Monday, December 6, 2010

La Paz Bolivia

Currency: Boliviano $1.00 US = $6.97000 Bolivianas
Bus Copacabana to La Paz - $25 B
Boat across Lake Titicaca - $10 B
Taxi Bus Depot to Hostel - $15 B (for 3 of us)
Hostel La Paz - $55 B a night (4 bed dorm) - Wild Rover
Hostel La Paz - $15.00 US a night (private room) - Republica

The bus from Copacabana to La Paz takes about 4 hours. Part way through we had to exit the bus to get across Lake Titicaca. The bus is loaded onto a barge to go across and we are sent over via small boats. It takes about 1/2 an hour for the bus to get across, looks totally hilarious, hard to believe all vehicles go across that way, looks like the barges will sink at any minute. There are stalls that sell drinks and food so it's a great place to grab a snack and watch the fun.

The first view of La Paz that you get coming in via bus is from the road above, it is amazing, a huge bowl crowded with buildings all the way up the side of the mountains. Hard to believe some of them can stay up, not an inch of wasted space. It is an amazing sight.

The bus depot is relatively new and it is huge. It is located pretty close to the center of the city and taxi's are plentiful. I had found the Wild Rover Hostel on line and thought it sounded pretty good. Good location, clean and with a fun bar. Turns out it was also the residence of a former president at one time. The people I shared a cab with were booked at the Loki which it turns out backed onto the back of the hostel I was in. The Wild Rover is located 2 blocks down from the presidential plaza and is within walking distance of pretty much all of the sites. If booking a room at the Rover I recommend asking for a room in the back of the building. There is a weird outside annex part way in the back, gets no noise from the bar. The ones in the front of the building and by the bar are extremely noisy & the bar is open until 2ish. When you check in you get a wrist band, you can choose to pay cash for booze & meals or you can charge it to your room and pay when you check out. I did find that both times I stayed at the Rover there were extra charges on my bill that were not mine so, if in doubt ask to see the tab. On the up side they took them off as soon as I pointed out that they were not mine. There is a travel agency located in the hostel and free computers and wifi. It was a fun place to stay, lots of interesting folks and as it turns out I ran into a guy that I had done the Machu Picchu hike with that I had not seen since Cusco. He was heading to Buenos Aries from La Paz as he was on a short 1 month whirl wind tour of South America.

In Cusco I had met a couple that told me if I had time to take a trip into the Amazon basin via Rurrenabaque. The bus trip takes 20 hours and I was on my last 2 weeks before I had to fly home out of Lima Peru so I chose to fly in and out. I had also been told that the roads are often blocked by protesters so it is very likely that you can be stranded for a few days waiting for the blockades to come down. I booked both the flight and the 3 day pamapas tour via the travel agency in the hostel. The cost was $1500.00 B. There is also a jungle tour, I was told that if you like plants take the jungle tour if you want to see animals take the pampas tour. I booked a couple of days in advance so I could spend a few days exploring La Paz. When I came back from Rurrenabaque I had 3 more days in La Paz before I had to head back to Peru.

La Paz is a crazy city with a lot of history, it sits at 3500 meters above sea level and is the highest capital city in the world. There are street markets everywhere and traffic is horrible, I don't know how people drive there. As an added bonus the city is built in a basin so almost everywhere involves going up steep hills. There are tons of restaurants and shops, the witches market is totally bizarre, lots of lama fetuses, seems they are a good luck charm. When you buy a new home you bury 1 under the front porch for good luck. The Bolivians are a pretty superstitious people, catholic with a bit of witch craft thrown in. They also love a good party, I was lucky enough to be there for their annual Gran Poder parade, the streets are blocked off and unfortunately so is the view. They put up barriers that block the parade view and sell tickets for seats if you want to watch, tickets are pretty cheap, people were offering them to me for $20 B. There are places you can see it for free if you go up the hill by the witches market or from the overpass. The parade starts at 8 am and goes until around 1am. Lots of music and colorful costumes, the dancers go for 5 or 6 kilometers a lot of it up hill. Not sure where they get the energy from. I bought a couple of beers and pulled up a piece of sidewalk with the locals in their lawn chairs and their coolers of beer to watch for a few hours. Totally amazing, if you can time your visit to see it I highly recommend it, no set date it is usually at the end of May beginning of June. I so love that you can by beer on the street and drink it while you walk/sit, takes some getting used to when I get home where that is totally illegal.

