gate where our passports are stamped and our tickets are checked. Then we follow Quido up and up many small stone stairs to one of the many terraced areas which overlooks the temple area. The clouds are completely obscuring the ruins and occasionally the wind will blow a clearing across the scene which offers a tease of a hint of the glory of Machu Picchu. It is tantalizing and amazing and exotic and breathtaking!! I’ve been dreaming of this day for over 20 years and it’s surreal that I’m sitting here watching the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Quido offers another joint (again, no disclosure on who partakes…) and begins to tell us the story of Machu Picchu. Quido has Incan blood and his passion for the history and lore of this amazing culture is evident as he relays the legend of this hidden jungle temple complex!!

Soon the clouds break completely and we’re stunned and blessed with the classic “postcard” view of the entire Machu Picchu complex laid out below and in front of us! We follow Quido and begin our tour of the ruins, visiting each of the 4 Temples within the complex and marveling at the intricate and seemingly impossible artwork. The Incans were incredible craftsmen….the joints between the rock are so thin that you can’t slide a piece of paper between them…and they’ve held in place, despite fairly regular earthquake activity, for hundreds of years…Without Any Mortar!!

Quido’s tour lasts about two hours and then we have a chance to wander on our own. I literally get lost as I traverse many stairs and ledges and eventually end up on the edge of the ruins, on a terrace overlooking the Huayna Picchu mountain and the Urubamba river valley…all alone with not another human in sight! For over 2.5 hours I sit in absolute silence, intoxicated by the solitude and somewhat dizzy with the fantastic scenery: I still can barely grasp the fact that I’m at Machu Picchu. It’s a priceless bonus that I have so much time here, by myself, to contemplate this experience!

Too soon, it’s time to head back to the bus terminal so that we can get back to Aquascalinetes…we’re scheduled to take a 2 hour train ride to Ollantaytambo where we’ll meet up with an Andean Life van which will take us back to Cusco for the end of our Machu Picchu adventure.

Ryan and Maury catch a bus back to Aquascaliente before I do and so when I finally get back to the town I catch them enjoying a cold Cusquena beer and so I join them…we pick up our backpacks from the Hotel and do some last-minute trinket shopping then it’s into the train station to catch the train.

The train follows the Urubamba River for several hours of dramatic scenery…there are Incan terraces literally everywhere: The scale of Incan handiwork is astounding!! Soon we pull into the station and exit the train into a very hectic scene with several hundred passengers meeting up with several dozen tour vans for the trip back to Cusco. We locate the Andean Life guys and load our packs onto the top of the van and, we’re off!

I sit in the back of the van next to two Swedish chicks…who were rude as hell. They basically asked all of us to leave them alone because they didn’t wish to speak with any of us. We laughed and honored their wishes.

The van ride was a textbook adventure in Third World highway travel! The driver passed slower vehicles with random abandon and spent lots of time turned around talking with anyone who would participate…most of us were white-knuckled and asked him to turn around a pay attention to the road. He thought that was quite funny!

We finally reach Cusco safely and Ryan, Maury, and I pick up our backpacks from the Loki Backpacker Hostel storage room and crash for the night because we’re exhausted. Before we crashed we did a rough reorganization and consolidation of our gear in preparation of our relocation tomorrow to another hostel. Loki is a cool place but it has a strong & obvious “party hearty” atmosphere…the crowd trickles back into the rooms until dawn almost every night after partying….not an atmosphere conducive to rest/sleep!

Maury stays up and visits a few of Cusco’s late-night party spots while Ryan and I crash…

August 18, 2007: We’re up relatively early (10am) and we check out of Loki and head down toward the Plaza de Armas on very sore legs and feet…but with three lungs each! My level of cardiovascular fitness at this point in the trip feels out-of-this-World strong!! Our packs are heavy but they feel m.u.c.h. lighter than they did 5 days ago…

Between Loki and the Plaza de Armas is a smaller plaza. This morning the plaza is the site of much activity with speakers blaring loud music and announcements asking for donations for the earthquake victims in NW Peru. There are tables staffed by government and municipal employees and volunteers and a steady stream of donations of bottled water and clothing being sorted and inventoried.

