Despite our previous plans to travel to Puno on the 30th of December on a bus at 10:30 that evening we both decided it would be best to stay in the ancient Incan capitol for another few days. We had heard from several sources that New years in Cusco is quite the celebration and instead of entering 2013 along lake Titicaca, we opted for the festivities of Plaza de Armas and unknowingly the live salsa band that would turn our hostel into a bumping night club in the courtyard.
In the morning of New Years Eve I went with two other friends who had bunked in the same room with us to the street markets of San pedro. Thomas was traveling from Germany and had been working on a farm north of Cusco in the jungle for the past two months. He had come to Cusco on short holiday and to celebrate el ano nuevo. Kakeru was from Japan and had only arrived in Cusco two days before. He planned to stay in the city for another couple of weeks before traveling onward to Jamaica as he described it In broken English, the land of Bob Marley.
We said ´chau´ at the front desk and turned down Santa Teresea passing Plaza Regocijo and continued past the convent down the steep cobblestone roads and sidewalks just big enough for families to walk in single file along the tall colonial built walls. We were to the right of Avenue del sol about four blocks before tuning on to the road we hoped would lead us to the cluster of street vendors and blue tarps, if we could find ourselves close enough they couldn't be missed. We stopped in a small cell phone shop where Thomas purchased a new phone card for a bargain price. While he was filling out some of the final paperwork I ran to avenue del sol to find the nearest ATM. The lines ran out the banks and the streets were packed with crowds on their annual new years shopping so I decided to change a US twenty at a currency exchange on the corner for a fair price instead. I hurried back just in time to meet Thomas and Kakeru and we walked out of the tiny phone dealership and headed the opposite direction of where I had just came from hoping to spot San Pedro. In only a few blocks we saw the tarps glistening in the sun, climbing up the street on a hill like a giant blue caterpillar among the mudbrick walls and orange terra-cotta. "Ah there it is!" Thomas said as he pointed in front of us. He had walked through the market just the day before but cusco's streets weave in out of each district like the web of a confused spider, at least from our view on the ground, however looking down from above one would discover that many of them were in fact left from Incan times and painstakingly built in alignment with the stars during various times of the year.
Walking through the market vendors called out their wares like auctioneers, selling incense, fireworks, fake money, toys, knitted clothing, plucked chickens and fly-covered ceviche. I passed on the ceviche but bought a small stack of fake money for 1 sole to throw in the air at midnight. Each stand had their own table or arrangement of boxes to display their products under the shade of the blue tarps. The streets must have been sprayed earlier in the morning and the humidity lay trapped underneath the makeshift tents as the sun grew higher towards noon. Just as we were turning down a street that sold knock off versions of different clothing styles and shoes an older woman tried to sell us confetti for cincuenta soles. We politely refused the overpriced bag of flower petals and continued down the street. There were stores that sold North Face, Columbia, and other big outdoor brands fora quarter of the price. Most of them were probably fake but they certainly looked convincing enough, although I would never trust their sleeping bags.
Thomas bought a north face jacket and after trying to bring down the price the store owner wouldn't budge and he settled on ochenta (80) soles, still not bad.
We continued on in the direction of our hostel stopping here and there eyeing the different stores, many were filled with mannequins and people to the point that it was hard to tell the difference. I found myself occasionally uttering an unecessary " perdon" to the lifeless plastic models, or being surprised when someone actually moved from a corner.
The day had turned out beautiful and we walked back to the hostel happy with our cheap purchases. The rest of the afternoon I spent reading and napping before walking up to the Saqsaywaman ruins for a daily pilgrimage to the lady who sold choclo con queso and further up the hill to The statue of Jesus blanco and one of the best views of the city.
The rest of the afternoon I spent reading back at the hostel. Nate and I sat on the stone terrace on the second floor over the hostel courtyard as the salsa band set up their instruments below. Thomas and Kakeru were speaking with an Argentinean couple two pillars down sharing Yerba mate and talking of travels. They offered us some from their ---- and we gladly obliged. Yerba mate has always been one of my favorite teas to brew back home but I'd never the chance to try it in it's traditional context. The tea was strong and delicious, its warm earthy flavor brought a pleasant new energy to the day while we all sat in the circle just as the salsa band started to practice.
I took out my phone and recorded part of their first song. The band was tight and the music bumping. We listened until they put their instruments down after two songs, warmed up and ready for the long wild night ahead.
Nate and I went out for a quick dinner to get some food in our stomaches in preparation for the pisco and Cusquena that would follow.
Half past seven we ordered chilcanos at the bar in our hostel. The drinks were well made and a much better price than any of the other places along the streets and plazas. A traditional chilcano is generally made of pisco, (a liqour derived in chile and peru from muscadine grapes) lime juice, ginger ale and bitters. These were made with sprite rather than ginger ale but the extra lime flavor was a nice touch. After a couple of more we started off to the plaza de armas where we were to meet a few friends we had spoken with earlier.
The place was crowded and fireworks exploded in bright colors everywhere. Everyone was waiting in the square crowding the stairs and walkways surrounding the statue for the countdown. We were only an hour and a half away, and after a beer and forty-five minutes of watching the kids in the square shooting off roman candles at each other we decided our friends had flaked, scrapped our original plans of meeting in the plaza and ran back to the hostel to grab another chilcano before the real fireworks went off.
Back at the hostel the salsa band was in full swing, there were people dancing but no one had quite drank enough yet for it to be a fiesta and most of the city was back in the plaza de armas waiting for the countdown anyway, the music was good though. After another drink we headed back to the chaos in The plaza, dodging mortars and rockets along the way. The fireworks here don't fly as high as they do back in the states and the mortars hold true to their original use in warfare, arcing and exploding only a few feet overhead or scattering crowds as they blew up on the ground. The whole square was going off with rockets of all types. It was almost too much, certainly there were several people who were to wake the next morning with burns and ringing eardrums. In Ecuador the fireworks are no joke, or rather the people joke around all too often with them so one must be careful not to be caught in the crossfire.
