Sunday, August 31, 2008

Machu Picchu - other side

Hola! :)
Marko did the actual planned Inka trail hike, so he will describe how it was to survive that ;)
Since I got up the easy way *grrr*, this'll be a smaller take of mine on Machu Picchu for those not so fortunate to do the hike.

Anyway, it was arranged at the agency that I will join the bus/train combo to Agua Calientes the day before the hiking group reaches Machu Picchu, and then join them on the morning they do reach it.
Luckily, the pills I got from my Dutch friend (thanks B!!! :)) fixed my stomach, and I got there without any further toiletesque interventions.

Agua Calientes (lit. hot water) is a place where Machu Picchu visitors stay before going up. It's located some 6km away from Machu Picchu, and is a last stop of sorts, for those sleeping the night to go up in the morning.
It is a small place whose only orientation seems to be the presence of tourists here. It has one main street, which consists almost solely of stores, restaurants and net cafes. There is a river going through it (Urubamba) with several cool bridges which will bend under your feet, but the other side of that river is rather undeveloped. In fact, the whole town looks like a slum - except for the main street that connects the hot springs at the top and the town square and train/bus stations at the bottom.
On the other hand, the town is located between some quite huge steep green mountains and with the constant mists around it has some sort of a magical aura around it.

A few photos will demonstrate this better...
This is the main street of Agua Calientes:

The Urubamba river flowing through it:

And the backside of my hostel:

I wonder if it was meant to be this way or if there was a time-space anomaly in this place that made half of it disappear :/

Since I had half a day to spend here, I went to check out where the bus station is (a bunch of small buses take people up to Machu Picchu every morning), to buy some last minute supplies and find a net cafe to rest a bit (two vegetable soups and two rices in two days is no way to keep your strength lol).
The resume:
- buses start at 5:30 each morning - you should be there at 4:45 if you want to be among the first in line - by 5:30 the line will be so long that you won't see the end of it, and arriving at this time will probably mean you miss that batch and have to wait till 7:00 to go with the next one
- prices are generally twice as high as those of Cusco, and Cusco prices are already twice as high as the rest of Peru (that's my feeling at least, from the week here)
- even though the towns name literally translates into "hot waters", and my hostel specifically mentions it has "hot water", don't count on it! (unless you can shower in the first minute before it turns to cold)

Anyway, after a 4AM alarm clock (these can be annoying, eh? ;)) and some standing in line, I am finally on a bus up. The dawn is just coming and the mist is all around. Some 20-30 minutes of bus drive later we are dropped off at the entrance to the famous Machu Picchu.
What awaits inside?
Mist! :D

I am supposed to meet with my group (the now tormented hikers :)) somewhere "around the entrance", so I decide to hang around here for a while and await for them to enter. I still have some minutes until their scheduled arrival, but should not move far. And voila - in a minute the mist clears, the sky opens and a majestic image appears:

You can see Agua Calientes way below, and the winding road connecting it to this top.
As fast as it has appeared, it was gone, and everything was covered in mist again. Machu Picchu surely is a nice challenge for photographers. Many mornings could be spent here in search of perfect combination of light and mist.

Anyway, other groups keep entering and going both left (uphill) and right (downhill), but when my group fails to appear some minutes after the supposed 7:00, I decide to roam around on my own hoping to spot them within the walls of Machu Picchu once they do arrive...
My first look at the town:

And a look downhill before the clouds cleared:

Roaming around I found the group (they just entered through the top entrance from the Inka Trail ;)), and the tour began...
Some drama in the sky above the main square of Machu Picchu:

Our tour guide William looking at one of the shrines:

At the top levels there are helpful 'devices', like the stone pointing south:

a representation of surrounding mountains carved in stone:

and a stone for telling the time and the seasons:

One look at the "back" side of Machu Picchu:

And for the end - the famous "postcard" view:

One hint for all going up - beware the killer mosquitos! :P

Marko's report on the climb is coming up slowly but surely - like the climb itself :)

Today we go back to Arica by bus, where we will try to find flights all the way south to Punto Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. See you in two or three days...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cusco - or - shit happens :P

Ok, Cusco and shit happening are not really related, but just happened to happen at the same time :)
As Marko said, I got sick and had to miss the 3-day hike to Machu Picchu. Probably something I ate or drank, because my stomach is spinning all around and today I'm keeping myself close to the hostel (toilet ;))
I'm now on recovery program of eating light things and resting, and in two days I will take a train to Machu Picchu and meet with Marko there on the 4th day to watch the sunrise at the Sun Gate and explore Machu Picchu.

