The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Tag: travel stories (page 1 of 2)

Huayna Picchu and the Mountain of Doom

My mother and stepfather visited Cusco all last week. On our To-Do list was, of course, Machu Picchu. And in the excitement of buying tickets, selecting upcharges and otherwise planning the most fantastic family vacation since England in 1999, we thought “Sure, let’s do Huayna Pichu!”

On Wednesday, my mother and I began the “vertical uphill climb” to Machu Picchu at 5am, with a 4:20 A.M. wake up call, as a way to feel triumphant and accomplished in our Sacred Valley Machu Experience. We arrived to the Machu Picchu entrance gate around 6:15 A.M., just 1.25 hours after beginning our climb. What ferocious woman power! What thighs of steel! What indomitable hiking spirit!

The never-ending staircase doesn't faze us! Bring it, Incan Trail!

The never-ending staircase doesn’t faze us! Bring it, Incan Trail!

So we met Greg and our guide, Romulus, for the tour around 7 A.M. Feeling both alert yet exhausted, the four of us made our way around the ancient city, learning about the prior uses of the temples and various buildings, discovering the interesting stonework, and…perhaps the most shocking…the fact that our guide’s GRANDFATHER was the one that discovered Machu Picchu back in 1902, one Sr. Agustin Lizarraga.

Talk about getting lucky with the guides! Romulus had basically grown up scaling Machu Picchu, and possessed an intimate knowledge of the grounds that I had never even dreamed of. He’s written some books about the area, as well, which of course we bought and begged he sign afterward.

We all took a pee break around 9:30 A.M., our only preparation for the climb that awaited us. In retrospect, it should have included some fervent prayers and emergency emails to loved ones. Bladders emptied and thighs only aching slightly, we made our way to Huayna Picchu.

Huayna, as we’ll call it, is a “special add-on” to Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to hike it per day, as opposed to the 4000+ that are allowed to wander Machu Picchu everday. We were able to score the coveted spot on this hike because we made our booking months in advance. It’s a special mountain off to the far side of the ancient city, and typically looms, unassuming yet somehow menacing, in the background of most photos of Machu Picchu. I would know — I took one back in December.

An easy-to-understand map of Machu and Huayna Picchu

An easy-to-understand map of Machu and Huayna Picchu, courtesy of a photo I took during my first visit in December.

We arrived to Huayna Picchu’s entrance gate, at the far end of the ancient city, around 10 A.M. I had overheard other travelers throughout my stay in Peru talking about how difficult this hike was. (“Wow, it was SO hard, but I’m so glad I did it” or “Yeah, I don’t know how I made it up, but you should totally try.”) Most statements were accompanied with a flash of terror across their faces, a look I didn’t originally understand when I talked to previous hikers about the experience. I couldn’t tell how hard it might be in comparison to the hike UP to Machu Picchu, the hike of the 11,000 stairs, so I entered this tour upcharge with an open mind and an open heart.

But really, I was thinking, “It can’t be that hard”.

There was one thing I asked our tour guide, Romulus. “Are there crazy, steep, and terrifying steps?”

“You’ll be fine,” he assured me.

So I entered with a light heart that morning. After several hours of climbing stairs, wandering ruins, and beholding the sights, I was almost joyfully anticipating the wonderful breeze that this hike would be.

DEAR LORD WAS I WRONG.

We passed the control booth for Huayna Picchu, a little stand where you have to write down your name, the time of entrance, and then sign. Sort of like a waiver, I’d assume, for a place that has become known as The Mountain of Death. They assign you a number, so that at the end of the day if all numbers aren’t signed out, they know who to send the rescue team after.

Seriously.

Romulus led us through a jungly, shaded path as we wound our way toward the mountain. It seemed quite similar to the 5 A.M. path my mother and I had taken up the mountain. Sigh of relief. This thing was about to be a piece of cake.

But then we wound deeper, and the real stairs began.

Romulus had told us our hike would take about 2.5 to 3 hours total, from base to top to base again. What started out as mostly steep but manageable stairs soon turned into perilously steep and slick narrow steps that only sometimes were accompanied by a cable bolted into the rock, which served as a convenient thing to cling to.

The steps grew progressively more perilous and terrifying. And the people around me looked pretty damn freaked out too. My mom, stepfather and I took frequent breaks…which also served to remind us how FREAKING HIGH UP we were, with literally no barrier between us and cliffs at times.

And throughout it all, our guide Romulus barely broke a sweat. Obviously an Incan descendent…and a literal child of Machu Picchu. His sense of equilibrium so high in the sky is not something a mere girl from the unimpressive flatlands of Ohio could ever hope to replicate.

To get a better idea of Huayna Picchu and the perils therein, I’ve quoted a blog below.

 The Huayna Picchu hike is sometimes referred to as the “Hike of Death”, and only those who have done it can truly understand why.  At times, trails are only a foot wide, with a sheer vertical drop on your side, and no hand rails.  Terraces near the top have no tree cover or safety nets, and a misplaced foot means certain death.  At one point, the only way forward is to scoot down a sheer rock face, with no steps or ropes to help.  If you do manage to make it to the top of this 2,720m (8,920 ft) “Young Mountain”, you will be rewarded with a view and sense of accomplishment that few people in this world achieve. –“Visiting Machu Picchu” blog

There were multiple moments throughout the climb that I thought, “OK, there is NO way I am making it back down.” At times, people who had made it to the top were coming back down our way, and these steps were NOT fit for two lanes. I clung to the rock face while they somehow scooted beyond me. Sorry, not letting go of this cable for ANYTHING, folks!