We all have extra clothing so Ryan suggests we donate some clothes. We each walk to the table and put some long-sleeved shirts/sweaters in the pile and we’re immediately the center of attention!! Several people run up to us and ask our names and there’s a general rush of people around us….we are more than slightly taken aback. We’re asked to re-inact our donations so that several local & regional TV crews can film us. (we’re on Cusco regional News that night!!)

The mayor of Cusco approaches us and warmly thanks us for our generous donations…they are impressed that we, travelers in their country, care enough to donate to the earthquake relief effort….in a country as poor as Peru even our very modest donations are important.

We head down hill to see if we can get a room at the quiet hostel where Ryan & I stayed our first night in Cusco. When we arrive we are told that they’re full but they refer us to a hostel near the Plaza de Armas….so we head back uphill….did I mention that most everywhere you go in Peru & Bolivia is uphill??!

The new hostel is a cool little place tucked into an alley off an alley. Our room is on the third level and requires a climb up a tiny stairwell to a small door. There is a large window out of our room which affords a fine view of Cusco below. We gratefully unload our stuff and decide to do a little shopping & sightseeing.

Our first night in Cusco we were approached by a guy offering to sell a finely made charrango, a small 8-stringed guitar with a rounded body and a very cool sound. The tuning is very, well, very South American sounding and when you strum it you produce a very cool sound. Ryan is very intrigued and interested in owning one and learning to play it.

As we explore Cusco this day we ask people on the street where we might find a luthier….nobody can direct us anywhere but the market where they sell cheaply made trinket-instruments. Finally, we spot a man carrying a guitar case and he directs us to a location off the beaten path to a very small isolated shop. (it is around this point in time that I recollect a snippet of a conversation from before our trek where somebody mentioned an instrument maker somewhere near the Plaza de Armas). As we wander up a small alley littered with broken bricks and step over a falling wall we see a small poster advertising musical instruments: We’ve found our guitar & instrument maker!!

There are about 10 guitars, charrangos, and marimachus (a 16-string instrument which resembles a very large mandolin) hanging on the wall of the rustic shop. There are several other instruments lying, in various stages of completion, on workbenches. There are also pan flutes of various sizes and other wind instruments….and…a very large/very cool djimbe drum. The shop looks like you’d imagine a small-town blacksmith shop around the turn-of-the-century with hand tools and hand-made jigs and forms.

We begin to bargain with the shop owner…we want to negotiate a package price for multiple instruments so we can get a better overall price. Ryan picks out a very cool charrango and Maury picks a marimachu.

I have my mind set on purchasing a djimbe drum….since the night we partied in Aquascalientes with the rock & roll band with the badass drummers…and I ask if he has a smaller djimbe for sale as the one in the shop is too large to transport back to the USA. I motion with my hands the desired size and he scratches his head and says, “come back this afternoon and I will make you a drum…I have one started and I can finish it today.” So, our deal struck, we leave the shop and walk through Cusco taking in the sights and sounds! We’re very excited: We’ve found very high quality handmade Peruvian instruments at a very very low cost!!

We’ve decided to celebrate our trek tonight and so we buy two bottles of local wine and a bottle of pisco (local moonshine) with plans to hang out in the plaza where the relief-collection activity is happening. So we wander around Cusco, buying trinkets…I buy a silver and turquoise Pachemama pendant and earring set for Laura and some tee-shirts along with a large duffel bag and some alpaca scarves. We eat lunch in a cool diner and then chill, waiting for evening to arrive so we can properly celebrate!

We make our way to the square where the earthquake relief effort is progressing full-speed-ahead with a regular progression of cars & trucks droping off water & supplies, long lines of people bringing donations, loud music blaring through a PA system, and many people just hanging out in the square. Our chosen spot is near a very large tree in one corner of the square and we open our wine and settle in for the evening’s festivities.

While we chill we notice a very intoxicated guy stumbling in our direction…he walks right up to us and, with no evidence whatsoever that he’s even aware of us standing there, beings to pee on the tree right where we’re standing! We’re alternately stunned & amused…this guy is 100% wasted drunk!! We shout, “hola amigo, como esta?…and…”que hace?” .and try to get his attention….and try to get him to move away from us. By this time we’ve already downed one bottle of wine so we’re feeling slightly tipsy and mischevious.

