The Avensa flight did not arrive to Lima until about 1:00 AM and we still had to go through customs and locate some lodging. Our buddy Cam, had recommended that we stay in the Miraflores area rather than downtown Lima and that proved to be excellent advice. First, I tried calling a hotel from the guidebook and it was full. Surprisingly, the tourist office was still open and I headed over there for some advice–they had a book of hotels but they are unable to give specific recommendations. All the listed hotels were very expensive, but we had decided before we left that if we were arriving in a city late at night that we would stay in “a sure thing” rather than searching for an inexpensive hotel in an unknown area. So we went uneventfully through customs, into a cab, and on to the Sol del Oro hotel. Our room was beautiful, big, fresh, with a great bathroom that was a welcome change after showering on a boat for the last 8 days.
In the morning, I did not want to leave the comfort of our room–we had HBO–and that luxurious bath. Eventually, we gathered up our laundry carried it down the street to be washed, due to the language barrier this took a bit of effort, after long moments of staring at each other we finally gathered that we should return at 7PM.
Miraflores is a lovely city on the coast of Peru, it appeared to be very safe and a great place to walk around–down to the beach to check out those Lima surfers, lots of sidewalk cafes, parks and all the services that travelers need. It is on the expensive side, though it would be easy to get a hotel room for $40 rather than $100. We spent a good part of the day looking for a way to mail back some extra clothes and a few souvenirs–Scooter was very concerned about the weight of my bag–much more concerned than I was–and yes, I carried my own bag everywhere. It weighs 35 lbs–I admit it is heavy. Anyway, do not try to mail anything from Peru–the cost to send back 3 kilos would be over 100 dollars–more than the value of the items being sent! Needless to say, nothing was mailed back. I was hot and irritated from marching around town for nothing and taking it out on Scooter and he was just calm cool and collected as usual–I was really beginning to appreciate his ability to take everything in stride. Our next little chore was to find the American Express office, which was located in downtown Lima at Lima Tours. We needed travelers checks and reservations for approximately 5 flights for the remainder of our South American travels. We took a cab, and for the second time in Lima the driver could not find our address. The problem is that anyone can be a taxi in Lima so if you have a car, you can stick a removable sign on your car and become a taxi–so they are only familiar with their own neighborhoods. Our driver must have asked about 20 different people directions as we drove around in circles–we finally arrived in front of an abandon looking building and found Lima Tours upstairs. Scooter gave our taxi driver a little extra money and told him to go buy a map! We were unimpressed with the AMEX office so we collected our travelers checks and chose not to give them our ticket business–we really needed someone to help us and to do that they really needed to speak English. The Plaza San Martin and the Plaza de Armas in Lima are beautiful, clean and feel very safe–Scooter and I could not figure out why Lima gets such a bad rap, we are really enjoying ourselves here.
The sun was quickly going down as we headed back to our hotel, we were tired and missing happy hour so when we got back to our delux hotel we ordered a pisco sour–a Peruvian drink specialty–very relaxing. For dinner we went to ‘pizza street,’ it is one short road next to Parque Miraflores with at least a dozen pizza joint/sidewalk cafes. Then we visited the craft market that sets up every evening in the park. Again, we felt very safe walking around this area at night.
TUESDAY MARCH 10
Today, we are hoping to find a travel agent and fly directly to Cuzco. We packed up and left our bags at the hotel and went to Tico Travel, only to find out that all flights to Cuzco leave first thing in the morning. Oh well, another day in Miraflores. The travel agency visit took up most of the day because we changed our plans to include Lake Titicaca and had to purchase airline tickets from Lima to Cuzco to Puno and from La Paz, Bolivia to Asuncion, Paraguay and then from Santiago to Lima. It took a little time to communicate, book, confirm, pay and print the tickets. In the end, we think we paid too much because Peru has a heavy tax burden and we should have just purchased as we went along but we had been hoping to get an air pass and those must be purchased outside the country you are flying in.