And then, towards the top, there was a tunnel. A natural rock tunnel…and the only way to continue along to the top. People above a certain weight and stature cannot make it through this tunnel. So, you know, tough luck if you’re taller than 6 foot.

Disappearing into the tunnel

Disappearing into the tunnel, backpack strapped to my front as Romulus had instructed me.

Making our way up Huayna Picchu

Making our way up Huayna Picchu…masking our terror with small grins. Behind us, you can see the road leading up from the river, and the miniature Machu Picchu.

I think the narrow, slippery steps wouldn’t have been so bad if there were some manner of barrier between us and the 1,000 foot drop to our side. Just looking at others along the path gave me a heart palpitation, as the awe-inspiring background put into sharp relief the sheer altitude of our hike.

When there’s only about 6 inches separating you and  1,000 foot drop, it’s sort of, well, I don’t know…heart wrenching. Makes you pine for flat surfaces and the regulation-heavy, insurance-minded attitude of America.

But we continued upward. And finally…FINALLY...we reached the top.

Finally, perched on the uppermost boulder of the Mountain of Doom. We can see by my smile I'm mostly just waiting to get off the precipice and back to something less exposed to free fall potentials.

Perched on the uppermost boulder of the Mountain of Doom. We can see by my smile I’m mostly just waiting to get off the precipice and back to something less exposed to free-fall potentials.

Romulus took this picture on top of a boulder across from the boulder pictured here, his back facing open air and nothingness. I told him after this picture, “OK, Romulo. Please get down from there, since just looking at you scares the shit out of me.”

He stood there, unfazed, enjoying the whipping breezes of the summit, which was inexplicably full of buzzing, beetle-like insects. Is that the prize we get for making it up the mountain? Clouds of random high-altitude mosquitoes?

I’ll admit that by this point, I wasn’t feeling very triumphant or victorious, because I knew one very important and difficult task remained: getting off the damn mountain. 

De-scaling Huayna Picchu seemed to be an almost more difficult task than climbing. Mostly because know we knew exactly what awaited us on the way down. 

We began the climb down reluctantly. In the distance, a helicopter buzzed. I wished it would come pick us up. Throw an emergency rope down, something I could clench with all my worth until it slowly lowered me to a walled, protected, sea-level point, preferably with a recliner chair and a complex assortment of cheeses and crackers. Help me, Rescue Squad! I can’t make it down!

I jest about this, but panic attacks and sometimes even heart attacks are par for the course at Huayna Picchu (at least one person has died from a heart attack on this climb). Again, quoting the blog:

 Once the tree cover breaks, there are no guard rails or ropes to save you if you lose your footing, and edges are sheer drops down the mountain.  Guides wander the Huayna Picchu trail regularly to help any hikers who have panic attacks or become too physically exhausted to continue- both occur often enough to keep the guides busy.  At one point, it is necessary to climb a small wooden ladder to get to the summit.  Many people find the way down too scary, as it is steeper and the steps are narrower, and instead they go back down the way they came up. –“Visiting Machu Picchu” blog

At the summit, we saw at least one woman crying from sheer terror.

(And no, it wasn’t me!)

Our way down was certainly as perilous as the way up, but in a different way. Going up, we could sometimes bypass extremely narrow steps. But going down, I felt compelled to use each step given to me, and often times there weren’t enough things to cling to. And gravity pulls HARD.

Climbing down

One of the first staircases leading down from the summit. Not pictured here: sheer vertical drop to the left.

De-scaling Huayna Pichu

Just so we can get a closer look at me hugging this wall FOR ALL I AM WORTH, FOR GOD’S SAKE. The woman behind me is gleeful and unfazed. I bet she bungee jumps in her free time.

Additionally, the steps were sometimes so steep during the descent that leaning back onto the steps behind you was necessary. My backpack often interfered with this task, which lent an additional air of intrigue and terror to my hike downward. Images of losing my balance — that split-second free fall and the accompanying realization that this is it, this is the end — tortured me during the descent.

During our hike, the Rescue Squad had to come for at least two different people. One fell and hurt her spine; the other had a panic attack and couldn’t continue, and had to be taken down on a stretcher. (How they managed that on those stairs, I dare not question.)

What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?!

Jaw-dropping views. Almost makes it worth it.

Jaw-dropping views. Almost makes it worth it.

Tiring climb up Huayna Picchu

Certainly wasn’t the easy breezy hike I was hoping for.

But alas, we made it poco a poco to the halfway point…then to the regular stairs…and then, thankfully, to the control booth. Where I signed my name with a FLOURISH.

Rescue Squad, you won’t need to search for this Astromaid anytime soon. Because she is ON HER WAY TO HORIZONTAL CLIMES.

In hindsight, my family and I laugh about the terror of the climb. About that time we almost shit our pants going down the staircase. About the moment of panic when a fellow climber threw himself off a ledge, only to realize it was a prank because there was a terrace immediately below that ledge (STUPID JOKE, MAN). We comment on the differences between safety regulations between countries (this climb wouldn’t be allowed ANYWHERE in the USA, that’s for sure), and we recall fondly the gorgeous eagle eye view of Machu (though really, in my PTSD I can scarcely recall any moments on the summit). We’re happy to have done this together — the family that climbs together, stays together! — and it has created many powerful and vivid memories.