Just before midnight the countdown started down from ten. Tres... dos... uno... Felix ano Nuevo! And The fireworks responded just as vigorously as the night lit up with multi-colored fire. Time seemed to stop; and then, like a sonic boom reaching it´s original sound barrier, the night swung like a slingshot in fast-forward, back in our faces with all the inertia of a new year. The smoke and smell of sulphur was thick in the air so that it was hard to see the stage that had been set up for the live music playing earlier at the foot of the cathedral.
After escaping the celebratory mayhem in the plaza we ran to the top of the mountain of Saqsaywaman to watch the fireworks from a safer, more sentient vista. Below the statue of Jesus Blanco a small crowd played instruments and danced while bursts of sparks lit up the city below.
Back at the hostel the music had turned over to a DJ for the remainder of the night. Yellow balloons lined the entrance of the Hostal and the courtyard had turned into a bumping nightclub when the clock struck Twelve.
Lights had been placed to project on the people from the canopies above and the whole crowd revolved like the eddies in a current. The place was packed and the energy in the room remained jovial and festive for the whole night. We carried on dancing like mingling whirlpools until the sun rose, and like tides to the ocean we climbed yawning back to our bunks.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
We rode into the night on a bus from Mancora to Lima, sleeping on and off seventeen hours through the desert. The seats folded back just enough to where you could pretend you were in a bed, almost. the morning we woke to watch the occasional farm pass by, donkeys and mudbrick homes and small flourishes of welcome greenery along the coastal region of Peru. On the right side of the bus the ocean rose and sunk below and we could see the foggy city of Lima growing closer behind each turning pass along the mountains. In contrast with the vast space surrounding it, the city looked like a circuit board of transistors and electrodes lying on the edge of a bay between desert and ocean, blanketed in a cloud of exhaust. The mountains along the coast are more like big rocky dunes, rising high above the ocean in a rugged beauty of their own, a moonscape along the Peruvian pacific.
When we arrived in Lima we waited only two and half hours for the next bus to Cusco. With so much to see and so little we really wanted to do in Lima we decided that checking out the city by bus as we left was the best way for now, it can also be a sketchy place to explore with everything you own with you.
The bus ride took about twenty or twenty one hours, we're not quite sure. In all honesty it seemed to go on past chile and argentina, maybe crossing unknown land bridges to other continents in an infinite orbital bus route around the world, forever. At the first glow of day our bus stopped in Albancay where a small number of passengers, mostly local peruvians and one tourist stepped off. As the bus rounded it's way in the dirt yard of the terminal and back on to the main road I saw a sign that read "Hospedaje, 24 horas" among the brick buildings. By morning light it seemed a to be one of the larger mountain pueblos in the area, beautifully set in a valley with vines of tropical flowers hanging on the walls, plazas where old men sat talking about the days news and watching the town go by, but I wondered how many people stayed or traveled through there. The town seemed more agricultural based than reliant on tourism with all of the surrounding farmland, yet this hostel stayed in business.
As we left the town the bus sank deeper into the mountains. In an hours time we were surrounded in the presence of the Andes. Up and down we rode passing small villages, following rivers and valleys of all different kinds of flowers. As we neared Cusco we tried to get our bearings looking for a road sign or anything that could lead us to our hostel.
Finally the bus had come to a complete stop and we got all of our gear out from the bottom cargo storage and began asking for directions. Nobody seemed to know where the hostel was but with a few road names and a general idea of where the historic district was, we packed our bags and mounted our bikes in search of hospedaje Ecopackers, after some online research this seemed to be the best deal for an affordable trustworthy place to stay, Nate was also expecting a package in the mail to replace his broken Ebook and access to the Internet.
The atmosphere and altitude found in the city of Cusco was a welcome change from Mancora and the coast, even in Peru the mountain folk just seem more sincere and practical. Our thirty seven hour journey was well worth it and as we wandered through the city on bicycles we were kindly reminded of the city of Cuenca, a mix of colonial and indigenous architecture rich with culture and the arts. As we left the bus station children were just getting out of school. They walked along the shops in there uniforms, boys with untucked shirts celebrating their freedom with ice cream while the girls talked of gossip and giggled at the two travel weary gringos riding through the neighborhood. We definitely stood out. After about thirty minutes of wandering and asking directions we found our hostel relatively easy. The staff was friendly and registration quick and easy, we stored our bikes near the stairway and headed up to our bunks. After getting settled in we walked around to find a restraint and decided on one just across the plaza for a big meal of pasta and the local brew, Cusquenua. Surprisingly the beer is crafted pretty well by south american standards and much better tasting than it's relatives, Brahma, Pilsener and Club.
As we sat to eat outside vendors came up to sell their wares, original paintings of Machuu Pichuu that looked suspiciously similar to the last street artist's, knitted souvenir alpaca pens made of yarn and other knick-knacks we didn't need, only distracting us fromour main goal, food! And oh how good the food is here! While the main dish here is pollo con papas fritas, the spices used to marinate the chicken could be compared to a home made jerk seasoning, spicy and delicious.
Back at the hostel we rested and planned our next hike through the Cordillera Villcabamba, a mountain range that stretched across the sacred Incan valley along many of the lesser known ruins. While many people make pilgrimage to the famous Incan trail to Machuu Pichuu many of the other sections of the Incan highway and ruins are forgotten. Tourists crowd the site they've seen in magazines and television, dishing out over a hundred bucks a person to visit a sacred site that you now have to book weeks in advance to even go near.
There are plenty of alternatives to choose from when hiking to Machuu Pichuu or exploring the heavy concentration of Incan sites surrounding the area of Cusco.