Explored Miraflores for the remainder of the day, searched for another hotel but we had spoiled ourselves and returned to the Sol del Oro to negotiate a lower room rate…we stayed one more night in the lap of luxury and enjoyed a trendy dinner at Cafe Cafe.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 11
Good Morning-Buenas Dias get up at 4:30AM to catch the Aero Continental flight to Cuzco, Peru. Our flight is at 6 AM and we arrive on time at 7AM–because we have been busy, I have to quickly read the selection of guidebooks searching for input on Cuzco and Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination. At the Cuzco airport there are many touts for tours, hotels, and taxis both inside and out. It seemed a bit early to have people yelling from every direction. We grabbed our big green bags and went directly into the chaos. Somehow we walked out the other side of the human blockade with a taxi driver, tour operator, restaurant owner, teacher, and English-speaking guide named Jose Cuba. We requested a ride to the train station to see if there was any chance of catching a train to Machu Picchu today–Jose says–no go. Due to flooding and the low tourist season, there is not enough traffic to warrant two trains a day. Well, not to worry, Jose is a private guide listed in the South American Handbook…he proceeds to tell us about a great tour he can offer us for $30 and we can leave right now. He would provide transportation and tour through the Sacred Valley, a visit to the market at Pisac, Calca, Urubamba and then to the Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo. The plan was to spend the night in Ollantaytambo and catch the Machu Picchu train coming from Cuzco in the morning about 9AM. Jose also happened to have a hotel connection in Cuzco for the Friday night when we return. Scooter and I take a moment to silently concur, and then accept the offer. Here we go to the Los Andes de Ameri Hotel, located right off the main square, Plaza de Armas. It is very attractive with a welcoming staff–we follow our rules check the price and view a room–very nice. We are quoted a price of $90 which gets negotiated to $50, which is more than we wanted to spend but there is a lot to be said for convenience. Jose brings our bags in so that we can repack our day packs for the 2-day trip to Machu Picchu and leave the big bags in storage at the hotel. It is Thursday morning and we are not staying the hotel until Friday night but they bring us cocoa tea and offer a complimentary breakfast buffet. Coca tea plays and important role at this high elevation–it helps you adjust or be more comfortable while you acclimatize to the altitude in Cuzco(10,000 feet). I read that it is also good for stamina and digestion–you can have tea or chew directly on the leaves. Going from sea-level to 10,000 feet in one hour does have an effect because I am light headed–maybe it’s the tea?
Jose informed us that his daughter, Alexandra would be taking us on our tour — guaranteed very knowledgeable and with better English skills. We see:
Sacsayhuaman (sounds like sexy woman) an Inca ceremonial center
Pisac an Inca fortress and local market (Tues., Thurs. and Sun.)
Calca good lunch spot with monkeys and toucans (stop here to avoid the tour bus crowds)
Ollantaytambo fine examples of Inca canchas(city blocks) intact and in use, large ruins and terracing.
Scooter and I are both so tired from getting up early and the lack of oxygen, that we can barely keep our eyes open. Alexandra takes us to the rail station and suggests a hotel right next door, Albergue Kapuly–it is behind a wall and a wooden door. Inside is a beautiful garden, a gorgeous white dog and a cute little bedroom–sold for $24, once again, more than we should be spending. The remainder of the evening is spent peacefully computer programming, journal writing, cost analyzing and playing with the dog.
FRIDAY MARCH 13
The hotel we stayed in last night was the first without a bano–so our day began at 6AM walking across the lush green grass with a spectacular mountain view to the bano. Today, we are doing Machu Picchu but we have yet to figure out at what time or on what train…at 7:30 we are waiting for our hosts to wake up and serve some breakfast, when we hear a train whistle, I pick up my bag and run down to the station–false alarm but there is now a lot of activity in an otherwise desolate station. Scooter joins me and we start our quest for information–we got 5 different answers–it seemed no one knew what the program was. Somehow we made it on to the correct train at 8:30 in expresso class(cheap) costing $10 or 27.50 soles each. The trip was beautiful following a raging river with subtropical vegetation and may jagged mountains. In some areas the train follows along the original Inca trail. After almost 2 hours we disembarked to a small town built on either side of the railroad tracks–Agua Caliente–in one step you can step off the train and directly into a dozen restaurants. Because we ran out before breakfast, we did just that and stepped into a vegetarian/Indian restaurant for a bite to eat.