But more than any of that, we know one thing for certain. If we had read any of the warnings or reviews of this climb prior to attempting it, we might not have opted for it in the first place.

While we’re glad we did it, we will NEVER do it again.

Oh, look, an eagle eye view of Machu Picchu! Wow! Great, now get me the hell off this mountain.

Oh, look, an eagle eye view of Machu Picchu! Wow! Great, now get me the hell off this mountain.

One of the most interesting things we found out about this hike after completing it? It’s rated as one of the 20 Most Dangerous Hikes In The World.

When Rickshaws Break Down in Traffic

Driving around Delhi doesn’t leave much time for introspection or idle hands. Really, driving through Delhi at any hour, of any day, involves a fair amount of white-knuckled seat-grabbing, fervent prayers to God Of Choice, and teeth clenching as your vehicle/taxi/rickshaw comes thatclose to sideswiping a bus/demolishing several pedestrians/delivering you to an inevitable death.

I returned to Delhi after nearly three weeks in a tranquil and slow-paced Rishikesh. I was hesitant to make this return, however inevitable it was for me boarding my return flight to the USA, because I knew the brash and noisy clamor of Delhi would be an even harsher wake-up call after so much time spent in yoga practice and reflection.

My overnight train from Hardiwar arrived only three hours late to a Delhi that looked to be in throes of a monsoon. The road outside the train station had become a literal lake, water sloshing so high that I feared engines would be watered down and all manner of transport would be carried away like bobbing buoys in a lake.

A friendly man from my train cabin helped me negotiate fares with taxi drivers who not only wanted to upcharge me for being foreign and white, but also because of the rain. Once the price was settled, a rickshaw-van of sorts rumbled up through the miniature lake, smoke pouring out of the side. I looked at the man who had helped me negotiate the price, laughed, and said, “Wow, it’s really smoking, huh?”

He laughed too. “No, I think it’s on fire.”

Well, that’s always a relief before you’re about to be carried off alone into the depths of Delhi.

But still, I boarded, because it’s Delhi, and these guys know their rickshaws better than anything else (I’d assume), and it was my only way out of the train station other than making a boat with my own hands. We rumbled off through the dirty Delhi water, joining traffic hesitantly.

The engine sputtered and burped and groaned as the driver joined the careening traffic of the highway. Once we got on our way, the engine seemed to have resolved most of its existential questions and we puttered along safely, resolutely. The smell of burning was mostly gone and the only smoking I could see was from the driver’s own cigarette. Score!

But then about fifteen minutes into the voyage, something happened. The rickshaw-van slowed, despite the way the driver pumped the pedal.

Probably just a rickshaw quirk, I reasoned. Probably has nothing to do with the smoke pouring out of the engine earlier.

His expression grew more quizzical as he continued to pump the pedal. The rickshaw slowed more, which made the careening traffic around us an ever crazier and fast-paced blur.

He worked the pedal harder, but the vehicle never responded.

Then the rickshaw sputtered to a complete and undeniable stop.

The driver, unfazed and non-reactive, tried to start the engine. It came to life, but before we even moved a few feet the engine fizzled. Traffic continued to honk and zoom beyond.

Rinse and repeat about seven times.

From here, the driver tried to turn the engine a handful of times more but all that resulted were harsh mechanical groans that yielded nothing.

Despite having been raised by a vehicle enthusiast and general car mechanic, I don’t know much about cars. Even still, I knew that this rickshaw van wasn’t going to turn on again, no matter how many times he tried to start it.

I was stuck somewhere in Delhi in a non-functioning rickshaw with one massive language barrier and no idea how to get where I was going other than “Saket”.

The driver entered the back part of the van and opened the floor, which provided a direct view of the engine. Everything was gritty and gray; pure petrified vehicle dust and ancient layers of engine grime. He poked helplessly at some tubes and wires, each time running back to the front seat to try to start the van. It never worked.

And then he went around to the passenger’s side of the car, took the seat off, began poking at another part of the engine revealed there.

No luck.

So then he took out the driver’s side seat, and poked at the revealed engine parts there.

Still no luck.

Finally, after a solid quarter hour of fruitless attempts and unhelpful engine poking, he took out his phone and called someone.

The only explanation I got was “five minutes”, which for some reason I interpreted as him leaving me and the entire van for five minutes to go somewhere, like to get a part, or find a friend, or tag out a waiting rickshaw van in what I assumed must be a complex network of rickshaw support.

He must have seen the horrified look on my face as I contemplated being left alone in a van that didn’t even lock in the middle of an Indian highway, with all of my belongings piled around me in the middle of a monsoon. The driver repeated it again – “just five minutes” – and climbed back into the front seat. Phew.

Now it was time to wait. I figured five minutes was an optimistic estimate of whenever help or replacement rickshaws would be arriving, since traversing the entirety of Delhi can sometimes take over two hours – and that’s not even in a rainstorm.

Worrying and speculation didn’t seem to be helpful courses of action, since the bulk of this situation was firmly out of my control. I knew I would get to my destination, eventually. So my only real decision, at this point, was how to while away the time?

So I trimmed my cuticles. All of them. I gave myself half of a manicure while I waited in the backseat, rainwater dripping onto my knee through the broken window, the driver sucking on a strange Indian cigarette as he appraised the gray Delhi day beyond.

