December 19, 2003

Arica, Chile

I travelled all night from Arequipa and crossed the border into Chile this morning. The next couple of days will be more of the same. Travel gets tough over the next few days when an entire continent, at once on Christmas and summer vacation, tries to travel to spend the holidays with family.

Perú was a fascinating country. It has a cultural heritage unlike any I've ever seen, stunning landscapes, endless opportunity for adventure, and fantastic food. Perhaps a victim of its own success, I'm sorry to say that things didn't get any better with the rip-off situation. About the best thing I can say about the scam artists is they are consistent. My problems in Perú began the minute I set foot in the country with money changers using fixed calculators and counterfeit money (even the coins there are counterfeit!), and held strong right up to the last minute with a customs agent trying to levy twice the departure tax posted right behind her, and a local trying to get me to carry a "Christmas gift" over the border to Chile.

I did, of course, meet many wonderful people in Perú. Just not nearly enough of them to balance out the idiots. Perú has too many wonderful things going for it to skip it on account of the people - just watch your back if you go.

If the rest of Chile is anything like Arica, it will be a welcome change. Just 22km under the border, the abrupt difference between the Latin America I've just come through is stunning. Gone is the traffic congestion and choking fumes (I even saw a cop pull someone over for a traffic violation!), the street markets, the constant harassment by street vendors and beggars, the noise, the .... I miss it already!

I'm hopping an overnight bus down to Antofagasta tonight and will hang out there a few days until heading to La Serena to spend Christmas.

Posted by dhuska at 11:44 AM | Comments (4)

December 15, 2003

Arequipa, Perú

Comments are now enabled on all posts. Originally, I figured this would just be a simple travel log; a way to stay in touch with home while away. But I receive a lot of questions and feedback regarding this trip from people I've met along the way, as well as from complete strangers, so I hope more interactivity will make it more useful both to them and to myself. Travel-related comments are appreciated, but post whatever you like (uh, within reason).

In order to post, you'll need to provide an email address. This is the design of the software, not my choice. Posting your email in a public forum is about the best way I can think of to get a whole lot of "special offers" in your inbox. Enter a fake address or obfuscate it (for example: yourname[at]yahooDOTcom). Have fun.

Also, photos are a lagging behind. The good kids at Anitflux who are graciously providing me with a place to post my pics are temporarily running low on drive space. I'll post photos as soon as I'm able to.

Posted by dhuska at 08:39 AM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2003

Cusco, Perú

Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist destination in South America, and Cusco, being a short train ride away, seems to have more tourists than Disneyland.

I chose to get to Machu Picchu via a 4-day hike on the Inca Trail - a section of the original trail which is still 80% original Inca construction. The construction of the trail itself easily rivals Machu Picchu as a feat of engineering, and I enjoyed it more than the ruins! As you wind through forests, pass ruins, cross rivers, climb high mountain passes and descend down into jungles, it's rather difficult not to imagine yourself a hobbit :)

The tremendous traffic on the trail has forced access regulations. All hikes must now be made with a registered tour company. This limits flexibility, but has some benefits; the best of which is they take care of all the supplies, equipment and paperwork. You just need to hike in what you need for 4 days. My pack was only about 14 kilos. The effort of packing in everything else (food, cooking supplies, tents, etc) falls to the porters hired by each tour company. Porters are usually locals, and have got to be among the most amazing examples of physical ability I've ever seen. These guys carry 25 - 40 kilos of equipment on their backs in homemade packs of fabric. At altitudes of 4 km, while the rest of us are moving at a pace that sounds something like "step-puff-puff-puff... step-puff-puff.....", these guys are running straight up the mountain. We had hiking boots and Gore-Tex, they had tank tops and flip flops. They'd beat us to camp by hours, and have everything set up and a meal cooked. In the morning, we had only to roll up our sleeping bag and pad and hike out. They broke camp, cleaned up, and then tore past us on the trail an hour later to do it all over again. Amazing.

Our two Quechua guides were natives of Cusco, and were also a great help to have along as they provided the history of everything we were seeing.

We had great weather considering this is the rain season, and far fewer hikers on the trail made the whole thing much more enjoyable. The hike itself isn't too strenuous (second day aside), but the altitude gets you. The air is thin up there, making even a gentle stroll a chore, and this is no gentle stroll. Over most of the hike I had a wad of coca leaves stuffed in my cheek - when in Rome... They do wonders to help acclimatize to the altitude (and numbs your mouth too).