Here is a desription of the one of the best hikes you can do while in Cusco in our opinion..
|Trail to Choquequeraou, following sections of the original Incan highway|
"The trail to Choququirao or the Villcabamba Traverse Route"
This trail starts in the small pueblo of Cachora and skirts along the mountains above the canyon of Rio Apurimac following sections of the Incan highway to the ruins of a site called Choquequirao. The city was built by the Incans after fleeing conquistadors during invasion of Machuu Pichuu. The path originally followed the same escape route from the north of Choquequirao that they used all the way from Machuu Picchuu but has recently been labeled as a lost trail due to erosion and rockfalls in the area, very few locals even traverse this later portion of the route as it is dangerous, but very rewarding for archaeologists and adventure seekers alike as it goes by a dozen other lost Incan ruins. While this was our original plan we recommend the hike to Choquequirao and retracing one's steps back to Cachora in a hike between four and five days, or extend it longer if you have the time to spend taking in more ruins. The trail is well maintained and views of high mountain glaciers and waterfalls, century plants that rise as high as most trees and birdlife reward the hiker with each switchback. The long hike can be grueling as the trail goes up and down quite a bit, some people prefer to hire donkeys and horses to carry gear if they have the money. We didn't and made it just fine on a much cheaper budget. There are two campsites before crossing the river. One at a farm halfway down the canyon where a lady sells small snacks and provides a plot to stay for the night with the chickens and the other right next to the river with sites that actually have firepits at each spot. Near the river there is a man you must register your name and route with before continuing on a pulley cart across the river and up 10km of switchbacks to a small pueblito by the name of Maripota, Quechua for mountain town. There are a small set of huts called Santa Rosa and Santa rosa Alta half way up that make for a great water refill spot and short descansado. The complete hike to Choquequirao and back to Cachora is about 75 km in total and is probably the most rewarding and accessible off the beaten path experience one can find to see enchanted Incan ruins without the crowds. The best way to get there from Cusco is to take a bus (olturisa is always our first choice) to Albancay (4-5 hrs) for around 30 soles in the afternoon, stay the night there and catch a combi taxi (1 1/2 hrs) to Cachora in the morning.
Still recovering from The bus ride and some bad digestion in Mancora we spent the next few days planning our trek and ran into another hike enthusiast and new friend Johnny from Manchester. He had spent the last several months teaching English in Arequipa and was spending the next week and a half in Cusco before heading home for the holidays.
He showed us some of the better eating spots and pubs around town.
The Alpaca at Nuna-Raymi is stellar and several other traditional cuscuenan dishes offered there will have your taste buds begging for more. The restraunt is located just off of plaza de armas on Triunfo.
Another great spot if you're not hooked on looking for local cuisine is Paddy's pub. Located off of the same street Paddy's is the highest Irish owned pub in the world, serving a delicious shepherds pie, pizza and sandwiches they also have two European beers on tap, Old Speckled Hen and Abbot ale along with the local peruvian brews.
Besides being given a tour of the city, one of the first days after meeting Johnny we went with him to the studio and watched as he got his second tattoo, the Nazca Condor on his left arm. His tattoo artist was quick and the studio clean. In an hour a crystal clear image from the Nazca lines was on his shoulder.
We invited Johnny on the hike and after some thinking he said yes.
On Saturday we hopped on the 4:30 pm bus to Lima with Olturisa and rode about four hours to get off at Albancay. I was surprised to find that it was the very town I thought tourists were least likely to visit from our ride to Cusco, we even stayed in the 24 hora hospedaje across the street from the terminal. The room was small, and shower decorated in exposed electrical wire but it was a place to stay. After checking in we walked down the street a ways to find somewhere to eat. A glowing sign that read "Pollo" caught our attention and we were sold. We walked in and ate a dinner of pollo, rice and papas fritas for five soles each, we could've had salad too but the vegetables looked questionable.
We walked back to the hostel with full stomaches, kicking rocks, and playing a word game, who could come up with the best name for a boat, along with a few other rules. When we got back to the hostel we kept with the game for a little while until we passed out, ready for the next days adventures.
In the morning we caught a taxi for three soles to another taxi that would take us to Cachora, an hour and a half over the mountain where we were to begin our trek on foot. There were a couple other passengers on there way to a village in between so we had to pack six of us in the five passenger car.
We rose higher and higher ascending to the point where Albamcay seemed only a tiny speck in the valley below. The day was perfect and clear, barely any clouds in the sky yet thought it was still only about 9:30 in the morning. Once we crossed over the pass to the other side of the mountain we turned off towards the village of Saywite located near the archaeological site of the Saywite stone, a monolith carved by Incans to represent the Incan world. After seeing photos of the animorphic and geometric designs they used in it's creation I regret missing it and would strongly suggest anyone else passing through the area to check it out. The two men riding with us got out at the nearest school with christmas presents for the children, in only a few seconds they were surrounded. They had come to offer art classes before the kids were off on holiday.
After bidding farewell we turned back to the main road and continued down the mountain to Cachora. We arrived at the main plaza around 10:30 am and began our hike out of town towards the trail to Choquequirao. The cobblestone streets turned to dirt roads and the dirt roads turned to small woodland paths and we soon found our way skirting along the mountains among the eucalyptus above a small river below. Our first campsite we guessed was about 18km out and we hiked in good pace, the weight of our packs still fresh on our shoulders. As the day grew on we came across a small Finca where we stopped to rest and talked with the sweet old woman who took care if it. She had been working I'm the garden of her courtyard when we first walked up while two of her daughters herded sheep in the pastures above us. She talked about how she had lived there her whole life and offered us a place to pitch our tents. We talked a little while longer of the trail , explained ti her we had to continue on to make it to the river by nightfall and said our goodbyes. Later through conversation on the trail we learned that the lady we spoke with was 95 years old.
|Map of the trail to Choquequerao|
|Old Incan highways in the Andes|
|Switchbacks, down to el rio de Apurimac.|
We walked on for another hour or two around the mountain and the small village of Cachora in the valley below became smaller and smaller behind us. We saw a small white structure two kms across the mountain at a turn in the pass and decided that as our spot for lunch.