Price wise it is a pretty cheap place, I got some happy pants (backpackers will know what they are) loose colorful pants for $35 B and I picked up a necklace and earrings in silver with a reversible stone (1 side blue 1 side purple) for $100 B. If you are doing Peru & Bolivia defiantly do your shopping in Bolivia, way cheaper than Peru, I saw the same necklace/earring set in Lima for double the price. I spent a lot of time in the presidential plaza, there is a park and it is a great place to people watch. Also lots of history, if you take a close look at the walls of the buildings you can see lots of bullet holes from when the police and the army went at each other in 2003. At no time did I feel unsafe in La Paz but keep in mind that there is still a lot of unrest. There is lots of poverty and unemployment, and they are under a lot of pressure from the US in regards to Coca plants. Unlike Colombia they have not allowed the US to dictate or interfere with their harvests so there fore no aide from them. There were protests pretty much every day and on 1 day a big one in the presidential square. I had heard it when I left the hostel to meet a friend for dinner, lots of yelling and chanting. On the way home from dinner I cut through the square and it was eerie. No one but solders there and a haze of tear gas and damaged vendor stalls. When I came into the square the soldiers motioned at me with their machine guns to stay in the middle of the square and away from the buildings. I must be getting jaded, having guns pointed at me doesn't even faze me anymore. It is a different world, it looks scarier than it is but things can change at a minutes notice so it is best to avoid angry crowds of people and protests. The day after the big protest you would never have known anything had happened, the plaza was crowded with happy families going about their business.

Lots of great street eats especially by the San Francisco church, tons of food stalls and if you are facing the church go through the front courtyard to the right and down the stairs, more street food to be had. Other than a couple of nights I pretty much survived on the stuff. Hit 3 or 4 booths and put together a tasty meal for under $2.00 US. No ill effects and a great way to meet the locals, grab a stair and chow down.

When I came back from Rurrenabaque I stayed for 1 night in the Wild Rover (I had stored my big pack there when I went) but I was in a front room and I wanted a little more quite so I moved myself over across the street to Hostel Republica, also a former residence of a past president and still owned by his family. I got a private room with a shared bathroom for $15 US a night. A little pricey but it is locally owned and all of the staff are locals unlike the Rover where all of the bar staff were backpackers. I like supporting locals as much as I can and the room was really nice, people were nice and it also had free wifi so I was okay with the price.

A tour that is not advertised but is well know among the backpackers and used to be in the Lonely Planet guide is the San Pedro Prison Tour. An illegal tour of one of the worlds most bizarre prisons, there are no guards inside, wives and kids live with the inmates, stores and restaurants operate, food must be bought and inmates have to purchase their cells and can upgrade, furnish and modify them. One drug trafficker has built a 2nd story onto his cell so he can see over the wall and have a view of the city. The inmates govern the prison, elected inmates make and enforce the rules, they are much stricter than any guards and the penalties are a lot rougher  You can read all about it in a book called Marching Powder none of the hostels will give out any information on the tours, according to the government they no longer exist. Hypothetically if one were to go they would find it a very strange trip indeed, pretty much what is in the book is what you would see with the exception of the cocaine factory. With no guards you would be relying on 4 inmate guards to protect you so tipping would be a must and hope you tip them enough to save your ass if you need them to. Strangely Coca Cola is a major sponsor, signs and umbrellas with their logos are all over the place, so I have heard. Due to the extreme poverty families live together in the prison, the wives can't support themselves and the kids on the outside without the men. Rather than take the tour if indeed you can figure out how to do it and who to bribe (something I am not going to share, lots of tourist lose their money with nothing in return) I would suggest you read the book then make a donation to help the kids living in prison

The death road bike ride is a very popular adventure. Sadly I didn't have time when I got back to La Paz to do it but I met lots of people who did. I had done the 50k downhill ride in Peru so I picked the Amazon trip instead. Heads up people, this is not something you go bargain shopping for, pay a little more for a company that has good bikes. It is extremely dangerous, an Israeli girl died (went off the cliff) about a month before I got there. You want to go with a reputable tour company with good bikes, excellent brakes are a priority. Most of the accidents that people survive happen in the last mile of the ride, people get cocky and bite it. A guy I roomed with had road rash down his face, both forearms and both legs, he did it on the last bit of the ride. A pretty good feat considering they put you in a suit and helmet. In the hostel there where 3 or 4 people at any given time who had some kind of injury from the ride. Your travel insurance will not cover these injuries, if you really mess yourself up (as in need to end your trip and fly home).