Buses run up to Machu Picchu every 30 minutes or hour depending on the traffic flow. The ride was $7 for the round trip (walking up and down is an option). Again, the views are incredible–full of unique landscapes and wildflowers.
Once on top, it is a quick walk to the entrance and $10 more to a complete unsupervised access to the ruins all day. We decided to hire a guide, in order to have a more informative trek–cost $10. Our guide, Santiago, spoke enough English to give us a general idea of what he wanted us to learn and to answer some questions. Although, we did catch a couple discrepancies between yesterday’s guide and today’s guide. Oh well, we could just make up our own explanations, as it seems that most of what is known about the Inca civilization is speculation.
The ruins of Machu Picchu are believed to be the remains of a spiritual retreat, where leaders of the Inca civilization made pilgrimages–supposedly a very secret place built amazingly high on a mountain with only one path leading into the city. Forty percent of the ruins have been reconstructed and sixty percent is original stonework. Machu Picchu was discovered by an American archeology professor, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. It was then explored and excavated by a team from Yale University. It is a complete city with temples, terraces, palaces, towers, fountains, and staircases. Some of the amazing aspects are the terraces high on mountain tops, the use of running water through the city, and the large perfectly cut stones used to build the walls. Unfortunately, Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking the site was shut down due to a fire–the walk up takes 90 minutes and is only for the sure-footed and no fear of heights. I was secretly glad it was closed or I would have felt compelled to take my clumsy self to the top. Scooter and I spent almost 5 hours climbing around and then headed down to the bus stop. The buses did not seem limited so we stopped for a snack, supposedly a hamburger, but it turned out to be an unidentifiable type of meat in the shape of a burger. At this point, we are working with a carefully calculated cash budget because credit card accepting vendors are non-existent. So the cost of our 2-day trip to Machu Picchu was calculated down to the last beer and souvenir.
On the bus ride down we were treated to an ingenious income earning scheme. At the top of the mountain, a young boy dressed in native clothing shouts good-bye to the bus and waves furiously. We think nothing of it until we get to our first of many hairpin turns and the same boy is there waving and yelling “gooooodbyyyyyyyye.” This ritual is repeated at least a dozen more times at every turn–it takes the bus almost 30 minutes to reach the bottom and the young man runs straight down barefoot. At the last turn, the bus driver lets him on the bus where everyone applauds and gives him coins. We thought he earned it.
Back in Agua Caliente, I had a mission. Up to now, I had been struggling with what type of souvenir to collect during our many travels. Traveling to so many places seemed like the perfect opportunity to begin some sort of collection but only the usual items were coming to mind–matchbooks, coasters, dolls, shotglasses, etc–nothing that would appeal to me for a lifetime. Other items became a logistic problem-masks, plates, musical instruments–very tough with a backpack. We also considered frequent trips to the post offices of the world but quickly realized that to be a challenging waste of time and money. Out of a desperate desire to shop in the markets of the world, fabric came to mind. The fabric can be made into pillows, which make good visual reminders, easy to carry, and not a major investment. I liked it, so I ran it by Scooter and he couldn’t care less.
OK, back to the mission, I had seen some fabric on the street market and had promised the vendor to return after the ruins–I shook her hand, practiced my bargaining skills and made the purchase for 30,000 soles or $6. Bargaining is not my favorite pastime, and I usually derive little or no satisfaction at getting my price.
We have been wondering around for one month now without a watch between us and today it gave us a little panic. We were looking for the train station to purchase our return tickets, and stumbled into the new station, which was not the same place we got dropped off. There is a train in the new station ready to roll out. We run to purchase our tickets only to be told that the cheap train does not leave for another hour. Our spare time is spent back in town with a big beer and a pisco sour. When it was time to go Scooter decide on two more big beers for the 4 hour ride to Cuzco. He had a little difficulty bargaining for the beers due to the bottle deposit because he apparently promised the vendor to return the bottles when we were finished, but he failed to realize how serious the vendor was. As the train is about to pull out and we seated comfortably with our big beers, suddenly standing in front of Scooter is the beer salesman requesting his empties!