This however gives me a chance to write more about Cusco (and hopefully tomorrow look around town more, as it is an interesting town with plenty to see).

So, more about Cusco!
It is a town that is a combination of the old and the new. You can find Inka walls embedded in new houses and vice versa. It used to be the capitol of the Inkas.
The town is situated at 3300m and full of steps, so you can get pretty tired pretty quickly if you try to do things hastily.
The architecture of the town is impressive, both the Inka remains and the new Spanish churches (and there are quite a lot of these here!)

One thing you notice instantly is that it is a tourist-oriented town. The town center is full of police (e.g. a policeman at every corner of the main plaza), there are almost more tourists than locals in the streets, and the prices are not like the ones we saw at Tacna. Things are still cheaper here than in Chile or Argentina, but not all that much.
There are also many European-style shops with similar goods but also similar prices.

A typical street in Cusco, with the town in the background:

Going down the street I noticed a girl with an alpaca hiding behind the corner. As we reached the corner I took a photo of her, only to be greeted with an extended hand and the words "one Sol". So, one Sol to take a photo of someone in the street? I'm new to South America, but apparently that's normal in all the countries here. Oh well, if they pose for the photo, I can see the sense in that. Anyway, this is her:

Going further down towards the town centre, we finally reach the main plaza:

This one is full of tourists and tourist offers, from travel agencies, excursion agencies, people wanting to get photographed and shoe cleaners to people trying to sell you some pot (like one guy named "Johnny Walker" LOL).
Being that this was Sunday (or maybe some other special day?), there was a parade going on:

A sidetrack - would you buy something here and eat it? :)

Oh and this was a cute photo opportunity:

so I asked "one Sol?" and the old lady confirmed and they both posed for the shot.
The light wasn't the best, and at one shot they looked away, so I snapped 3 shots and gave her one Sol.
Then the comedy began, she was basically pulling my sleeve and pointing at the kid... oh so it's one sol for each? Now you tell me? Ok, so be it. I give the kid another Sol. But nooo, then the "3 photos" story begins and she wants 5 Sols. Strange maths happen here, but we're getting used to it :)
More math fun occurs at the smaller shopping side-streets like this one:

You can buy dozens of little hand-made things or clothes in these shops, and you're a sucker if you don't drop the price for at least 20% ;)
Anything you wish to buy - drop the price!
If you buy several things, ask a discout for that too!
If you found another seller selling below that price, put that in as well.
We dropped prices up to 50%, but I guess they could be dropped even further if you're good and speak Spanish ;)
We even negotiated the Dollar-Sol exchange rate at an exchange office, but didn't exchange anything in the end as all the exchange offices here will rip you off. The newest Footprint guide says rate should be 1 US$ = 3.25 Sols. You won't get above 2.90 in the offices in Cusco. Just use the ATM.

In the evening we climbed up to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced by many tourists as "sexy woman" :)) from which you can have a nice look at the city:

(note the airfield in the middle of the city, quite interesting to land here consiering the town is surrounded by hills)

On the upper side of the hill, many people come for some relaxation time. This looks like the park of the city:

and here is proof that Japanese Anime has found it's way to Cusco as well :)

By the time we climbed up, it got too dark to take good pictures of the Inca walls of Sacsayhuaman, so this'll have to do for now:

More to come in the next days, some of Cusco and nearby ruins, and some of Machu Picchu (in hopes I'll be ok by then lol)

Inka Trail starts in 5 minutes

I'm just waiting for the agency to pick me up from my hostel. It's arround 6 AM.  Daniel got sick yesterday, so he's not going.  :(
I have a pretty heavy backpack all packed up, I hope I can make it. Well, a lot of that is water, so it should get easyer as the hike continues. I'm expecting to be back in Cusco 4 days later, on Friday.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

"The direct line to Cusco" a.k.a. The Neverending Story

A lot to write this time and I don't know where to begin. From the beginning, I guess :)

Our last report was from a net cafe in Arica, where we were in between a 10-hour bus and what was supposed to be a 15-hour bus. Right.
Anyway, we needed a bus line from Arica (Chile) to Cusco (Peru), and we knew it used to include a taxi ride across the border as no buses went directly (at least that was the situation a few years back).
We were happy to hear that there is now a direct line from Arica to Cusco, and that it should start at 3PM and arrive in Cusco at 6AM next morning. Yay for overnight rides, lowest loss of time. For 50 US$ this sounded good.

