Made it to Cusco...just!

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May 23rd 2007
Published: May 23rd 2007
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Well I’ve finally arrived in Cusco, Peru, to start my Inca Trail trek in a couple of days. I had to arrive by today at the latest to pay the full trek fee and to ‘acclimatise’ to the high altitude (of couse the fact I’ve just been through Bolivia should have rendered that unnecessary).

So why do I say ‘finally’? Well I’ve had another south american bus adventure to get here. Oh how easy the overnight luxury semi-cama (Cruz Del Sur - one of the better coach companies) should have been. However unfortunately of all days today (or this morning at 2am to be precise) some of the villagers in a town precisely have way between Arequipa and Cusco (i.e. 5 hours from nowhere) decided to hold a strike and blocked the (only) road in both directions. Apparently the reason was that a mining company has been polluting their river and all the fish upon which they rely to survive have been dying. Well the coach came to a halt at 2am, and silly me I actually thought that we might have arrived early in Cusco and they were allowing us to sleep on the bus till morning. At about 6am I ventured out to discover the real cause. Piles of rubble on the road and numerous fires to keep the hundreds of protesters warm. One foolhardy bus had attempted to break the barrier but had been met with a human roadblock, so noone was going anywhere. Worse news was to follow: apparently this was to be a 48 hour protest, which means precisely that in Peru. The police were nowhere to be found.

So you can imagine that I was starting to get slightly worried, since I had to be in Cusco by close of play today or kiss my Inka trail trek goodbye. Thankfully there were a few other locals and tourists alike who were in a similar predicament. After several hours of uncertainty, it transpired that Cruz del Sur had another coach going the other way stuck on the other side of the road block (about 4km on the other side of the town). Thus a cunning plan was born. Everyone (well actually a couple of really impatient people had already left to catch a plane!) would get their stuff and carry it through the protest and swap buses. At this point I got chatting to a local guy (as we walked through the protest - I figured this might be a good plan to avoid any anti-gringo feelings) on a business trip and we ended up getting a rickshaw to the other end of the protest. 9am at 4000m, our hands froze in the morning chill pretty quickly. However the panting our rickshaw-driver behind us, put everything in perspective. I think he may have been one of the unlucky ones who had his tyres deflated for helping the ‘strike breakers’, but we didn’t hang around to sympathise. Soon we were at our bus, and after a short wait in the sun, the other passengers started to emerge from the protest. At this point I have to say that Cruz del Sur were very helpful about the whole situation. Unfortunately this wasn’t the end of the story. Our new bus made a 25-point turn in the road (hearts in mouth - would the bus fall in the ditch and scupper everything), only to find out that another mini-block had been set up in the direction we needed to go. At this point the driver came up and suggested everyone should get out and plead to be allowed through. Amazingly this worked as the group of protesters relented just as it seemed things might get ugly (a particularly angry tourist in the same situation as me was threatening to get physical). So only 7 hours late this time! And in plenty of time to get on my Inka trek (starts friday) and even watch the second half of the Champions League final (bad luck liverpool) in the local English bar (I don’t miss english bars full of loads of drunken football supporters at all) on the main square here.

So back to the last week or so...

On return to La Paz from the jungle both me and Lukas were feeling a little worse for wear (bowel-wise) but since we had a lot to fit in before Machu Picchu, we signed up straight away for mountain biking down ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’. It really was an incredible experience - a vertical drop from 4200m to 1000m or so over 70km, taking about 4 hours. The first section was tarmaced road, and i was right behind our crazy german guide in a tuck position reaching an estimated 40mph and overtaking buses on the way. Then we had a 7km uphill stretch which turned into a bit of a Tour de France special with a break away group of 6 of us setting the pace (we were a group of 14 guys, 1 girl, and 1 brazilian who’d never ridden a bike in his life or so it seemed). Alas, either the altitude (having returned from Rurrenabaque at 100m the previous day is not the best training for racing at 4000m) or the diarrhoea or just plain unfitness got to me, but i came in last of the 6. However Lukas held the side up and apparently reached the top first! After that the serious decent began on the unsurfaced old road. The first section had serious cliffage off to the left side all the way, about 200m sheer drop, so wisely we slowed the pace for this part (past the point where an Israeli had allegedly come to a sticky end some 6 weeks earlier). But after that our guide upped the pace and we fair flew down (or so I thought until i looked around and found that no one else had kept up). At the bottom we had a nice beer in the sun and then a shower and food in a rather swanky hotel in Coroico. The drive back up to La Paz was a long one. As soon as we arrived back at the hostel about half the bus made a mad dash for the toilets (including me!).