While in Rurrenabaque I met a Swiss guy who was a hard core backpacker. He was on a year journey doing the camping in the jungle thing when he could. We arranged to meet up in La Paz and hang out for a day, he was doing the couch surfing thing. An awesome way to go, if you have not heard of it, it is a web site where you can hook up with people all over the world and find free places to stay with locals. He had a sweet deal, the apartment was across from the prison, a really nice building and he had a bedroom to himself. His host was not home when I was there but the maid was there, great lady kudos to her for putting up with mi mal espanol. Defiantly worth checking out if you are going to cities/towns, a great way to hang with the locals and learn about the culture and places in town that tourists might not normally go. I think I will give it a go next trip, the only thing is you have to know exactly what days you will be somewhere and have a pretty good idea of your arrival time.
I had a killer bus trip ahead of me, La Paz to Lima, I only had 3 days before my flight home so no stopping in between. There is a sort of direct bus, the cost was $75B and the advertised time of the ride was 26 hours. As it turns out it was more like 36, I thought it would never end. I bought the ticket at a travel agency up the hill from the San Fransisco church.

On my 2nd visit to Bolivia the next year (2011) I made it on the Death Road Ride. Took Gravity Assisted Biking, great company bikes are great, staff was awesome. Video here.  Ends at La Senda Verde Animal Sanctuary I did a 2 week volunteer stint there. Playing with monkeys & birds all day, an incredible experience.

I also took the train to Oruro to Uyuni (3 hour bus ride from La Paz - Oruro cost about $3.00) did the 4 day 4x4  tour, salt flats/mountains (600 Bolivianos), also great then the train from Uyuni to Villazon (boarder to Argentina). Incredible scenery and cheap. Faster than the bus and no potholes.The roads in the south are not the greatest. Don't buy a bus ticket for Argentina on the Bolivian side, people will hit you up at the train station. You will still have to walk across the boarder and take a taxi to the Argentinian bus depot. They will charge you more for the bus ticket in Bolivia and your bus may have already left. There is an hour time change when you cross the boarder, they know you won't be coming back so they will screw you over. Had a few people fall for it that I ran into. Just walk to the boarder, cross and grab a cab (short 10 minute ride) to the Argentinian bus depot & buy your ticket there. Flecha is a good company. Save yourself some headaches.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Copacabana - Lake Titicaca Bolivia

At the Copa, copacabana, the hottest spot north of........ That song got stuck in my head for most of my stay here..  All yours now.. I am way behind on updating the blog, I was in Copacabana in May

Currency: Boliviano $1.00 US = $6.97000 Bolivianas
Bus Cusco Peru to Copacabana Bolivia $75.00 Soles ($27.00 US) - 12 hours - includes 2 mini van rides
Hotel Copacabana $84 Bolivianas ($12.00 US) per night
Boat To Isle De Sol $20 Bolivianas (included there and back)
Tourist Fees on Isle De Sol $20 Bolivianas
Warning: There is no ATM in Copacabana, make sure you have US $'s on you. You can change them at the bank or a money changer. Otherwise you will need to get a cash advance on your credit card.