So, 2:30PM we're back at the agency and are introduced to our driver. Taxi driver, who will take us across the border (Arica is something like 20km from the border).
He will then take us to Tacna bus terminal (the nearest city in Peru), where we will hop on the bus to Cusco.
Ok, so the situation is the same as it used to be, it still all sounds good.

The Dragonball Z fan cab driver (the whole car was full of Dragonball Z stickers and figurines, and the driver wore a D-Z T-Shirt :)) did get us to Tacna in about an hour or a bit more, got us to the terminal, showed us the bus agency there and where the bus will be. All's well :)
We switch the clocks one hour back to Peruvian time and await the bus, which leaves for Cusco in 3 hours.

So now a bit about Peru.
The moment you cross the border the difference is obvious.
Argentina can in many ways be mistaken for any European country. Chile is very similar too, at least the town parts we saw (deserts are another thing, but that's not really due to cultural differences).
In Peru however, people are very different and instantly recognizable. Colorful explosions of clothes consisting of layers and layers of what can only be seen as blankets. Most women wear a ton of these blankets, plus a big bag which often has even more blankets, plus the little Peruvian hat (you'll see it on the photos :))

Now, the part of town neighbouring the bus terminal in Tacna (which is quite a big city, 300k people or so) looked like a slum, and since we were packing all our equipment and clothes we decided to grab something to eat at the terminal.
Prices instantly jump off from what we saw thus far. We ate a decent and tasty lunch (fried chicken, potatoes and rice) for 4 Sols (1 US$ = 3.25 Sols). For people back home, 1 Sol = 1.5 Kunas. Add to that a 2 Sol Sprite/Coke. Nice! Finally going to save some money (after spending some 250 US$ for 2 days in San Pedro!)

Anyway, we sat there and ate for 2+ hours, and saw no foreigners apart from ourselves. This was strange considering that this town is the main point towards Cusco (Machu Picchu) if you're coming northward from San Pedro (and I'd guess many tourists do, as both towns are big tourist destinations).
30 minutes before the bus departure time, we decide to go to the terminal, only to realize we need to buy a 1 Sol ticket to exit the building and enter the area with the buses. It's small money, but it's an annoyance when you carry all your stuff with you. After a day more in Peru, I can safely say most things you do here will be charged.
0.40 Sols to use a toilet, without soap or toilet paper.
0.50 Sols if you want like 4 pieces of toilet paper with that. Don-t hope for soap though.
1 Sol to take a photo of someone, and if you're seen with the camera and giving this one sol to one person suddenly everyone wants to have their photo taken. Gets quite annoying quite fast actually, but oh well :)
1.5 Sol an hour of internet (now that's good! :))

On with the trip (notice that so far only 3 hours have passed from what soon turned into a 25 hour nightmare).
Upon embarking the bus, we meet two quite cool Irish guys who speak a bit of Spanish (Yay! We're not the only two gringos on the bus!)

Now, I have to make a bit of a digression to explain the different types of buses here.
Since the distances are so long, the buses come in many types.
Kama (or Kama Premium) = you get a leather chair (usually only 3 people per row) which can be lowered to fully horizontal bed-position, you get food included in the price (e.g. we got breakfast and real lunch in our first argentinian bus) and they play some relatively new movies in English (with Spanish subs) during daytime. You can sleep well during nighttime in these buses.
Semi-kama = seats go down a lot, but not fully horizontal. There are 4 seats per row. Food usually included on distances longer than 8 hours (in Argentina and Chile). Decent, but can happen that seats don't really go down all that much.
There is also Kama-Ejecutivo but the differences between these types are blurry. All in all, they are all decent. So, when we got a semi-kama which goes "directly to Cusco", we were happy. There was no kama, but we could live with 15 hours of semi-kama.

Thus, the bus arrives.
Our seats are on the top floor (it's a double-decker, and the better seats are below), and all the windows are open. This is fishy (what smell was the driver trying to filter out?), but no choice now.
Oh, the company's name is San Martin, just in case anyone of you wants to know which company NOT to use. But let's get on with the why.
So, us and the Irish guys and like 8 or so Peruvians sit up there (plenty of empty seats left, doesn't look that bad... might get some sleep on the bus after all), and start the trip...
The moment we left Arica the story takes on a different turn. Well, the bus does anyway. It takes us off-road and into the desert. It's pitch black outside and as you might imagine the Peruvian desert is not the nicest of places to be at such times. Puzzled looks cross our faces and those of the Irish guys, but the Peruvians are just as surprised.
First thought - if this was a robbery or something, they would've picked a bus with more tourists...
Luckily, there's a Peruvian guy on the bus sitting right behind us who speaks English, and he goes down to the driver to ask what the hell is going on...
The bus has no license, so the driver is taking an alternate route to avoid a police checkpoint just outside of town(!?)
We all already agreed Peru is a dodgy country, but we didn't think it was this dodgy.
By the way, we were told the bus will be in Cusco by 6AM. The Irish guys were told it'll be there by 8:30AM. The Peruvian guy just laughed when he heard that and said: "Nooo, around 3PM". Great. And we have a bottle of water and some chocolates.