Traffic swarmed and hissed past us. Alternating honks and gear shifting provided a constant soundtrack to the rickshaw manicure.

In addition to not worrying or speculating, I also thought it might be prudent to not think about the possibility of any of the traffic connecting with the backside of the rickshaw van.

After my forays into the overgrowth of the Himalayan foothills and the existential desperation this provided, I knew that worrying about my untimely demise wasn’t the best use of time, no matter how much the statistical chance of such an occurrence had skyrocketed now that I was stranded in traffic on an Indian highway.

So I clipped and snipped my cuticles until they smiled back at me, preened and prim. And after about twenty minutes, another rickshaw van rumbled up. No smoke, no sputtering engine. I was ushered inside, the monsoon now a mere drizzle, and we continued along our way into the immense labyrinth of Delhi.

A furtive shot from inside the replacement rickshaw van. Cuticles trimmed. Drivers gesticulating at traffic. All is well.

A furtive shot from inside the replacement rickshaw van. Cuticles trimmed. Drivers gesticulating at traffic. All is well.

The Unexpected First Impressions of India

I’ve been here under a week, but a few things have become readily apparent about travel through northern India so far.

I’ll admit, this leg of my trip has been a little swanky. This part is mostly dedicated to my friend’s wedding, and sometimes I feel more like a foreign dignitary than a visiting Ohio girl.

The second half of my trip will feature a stronger contrast — basic lodgings, time in ashrams, spiritual endeavors, etc — so I’m sure more observations will stem from that.

But for now? Here are a few things I’ve seen along the way:

Traffic is a Free-For-All: Of all the countries I’ve visited, capital cities are always a stunning example of the worst congestion, smog, chaos and more. And while no city has yet vested Cairo of its Worst City Driving Title, New Delhi (and India in general) is running a close second. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, and meandering humans create a cacophony of chaos in the streets, and ‘lane lines’ are mere suggestions at best. Some cars don’t even use the side mirrors, and instead tuck them in while driving. I’m not sure most people look before merging, and I haven’t seen one blinker in use yet. (Honking is the established replacement!)

Stray Dogs? More like Stray Cows: Cows are sacred in India, and killing them is technically illegal. However, there are plenty of cows that are left to wander and otherwise survive on their own. I’ve seen more stray cows here than dogs. As a new friend here explained to me, “It’s India–you have to fend for yourself. Even the cows.” And, to be clear, this is the FIRST time I’ve ever seen stray cows…ANYWHERE!

Stray Cows in India [Photo Credit: www.thehindu.com]

Stray Cows in India [Photo Credit: www.thehindu.com]

Luxury is Extra Luxurious: I don’t travel in luxury almost ever. But here, our accommodations are being provided by the groom’s family — part of the Indian tradition of hosting all of your guests and loved ones for the duration of the wedding. This has been an amazing, and very rare, experience for me. And I’ve noticed that what our fellow Indians request of the hotel staff tend to include nearly anything you could imagine — from washing the car while it’s in storage, to tending to random dietary needs, to organizing local tours and more. I’m not sure if this is how it’s done in the States, but I feel exceptionally pampered and cared for. And I’m not complaining!

Curry is Dangerous: As in, I could eat enough curry to kill a human being. And I almost killed myself via curry on the night of the friend party here in Agra. I literally didn’t EAT ANYTHING the next day because I had stuffed so much paneer down my throat. I couldn’t help it — I’m in India! God help me if I ever live here someday. I might explode!

 

Buffet of curries + Indian flat bread = 200% more sustenance than you really need.

 

Winter in Northern India is way better than Summer in Cusco: They warned us about the cold climes here in northern India. But all I’ve felt are perfect breezes and neutral air temps that make me want to writhe in the grass and bask in the glow of the weird decorative kale plants. Maybe it’s a fluke — or maybe it’s just an Ohio girl arriving via Midwestern Winter appreciating a totally fair climate and the chance to wear short sleeves finally (unlike a certain CUSCO *clears throat*).

We can wander around in loose-fitting shirts because it's winter in India!

We can wander around in loose-fitting shirts because it’s winter in India!

Tomorrow Kelli and I will be traveling to Jaipur, a city about 3 hours away, for a few days, where we hope to buy saris and purses and crazy pants and gifts, visit touristy stuff, and eat more curry. After that, we’ll be back to Agra, where the wedding celebrations will be in full swing!

A Non-Traditional Christmas in the Sacred Valley

Jorge and I are situated this year, both physically and financially, in such a way that going home to spend the holidays with either family was pretty much impossible.

But friends, family and food constitute the holidays, right? In light of the fact that we are new to Cusco, are still partially digesting the Thanksgiving explosion less than a month ago, and love to travel, we decided to have a non-traditional celebration in…you guessed it…MACHU PICCHU.

Due to Jorge’s work schedule, we booked a two-day tour. This option meant leaving Cusco at 8AM, driving for about six hours through perilous mountain roads, stopping once to pee, and then finally arriving at the hydroelectric dam — the last stop on the road toward the base city of Aguascalientes.

Off we go to on our extremely economical and totally

disorganized tour to Machu Picchu!

The tour company made mention of the fact that on the road to the hydroelectric dam, sometimes there are landslides. And sometimes, the roads have to close. And other times, people, you know, sorta die.