So surprise the bus to Copacabana was not exactly as advertised, it left Cusco at 8pm and was suppose to be direct to Copacabana Bolivia. The picture in the tourist office in town had a shiny double decker. We got a not so shiny old bus with no bathroom, okay it had a bathroom but it didn't work and remained locked for the trip. I am used to the bait and switch but for some of my fellow passengers this was the first time and they were pretty angry. They soon discovered that no amount of yelling will change their situation, especially yelling in English. The folks that run the bus are not the ones that sold us the tickets so it really isn't their fault that the booking companies lie to people. On the plus side it had big seats that went all the way back and heavy blankets so comfy, oh how my standards have dropped. Got in a pretty good sleep after the movie.
I'm snoozing away when I am woken up by the sound of squealing brakes, breaking glass and a thunk noise as the back tires run over something. The sun was rising over Lake Titicaca and all should have been right with the world at 5am. Good thing I liked the view as we ended up sitting there for over an hour. No one working on the bus came back to tell us anything but we could hear hammer on metal clanging so we all assumed a tire blew. Turns out not so, we hit a donkey and poor Eeyore did not fair so well. The direct bus dropped those of us going to Copacabana off on the side of the highway a few hours later where we took a mini bus (along with locals with livestock) to the Peru/Bolivian boarder. That is when we saw the damage the donkey did, most of the front of the bus was a crumpled mess, the windshield was shattered and the side door to exit the bus was splattered in donkey bits. We must have been doing a pretty good speed when we hit it, or it was some kind of huge monster donkey.
The mini van took us to the boarder where we checked out of Peru then walked across the street to check in to Bolivia. There is no cost to enter Bolivia unless you are from the US. 1 of the guys with us was, he had to pay $130.00 US and supply a photocopy of his passport. The charge allows US citizens to come an go from Bolivia for 5 years. It is in retaliation for a fee the US government imposes on Bolivians entering the US.  Thank god there are bathrooms at the border, pay ones but at this point I would pay just about anything. Border bathrooms like bus depot bathrooms are places of last resort, this one came with a bucket that you had to fill with water from a hose and dump in the bowl to flush. At least it was sort of clean. Customs on both sides was pretty easy, no line ups but we were there pretty early. There are money changers at the border, the rates are okay, I only changed $5.00 US over. Once in Bolivia we are met by another mini van that takes us to Copacabana about an hour away.
I had tried to reserve a room at a place that had been recommended to me by someone at the hostel in Cusco as a place to stay if you wanted to spoil yourself a little.  Alas I could not get a reservation but they told me to just drop by when I got into town as they sometimes had last minute cancellations and something becomes available. Turns out they had a room available, lucky lucky me, went to the restaurant and had some coffee and pancakes while the room was getting made up, then off for a nap. La Cupula is said to be the best Boutique hotel in Bolivia. It is beautiful and has a 1st class restaurant. It is run by some German folks, I highly recommend the Goulash and the breakfasts for under $3.00 US are awesome. I got my own room for $12.00 US a night (you can pay in US at this hotel) it came with a comfy bed, lots of blankets and a heater. I had a shared bathroom with hot water, tons of it and I never ran into anyone else using it. I highly recommend breaking the bank and spending the big bucks,  after the Machu Picchu hike a reward of a little luxury was great. They also have a community kitchen so if you really want to you can make your own meals.
One of the main draws of Copacabana is that it is on the shores of Lake Titicaca and is the launching spot for tours to Isle De Sol (Island of the Sun) the birthplace of the world according to Inca legend. The trip can be done as a 1/2 day or a full day trip. If you want to hike the island from 1 end to the other you need to do the full day trip. The boat drops you off at the far end of the island and you have 4 hours to get to the other end to catch the boat back. There are accomodations on the island so you can choose to stay if you want. I wasn't willing to give up my luxury digs so I did the full day trip. The boats to the islands leave from the docks in Copacabana at 8am, no need to purchase a ticket in advance, just show up and pay. The trip to Isl De Sol takes a couple of hours, a beautiful trip. Lake Titicaca is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world at 3,811 meters above sea level. The air is so clear it gives everything a sureal look to it, the clouds are fluffier, the mountians are clear, the sky feels so close it felt like I could reach out and touch the sun. That being said, I cannot emphasis it enough, take sunscreen, lots of sunscreen, lots of water, some food and a hat. Being that high the burn rate is pretty fast and there is no shade on the island hike, it is all pretty much in direct sunlight. Other than at the dock when they drop you off there is nowhere to buy water or food on the route.
There is a $10 Boliviana fee to go on the island, this includes a trip through the museum if you wish to go, there are no roads on the island. I passed on the museum and myself and a couple of folks that were staying at the same hotel as me took off up the trail. I'm not sure if I was a little jaded after Machu Pichhu but I really didn't think the island was all that great. Like I said, no shade, only 1 good set of ruins, just a lot of walking.  The views from the top of the island across the lake are incredible. There were some surprise charges along the way, seems the locals think they should get a cut of the tourist $'s so twice they charges us $5 Bolivianas to continue on the trail. All very slimy, the last one was a couple of old ladies just outside of the town were we had to catch the boat back. Inca trail robbery, we argued with them for 15 minutes, they told us if we didn't like it we could turn around and go back. We ended up paying but it is the first time I have told an old lady I would have no problem tossing her ass off the trail and down the hill. They were really mean rude old ladies, much figure waving in your face. Not sure what would happen if you didn't have any money on you. If you are going to do this hike you do have to be in relatively good shape, it is hot and a lot of it is uphill, you also have the time limit before the boat leaves, if you miss it you are spending the night. I have a feeling that room rates on the island double once the last boat pulls out.  We made it back with 1/2 an hour to spare.
On the boat ride back we stopped at the floating islands, islands made out of straw. Not long ago people used to live on the lake on islands like these. Not many people live on them now but they have a couple they have built for the tourists so you can see what they were like. Pretty cool but a little on the hokey/touristy side, that people really used to live on something like them is amazing. On the way back I got to sit at the front of the boat (outside the rail) I would recommend going to the island just for the boat ride, it truly is a spectacular trip.
I spent 3 nights in Copacabana, it is a nice little town, it has great shopping and for way cheaper than Peru.  Hats, leggings and jewelry are all way cheaper than Cusco.  There are tons of backpackers and lots of hostels and restaurants in town, a good place to hang out for a few days and adjust. There are some great hikes that you can do around town and lots of boat trips, any of the hostels and hotels will have information on them. As I am starting to see the end of my trip coming up I am trying to get to as many places as I can before my flight home out of Lima Peru in less than 3 weeks. I would love to have spent another day here but La Paz calls, I have heard that it is an incredible place.