On our train trip, we struck up a conversation with a couple from Argentina and made plans to meet them at 10PM at a bar called Mama Africa right off the main square. As promised, our guide from the previous day, Alexandra was at the station to meet us and deliver us to our hotel and also to play a little foosball with her brother, Jose who is the local champion. They played well together but Jose had the home court advantage. The table they played on was very old, made out of wood and in desperate need of repairs. This is the same type of table that is popular all over South America. Unfortunately, I started to feel ill–really sick to my stomach–so with great wisdom we went out to dinner. Excellent pizza and service could not be enjoyed by me–going out this evening was no longer an option. For the next several days, I was ill but able to keep traveling. Scooter was very concerned and thought I had cholera and I thought my ulcer had returned from not drinking enough water. The final diagnosis was salmonella sickness from the pisco sour I drank in Agua Caliente–advice: stick to beer.
SATURDAY MARCH 14
Still queasy and weak this morning but it is time to move on, today we fly from Cuzco to Juliaca, Peru and then drive to Puno which is our starting point for Lake Titicaca. We sat in the lobby to wait for Alexandra, but she was a no show this morning and we took a cab. We were somewhat apprehensive about this portion of our trip because people we spoke to and the newspaper headlines were all warning severe flooding, road washouts, and rivers overflowing. As we flew we could see flooding everywhere in the agricultural area on our way Arequipa. We ignored the warnings and stuck with our plan–our schedule may have been hectic up to this point but now it really kicks into high gear.
The flight was hassle free because it was national rather than international. In Arequipa, we disembark, get a “transito” pass, and then get back on the same plane to proceed to Juliaca. It seems difficult for us to get a direct flight to any of our destinations. Upon arrival in Juliaca we were approached about taking a collectivo bus to Puno. Collectivos are typically vans in various states of disrepair that pick up and drop off passengers, there does not seem to be a particular schedule-when it is full it goes somewhere. I was pleased to have the transportation dilemma solved for the day. Every day, I read my usual litany of selected guidebooks: The South American Handbook, chapters torn out of Lonely Planet and Foder’s in search of the cheapest most efficient transportation-what it will cost, how far do we need to go, what hotel options do we have, where do we get the correct currency and what is the exchange rate. These are the questions that come to mind immediately before or after arriving in a new location. Today, we opted for the cheapest route the collectivo van. When we exited the airport it was all very hectic and before we knew what was happening our bags were being loaded onto the roof of an already full van–Scooter had to aggressively demand our bags off the roof so that we could get on the less full but equally dilapidated van. We were loaded up and ready to go for a 90 minute drive to town for $1 each. The towns we passed were ugly depressing and slum-like. The area is surrounded by farms and everyone was coming to market hauling on their backs the fruits and vegetables of their labor and I could not imagine that there would be buyers for all the goods. Many of the vendors are women who bring their products into town via large colorful woven blanket tied around their shoulders and back. They also arrive on 3-wheeled bikes, vans, and buses wearing very traditional attire-3-4 skirts, aprons, shawls and funky tall derby hats. Most women look older than their years due to the labor intensive lifestyle and sun exposure at a high altitude. Most are plump with long black braided hair tied together in the back.
We are traveling in the off season. Most visitors come to this area during December and January (South American summer) and then again in July and August (North American and European summer). There are several attractions-Lake Titicaca, the floating islands of Uros, and mountain climbing. Also, some Inca ruins and mystic energy centers. Puno is the capital of its department and Peru’s folklore center–lots of festivals, costumes, dancing, and musical tradition. It is located on the northwest shore of the lake and mainly an excursion initiation point for travels rather than a destination point. We decide to follow a Danish couple to their hotel selection. We exit the collectivo on Jr. Valcarcel Road, where there are several lodging choices and we take a room at a hostel for $24 including hot water between the hours of 6-9AM and 5-8PM.
Finding a room can be one of the more challenging aspects of rapid budget travel because it is repeated almost daily–this was our system:
Read a guidebook–located desired area of town; the main square or train/bus station is usually a good start.