Okay. We thought about this for a while. These tour companies don’t want dead tourists because it would mean the death of their business, so we knew at least that this route has heavy traffic, albeit it being slightly dangerous. The only other way to get to our destination would be spend a couple hundred extra dollars to go by train. The Sacred Valley region is entering the rainy season, which puts these high-altitude mountain roads at a higher risk of landslides. Being that the rainy season is JUST starting, it’s not as dangerous as January or February, when these tours sometimes stop altogether.

So, being that it’s still being offered, we probably won’t die, I reasoned. And if we want to go the economical route, there is literally only one road connecting the Sacred Valley with the Machu Picchu area.

One.

In fact, this road starts in the valley area of Cusco — very dry air, pretty high altitude, lots of regular forests and agriculture. You go up, up, up for hours — at the tippy top, when we were most definitely traversing a cloud, I saw a sign that said we were at 4,300 meters. More than 14,000 feet. We were told by the driver that we would not be stopping at any part of this part of the mountain road, due to the altitude and potentiality for getting sick. Way up there, I felt the headache kick in, as well as drowsiness.

Once we crossed the tree line descending on the other side of the sierra, I noticed things looked a little different. Way more lush, much greener and…HUMID. The jungle side of the mountains had begun, and the further along we went, the more I felt like I’d suddenly transported to Costa Rica or somewhere similar. I loved it.

This winding mountain road was completely rife with danger, and I am being quite serious. It seemed to be really just a one-and-a-half lane highway, and we passed several areas where fallen rocks had blocked off one half of the road. Furthermore, the engineers were really working against nature, as the mountain had several outlets of (natural) GUSHING water that sometimes was diverted below the road, but oftentimes, just cascaded over top of the pavement. I honestly thought a few times that the gushing water would carry us away off the cliff.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. BUT IT WAS STILL SCARY!

During the final leg of our journey, right before we got to the dam, we encountered an interesting skirmish. When rounding a tight bend, our driver nearly crashed into an coming truck that had violated the rules of mountain road driving. The offending driver had approached the curve in the center of the road and hadn’t swung out wide, as you must do. So, we almost crashed head on. Our driver was understandably upset, so he called out to him something to the effect of “Hey, obey the rules, or we’re all gonna be in trouble here!”

Well, the other driver didn’t like being called out. Maybe it had to do with the 13 people piled in the back of his truck overhearing his honor being questioned. At any rate, Other Driver stopped the truck, and got out.

The Rules of Road Rage told me this was a very bad sign.

Other Driver then he came up to our driver’s window. They began a heated conversation that involved a lot of “you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I overheard them make an actual plan to meet later to physically fight about this.

And then someone punched someone. I’m not sure who it was, but our driver began fist-fighting with this man through the window. It was so ridiculous I laughed, but it didn’t stop. Luckily, people who are better at these situations stepped in to handle it — namely Jorge and two other guys on the bus, who began trying to intervene to get these men to calm down. Finally, our driver put up the window and we drove away like nothing had happened.

We arrived to the hydroelectric dam around 3:00 PM, where the road officially ends. From the dam, there’s only two ways to arrive to Aguascalientes (the base city to Machu Picchu): WALKING or the TRAIN.

We ate a quick lunch (included in our tour payment) after a brief scuffle with the tour guides who greeted us at the dam. Our names had been mysteriously lost from the list, and they had to make a series of languorous phone calls, accompanied by vigorous receipt-demonstrating on our end, before we were led to the restaurant.

After eating, our trek to Aguascalientes began. The trail follows the train tracks to Aguascalientes, so all the paying customers can look at us vagabonds hoofing it along the side. It takes two full hours, walking at a moderate pace. The trek was gorgeous, and the only real difficulty was that, at times, one had to walk close to the tracks, and therefore over unstable rocks which slows progress. We caught a random Jungle Rainbow along the way.

Random Jungle Rainbow Alert!

Two hours of hiking is perhaps tiring but not the end of the world. Though I definitely stressed a muscle behind my right knee from all the unsure rock balancing; nothing major. I was certainly ready to sit down once we got to Aguascalientes, though! We met a different guide in the main plaza, who then took us to our hostel and gave us instructions for where to meet for dinner.

We had roughly an hour and a half before we needed to meet at dinner, 8 PM. So Jorge and I headed to the famous HOT SPRINGS (which the city is named after — “Hot Waters”) where we rested our weary hiker bones in the medicinal waters for about a half hour.

At dinner, the guide explained to us how the next day would go. We could either take a bus at 6AM to arrive at the Machu gates by 6:30 AM, or we could wake up at 4 AM to begin a roughly 2 hour hike of pure vertical steps.

We chose the hike, for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer experience of it — what better way to experience the Picchu than trekking up the mountain like the ancient Incans? Another was physical prowess, as most of my readers know I like to challenge myself in specific ways just to know that I can DO it. And, lastly, there’s the money aspect. Though the bus wasn’t expensive by any means — a measly $10 — it’s extra things like that that add up.

So we got our butts out of bed at 4 AM, and started the hike to Macchu Pichu.

Sunrise occurred around 5:30 AM, once we were past the front gates where they checked our passports. The first leg of the walk to get to the control gate was easy — just getting out of the city. But once we crossed the entrance — across a huge bridge with the angry river roaring beneath — the STAIRS began.

I kid you not, I was out of breath after the equivalent of two flights. I paused. I continued. Then I paused again, after a shorter distance. And then, I began something I like to call “The Tour of Desperation.”