The drunken peeing guy finally finishes and begins to try to talk to us. After a few minutes we’re able to understand his drunken Spanish mixed with a little drunken Qechua. He’s a retired military man with relatives who live in the region most affected by the earthquake. He’s killing time drinking while he waits for his wife to get off work in a nearby hotel. He turns out to be a fairly cool guy and as we drain our 2nd (large) bottle of wine we all are good friends.

His wife finally gets off work and with stern rebuke whisks him away so we have a few laughs as she scolds him and shoots mean looks at us! By now we’re hungry so, with a local guy who was watching guard over some official’s cars at the plaza, we head off to find some supper. It’s about midnight so our choices are few. One restaurant will not admit us…I think we’re a little bit loud and they seem to have an issue with our guest.

We end up in a pretty nice restaurant and eat some meal I really don’t remember…although I’m pretty sure there was a bottle (or two) of wine involved! We leave about 2am, say good-bye to our new friend (not sure we ever got his name…), and start walking back to the hostel.

As we stumble up the steep cobblestone alley we notice a large group of teenagers…we’re not sure what they’re up to… we pass them cautiously and quickly. We’re almost to the door of the hostel when they begin to shout out to us in Spanish & Qechua! Luckily Ryan understands them and it turns out they are passing around a 3 liter bottle of Sprite mixed with pisco and are inviting us to join them.

We had a blast telling jokes (in three languages!!!) and stories with these guys!! There were about 10 of them and three of us. Thankfully Ryan is so fluent in Spanish….with his help we were able to communicate and share funny stories with these guys for over two hours…..our laughter and hoots woke up some people and we tried to keep our noise down…..hell, it was only 3am!!! The details of this evening are sorta fuzzy but I do remember it was a blast…..the Sprite-pisco was soon emptied and the party broke up. We went to the hostel and they went off to find another party.

August 19, 2007: Sleep was deep and daylight came early this morning….and my head was surprisingly clear despite the volume of alcohol and the lateness of bedtime. Maury and I climbed down into the lobby area where breakfast was served. We ate several helpings of the thin bread with butter and jam…and drank several cups of strong coffee.

The morning was beautiful and the streets were packed with thousands of children in costumes participating in a very very large parade around the Plaza de Armas. It was a HUGE party with marching bands, several thousand spectators, and several hundred kids (in groups of 20 or so) dancing and marching around the Plaza. It was quite dramatic and entertaining!!! Maury & I walked around for several hours watching the festivities and then we returned to the hostel…by this time Ryan was up and about and he joined us as we ate some lunch.

We knew we wanted to go to Copacabana, Bolivia for a day or so before we headed back to La Paz so we decided to check into an overnight bus ride. As we walked to the bus terminal I stepped sorta funny onto one of the street-cobbles and turned my ankle pretty severely! I could barely walk….. After a few painful minutes we reached the bus terminal and booked a ride to Copacabana. The bus leaves at 10pm from Cusco and reaches Copacabana at about 8am…’s an all night ride. We leave the terminal with tickets in hand and head back to the hostel via the “scenic” route through parts of Cusco we hadn’t yet seen…

As we head back to the hostel to pack up and prepare for the bus ride my ankle swells up and begins to turn purple. I’m hurting but at the same time I’m thankful that the timing worked out where my trek wasn’t affected! Once back at the hostel we check out and settle up on our bill…we also arrange to leave our packs there for a few hours while we check out Cusco until time to catch the bus. We walk through several markets and check out some very very expensive antique ponchos and blankets. By expensive I mean many hundreds of US dollars each! They’re beautiful hand woven works of art…some of them hundreds of years old: the Peruvian equivalent of Persian rugs! We also see many beautiful hand woven belts…Ryan and I buy several each to use as guitar and djimbe straps.

Finally it’s time to get down to the bus terminal and so we gather our packs and hang out an hour or so in the Plaza de Armas where we meet a guy from Mexico who has a drum in his hands. We bust out our instruments and play very cool music together…..he shows me how to play my cool djimbe and Ryan joins in with a very cool guitar riff…..until a police walks up and tells us that music is not allowed in this plaza…so we stop playing and hail a taxi to haul us and our packs to the bus terminal.