After rounding the bend we came to the white structure, an open air farm home probably used only temporarily when the farmer is working in the area. A small peninsula of lush green grass kept trimmed by the free ranging cows jutted in a cliff from the side of the mountain. From the edge we could see el rio de Apurimac and alpine glaciers capping the mountains towering across, melting waterfalls dripping into the cloudforest.
We groaned as we loaded our backpacks on and climbed the next section just
the canyon passing by another small farm hut with thatched roof hidden in the brush below. The whole side of the mountain was dotted in enormous century plants with tall alien flowering stalks as we walked further down and crossed a small cascading creek hidden in the hammock of vilca trees, air plants and passion vine. The trail climbed and dropped steadily for another couple of kilometers until we reached another big set of rocky switchbacks down to the river. At km 19 we arrived at a small farm on a Mesa just above the river in the jungle. The quechua woman who lived there offered the grassy area besides the banana trees and sugar cane as a spot to camp for free and we decided to set up tent for the night as it was becoming dark quickly, the sun already shadowed by the mountains as we were near the bottom of the canyon.
While setting up Nate called us over to where he was tying a tarp over his tent. "Hey guys come check this out," he yelled. I was tying the rainfly over my mosquito hammock and Johnny was organizing his things under the small thatched hut. "trust me its pretty cool." he said. We walked over to check it out. I jumped down from the terraced hill from one of the citrus trees my hammock was between just in time to see the tarantula crawl into Nate's tent to hide from us all. A look of horror was on all of our faces, "No!" Nate already had a stick in his hand and with two sweeps he putted the spider two meters out of the tent and across the way towards Jonny "Wooah!" "what the hell?!" he yelled in mid air, leaping away from the flying arachnid. The furry guy was a good five inches across and not happy to be tossed around, if there were more daylight I would not have been surprised to find eight furrowed eyebrows staring back at us in bewilderment. I was hoping it would just walk away and crawl back into the jungle later but one of the two guides with a group using donkeys to carry their packs squished it in one fell throwing the rock down with both hands. The man did not like spiders.
|Wild horses of Peru|
|Red canyon flowers above el rio de Apurimac|
We saw another later while gathering sticks from the jungle with our headlamps. Dinner consisted of crema de tomate with noodles boiled and cooked over an open fire in our messkits. The rain was slow but steady and after dinner and a little less than an hour of sitting by the fire it went out while the rain picked up. We all split to our own cover and called it a night. I crawled in my cacoon beneath the rainfly and citrus trees, slid in to my down sleeping bag, adjusted tgd thermarest foam pad that kept a warm barrier from the wind and passed out listening to the patter of rain on the waterproof fabric and trees laying my head on my jacket as a pillow.
Only once in the middle of the night I had to crawl out of my cozy setup to adjust the rainfly slightly to adapt to the amount that was falling.
In the morning we woke and dried our things the best we could.
After packing everything up and painfully putting our backpacks on we wandered past a family of turkey and moved through the chickens to find a stone layed path from Tge original Incan highway and followed it in sections down the long switchbacks through the jungle down to the river. We finally reached the river area where there was a nice set of sites with fire pits and restroom facilities though they didn't work. After a short break we registered our names and trail route and found that we needed to cross the muddy river by cargo trolley. The bridge looked like it had been out for a while. It's pylons stuck out flooded years before, its cables still swaying beneath the current dragging down stream wildly like a full net of writhing fish in shallow water.
We walked down The path to the top of a rock where the man there helped us cross in two trips our baggage and selves. Nate and I crossed with one while johny crossed next with the second. The water was swift and whirlpling below after the nights rain, apparently the river had risen 3m since the day before. When we reached the other side we started up the next 10 km, all switchbacks zig-zagging left and right all the way up the mountain. With the weight of our packs and less tree coverage to shield us from the harsh sun the going was rough. A quarts of the way up we heard a landslide in the distance , but not to distant to keep our eyes out. We saw the last few rocks and boulders tumble into a km down the way and continued in silence. There are signs everywhere warning of landslides but I imagine it's hard to get out of the way of 15 tons of granite and dirt when it really wants to come down. Around two in the afternoon
and several coca leaves later we arrived at the small hut compound called Santa Teresea. The caretaker there was a friendly man who looked to be in his thirties or forties and walked with a cane. He told us he had lived there for four years and would go into town only three times a year, this was his home. Most of his food he grew there on the terraced farmland and occasional traded with people who brought goods in from Cachora. We filtered and refilled water in the creek that ran alongside the Finca and decided to continue hiking upward and over the mountain to a small pueblito where the man told us we could buy a hot meal from one of the villagers there. The rest of the climb up the mountain seemed to go on forever and the straps dug in our shoulders with each round about the mountain. Frequent breaks, gulps of water and the beautiful scenery were the only things that kept us going.
Finally as the sun began to golden in the horizon at that time of day just before sinking behind the mountains we reached the top looking over the glowing Quechua pueblito of Maripoto, small huts resting on lush green terracing over shadowing valley below. We walked past a few huts until we saw An older Quechua woman outside her Finca and asked if we could find food anywhere. She understood Spanish and offered us a hot meal and a place to stay. Thankfully we were able to set up our things for the night in a small thatched mudhut sheltered from the cold mountain rain. For dinner we had rice, eggs and papas fritas, a welcome meal in contrast with noodles and instant soup at an outdoor table beneath a thatched pavilion. It was a meal with a view as we watched the rain come in and fog drifted through the canyon. We were a tiny speck on the side of a big mountain and as the sky became darker a crescent moon shown through the drifting clouds. Some of the brightest stars were out, the others remained hidden in the Andean fog.