There are a ton of buses that go to La Paz, I got a ticket for the expensive one at a cost of $25 Bolivianos, the trip takes about 4 hours, I caught the 1pm bus out of town

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cusco - Machu Picchu Peru

I did go from Huanchaco to Lima before heading to Cusco however I am being lazy, I am returning to Lima before I head home so I am going to combine the 2 visits into 1 blog post.

Currency Soles $1 US = $2.83 Soles
Taxi: Central Lima to Bus Depot (Cruz Del Sur) - $10 Soles
Bus Lima to Cusco: $140 Soles - 22 hours
Taxi Cusco Bus Depot to Hostel in San Blas $6 Soles
Hostel Cusco: $30 Soles
4 day Jungle Trek To Machu Picchu: $538 Soles included: meals, accommodations, park entrance & transportation (van/train)

I decided to splurge on the bus to Cusco, I figured a 22 hour bus ride was not the time to go cheap and it was a good decision. Comfy seats, blankets, pillow, 3 meals and good movies. I got a seat on the 2nd floor right at the very front which is great for viewing the sights. The scenery once we hit the mountains was spectacular but it is a little freaky from that seat. cliff, cliff, cliff, rock wall, rock wall, no road quite the rush in some places. The ride took 24 hours, we hit some contruction along the way so we got delayed a bit. I ended up getting sick all night on the bus, pretty sure it was bad street meat that I had on the way to the bus depot. Good thing I spent the big bucks on the delux bus 2 bathrooms to choose from.

We got into Cusco around noon and I grabbed a cab to the hostel I had found on called Casa Del Gringo II, it is located in the San Blas area which is just up the hill from the main square. I got a private room with a bathroom for $30 Soles which included breakfast. I really liked this hostel, the staff were great the breakfast was a real breakfast and they have some very nice common areas. I met some really great people staying here.

Cusco is at 3395m above sea level and altitude sickness is pretty common, I seemed to luck out and I was fine but if you go give yourself a few days in Cusco before you head out on a trek just in case. I did meet a lot of people who did get sick their 1st few days in town.  Cusco was the capital of the Inca emprire and then taken over by the Spanish so it has some great architecture and most of the streets in the central area are narrow cobblestoned twisty things. The town has tons of shops, tour operators, restaurants, museums, bars and hostels/hotels, everything a tourist would ever need. As Cusco is the place to gather before heading to Machu Picchu there is an eclectic mix of folks everything from backpackers to elderly Japanese tourists. It is a very hilly city, where I was staying was up a pretty steep hill, doing that every day 5 times a day for 3 days was pretty good training for the trek to Machu Picchu.

In January there was a flood/mudslide and Machu Picchu was shut down for a few month, it re-opened about a month before I got there in May. Due to this there was no way to get a permit to do the Inca Trail, they had a backlog of people to get through. At this time there are no permits available until October at a cost of $465.00 US, they recommend booking at least 3 months in advance. I ran into a woman in Colombia who had done 3 different treks up including the original Inca trail and she told me that she liked the jungle trek the best. I visited a few different tour operators in town and got itineraries and pricing and decided to do the 4 day jungle trek: biking, rafting & hiking. These tours leave every day so you can book it and go within 2 days so no need to pre-book online before you go. I booked my trip for 2 days later at a cost of $190.00 US. Since this leg of the trip I have run into people who have done the Salkantay hike which is 5 days and they all loved it. It is a more challenging hike and at higher altitudes so it is colder which means more gear to carry, it is camping not hostels and it costs a couple of hundred dollars more than the jungle trek.

Day 1
Put big pack in storage at hostel - pack day pack
7am - Mini Van pick up

There were 12 of us on the tour, 7 of us Canadians, 3 Americans and 2 Isralies, a few people knew each other and 5 of us were solo travelers. After the van picked me up we did a couple of more stops to pick up more people and then stopped to pick up the bicycles and put them on the roof. We then had an 1 1/2 drive to the top of a mountain where we unloaded the bikes and got a safety talk before they pointed us downhill and let us go. The ride is 50km and takes about 3 hours, the road is paved and twisty for about 2 hours of it and then it is dirt and twisty, some awesome views. The van follows along behind and a guide came with us on a bike, it is a fun ride you just have to remember to never never never use the front brakes. We did have one of our group take a tumble, hit a rut the wrong way. She gouged her knee up a bit but was fine, she is a trooper and got back on and finished after a little first aid. At the end of the ride the van picked us up and took us to the town of Santa Maria, we checked into the hostel and then went rafting for a few hours. The rafting was fun the river is a class 3 so not very challenging but again nice scenery and there were 3 other rafts going out the same time we went so a little rivalry going on. I would suggest lots of bug spray before you go, it was getting close to sunset towards the end and we all got some pretty good bites. Back to the hostel for diner which was great and a few beers and bonding. The group was great, no personality conflicts and everyone had been to different places so much sharing of travel knowledge. 4 of us were from Vancouver, 1 worked in Vancouver now and then and 1 of the Americans had been up with the US paralympics team so many discussions about the Olympics.