I don’t know how many steps there were in all, but let’s be clear on one thing: I’ve climbed the Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai, and I repented harder climbing to Machu Picchu. I began my Tour of Desperation once I realized that I had a full hour and a half of climbing these freaking steep stone steps ahead of me, and after only ten minutes I was ready to lay down.

The Tour of Desperation included highlights such as: the particular corner where I sat down for the first time and thought, “Well, damn, it can’t be that high.”; the variety of instances where plenty of athletic and probably bionic people breezed past us, barely panting; the particular stretch of steps where I began imagining all the other places I’d like to be instead of those stairs, including Hawaii, followed by vivid imaginations of receiving a lei upon arrival; the dense corner of vegetation where I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t actually make it to the top; the time I reached the road designed for the buses and I thought the trek was over, only to be followed by four more excruciating flights of damnable stairs; and, lastly, the time I heard voices above us on the path and my innards leapt with joy, only to realize we hadn’t reached the end, and the path would probably never end, and it was all a giant trap concocted by the ancient Incans to capture healthy humans from the future to use as sacrifices in the past.

A shot of Jorge climbing the stairs. The blur might suggest he was moving very fast, but trust me, he wasn’t.

We did finally make it to the top, only to begin a multiple hour tour of the complex. We found our tour guide and, after a quick snack, we began to meander through the ancient city.

The place was incredible. I forget entirely about the fact that I might have to amputate a thigh from overuse and instead, got completely lost in the guide’s explanations of the environs. They estimate the city was built in the 1400’s, and was one of multiple cities in the region commissioned by the then-leader of the Incans. It was primarily a religious center, and also had plenty of astronomical observation centers. One thing I especially liked was the naturally-irrigating agricultural steps, shown below.

They grew things like corn on the different levels.

Our tour lasted about two hours then we had a few hours to wander around and take ample photos. We climbed up to the highest point of Machu, took plenty of selfies, visited with some alpacas, and basically enjoyed the insane views from the mountaintop city. We could see the river down below that marked our starting point — we think we climbed about a mile upward, all told.

Taking some shots around 7 AM, before the morning fog had cleared.

Behold the majesty of the lost Incan city! They call it ‘lost’ because it wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s — meaning the Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked this gem. And thankfully so!

See that river down there? That’s where we started.

Just enjoying the MAGICAL JUNGLE VIEWS.

Mister Machu. The Incans were most likely freaks, based on the manner of city construction. I’m sure they were 90% thigh, at least. Our guide mentioned that the next Incan city over is roughly 120 km away — a hike that for us nowadays would take 3 or 4 days, but for the Incans, took a matter of hours.

Money shot!

When there’s animals nearby, Jorge must meet them.

Merry Christmas from the tippy top point of Machu Picchu!

We all know what happens next, right? We have to get OFF the mountain. Thank GOD for physics — what goes up must come down. To be fair, we could have taken the bus, but again, chose not to. Besides, going down is always easier than going up. Though our knees were a little worse for the wear afterward, the 2 hour trek up became a 1 hour trek down. Practically a walk in the (extremely humid and steep) park.

But then came our return hike to the hydroelectric dam, where our return bus would be waiting for us. Two more hours walking after a full day of climbing, sweating, and desperate thoughts? Sure. Why not. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

We got to the dam around 2 PM, ate a quick lunch, and then went to the pick-up area for the return trip to Cusco. A lot of people milled around, and I overheard a heated conversation between a  tourist and a guide nearby.

Turns out, the disorganization of the tour company had reached another peak. I had mentioned to Jorge at one point of our trip that I didn’t really trust that this company was looking out for us. It seemed like in order for things to get done, we had to be exceptionally on our toes. Making sure we had receipts ready and knowing what came next ahead of time.

And this was the case here. When we arrived, we were told there were no spots for us on the return bus. We reminded the guide that we had paid, showed the receipt, demanded that we be provided with this service. He suggested we just buy our spots on the bus to Cusco AGAIN, which was laughable, considering we had proof of already paying this. He ignored us for a bit, made some phone calls, was approached by other angry tourists. I felt bad for the guy — I know it wasn’t his fault, but rather the whole company’s approach was just poor, and he was the guy on the front lines receiving the brunt of it.

After a tense half hour, another bus did arrive, and we were allowed to board. Most of the other tourists in limbo were also able to board — some had been waiting (and been ignored) for over three hours.

Our return drive didn’t include any fist-fights (unfortunately?), but it DID include an active landslide. Helloooo, rainy season! We watched as rocks tumbled from the mountainside and onto the road, some continuing off the cliff. They weren’t boulder by any means, but one of those to the side of the van would definitely break a window — and possibly a head. Our driver waited tensely until the frequency of the landslide slowed.

And then he freaking gunned it.

We made it through alive, some of us actively trying to avoid peeing our pants (me). Another several hours later, we made it back safely, and dead tired, to Cusco.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!!

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Just Call Me Resourceful Rhonda

For those of you that know me, you’ll know that I frequently talk about how when the apocalypse comes, I’ll be the first to die.