The following day we headed to Copacabana, but not before a brief breakfast reunion with friends from our Rurrenabaque trip who’d travelled back by bus. Alas the bowel situation had got really bad overnight and that morning we’d also been to the pharmacy and splashed out on several packets of Enterocolin and also vitamin supplements. These were to have miraculous results, as by the following day in Copacabana (on Lake Titicaca) things were getting back to normal for both of us. Phew!

Well we’d heard a lot about Lake Titicaca and it certainly lived up to it’s reputation. We did a day hike across the nearby Isla del Sol, the so-called birthplace of the Inkas, and saw some amazing scenery and a number of sacrificial stones. It seems the Inkas really were into human sacrifices. The day passed quickly (we’d teamed up with a Canadian girl), except for the return boat home which was interminably slow. In the evening we had a bit of a shock - on returning to my room after a nice dinner I found that a pane of glass was lying shattered on my pillow - a brief squall had blown it in. Yes it seems that you get what you pay for - in our case a 10 boliviano room (70p) which could easily have been fatal. We switched rooms to the back - I chose the bed furthest from any lethal materials.

The following day saw us finally in Peru, an uneventful border crossing, and then on to Puno. I’d heard mixed reviews about Puno, nothing much there, touristy overload, etc... but I found myself liking the place. It’s certainly had a real town feel to it, and a lot less touristy than Cusco. After negotiating a room for the night, we headed for lunch and ended up in one of the best restaurants of the trip so far. I had a starter of mini Alpaca steaks with sauteed red pepper and onion which was incredible. Alpaca is definitely a winner, a lot nicer than llama. To burn of the excesses of lunch we quickly (some quicker than others eh Lukas :P ) climbed up to the lookout point above town, a cool 700 odd steps, before a twilight tour to the floating islands on the lake. Although extremely touristy it was actually quite interesting to hear about life on the islands. The local Uros people make the islands from the toturo (reed) growing on the lake. Each island typically survives for 30 years, if maintained. Islands can be joined together or cut apart if the families living on them so desire. It seems that this floating life originally started to avoid in-fighting with other groups living around the Puno area. By living on islands they could float away from all the problems. For a further few soles (local currency) we were treated to a twilight cruise on a thatched boat - very tranquilo, and then returned to Puno for yet more good food, this time at a peruvian nouvelle cuisine restaurant where Lukas had his best ever tomato soup (not sure how nouvelle that is) - i had some meatballs to rival the best that sweden could produce.

A rushed morning without a hot shower ensued, then to the bus station where finally I split with my long standing travel companion, soulmate, diarrhoea buddy, Lukas. He was off to Cusco to meet a friend to do the 7-day version of the Inca trail. As for me, well I had a few extra days to burn so decided to head west to Arequipa and the nearby Colca canyon.