Day 2
7am Breakfast

This is a 9 hour hike day, we start our walk out of town at 8am. The 1st 30 minutes of the hike is on the road, we went through a section of town that is no longer used. The river in the area tends to overflow a lot so the low section of town that used to be populated got flooded out, kind of eerie some of the buildings are still there including the bank but they are definitely the worse for wear. We cut off from the road and headed into the jungle and uphill for a couple of hours. Along the trail every now and then we ran into local women selling drinks, strange going around a corner in the middle of nowhere and finding a lady sitting on a rock with a bucket of beverages. They are some tough people, 1 woman was walking up the trail with a kid strapped to her and carring 2 buckets full of drinks. I have no idea how she did it, there were parts along the trail when I was praying for death.

Thank god for Coca leaves, I brought a big bag of them with me to munch on and I am pretty sure they are the only thing that kept me going at some points. Coca leaves are legal in Peru and Bolivia, hostels with kitchens supply them for tea (mate de coca) and they are used for altitude sickness and to give a little extra stamina on hikes, you don't get as tired or hungry. But a word of warning, you will test positive for drugs for up to 28 hours after you ingest them so you may want to lay off them a few days before you head home especially if your work has drug testing.

After a few hours of uphill we got to a place called the monkey house, named after their pet monkey Marco one of those cute white faced/black ones. They also had a huge rodent looking thing, I can't remember what it was now but it was mean, they warned us not to touch it. The monkey house is along the path in the jungle, they sell drinks, snacks and they grow, roast and sell coffee. Best of all they had hammocks and an outhouse, we got to spend a leisurely 1/2 hour before heading out.

Just my luck more uphill, I really hate uphill, way too much like work. An hour of that and then downhill yippeeee.. But my happiness was short lived, it was downhill but on a very narrow path and some really small uneven stairs carved into the side of the mountain with a shear cliff drop off to the valley below. I have an issue with heights, they freak me out and in this case because the wall of the mountain was uneven there really wasn't any way to plaster myself to the wall. One of the guys had a worse problem than me, he ended up going down a lot of the stairs on his butt. If you have an issue with heights this may not be the tour for you. I made it and on my feet but I was pretty terrified for a good part of it. Makes it worse when your legs won't stop shaking. Once down the killer stairs we got a 15 minute rest and then off again, more uphill for an hour and then a stop for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, more comfy hammocks. Another couple of hours in the jungle and then we were on a dirt road. After a few hours of eating dust everytime a car went by which happened every 5 minutes our guide gave us the option of taking a van the rest of the way. We took it. Checked into the hostel in Santa Theresa, long shower and off for diner.

At diner there was a little debate going on. When I booked my trip I was told the 3rd day was a 6 hour fairly easy hike. Some people were told they could choose between the 6 hour hike and a 9 hour hike that was 3 hours up a mountain. Our guide was under the impression it was a 6 hour hike and had a bit of a hissy fit, in the end he called his company and they told him to let us vote on it. The 9 hour hike won by 1 vote.

Day 3
5:30 am breakfast

One of our trekkers got sick the previous day and had skipped diner to try to sleep it off. She wasn't sure what was wrong with her, she isn't the kind of person that would say anything unless she was really ill. A total hiking health girl who has had dengue fever and malaria and lived to tell about it. She was feeling even worse in the morning and let the guide know that there was no way she could do the hike.

I wasn't into doing the 9 hour hike and neither were 2 others so we volunteered to go with her and just get a bus to Agua Caliente. Our guide told us there is no road, a casualty of the flood that had not been repaired yet, the only way out was to hike. Another group with the same tour company was doing the 6 hour hike so he told us to go with them. There was no way sick girl was going to be able to do the 6 hours, our guide seemed to have a problem grasping this. Finally he arranged for the van to take us up the river to where the road ended which took an hour off the walk. We would have to hike a couple of hour from there to the train station then we could put sick girl on a train and the 2 of us could join the short hike group and do the rest of the hike to Agua Caliente. Our original guide and the rest of our group headed out for the 9 hour hike.