Anyway, more on that "alternate route"...
Imagine a sand dusty 'road', with stones lying all over it, that our driver was avoiding by driving like 10 km/h for the first part of the hour. Then he started going uphill on that road, with cliffs on the side fo the road. Doubledecker. Peruvian mountain. Stones on the road. A no-license bus. I see much sleep coming in this night.
Two or so hours later we stop at some village and pick up a horde of new Peruvians. There's now more people than there are seats on the bus, and our "semi-kama" turns into a choke-full bus of people standing, sitting all around, or lying on the floor.
Oh and about those bus windows - we the passengers closed as many as we could, but most wouldn't really hold well.
Need I mention it gets really cold in the night when you're in the desert at high altitudes? There was actually ice forming on the insides of our windows. Oh and no heating in the bus, but that's to be expected by now. Forgive the lack of pictures, but this was not an atmosphere I'd like to take my camera out. This was more of a "try to stay awake and see what kind of crap this driver will pull next" kind of thing.
One Peruvian old woman who was sitting next to me was kind of holding on to my leg for most of the trip. But nothing mattered anymore but to stay warm.
In a few more hours we arrived at some sort of a checkpoint (on an actual road wohoo!!), where they checked our bus from above and below, and the Peruvian guy told me not to worry as this was not the Police(!?)
Looked like a border crossing to me, but beat me if I know what one would be doing in the middle of the country.
After some security guys checked our bus (but not the luggage, so I can only guess they were looking for people), the most expectable thing happened - they took our spare tire and wheel, and let the bus go on (yeah, this trip is becoming full of "WTH?" moments). At least now we know this is not a hijack nor a robbery, and all the people are in the same sauce we are. Just need to keep the warmth through the night (now I understand why Peruvian ladies have all those blankets!)
Next I don't know how much any of us slept. We all just woke up (or haven't slept at all) - lucky to still have our passports, money, and cameras - to see one of the most beautiful sunrises ever at Lake Titicaca (near Puno, Peru), even more so because the sun was such a welcome sight for the stiff frozen joints.

Just recalled another funny detail. When one of our Irish friends asked the driver if we had food on this ride, the answer was "No, but you have a toilet" :P
Turned out the toilet was a hole in the floor of the bus, and we couldn't really use it anyway as it would include stepping on several sleeping people to get there.
That's San Martins bus lines for you... if you want an unforgettable experience, feel free to use them ;)

At Puno, there was like an hour and a half to kill before proceeding to Cusco. Turns out someone figured out our bus was "illegal" and we had to swap buses. We even got to sit below in the real semi-kama for the rest of the trip (last 6-7 hours) as a "reward" or something like that. I don't know and didn't really care at the time. Sun was up, we had our stuff, and we were in a legal bus. It was still smelly, cracking, and my window couldn't be opened, but it was looking like a promising future.
Then the driver decided to play us a DVD movie. In spanish. And without the picture (TVs didn't really work :P)
So for the next two hours we were driving through beautiful Peruvian landscapes listening to people shooting, crying and yelling in Spanish... real loud. I think it was a western of some sort, but it was kind of hard to tell lol

Another 6 hours later (3-4PM of the next day), we finally arrive at Cusco and are instantly being swarmed with hostel offers.
Good for us there were so many, as it made the price-dropping go without us having to lift a finger :)
The winner is some lady who speaks English and has hot water 24/7 (unlike most other hostels she says) and her hostel is recommended by Footprint and Lonely Planet guidebooks. She said "please check" like a dozen of times. No need, who would fake stuff like that on their nicely printed hostel flier. As noted by our Irish friend: "the people here are cheeky, but they're not *that* cheeky". Turns out they are. The hostel was not recommended in any of the guidebooks, but we were already there and it looked ok. And for 20 Sols (6 US$) per person per night (breakfast included) it seemed like a really good deal.
But they didn't have hot water!!! Until the guy working here brought new gas and warmed it and we could finally take a shower.
However, the showering is an art in its own. If you open warm water only, it's steaming hot. The moment you open the cold one, it gets colder to the point of icy cold. So you just have to balance the cold one every few seconds and you'll be fine :P
Oh and on my first shower attempt, the water ran out completely *sigh*
Anyway, things are a bit more normalized now and we got a chance to see a bit more of Cusco.
I will write more about Cusco tomorrow in a separate post, as this one is becoming too long as is. For the end here, I'll try to put up some images of the day time of "the direct line to Cusco". This is all taken with a compact camera so the quality might not be best, but it's what could be done at the time. We also have some videos of Arica, Tacna and Peruvian landscapes as well, but those are too huge to put them up here. Will have to do something about that once we're back home.