The bus terminal is a very busy place with dozens of busses departing and arriving. Some of the busses are large modern greyhound-type busses and others are very ‘third world”…! Luckily, ours is a very modern two-level bus. We wait an hour or so until it’s time to board the bus: Maury and I sit in the front right behind the windshield on the upper level while Ryan finds a seat further back in the bus. Our packs are stashed in a large compartment under the bus with all the other assorted luggage and stuff. We settle into our seats and the bus rolls out of the terminal about 90% full. We had originally booked a “non-stop” bus but soon found out that “non-stop” means it only stops every 30 minutes or so.

I try and doze while we ride through the night but my seat, being right behind the giant windshield, is coooolllld and I’m freezing all night! By dawn we’re almost to Puno where we have a 2 hour layover.

August 20, 2007: Finally, we pull into the terminal at Puno, Peru about 5:30am where we sit on hard chairs, amid many dozens of Peruvians waiting for the many busses which head off into small towns and villages scattered among the high plains of the altiplano along the border between Peru & Bolivia…I am freezing cold and I try to shut my eyes for an hour or so but cannot. Soon it’s time to cue up to board the bus to Copacabana…and we stand around the terminal for about 30 minutes amongst a remarkable assemblage of travelers from all over the World!

The bus is 100% full and the guy next to me is long-haired and wearing all sorts of necklaces, beads, scarves, etc….he’s very new-age looking! Turns out he’s a professor and an artist on the way to his small lake villa on Lake Titicaca about 45 minutes outside Copacabana. Very interesting guy and our conversation in 70/30 Spanish/English makes the miles pass quickly and by 9am we’re getting off the bus at the Peru-Bolivia border and going through Customs…the same customs station Ryan and I barely made in time on the first frantic leg of our journey…! Then back on the bus for the final 15 minutes to Copacabana.

Ah, Copacabana. Arriving here is bittersweet as it represents the last several days of our South America Adventure…but it also represents a very cool place to chill for a day or so before heading back to La Paz for our return flight home. It’s mid-morning when we arrive and we find a cool hotel where we check into an upper level room with a Kick-Ass view of the town and Lake Titicaca…we even have our own private patio (10 feet square) right outside the window…you have to step over a small wall to access it. Did I mention the Kick-Ass view??!!

Ryan is feeling the early stages of funky/sick and we sorta write it off as bus-lag and/or fatigue (insert foreshadowing here…) and set off to check out this very very cool lake-side burg.

Copacabana is home to a famous shrine….Copacabana, Brazil is named after Copacabana, Bolivia….but the town itself is fairly small with a population of about 2000. There are fewer than 20 cars as far as we could tell…most are taxis…but busses come through town several times a day and stop, passengers exiting and shopping/eating, then leaving again to either La Paz or Puno. The streets are small and dusty and lined with cool shops, cafes, and, as one wanders away from the bus-plaza, local market stalls. The streets are also lined with hippies selling handmade hippie jewelry and stuff. Copacabana is a super cool hippie town we decide!

I’ve read that Lake Titicaca is famous for its trout…introduced into the lake many years ago when some visiting researcher discovered that the local’s diet was deficient in protein and suggested that trout in the lake would thrive and provide a needed nutritional supplement. And, as you might expect, most every restaurant in Copacabana features a menu with many trout dishes…! So we set off to find a good meal of freshly caught trout! We’re all 90% zoned out after our all-night bus ride and little sleep…but we manage to find a cool restaurant and settle in some cool & comfortable floor-level couches and chill over Orange Fanta and fried/baked/grilled/garlic/pepper trout dishes!!! It’s a fantastic feed!!!!!

However, the total bliss of a mind-blowing meal is tempered heavily by the fact that Ryan is fading pretty quickly…’s apparent he’s getting sick and feverish! Maury and I help him back to the hotel and he crashes, Hard, in bed…S.I.C.K….with bad diarrhea and a high fever!! We set him up with some bottled water and crackers and Advil and then we head out to hang with some hippies…and generally explore this cool lake-side burg!

The hippies are easy to find and soon we’re sitting on the sidewalk checking out jewelry and playing guitars and meeting people and sharing tales (in several languages) and having a great time hanging out until it’s dusk. We head back to the hotel to check on Ryan who is miserable but mainly sleeping….so we restock his water and cracker stash and go across the street to a coffee shop lounge club.