We rested warm in comfy in a row of three beneath the thatched roof of the hut. In the morning our goal was to hike to early in the morning, hike back and pick up our packs to make the long journey back down the switchbacks to the river by nightfall. When I awoke my body was stiff and stomach curled in a knot. Some combination of exhaustion, perhaps contaminated water or food and a cheap poorly fitted backpack had finally caught up with me. I felt sick and thought it best to rest for the morning while Jonny and Nate explored the ruins. As much as I wanted to go The thought of hiking back with less recovery seemed a bad idea, nothing is worse than being sick on a long hike. Johnny hiked most of the way there and turned back to avoid the entrance fee while Nate went to explore the ruins on his own and returned by noon. We were back on the trail by one retracing our steps down the treacherous switchbacks 10k to the river. Going down hurts more than going up a mountain in many ways. When you descend your knees have to work extra hard to
Keep your body from falling our sliding. Gravity is tricky, your legs work Together to only control ones fall, and when there are as many loose rocks as there were on this trail focus is required to keep balance with a heavy pack on ball-bearing scree. The straps on my pack were unthreading one by one as we descended and the sun beamed down us. the weight falling into awkward balances as things would give and break thread. One foot in front of the other, no rush to my pace I carefully and painfully rounded each turn of the path down, stopping to smell the flowers for encouragement and reminder of the healthier characteristics and times if life other than being sick. We finally made it down and crossed the river by nightfall and set up camp on the other side.
The river had dropped slightly overnight but seemed to froth even more intensely below either from my own exhaustion or an increased amount of rocks and degree at the bottom, as we trolleyed across in a basket over rio Apurimac.
We set up our sleeping quarters. Jonny set the tent I let him boroww up between two boulders with a rain poncho stretched across for extra protection. One of the tent poles was broken so it sagged a little on one side. Nate stretched a tarp across from the stone terracing in a diagnsl fashion to form a lean to and repeated with a connecting rain poncho to jeep his gear dry. I set my hammock up between two vilca trees and tied the rain fly perpindicularly to the hammock with rocks and across with the trees to shield from the rain.
The terrain of the bottom of the canyon was enchanted with a mezcla of cactus large and small, vilca trees, air plants, -----
We had noodles and soup for dinner over an open fire, the sound of the river quietly roaring in the background.
In the night it began to rain and aside from helping Jonny set up a new lean-to with a rain poncho on the stone terracing we all stayed pretty dry. Jonny's set up was water proof but hard to breathe in so we built a more open air water proof set up with a stick, some rocks and two webbing straps and we were all off to sleep.
In the morning I woke feeling quite sick still and as we dried our rainflys and belongings in the sun I filtered and drank as much water as I could before we left the river for our way back to Cachora. Nate and Jonny took some of the weight off of my pack as it was falling apart slowly thread by thread with strain and I felt like the living dead.
We began the 19km hike and in an hour after the first long set of switchbacks we took a break at the lady's farm we stayed at the first night to catch our breath and watch the chickens peck around the yard.
Chickens can be rough creatures at times. We watched as to bigger gullanas ganged up and attacked a younger injured chicken who had been laying in the shade to rest,
maybe for the few hours of it's life. The two bullies snuck behind the little guy, pounced rather quickly and pecked out the only eye he had left. We didn't even have enough time to throw a rock until it was done and the cannibal chickens flurried off with the eye of one of their brothers.
We commented on the fact that it's nice we weren't chickens otherwise Nate and Jonny would have already pecked my eyes out. Our attention was then brought to one interesting member of the poultry family that seemed to have been the runt of the group. His wings and legs had grown too small for the standard life of a chicken. He waddled slowly across the yard, losing balance more than a few times. The shortness of his wings provided the illusion of a small man walking around with his hands stuck in his pockets, and consequently when he fell there was no way to catch himself. Usually he would just landflat on his face. The chicken was all cheer though and the constant look of bewilderment on his face only told of the strange eorld he had been born into, not the Burden of his physical ailments and While the other chickens seemed to stay away, I imagine he thought nothing of it, eating the grain they had missed on the ground in first passing.
After the entertainment we were off , climbing slowly back up the mountain. The sun was out and beaming on our shoulders. We sweat and Jonny sang disney songs and we spoke of old movies and actors climbing switchbacks of rock and scree, white and blue glaciers high above in the edge of the clouds staring back at us from the other side of the canyon.
The clouds moved in by 3 in the afternoon as we ascended the last set of switchbacks to the small sheltered bench at the top. We passed the same wild horses we saw the first day. They hadn't moved much and had the best dining view around all day long. As we made it to the top the distant sound of the river dissappeared behind the granite and the sound of eery silence came to our ears broken only by the occasional gust of wind and curling spirals of clouds embracing the top of the mountain pass like pale white hands. The sudden absence of the river and it's song was comprable to a large cathedral filled of worshippers talking excitedly of their Christmas plans hushed by the raising of a priests hand. The silence was swollen with The sacredness of the mountains. The surrounding peaks whispered only with the wind and if I were only fluent in their language I felt it would have been easiest to understand then in those very moments.
As the sun began fall again we continued past the old abandoned farm house and followed the dirt path that winded like a snake along the mountains, dodging new puddles, rock falls and other obstacles along the way.