The second day is a climb from about 3000 meters to 4200 meters over the first of three mountain passes, then down again. The views all along the Inca trail are spectacular, but later that night, camped on the mountainside, listening to guides and porters sing in Quechua, we saw something spectacular:

As the sun began to set behind us, the valley in front and below us began to fill with cloud as though poured from the heavens. Rivers of mist flowed down the walls of the valley to fill the valley below. Soon the cloud reached our camp on the mountainside and began to obscure the peaks in front of us. Some phenomenon of nature then treated us to a spectacular sight: Two strata of cloud were stripped away from the valley, layering the chasm in front of us in alternating bands of cloud and the light from the setting sun. The jungle below us became a dark green cloud forest shrouded in mist. The mountain in front of us caught fire with the colors of the setting sun, and above us, the towering ice-capped peaks of the Andes sparkled blue and white above the top layer of cloud.

I'll never forget it.

Machu Picchu itself was fantastic. We left our last camp before 5 am to hike the last few hours to the ruins before sunrise, and to be there hours before the first tourist train arrives. I was blown away by cultural, scientific and religious complexity of the city. It isn't something I'll even attempt to recreate here. There are pictures in the gallery (or there will be when there's room for them), but for the real deal you just have to go there.

I'm leaving tomorrow for Juliaca and Puno to spend a few days on and around Lake Titicaca - the world's highest navigable lake.

Posted by dhuska at 08:22 AM | Comments (1)

December 05, 2003

Lima, Perú

Yikes! I've covered a lot of ground since last post. Here's a recap:

After leaving Quito, I bussed down to Riobamba, Ecuador and caught a train to Alausí. The train winds south through the northern extreme of the Andes range, and includes some spectacular switchbacks along "Devil's Nose". On the highest of these, on the edge of a cliff, the train derailed. This was even more interesting since I was riding on the roof at the time. I'll get the pics up as soon as I can.

From Alausí I bussed down to Cuenca, Ecuador, and spent a few days there. Cuenca is a colonial town with some nice architecture - especially the gorgeous cathedral domes. From there, I passed quickly through the small Ecuadorian border towns of Machala and Haquilla.

I crossed the Ecuador-Peru border on foot, then hitched a ride to Tumbes, Peru - a small border town where I had the day to kill wandering around until my bus left later that evening. Nine hours by bus landed me in Trujillo, where I spent a few days in and around town, and at the outlying ruins of Chan Chan and the pyramids of the Sun and Moon. There I arranged air travel for the rest of the cities I'll be visiting in Peru. In order to reach destinations inland, you have to cross the Andes, and the time savings flying is tremendous. Lima to Cuzco for example is 50 minutes by air, or 25 hours winding through the Andes by bus. I've had my fill of busses for a while, and this is a good way to make up some of the extra time I spent in Colombia.

Thoughts on Ecuador: A pleasant country with pleasant people, pleasant food, and a pleasant climate. The locals carry about their business with a pleasant "hello", and most foreigners are here to learn Spanish or hug a sea turtle. Nice, but not quite my speed.

My first flight in Peru landed me yesterday in Lima. Lima is big. 13 million people big. It's nice to be back in a city with a cosmopolitan feel and a booming nightlife.

Thoughts (so far) on Peru:

The food is amazing - some of the best so far this trip. I've tried the ceviche wherever I could on this trip, and it wins here hands-down. The roast chicken (Pollo a la braza) is fantastic, and the Cuy (Guinea Pig) is yuuuuumy. Even the simple seafood dishes in the coastal towns - just a fresh battered fillet over (surprise!) rice and beans - are fantastic.

Peru seems to pride itself on its cultural heritage more than other countries I've been in so far. The indigenous (Quechua in Peru) seem to be recognized and respected more than I've seen elsewhere. And, not surprisingly given how much Machu Picchu must pull in for Peru, the archeological sites are very well run.

A big thumbs down, however, goes to the many, many, many Peruvians who are ripping off foreigners. Within two hours of being in Peru, I had more trouble than in all the rest of my trip combined, and the pace has held steady. In nearly every transaction I've had - from street vendors to money changers to cab drivers to restaurants to just plain locals - they've tried to rip me off. Now, it's true that there's a "rich gringo" stereotype everywhere in Latin America. Most merchants will try to overcharge you a little, though it's not generally disrespectful. After bargaining, and especially if you speak Spanish, the price comes down. It's still usually a little higher than what the locals pay, but this is just the way it works here - more than acceptable considering the differences in our standards of living. And, given the strength of the dollar against whatever local currency, it amounts to a very small surcharge. What I've been seeing in Perú is very different. The attitude is blatantly "how much can I take this stupid gringo for?", and everyone seems to do it. I've lost patience with it and call them on it - rudely too. I can't help but wonder how much foreigners have been taken for here to create this attitude. Very disappointing. I hope the rest of Peru proves different.

I'm off tomorrow to Cuzco, and the 4 day hike to Machu Picchu. Can't wait!

Posted by dhuska at 05:18 PM | Comments (3)