6 hours to Arequipa, then a quick transit in the bus station (interesting beggar woman comes up to me as i’m eating my soup and seeing my head turned for a second removes potato from it with fingers) and on to Chivay at the head of the canyon a further 3 hours away. Night had already fallen as we descended the final 1500m from the pass at 4800m to the town. I stumbled out of the bus, and was led away to a hostal, the Rumi Wasi, one of the nicest places I’ve stayed in, with a cute little courtyard and a few kids running around, one a 10 year old girl who seemed to be running the show. Now the main thing to do in the canyon, apart from obviously hiking around a bit, is to see the Andean condor. Conveniently there’s a viewpoint a further couple of hours by bus down the canyon rim called Cruz del Condor where the condors can be seen. Rather inconveniently they put on their best show in the morning, so I was told that the best option would be to get the 4.30am bus along the canyon. Little did I know that I’d be standing that first hour on the bus - it was completely packed, and not with condor eager tourists, but almost entirely with locals. God only knows why Peruvians love travelling at night, but they do. So finally just before 7am I arrived at the viewpoint, only to discover that the show doesn’t start till 8am. Still it was nice to sit out in the sun for that hour and recover from the journey. By 8am the place was heaving with day tours, but thankfully I’d bagged myself a good spot on the perch overlooking where the condors nest. Well time ticked by, and I was beginning to think the condors might be having a day off, when finally at about 8.30am we spotted one. For the next 40 mins or so they swirled tantalising far below us just out of range of anyone with a normal zoom. But as the day warmed up the condors rose and finally we were treated with a flyby less than 2m over our heads. Wow!

Well by 9.30 i was condored out, and headed on to the next town, Cabanaconde, where all the canyon walks begin. After chatting with the guy from the Valle del Fuego hostal about various options I decided I still had time to do a loop down, up and around to the Oasis (swimming pool heated by a hot spring) at the bottom. Armed with my tent, sleeping bag, and a rather too heavy backpack, I set off. After a 2 hour hairy descent I reached the bottom, had my canyon pass checked (35 soles, tourist tax) and climbed up the other side, following the water canals that criss-crossed the mountainside and provide water to the villages. I stopped briefly in a refreshment hut run by a highly entertaining local woman, and had my first (and probably) last taste of Inka Cola (sickly sweet yellow stuff). However, powered by the Inkas, I then fair flew over the last few kms to the oasis, making it in a cool 5hours 10 mins (3 hours less than the guide had said).

That night at the oasis was amazing. After a brief dip in the pool (alas the sun had already gone down so it was a bit nippy out of the water), and pitching the tent, I had dinner with some other hikers (mostly on guided tours - but really a guide is completely unnecessary) at the lodge. Converstation turned to some Inca ruins that a group had visited (the first gringos to do so - yeah right!!) high up the other side of the canyon, so I decided rather than hike directly up out of the canyon the next morning, i’d go find the ruins and time permitting hike out in the afternoon.

Well time didn’t permit. Having found the correct path to the ruins I accidently walked passed them by almost an hour before giving up, and cursing the local who’d given me directions. It wasn’t all bad though - the path had gone through fields of weird trees, flowers and cactii, and had also opened up a spectacular view of the canyon. It was only on the way back down that I caught a glimpse of a few stones in the undergrowth that I’d missed on the way out. On closer inspection, and some severe cactus prickling, I discovered a number of terraces and the remains of a couple of buildings, but failed to find the human remains that are there somewhere. Well, it really wasn’t worth the hike up for that alone. By the time I made it back to the Oasis it was 3.30pm, so no chance of making it out of the canyon (brings back memories of a neck crippling one day hike in and out of the Grand Canyon a few years back), thus another night at the oasis and another dinner of soup and spaghetti, this time with a group of canadian doctors.

In the morning I got chatting to an australian girl who was also going to hike out, so we teamed up. Fortunately for her, she’d packed sensibly (and besides no tent, sleeping bag etc...) so seemed to fair bound up the mountainside. Alas for me the same couldn’t be said. What followed was one of the more painful 3 hour periods of my life, but finally I made it, on my last legs of water and energy (breakfast that morning had been 3 prickly pears that i’d picked the previous day). I then pigged out at the hostel in Cabanaconde (well i figured i’d better, as they’d looked after some of my stuff, but i’d never actually stayed there) before getting a bus back to Chivay. It was during the course of the bus journey that I learned that Michelle (my australian companion) had worked at Glenshee at the ski resort, and also at the Spital, and had lived in Alyth (which she loved!) - it’s a small world!

The evening back at Chivay was nice - I went to the hot springs there, then had dinner with another friendly backpacker from the hostel. The following morning I headed back to Arequipa, spent the afternoon there wandering around the monastery and supping coffee on the very grand main square before heading to Cusco on the night bus (see start!).


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