The town of Cachora came into view and we all sighed an unearned feeling of relief, for it was much farther than it looked. As the day turned into night puddles looked like windows into other universes or blended perfectly into the ground to wet our shoes in the light of the moon. I had my flashlight ready but the batteries must have died over night and the rest of our supply was pack far away. We walked in the moonlight beneath forests of Eucalyptus, the occasional flash of lightning far away illuminated everything in small split seconds, our night vision fading in and out with the temperament of the storm. Finally we came to a fork the road with a sign that read A San pedro de Cachora. The sign was what we were looking for but provided mo help as to which road it was meant for so we took to the left along a small creek below and hoped that we'd reach the main plaza within the hour. The road dropped down the mountain and came to an old wooden bridge we hadn't crossed on the first day. We knew so far that it wasn't the same trail but it seemed all roads led to Rome, or Cachora rather, at this point and carried on. The planks of the brideged were not nailed in so with our bamboo walking sticks and some careful footing we crossed the swift flowing river with great caution, avoiding any possible three stooges type accidents, for some of the boards popped up like a lever if one were to set foot on the wrong section. In my fatigue I imagined in my trail weary humor an alpaca stepping on this board in surprise, only to receive a sobering blow to the face deciding never to leave the pastures again. It had to have happened at some point in the long history of this bridge. We wandered through more dirt roads and muddy trails up the valley after crossing the river slowly making our way closer to where we assumed the town was until we saw our first streetlight. A few small shops were still open as we walked into town around 9 in the evening. Friendly dogs came to greet and smell the mountains and mud on our boots, children raced their bicycles through the empty cobblestone streets of the plaza as we walked over to the police station to ask advice on where we could find warm food and the nearest hostel for the night.
The officer there was a cordial man, curious of our travels and our hike back from Vhoquequirao. "que tal?" he asked as he gestured toward three empty seats in the station with a tv across the room
broadcasting the annual Ms.Universe competition. We had no complaints. In half an hour we were walking to the nearest place to eat before they closed shop for the night. We ate with two of the officers from the station and talked of their careers and life in Cachora. The majority of the issues they dealt with seemed to be domestic issues and animal theft, though even then they didnt see these problems very often in Such a small town. I imagine it would be quite difficult to get away with stealing one of the only four horses in town, someone would surely notice. They were there mainly to keep a presence and provide emergency services like search and rescue when needed. Instead of spending their days writing citizens speeding tickets like the police in the states they were actually there to serve and protect through whatever means. After a huge dinner of fried chicken, rice and potatoes they showed us where the nearest Hostal with hot showers was and knocked on the door. Tge owner seemed sketched out that we were there with the cops. "tranquillo, tranquillo" said one of the officers as he explained to the man that there was no trouble, he just had three gringos looking for a hospedaje. I could empathize with the mans surprised and concerned eyes, no matter how friendly the officer it's never comfortable to have two guys with guns standing outside of your door. It would have been nearly impossible to find it as there was no sign.
It seemed this small town and the fincas along the trail were all preparing for a future influx of business. This Hostal was brand new and for all we knew we could have been the first guests in it's quarters. We heard talk on the trail from a few caballeros of plans that in only a few years included the construction of a teleferico and increased accessibility to the ruins of Choquequirao. We felt fortunate to have hiked the trail while we had.
After some bargaining we were able to bring the price of the room down to 20 soles, a little more than we really wanted to pay but at this point we didn't want to push our luck with the possibility of hot showers looming in the horizon. We agreed with the price and told the floating head of the man who still had only opened the door enough for his neck to be collared in it's frame that we would go back to the station to get our bags and would be back within 30 minutes. There were no hands or torso or even legs for that matter, and the illusion was so convincing in our exhaustion and delerium that we nearly believed this to be the case, the levitating head of a man who had been interrupted from his nightly music. There was the muffled sound of the fast rolling beats of electronica de latino from further inside. It reminding me of some of the other places we had stayed in Peru in rural areas where I have grown to love the midi-sounding but complicated lo-fi beats and dubtones that intertwine with the country's night sounds. The crisper notes cut into the night singing with crickets, the babble of nearby creeks where you could to it's eternal chorus of ancestry, and a bird that sounded like a water drop put up to a microphone and amplifier at volume 11. There had been many strange sounds in Peru but familiarity in some way or another could be found in them.
We waddled and stepped on the least affected parts of our feet back the station and painfully uphill to the hostel.
We were relieved to find that the floating head we spoke with earlier did indeed sit upon a pair of shoulders and torso. The man and his brothers were more cordial now with the police gone and he showed us our dormitorio on the second floor. We let him know that we would be leaving by ten. We thanked him for the room, said goodnight took our showers and drifted asleep in the small Peruvian town of Cachora.
In the morning we woke after the best sleep we had in five days, met with the officer who had offered us a ride back to Cusco for 200 soles between the three of us, not much more than the bus would cost, and after changing, grabbing his personal car and filling up with a couple gallon milk jugs of fuel we were climbing up and up above the lush green valley of farmland and mud brick fincas. The landscape faded behind us into the Andes, where somewhere the Apurimac flowed on, down the canyons and sacred valleys of the Vilcabamba cordillera.
We also picked up another passenger up the mountain, woman making a trip to Albancay at the bottom of the next valley. She got off at the top of the mountain just before the main road and so did our driver. He walked into a store and came out with fresh sweet potatos and a gift basket of somesort and we were back on the road. After about 45 minutes we came to the next town along the way, passing through the center plaza where the officer recognized a friend of his who happened to be a taxi driver. We gathered our things and tied them to the roof of the van, said our goodbyes and thank you'd to the officer and we were off with thirteen other people from town to cusco. The roads between Lima and Peru are arguably some of the most scenic in the world, switching around the massive mountains of the Andes and touring through mountain villages and farmland in the valleys.
We passed children getting out of school for the day playing futbol in the streets, farm workers taking siesta from the fields, old men drinking cusquena outside storefronts. Four hours later we were in Cusco and after dropping everyone else off he drove us right up to the Hostal. We paid him for the ride, put our things in our new bunks and found the closest place in town that served pizza. We ate until our stomaches were beyond satisfied, topping our plates with a dessert of chocolate cake, ice cream and vino caliente.