Maury is the tallest person in Bolivia this evening so the sight of him stretched out, sitting on the floor on large pillow-couches, is kinda funny. The coffee bar is a very chill place and soon there is an eclectic crowd gathered in the many nooks and crannies….no fewer than four languages are being spoken and there is cool South American music playing. There are many books lying around and as I sip a Cusquena beer I grab a Lonely Planet Bolivia guide book and poke around. After an hour or so we go back and check on Ryan…the barrista is a very cool chick and gives me a cup of hot water and some tea…I deliver this to a very very sick Ryan…..then we head off into the night….seeking a bar.

Since Copacabana is a chill town we find a chill bar several blocks away and walk in. An instant later we’re integrated into the lively bar-crowd with a liter of Cusquena apiece and engaged in broken English/Spanish conversations with fellow travelers in the smoky loud crowded low-ceilinged tavern.

Every inch of every wall is covered with handwritten graffiti in felt-tipped marker, there’s a pool table in the back and a large covered patio that you have to walk through to get to the outdoor restroom. The scene is smoky and the beers flow freely as we all share this cool place together. We’re playing pool, swapping stories with people from four Continents, laughing over loud rock & roll music, writing our names on the walls (the bartender had a bunch of Sharpies and everyone wrote stuff on the walls), drinking Cusquena, dancing, watching the Colombian chick dance with the British dudes, and generally having a great time until about 2am. Great night!!

We also connect with a guy we’d met on the street earlier, Felipe. He’s a climber from Colombia, boyfriend of the aforementioned Colombina bonita, and a very flamboyant and likeable guy. He’s in Copacabana to climb the cliffs around Lake Titicaca @ +/- 14,000’ and to build a guide business for climbing here. We made arrangements to meet him tomorrow so we can go climbing…we settle on a price of $30US/each, and then Maury and I head back to the hotel to crash and take care of Ryan.

Ryan is sound asleep when we get back to the hotel (a 5 minute walk from the bar) and soon I’m sound asleep too…with dreams of rock climbing tomorrow in Bolivia at 14,000’ with killer views of Lake Titicaca and Copacabana!!!

August 20, 2007: Waking up early after a late night wasn’t as hard as one might expect because we were excited about climbing and Ryan felt a little better and was gonna join us: The day was shaping up!! We walked around town to find the one bank with an ATM so I could get some cash money. We found it and I did the $$ transaction with about 8 armed Bolivian soldiers watching every move everyone was a bit more than slightly strange but we confirmed later that this bank is Always heavily guarded. Finally, with cash money in hand we strolled through town looking for Felipe, who we finally found with the jewelry-selling, street-music-chilling Uruguayan hippies (Note: Not all the hippies were Uruguayan…just a few and they were the coolest hippies)….surprise, surprise. In true South American fashion it took everyone about 2 more hours to finally gather all the necessary stuff and actually head out for our intended climbing excursion.

We hike out of town, Ryan, Maury, Felipe, some Brazilian dude with a big bear tooth stuck through his earlobe, and me. Felipe is carrying a pack full of climbing gear that weighs at least 90lbs, which given the +/-14,000′ altitude and the fact that we’re basically traversing and scrambling up a massive hillside of car-to-house sized boulders, is quite impressive. Finally after an hour or so we reach a series of increasingly high limestone cliff faces, the tallest being about 50 meters. Felipe disappears up the back side of the cliff face and rigs a top rope….rappels down and then I belay him as he climbs the crack system up. I’m guessing it’s a 5.10 (he says 5.11….) and so I feel moderately confident as I harness up and begin to climb. Normally I’d probably be able to climb 5.10 (with many falls and rest breaks on top rope) but I had not factored the altitude into the climb.

Basically I learned that 5.10 at 14,000’+ is like 5.13 for me…aka improbable if not impossible!!! But still we all try the climb and have a blast! The bear-tooth-earlobe dude climbs it successfully and as the sun sets it’s time for us to head back into town. Of course, Felipe hasn’t brought a flashlight and none of us knew we’d be hiking/scrambling the boulder field at night!! I was pissed and talked big shit to Felipe!! I wasn’t feeling well ( foreshadowing??) and we had paid this guy to guide us and he said nothing about bringing flashlights. The trip back to town was a 2.5 hour ordeal of pitch-dark down-climbing and scrambling. But we finally made it back to town safely and I was suddenly wanting to lay down and crash…Hard. It was about 9:30pm.