The route we had to hike to get out was in the same area as the folks in the other group doing the 6 hour hike so we arranged to meet them at the end of the road where there was a "tram" over the river. I use the term  loosely, a piece of plywood suspended on a rope with a guy on each end to pull it back and forth. 2 of us went with sick girl in the van, me and the girl who gouged her knee on the bike ride and 1 went with the short hike folks. The 1st part of the short hike was up the road the van took so we didn't miss anything by taking the van. We met the short hike folks at the tram. It was an awesome ride across the river, the tram holds 3 people, it takes about 5 minutes to get pulled across, a pretty good rush. A tip for the guys pulling it across the ravine is expected once you reach the other side alive.

At this point the 3 of us parted company from the short hike folks, the guide gave us directions on how to get to the Machu Picchu park gate and told us to meet them there. We were on our own without a guide for the next couple of hours. Sick girl was a total trooper we didn't go very fast but she kept plugging along, said she was afraid if she stopped she wouldn't be able to get moving again. We did run into people going the other way every now and then so we could confirm we were going the right way, bit of a relief. We made it to the park gate, there was a bench so she got to lay down for a bit until the short hike folks arrived about 30 minutes later. Another 10 minute walk and we got to the train station and the restaurant that we were going to have lunch at. The train was not going to come for another 4 hours, there was a hostel there so the guide for the short hike group arranged to get sick girl a room so she could get some rest. The plan was to leave her there, our original group doing the 9 hour hike would be coming through in 3 hours, they could pick her up and someone could ride the train with her to Agua Caliente. We felt a little weird just leaving  her there but everyone that worked at the restaurant, hostel and store agreed to let our group know she was there when they came by so we were pretty sure they wouldn't miss picking her up.

After lunch we were off, the rest of the hike was on a trail by the railway tracks, an easy and beautiful walk. Some tricky "bridges" and by that I mean just the tracks with no side rails over the river so we had to walk on the spaced out ties, don't look down, don't look down. At one point there is a spot where we could look up and see Machu Picchu way up hanging off the side of the mountain, a magical sight. The hike took about 2 hours.

Agua Caliente is named after the thermal baths in town. The towns sole purpose is to cater to the tourist heading up to Machu Picchu. It is a cute town with restaurants and accommodations to suit ever budget, lots of uphill and since the only way in or out of town is via train or hiking there is no traffic other than the buses that run up to Machu Picchu. I was very much looking forward to the thermal baths so we checked into the hostel, suited up and headed out to the thermals. It was pretty crowded but the water was warm and a cabana boy brought beers around so we didn't have to get out of the pool. Paradise. I met some really great people in the pee pool, a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.
When we got back to the hostel the rest of our original group was arriving and they had picked up sick girl from the hostel, the family was together again. Sick girl went to bed, the rest of us went out for diner to compare notes on our days adventures. They said their hike was good, the reason they wanted to do the extra 3 hours was because once you are up the mountain you can look across and see Machu Picchu. I am a very lazy person so I don't see why anyone would want to drag their ass up a mountain for that when they would be going there the next day but to each their own. In my world dragging my ass up a mountain or sitting in a thermal bath is a total no brainer choice.

Day 4
3:30am Up and hunting for coffee

The gate at the bottom of the trail up to Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) opens at 4:30am and the running of the backpackers begins. Why the race? There is a mountain in the citidel called Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), only 400 people a day are allowed to climb it so the 1st 400 to make it to the gate at the top get the passes. They allow 200 up at 7am and 200 up at 10am, you let them know which one you want when the guy comes down the line to hand out the passes. The folks on the 1st bus at 5:30am are usually shit out of luck  A totally hilarious game, it is pitch black on the trail so a flashlight is required although there was 1 person using their cell phone to light the way which was darn funny to see. Okay the whole thing was funny, just a bunch of bobbing lights in the jungle and people scrambling around, a lovely bonding experience. The trail is really steep, it is made up of a ton of stairs, every now and then you come out of the bush and find yourself on the road, cross it then back into the bush and up more stairs.The average time to get to the top 1 1/2 hours, I was #249. Here is a link to a picture of the climb, the road zig zags, the trail goes straight up the middle, you come out at the top to the left of the building beside the ruins. And good news, sick girl although still not feeling very good did the hike up too.