The next few days were spent relaxing around the hostel reading and hanging out before Jonny had to leave for Lima by bus where he planned to fly back home for the holidays and then head to France for further academics in the new year.
Christmas eve came along and Cusco filled with people from all the surrounding villages. The plaza de armas was lined from end to end with tents and vendors selling Tge wares tax free. Families came in from the rural areas of the mountains to sell grass and moss for nativity sets. The whole town was alive with lights and fabric Christmas trees and at night all the bars and pubs were full.
|Plaza de Armas - Cusco, Peru - Christmas Eve|
Christmas morning we woke late, started the day off with good cuscuenuen cafe, Muy Fuerte, and split a bottle of wine and Brie before going to the chocolate museum, probably the best way we could have spent our Christmas in Cusco. At the museum we looked through the exhibits and signed up for a two hour workshop on how to make chocolate. Our maestro choclatier Manuel explained how the cacao was cultivated throughout the world, the ivory coast being the main producer of the world surprisingly. Peru grows a lot of cacao but they export the beans rather than make the chocolate, there are actually very few factories that produce it in the country. He passed around fresh cacao beans to the group to try. They tasted like some of the wild passionfruit I had found in central florida before but more, well... Chocolatey.
|Grinding the Cacao beans at the Chocolate musuem|
|The herbs and spices of confectionry|
Manuel told us that if we ate nine more we'd get headaches and start to hallucinate as there were psychoactive properties in the cacao pulp before toasting. I felt a little funny but I think it was the wine and we continued on with the class learning how to toast the seeds in a stone "kanaya" which is a quechua cooking tool, in Spanish the word means"cheater" or an insult along those basic lines. We stirred the seeds with a wooden ladel and the room filled with the smell of cacao. Afterwards we ground the beans with mortar and pestle and after answering a question about the tool we had just used Nate became a volunteer for how the mayans (the incans were influenced later) prepared their hot cocoa called "cacawau". The most common way to prepare the drink for ceremonies was to stab and twist a stake through human tongue, and drain the blood into a cup where it would be mixed with cacao and honey and drunk by royalty. He put the kabob stick just under Nate's tongue and had about half of the room convinced that he was going to poke all the way through, illustrations of mayans pulling rope through their tongues from my anthropology books came to mind. Of course he never stabbed his tongue but we used milk and spices as replacement and the hot chocolate was gone before reaching the table. Finally we got the opportunity to make our own chocolates with molds to dry in with our own spices and ingredients. We made a whole collection of coca, maca, peanut, coconut, cayenne pepper and clove infused chocolates and came back an hour later to pick them up and gorge ourselves after the workshop. We saw two girls there from the same class earlier that afternoon and their chocolates looked way better than ours. We wandered through the small musuem for a while and decided to meet at Paddy's pub for a few Christmas drinks after we dropped everything off at the hostels. Paddy's was filled with good vibes and lively pub chatter as we spoke of our travels and life back home. Valerie and Joann were sisters from Portland who had just began traveling together. Joann had moved to LA and Valerie had been traveling for a year and a half through asia and the pacific islands. After a few cervesas we walked through the plaza decided to meet at eleven and hike up the saqsaywayman ravine to the Jesus statue and picnic in the grassy ruins on the other side. The scenery there was nice and we found a spot to eat before the rain hit, sheltered from the wind by ancient Incan walls, with our combined effort we had a small feast including wine, cheese, tomato, toasted and untoasted bread, tameles and mango. We watched the Alpacas chasing and awkwardly trying to mate in the hills of the ruins. They were not very well coordinated. We took shelter in the eucalyptus trees overlooking the city for a little while literally soaking in the view. Cusco looked beautiful in the rain.
You could see spots of sunlight on the mountains on the other side of the valley, through the long sheets of rain in between, sweeping slowly over the orange rooftops of the city. The rain made the eucalyptus trees even more fragrant as we made our way through the dripping trails of the cloud forest back to the stone walkway that led down the mountain.
We bought Choclo y queso from a lady at the entrance for one sole, huge cobbs of deliciously sweet white corn and a slice of cheese to snack on as we wandered down the steep streets of Cusco. The water flowed in small rivers. At one point we tried to race our corn cobs pinewood derby toboggan style but the stone cataracts in the street proved to be too much of an obstacle for them. They rolled and tumbled for a few feet down the hilly street and stuck, rather anticlimaticly to the stone texture. The water around the corncobs as they drowned in the cobblestone street. Further down the street the rain stopped for a bit and we parted ways to our hostels to dry up after the hike.
|Off the beaten path in Cusco, Peru|
|Saqsaywaman above Cusco|
The rest of the evening we spent fireside in the main sala studying and writing before a dinner of Lomo Saltado from the kitchen. We spent the rest of the night talking about everything from education to politics, language and travel, stoking the fire occasionally until around ten and everyone scattered for bed. Sitting outside listening to the rain I spoke with two girls on holiday from a study in the rainforest focusing on degeneration of species due to logging. One was from Scotland and had been studying at the university where the research leader was completing his PHD and took up the opportunity after a lecture he had given in Glasgow, the other had lived in Cornwall among the great forests and hills of England and had joined the expedition out of her own curiosity for the rainforest. She had pleasant air about her as she described how many new species of amphibians and insects they had found, walking palm trees whose roots actually moved across soil over time, and their stare down with a Jaguar for forty five minutes one night on the way back to camp. It sounded like something I could really find myself enjoying and I was in awe of their wild descriptions of their scientific studies. It made me think to consider volunteering with ecological research in the jungle in the near future and as I write this the idea is fresh in my mind, for now we plan to ride to Puno, on the great lake Titicaca, home of the world renown floating reed islands, before booking to Patagonia and dodging the erupting Volcano Copahue.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
|Kon Tiki hostel - Mancora, Peru|
The buses in Peru are surprisingly comfy and super cheap.