Despite a couple years of being in Brownies, I just don’t have a terribly impressive amount of survival skills (though I CAN sew a mean sit-upon). This isn’t something I necessarily am looking to change — I’m just aware of it.
And for those of you that also know about Jorge, you’ll remember that I frequently tout him as my key to survival for when the apocalypse comes. The guy grew up in rural farmland, knows how to light fires, spent most of his childhood barefoot and pooping in the wild, and can ride a horse bareback. Furthermore, he has uncanny and ingenious solutions to common household problems. Whenever I need to fix something, I hand it to him — work your crazy magic, I tell him. And he does. 
Well, it appears Jorge’s resourcefulness has rubbed off in our 1.5 years together. Let me explain.
We recently moved into a new (mini)apartment in Lima. Though our landlord provided some basics, like a bed, and plates, and a toilet, there weren’t important things like knives or French Press coffee makers. 
Being that I am an American Coffee Drinker with a pound of hazelnut coffee burning a hole in my backpack, I had to remedy this situation quickly. However, the nearest supermarket only sells food — no household products, no sprawling aisles of coffee makers, not even cheese cloth, for god’s sake.
So, one our first morning in the new place arrived, I had a brilliant idea. 
I wear a lot of leggings (ahem, actually maybe only leggings), and some of my current pairs in rotation are about to die. On our way back to Lima, Jorge pointed out in the middle of the Miami airport that I was essentially walking around naked since my leggings had grown so threadbare. Oops. 
Time to throw them out — or is it? I decided to use these very same leggings for a couple different purposes. 
Purpose #1: CHEESECLOTH FOR COFFEE.
Purpose #2: Cloths for the sink area/cleaning the bathroom.
Okay, okay, hold your horses, you might be thinking. How can a self-respecting human being use leggings to make coffee? I’ll explain.
Step One: Snip off the bottom fourth of one of the legs.
Step Two: Sew the bottom of the snipped-leg-portion shut. 
Step Three: USE THIS AS A COLANDER FOR SEPARATING COFFEE GROUNDS FROM COFFEE.
Freaking. Genius.
However, our (mini) apartment, as I explained, came equipped with only the bare minimum of kitchen necessities. So on our first morning, this is what happened.
I sprinkled an appropriate amount of coffee grounds into a bowl (re: one of two bowls available in the house). Once my water was boiling, I poured this into the bowl. I let it sit for about five minutes. Then, having fastened my legging-colander to a mason jar ring using a hairband, we poured the coffee out of the bowl into the coffee cup via homemade colander.
Jorge pours bowlofcoffee into cup.

Coffee grounds remain securely in the homemade colander.

Final product: cup of coffee.

Over time, my coffee-making methods have varied. I went from strictly French Press/Keurig/locally bought to drip filter, to colander method…and now, to bowls. Some people might find this method unseemly or gross; I, however, pride myself on my big city survival skills. 
Let’s be honest, I might not be able to live very long once the apocalypse hits…but dangit, I know I’ll be able to fashion myself a good cup’a’joe when the time comes! Provided I can figure out how to boil some water, that is. 

Bolivian Blockades: Part Two

Later that same night of our daring escape into Uyuni, Jorge and I were dining just around the corner from the bulk of the tour agencies. The door of the restaurant swung open, and some tourists walked in — dirty, ragged, boots covered with dust.

Their driver hadn’t made it past the protesters; they’d been forced to walk into town.

And only moments after they came into the restaurant, we heard some gunshots from outside.

The owner of the restaurant leapt into action; she scrambled out the front door, surveying something in the distance. Then she came inside and ordered all her employees to lock the place up. With all of us diners still inside.

“It’s okay,” she assured us. “We are going to shut the restaurant for a little bit because the protesters are coming around now to bother the businesses.” We heard shouting in the distance, something that sounded like stomping. “For the safety of our business and for your safety, we’re going to lock up.”

She yanked down the metal wall used to lock up shop at the end of each day. I watched as she used a padlock on both ends of the door. And then she and the other workers disappeared into the kitchen.

I can’t speak for the other patrons at that moment, but I felt deeply concerned. Jorge and I looked at each other, WTF heavy in our gazes. Seriously, what was going on here? Were we inadvertantly caught in the midst of some revolution? The situation had escalated greatly since our arrival that morning at 5:30 AM…and now the protesters were taking to the streets. Restaurant owners were locking up out of fear, “for our protection”. What were these guys going to do?

I was happy a jar of Sangria and three quesadillas were on the way to our table, because I needed something to take the edge off.

Between breaking into the city twice — both that morning and that night — and now facing the increasing stomps of a psosible mob maybe only a block away…I was deeply confused about the severity of the situation, and deeply concerned about how we were supposed to get out of Uyuni.

Our dinner progressed relatively normally; after a little bit of banging around a few doors down, the threat disappeared and the owner opened up again. We consumed our quesadillas and Sangria with relative comfort. And as soon as 9PM rolled around, we bolted for the train station to find a way out of the city.

All bus transportation had obviously ground to a halt. If we couldn’t make it into the city on bus or Jeep, we certainly were’t getting out that way. And being that it was Friday, any negotiations between protesters and city officials likely wouldn’t happen until Monday. So we were looking at a potentially long weekend in Uyuni.

This was a no-go for a variety of reasons. First of all, Uyuni’s main draw is the salt flats. Now that the tour was over and we were safely absconded back into Uyuni’s unreleasing clutches, there wasn’t much else to do there.

And second of all, we had a flight from Lima, Peru in exactly one week. The miles between Uyuni and Lima were…well…a LOT. Easily several days voyage via bus. So we had to leave ASAP, and waiting until Monday would push us far too close to the deadline.