By 2am I was wildly feverish and aching all over as I alternately shivered and sweated…and by 4am I was having the first of 387 episodes of 5-second-warning diarrhea that would hound me and largely define & direct the rest of my trip. Big Fun…WooHoo!! Ryan woke up to me moaning and got me 600mg of Ibuprofen and some water and I fell back into a fitful sleep. Ugh, here we go….Ryan and I must have caught some intestinal bug or flu. I’m thinking we picked it up at the first place we ate when we arrived in Copacabana or on the overnight bus ride.

August 21, 2007: Ryan and Maury are up early while I am still in a miserable coma but they return to our hotel room with some bread and water for me. I munch and we all pack up to prepare to go catch a bus back to La Paz. After we’re all packed up and checked out of the hotel and ready to walk to the bus station/stop Ryan picks up his pack to put it on and in the process catches his big toenail with his backpack and Rips The Whole Toenail Off!! OUCH!! Very very painful accident….we scramble to find some medical supplies to clean and dress his toe ASAP. Not an easy task in this small town but we eventually come up with something that will work.

As we dress Ryan’s toe, and I run to the bathroom 17 times we decide that taking the bus to La Paz will be a large hassle for Ryan’s toe and my situation so we set out to hire a private car to drive us. It’s about 4.5 hours (best-case) to La Paz by car. The first 2 hours wind down long sweeping mountain-curvy roads, dropping down onto the high altiplano and then 2.5+ hours of mostly flat, dusty, pot-holed, and crowded with a variety of trucks, cars, horse carts, down into the craziness of full-blown La Paz city-traffic. We have three big packs and so we’re looking for either a small van or 4-door station wagon, like a Toyota or Mazda wagon. We can only find a guy with a p.o.s. (piece of shit) Mazda so we load up and head out. Within an hour we have the all-too-common flat tire experience and we all pitch in to help change the tire…of course the spare is 82% flat but we manage to creep down the road to a ramshackle mechanic’s shop where they patch/inflate the tire and we continue down down, on increasingly crowded roads. About this time Ryan notices that our driver is seriously nodding off…..the dude is falling asleep even while we’re talking to him!! Ryan starts yelling at the guy in Spanish telling him, “wake up or pull over!!” and somehow, after about 30 tense minutes he appears to be awake. Needless to say, we keep a close eye on him the rest of the way into La Paz to make sure he stays awake. One of the craziest car trips I’ve ever taken!!

We weave into and through La Paz city traffic and a bit later we arrive at a pretty cool, older hotel. Our driver tells us to wait and he runs inside to cut his deal for having brought us…then he ushers us in, carrying our backpacks, up to our room. We’ll stay the last two nights of our trip here: Three single beds lined up in a room 10′ X 18′ and sharing a bathroom with another similar room.

I haven’t eaten any food since yesterday and so I’m hungry even though I know anything I eat or drink will exit my ass within 10 minutes of having eaten it. I’m fairly miserable and on constant alert for the nearest available toilet…..Damn, this is gonna be fun.

The last 24 hours of my South American adventure is a blur of sudden-onset illness, with extreme diarrhea and a growing cough from breathing the thick exhaust fumes of La Paz at the high altitude. By the way, the squirts and a deep cough are a BAD combination! So, not only was my last taste of La Paz’s amazing culture a hurry-up-before-I-shit-my-pants tour of public restrooms, I have very few lasting impressions of anything other than that unpleasant experience. I remember watching Ryan and Maury eating and drinking like kings (the Bolivian exchange rate wildly favored the Dollar) while we walked through this Fantastic city…I sipped water and perfected my hurried, yet polite, strategy of “mayIpleaseuseyourrestroom?” diplomacy…HA! Overall I think La Paz, and Bolivia in general, is a place I’d very much like to explore more!!

Post Script: Since this trip Ryan is living in Cusco, Peru with a lovely wife, Natalie, and son, Amaru. Laura, Austin (now 16) and I live in Cedar Park and travel as often as possible to South America to visit Ryan and family. Natalie is going through the complex process of applying for (and hopefully obtaining!) her tourist Visa to visit the USA. We hope to have that happen this year!



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