Read a guidebook–decide on price range and read brief but helpful hotel descriptions.
Arrange transport to target hotel–usually taxi, bus or by foot.
Confirm price upon arrival at hotel.
Request to see the room–checking for general cleanliness, noise factor, hot water, phone, ac/heat, etc.
Price negotiation or repeat the process.
It may be helpful if the least picky person stays with the bags while the picky person goes in search of acceptable accommodations. The decision making process always comes down to cost versus quality. I seem to be rambling.
We dumped our bags in the room and went to Andino Tours travel agency, where the owner happened to be our collectivo driver from the airport. Our goal here was to secure our tour from Puno to Copacabana, Bolivia by bus, the catamaran crossing of Lake Titicaca to Huatajata and finally another bus to LaPaz, Bolivia. While we were waiting in the travel office, I mentioned to Scooter that this route did not allow us to see the floating islands of Uros, something that I knew he was interested in. Of course in two seconds the travel agency owner offered to take us out to the islands right away, even though it was 4PM and the weather is cold and gray. At $30, the price is steep but we appreciate the effort and it is a tour only with the two of us. We hurry to get to the bay/marina so that we can reach the island before dark. The boat is about 25 feet long and designed to carry about 20 people under cover. The boat’s engine is in the middle of the boat and it is steered by a rudder attached to the back of the boat, similar to a sailboat. We set out, like Gilligan, for a three hour tour…the skies continue to look threatening. The floating islands are semi-islands that continue to be manually refurbished with reeds. The islands are nothing but mud and reeds but are stable enough to have villages and cattle. The people living on these islands are Uros and Aymara Indians who fish, hunt, and live off lake plants. They have lived this way on floating islands for thousands of years. The reed plants growing in the lake marsk lands are used to make houses, boats and feed the animals. Tourism is now beginning to dissolve some of the traditional culture.
Our landing on the island makes us the last guests of the day — no tourists, all the shops have closed and most of the begging children are eating dinner–perfect. People are cooking outdoors on open fire pits–ducks, chickens and fish. Most of the homes are no more than reed huts with dirt floors with many happy people living in them, for a few soles we take some video. It is finally starting to rain so we return to the boat–it is really starting to storm. Our guide and our captain begin to look really nervous as the waves pick up and the fog moves in. The hail and freezing rain make it impossible to for the boat captain to see. Our life vests go on and our drenched pelted captain continues to negotiate the weather and the small channel back to Puno. Back in port we are wet and cold but on land.
Dinner is taken at an Italian restaurant across from our hotel because it is too wet to consider anything else. It is supposed to be the nicest place in town but it is totally empty and dark, we are the first customers and the lights get turned on for us until there is a power outage a short while later. I am happy to crawl into bed under a big stack of woven wool blankets. There is a big chill in the air and snow on the ground.
SUNDAY MARCH 15
We are up early and ready for our tour at 7AM. We are expecting Andino Tours to pick us up and deliver us to another tour company that handles the Lake Titicaca crossings. However, never assume, our guide has decided to drive us to Copacabana himself and then meet up with the catamaran company. This gentleman is taking advantage of us-not in a really bad way but I do not feel we are getting our money’s worth. Scooter and I asked many questions and our guide usually just answered them all with “yes” because he did not understand what we were asking. But no big deal, there really was not that much to see, many small farm towns-literally every person was walking to market taking crops, horses, mules and cows to be traded or sold.
We stopped in Juli to see some religious architecture and artwork at San Pedro–cathedral with giant works of art and the San Juan Batista church.
Once we crossed the border to Bolivia, the road lacked pavement all the way to Copacabana. I thought we were taking some kind of shortcut but it turns out that’s the main highway. Copacabanna is a pretty little town with an active market and car blessings surrounding the main square. We did a little browsing, bought nada, and took video of car blessings. Meanwhile, our guide was looking for someone or something and we assumed he was trying to get us on the catamaran. Suddenly, he came rushing back to the van “let’s go let’s go” grabbing our bags and shuffling us onto a tour bus with five other people. In a moment we were on a new tour on our way to the docks–it all worked out just fine.Hello