For three hours we headed towards the pacific and back north while dry coastal mountains rose from the desertous soil. Crossing over small rivers an oasis of palm trees towered over the road.
|Peruvian coastal desert|
The first view of the ocean was breathtaking. Peruvian torch and prickly pear cactus scrolled by and the mountainside slowly gave way to the blue of the ocean as waves crashed on shore. They crashed in perfect tiny white lines to the north and small ships lay still anchored to a marina far below.
When we pulled into Mancora the bus stopped on the side of the main road. They rushed us to get all of our stuff out and we were swarmed with people trying to sell you everything from empanadas to cocaine. There was barely any room as we grabbed for our backpacks and bikes because the moto-taxi drivers swarmed around us offering rides and deals for the best hospedajes ( and by best they probably mean the easiest for them to break into). The best thing to do is tell them to $@&# off. We huddled through, refused their services and rode our bikes to a hostel we saw on the way in. This one we had recognized from research online.
We finally got to the hostel, checked in and collapsed on our beds overwhelmed with Piura and Mancora. When we decided to check to see if the wifi worked we found out Nates phone had been stolen from a zipper pocket on the side of his pants, most assuredly by the swarm of taxi drivers that surrounded us off the bus.
|Mancora, a strange bustling little beach town.|
One thing we cannot stress enough is to never trust taxi drivers upfront in Peru, or anywhere in south America. It's always best to call a taxi from a trusted company rather than take offers from drivers on the street, we've heard enough horror stories about short-term kidnappings where the drivers take you to an ATM and ask you to withdrawal all your money at gunpoint. Most of the population of Peru lives in poverty, many with less than $2 USD a day so it is easy to see why robberies are common in these desperate areas.
As we write this post from Cusco we have quickly discovered that our first impression of Peru with Mancora was very inaccurate though. With the high concentration of tourists the crime seems to be another steady form of income for families along some of the beach towns, and while they only see people as a means to an end the folks in the agricultural and rural parts of Peru are most amiable.
We decided to chill out and enjoy the beach in spite of our loss and rented a couple of surfboards for 10 soles each. The hostel we were staying at rested right on the beach with a perfect, left peeling point break that you could ride to shore. The rocks stretch out in a nice triangle from the beach and when a clean swell comes from the south west the waves hit that point and open up like fresh plantano down the line for a long smooth ride. We paddled outside the shadow of the break and came in from behind the lineup before it got too crowded. As the day grew on though so did the waves, and consequently the crowds.
|Frigatebirds on the beach|
A lot of the locals crowd the lineup with longboards and are pretty ruthless about cutting you off, most waves ended in a standoff between two or three boards. We were lucky to get some good waves in before there were about thirty or forty heads bobbing out there and paddled in to watch the kooks battle it out from shore. The vibe wasn't there and it was hard to enjoy as fully without the respect and peace of just catching whatever wave came to you. The waves were on par with a very good day in New Smyrna, but while one may have to wait a while for a good swell at our favorite beach in Florida, its guaranteed you can find a good break somewhere on the sandbar with good space between each surfer, or on a weekday morning, none at all. The point break at Mancora is crowded 24-7. While the prices are nice, it reminded us of a few dirtier beachtowns in Florida and made us miss the good spots we have on the beach not too far from home.
We grabbed some food from a place just off the beach, apparently Swiss owned, we found out after talking to a gentleman sitting at the table across from us. He was an older man retired from the German navy who had settled down and married after retirement in Mancora. He told us his friend owned the restraunt and had moved here from Switzerland. He showed us the recently built balconies from the second and third floors and we drank mojitos and talked of our travels. The ceviche was good and we both tried it for the first time with no complaints.
|Sunset in Mancora|
That night we climbed to the lighthouse on the mesa that rose over the whole town, scrambling over an eroded path of scree and sandstone to the top. The sun was setting behind the coastal mountains to our left as the town lay in a bay that curved inward from the pacific. The town began to light up below the pink orange blue of the sky as we listened to the strange sounds of Mancora, moto-taxis honking their comical horns, the clash of all kinds of music and people's shouts and screams, but in the background the waves of the ocean roared wildly every 14 seconds in their ancient and sublime chorus that sings for no one but the moon.
We walked a little further across the top of the Mesa to one of the only other structures, a hostel of palm thatched bungalows called Kon Tiki overlooking the town. The staff was friendly, and location even better, set high above the chaos of Mancora. We asked a few questions and decided to wake up in the morning and bring our gear there for the rest of our stay. We´d walk into town each day on a set of switchbacks down the cliffs.
|Hanging out after breakfast.|
|Hammocking above the pueblo.|
The rest of our stay was spent planning our next move and recovering from the second time we tried ceviche.
We ate the popular plate of raw fish again and it didn't settle as well as we had hoped and my body spent the next day in an aggressive cycle of detoxification... All in all Mancora offered us the humble reminder that we are not invincible. After recovering somewhat, we hopped on the next 17 hour overnight bus to Lima and with two hours between rides hopped on another 20 hour bus straight to Cusco. While the journey has been long we were ready to return the highlands.
|Shatumay- breakfast mint or laxative? Complimentary candy on our bus.|
Today we´re off for a day hike just outside the city of cusco, up to a small collection of archaeological ruins that we can see here from the historic district. We´re preparing for a hike later this week on an alternative route to Machu Pichu, a traverse of the Vilcabamba mountain range. The route follows a path the Incans used to flee the conquistadors during invasion and skirts along a dozen other important ruins that are rarely seen by the public as they are nestled deeper in the Andes, accesible only by long treks on foot. We are especially excited for this hike and we will keep you up to date as we prepare for our 5-10 day journey. We´ve got a map and all the rest of our gear, now we are just familiarizing ourselves with the trailhead and the best way to get there. We´ll definitly keep you posted.