The train station in Uyuni was bursting with people. We entered a line a mile long that didn’t move an inch for a full hour.

A train was due at 10:30PM, but whispers said the tracks had been blockaded and it wouldnt arrive.

At 10:45PM, someone cried out, “THE TRAIN IS COMING!” and the ticket office opened and everybody sighed collectively with relief.

Once all the passengers had boarded and the train departed, we were able to buy our own tickets, for the next night to a city more to the north but not our final destination of La Paz. We’d take it. Fine. Whatever. Just get us out of here.

We left that night exhausted yet triumphant. The next night would see us on a train, chugging contentedly out of Uyuni and on our way to Lima, or at least one step closer. Excellent.

We slept like babies that night.

 

The next morning over breakfast, some travelers came into the restaurant. They talked in low tones, looked a little anxious. And then we overheard something unsettling.

The train was blocked. All outgoing tickets were suspended.

We wouldn’t be leaving Uyuni on bus, nor on train. What to do???

We confirmed the train blockade at the station; their advice was to wait until that night to see if it really showed up or not. However, we didn’t want to wait a whole day just to find out we were stuck another one. So we looked into our last option: PLANE.

We ran to the airline office. Their only flight that day had left at 7:30AM — completely full. Their next flight left the next night, at 10PM for La Paz. Over $100 per person, a stark comparison to the $9 train ticket.

Jorge and I didn’t know what to do — stick around to watch our options continue to disappear or otherwise shrivel? Wait for Monday and hope the rapidly worsening situation magically resolved itself?

As we paced the city streets plotting our escape, a wild-eyed woman approached us.

“Potosi,” she cried. “We’re going to Potosi, if you know of anyone that needs a ride, tell them we leave now!”

“How much?” Jorge asked. “And will you wait if we get our things?”

She said yes, they’d give us a half hour if we wanted to join them. We speedwalked to her office as she explained the details — $50 per person, her drivers were sneaking our tourists in 4×4 Jeeps via a back road. Three Jeeps had left the night before; three more were leaving today. The situation was rapidly worsening, and it was of the utmost importance to leave now, because later might not be possible.

We paid her (reluctantly, I might add — a regular bus fare to Potosi was only about $10) and then booked it to our hostel to pack up and check out. We arrived back at her office fifteen minutes later, huffing, puffing, and totally ready to escape.

The Escape Director led us and four other guys through the city, block after block under the mid-day sun. Again, I felt my body failing me, too much weight compounded by the three layers of coats that were useful in the morning but now, not so much.

Just as I was ready to call it quits — I’ll stay in Uyuni and wither, miss my flight, remain a tourist hostage, as long as I don’t walk another step! — we reached the escape vehicle. I’ve never been so happy to hand over my belongings to a stranger. The driver loaded our backpacks on top of the Jeep; he ushered us inside, and we began our swift and quiet exit from the city.

The Jeep was crammed full — 4 gangly early 20’s backpackers from a variety of countries (USA, England, Denmark), Jorge and I, and one small, quiet Bolivian woman. Nobody uttered a word as we turned down a dirt path and began driving away from the city.

I looked around, trying to discern whether blockades would be a problem this time. Our driver was taking the road opposite of…any road. He was, in fact, driving toward pure wilderness. The mountain was the only thing in front of us.

As the road gave way to craggy dips, arching geologic formations, soemtimes almost vertical rock faces and a barely discernible sandy path, I felt deeply grateful for the 4×4. We alternated between safari-style bouncing and bated breath creeping. At some points, I thought I might see a rhinocerous. The landscape was so utterly pure and wild. Again, I dared not question where we were going and when me might get there, afraid that any display of doubt might make our escape mission crumble to the ground.

We wound through this ‘back road’ for nearly an hour, passing by a handful of ‘villages’ that were no more than a cluster of huts and sheep. Finally, in the distance, we could see the glimmering arc of a highway. We cheered. And once we set tire to smooth pavement, I breathed easily, feeling like the final threat of the protesters was securely behind us.

We drove on 4 more hours to Potosi, stopping once in a small village to pee behind a building.

This village had slightly more buildings than sheep,
and electricity. I think.

And the second we got to Potosi, we high tailed it to La Paz, hopping on the first bus to the capital. This time, when morning came at 5:30AM rolled around, we were snug and warm inside the bus, and not trudging along a highway with a million kilos of crap strapped to us.

Small joys.

Bolivian Blockades: Part One

A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: “Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. ”

After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken.

From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation…and cheap as hell everything.

I don’t want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds — the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.

But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience:

SHANNON or JORGE: I’ll have the gnocchi.
WAITER: Oh, we’re out of that.
S or J: Okay, uh…*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?
WAITER: No, we don’t have that either.
Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.
This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we’d leave that night at 8:30PM.

So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don’t tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni.

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.
We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.
Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright — and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level — that’s about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it’s winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.
Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn’t say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze.

After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn’t pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren’t traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped.

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.
Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn’t think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.

On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we’d been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,

“The protesters are blocking our road back into the city,” he explains. “The one we took this morning can’t be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away.”

But they didn’t go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it.

With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city.

I didn’t know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.

 The inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we’d been following. We were on our own.

The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren’t necessarily in danger…but we didn’t want an errant rock through the window, either.

Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.

To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders.

And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.

We’d been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it — we were in the city limits now, no turning back — and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.

This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we’d driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they’d take all our stuff first?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back.
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