The hill above Arica:

School's out in Arica:

Entering the taxi to Tacna:

Tacna, where no construction is complete(?):

I must say the town center is supposedly beautiful, but unfortunately we didn't get to see it.
Bus station in Puno (yeah, we saw many buses and bus stations in the last 2-3 days lol):

Sunrise at Lake Titicaca (a bit late to capture the beauty, but still we loved it):

And, for the end, two typical Peruvian landscapes (taken from the bus):

Hopefully there will be many more of these (and not taken through the bus window) when we finish with the Inka Trail 4-day hike to Machu Picchu, which starts on Tuesday. Until then, we chill in Cusco and see the sights here.
Possibly I'll write about Cusco tomorrow, and then no comp until the weekend.


Friday, August 22, 2008

In between the buses...


This report is brought to you from Arica, Chile!
It's noon here, 22nd of August, and it's a Friday.
We got here after a 10-hour bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama, and are waiting for the next bus (a 15-hour one) to Cusco, Peru.
A good chance to keep this blog up-to-date, eh? ;)

In the last post from San Pedro de Atacama I forgot to mention one small detail. When they turn the power off overnight, there is also no water, at all (yay for brushing teeth and washing hands with bought bottled water!). We heard several stories on why all that happens, from the one of the dead generator to the one of many locals not paying for electricity so the electric company shuts things down as a way of punishment. Anyway, yesterday the town (San Pedro) was full of black flags as a sign of protest against "the darkening".
And it had no water at all. The ENTIRE day. Real nice when you just come from the desert and need to go to a 2-day trip (I won't even talk about the toilets lol).

Lesson learned: when in the desert, cherish the moments with power and water, and use them even if you don't need to just yet! (oh and bottle some water for times of crisis ;))

However, since we were out-of-town for most of the day, we have something to show for it.
The waking up at 4 AM to go to the Tatio geysers and freeze there at the mentioned -15 degrees for a while was well worth it. For me, it was the most beautiful experience yet on this trip.
You wake up at 4 AM, in the darkest of towns (oh yes, I didn't mention that I've never seen so many stars in the sky in my life!), and a bus takes you for 3 hours up a bumpy "road" up to 4300m where it gets colder and colder.
Upon arrival, we got some breakfast and the "Coca tea" (tea of coca leaves). Supposedly it helps prevent the simptoms of altitude sickness :)

And then the sun rises:

Note the people in the picture (you can click it for a bigger view) to get the feeling of just how big these things are ;)
Coupled with the sunrise, it surely was a good way to keep oneself warm, however a braver few wanted more:

The water itself was supposedly quite warm, but the part of getting into (and especially *out* of it) must've been quite shocking (I skipped this experience thank you very much :))
One more look at the geyser grounds:

and we're slowly moving off...

We ride on through the desert to the Cactus Valley. Oddly enough, even though there is a straight road, many seem to take alternate routes beside it (through the rocky parts), our driver included:

Oh yeah, on the way we stopped for a short snack of Llama meat. Yummy! :D

And then on to the Cactus Valley:

Ok, that was the morning. Around 1 PM we returned to San Pedro and grabbed some lunch, and then right off to the next trip - Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna.
First, Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death), which is actually not all that big when looked from above (it is quite big though).

Then another short bus trip, leading to the hills above Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley):

From this view, we sandslided down into the valley (some even rolled down the sand lol), and took a walk to the other side and through the canyons to exit on the other end of this mountain "complex".
As the sunset was approaching, we climbed up a "secret" sand dune :)
All the other agencies go to the neighbouring dune (more easily accessible, but therefore much more crowded), and our little group climbed a steep sandy path and finally reached this spot:

From here we could sit and watch the sunset, which was much quicker than expected, but gave some nice colors on the mountains on the other side (seek the people in some of the pictures ;))

And with that, we rushed on to the bus to Arica, slept through the night on that bus, and are now sitting in a net cafe in Arica awaiting that next one to Cusco...
Until next time...