Machu Picchu  is 2430 m above see level, it is a pre-Colombian ruins that was discovered by the outside world in 1911. No one is really sure why it was built but the leading theory seems to be that it was built as an estate for an Inca Emperor and as an astronomical observatory. Most people think the inhabitants were wiped out by small pox before the Spanish came to the area. Machu Picchu was never looted and destroyed by the Spanish so all of the artifacts and bones remained intact making it an important cultural site. It is a magical place, totally awe inspiring especially early in the morning before the crowds arrive. On that note, Machu Picchu is in danger, tourism and developement in the area is taking it's toll on the site and the surrounding areas, it is on the watch list of the worlds most endanged historical sites. In 1992 there were 9000 visitors for the year, in 2007 it was close to 5000 visitors a day. I couldn't find any info on it but I would bet the increase coincides with the building of the road and the bus service. Sometimes it is a very bad thing indeed to give in to tourist demands and the lure of $'s. I hope the Peruvian Government puts the brakes on new developement and starts limiting the number of tourists they let in each day. It would be a shame to loose this treasure because of our own stupidity.

Our guide was pretty annoying, I did the hike so I could peacefully watch the sunrise, same with most of the folks in our group. Our guide wanted to give us his spiel on the ruins complete with a picture book, a few of them escaped but he caught the rest of us trying to sneak off. It's a good thing I am very good at tuning people out, not as peaceful as I would have liked but a beautiful sight to behold.After a couple of hours he left us alone and we were free to run amok on our own.

I had decided not to do Huayna Picchu, it is a 45 minute trek straight up and I had heard there was a killer set of stairs on the way down, just couldn't face another scary ass stair heights thing. A tip; folks that do the Inca trail get in too late to get climbing passes for Huayna, there are lots of people like me that decide not to do the climb so... At 10am go and hang out at the entrance of Huayna, at 10:30am if they have not reached the 200 people they start letting in people on a 1st come 1st served basis.

I did hike over to the Inca bridge which was pretty cool, those Inca's were engineering geniouses. They managed to carve out a trail, be it a very narrow one along the side of the mountains. I also did a hike up to the Sun Gate which is where the origional Inca Trail comes into the site. By noon Machu Picchu is packed with people, it is really hard to go down the paths and through the ruins in the main part. The buses run up from Agua Caliente every 20 minutes and they are full. After about 7 hours of exploring I decided to head back to town. The bus down is $7.00US but I decided to walk down the trail, I wanted to see it in the daylight. It was much easier going down than it was coming up, it was a beautiful walk and I made many stops on the way down just to soak up the ambiance. Not many people on the trail which was very nice.

My train ticket back to Cusco was included with the tour, our guide (who had already gone back to Cusco) was suppose to leave them for us at the hostel reception. A few of the others from the group were there when I got back. Our guide had not purchased tickets for 2 people and we had a ticket for someone who did not exist. Luckily the same guide that helped us out with sick girl fixed it and got tickets for them, not sure how it happend but they got the 6:30pm train, the rest of us got the 9:45pm one. If you take the tour insist that you get a ticket out by 7pm, we didn't get back to Cusco until 2:30am, it made for a very long day.

Peru Rail is the only game in town, we were booked on the backpacker train, I was expecting a chicken bus on rails but was pleasently surprised. Comfy seats grouped in 4's around tables, free snacks and drinks, a very nice ride. I was sitting with a Peruvian family, Mom, Dad and Daughter who was about 10. Cute bossy kid, she is learning English so everytime I tried to speak in Spanish she would give me shit and tell me to use English, she wanted to translate for her parents. They travel a lot and have been everywhere in Peru, more good travel tips and their family owns Inca Cola a very popular soda pop in Latin America. I love talking to locals that is what travel is all about. The train does not go all the way to Cusco, they are still repairing a lot of the track that got damaged from the mudslide/flood so part of the way is by train then it is a mini van ride and then a bus. I ran into a guy from our group who was on the 6:30pm train a few weeks later in La Paz and he told me their mini van went off the road. They were very lucky there are some huge drop offs on that road, luckily no injuries.

The bus dropped me off at the main square in Cusco at around 2:30am. Cusco at night is very cool when there is no one around. Steep dark twisty cobblestone streets, old buildings, toss in a vampire and wolf and you have the makings of a great horror movie. I didn't run into anyone on my walk up the hill to the hostel it was very peaceful, I took the long way back. I did have to wake up the night person at the hostel, I felt kind of bad. To get in you have to hit a buzzer so I am pretty sure I woke up everyone in the place cause I spent 1/2 an hour hitting it before the person that worked there woke up and answered. Not bad enough that I was willing to sleep in the doorway however.

The next day I was heading out to Bolivia, I had purchased my bus ticket before I left on the trek. My bus didn't leave until 8pm so I slept in, stored my packs at the hostel and spent my last day wandering around town.

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