We have been very happy with our decision to not ride through Peru, especially as we watched the garbage-laden, barren desert of northern Peru pass by and as our buses spat and sputtered their way up and over narrow, steep mountain roads. We were more than happy to not have to deal with those challenges, but of course, our bus tour through Peru has left us with plenty of other stories to tell.
I have to commend the South American bus system. It has, for the most part, been fantastic for the 70+ hours we have thus far spent riding them around Peru. You can literally get anywhere by bus for a fairly cheap rate, even when lugging around a couple of bicycles as long as you're willing to pay a little extra for the extra luggage. Many of the long routes travel at night and we have typically splurged on our tickets and purchased the super comfortable seats that recline so we can get at least a few hours of sleep. It's not always completely stress-free, as we feel like we have to watch our stuff like hawks while it waits in the luggage area and then gets put under the bus. It would be easy to “accidentally” forget to put a bike on board and we sometimes have to remind the packers that bicycles have many fragile parts that could easily break given the way they manhandle our precious cargo. Once we know all of our equipment is on board and we make it through their hokey security system which consists of scanning everyone with a hand held metal detector that beeps at least 5 times per person, but they just ignore it and wave everyone through, we usually gripe for a few minutes about how rough they were with the bikes and how we hope that nothing got busted, but then we snuggle in for the long haul and it's typically fairly uneventful.
Our last bus trip, the 22-hour ride from Lima to Cusco, where we went with the most well-known and upscale bus company in Peru, Cruz del Sur, was by far our worst bus experience. Although we were reassured when we purchased our tickets that we could take our bikes with us, we had to fight tooth and nail to get them to put them on the bus with us. They tried to tell us there wasn't room and they could put one on our bus and one on the next, but we refused and argued in the best Spanish we could. Eventually they gave in and put both of them on the bus, but with the way they handled the bikes and shoved them in the storage compartment, we were sure we'd arrive in Cusco with severely mangled equipment. Then came the bus ride from hell. First of all it was way too long and second, they couldn't seem to control the air temperature and we'd be shivering and putting on more clothes one minute only to wake up the next minute completely drenched in sweat. Third, it was on the most curvy roads ever. We were constantly being flung from one side of our seat to the other, all night long. Half of the bus was sick and we were awoken several times during the night to the sounds of people around us wrenching their guts into bags or whatever they could find and sometimes just spewing into the aisle. Every time, I covered my face with my pillow, plugged my ears, tried to ignore the nauseous feeling that had overtaken me, hoped not to get sick and willed myself back to sleep. We have never been happier to get off of a bus than we were when we arrived in Cusco. I think that ride was the moment when we both decided we'd had enough of this bus stuff and although there are many more places we'd like to see in Peru, it is time to get back on our bikes.
In addition to spending a ton of time on buses, in bus stations, in taxis and in collectivos (something in between a large van and small bus where they pack in as many people as possible for a very cheap fare), we have spent our time over the past 2 weeks wandering around various cities, eating at local restaurants, checking out the abundant markets and living a somewhat quiet existence. The markets here are fantastic. You can find anything and everything you could possibly want or need, from food; restaurants, fresh produce, breads, grain and meat stalls abound, to housewares, clothes, movies, toys, seamstresses, art and trinkets of every kind. They go on forever, and ever....and ever. They're quite overwhelming and we have enjoyed getting lost in them, taking in the smells of the restaurants cooking up huge vats of soups and not so much enjoying the smells of the meat sections where nothing is refrigerated and whole skinned chickens, guinea pigs, fish and huge hunks of beef, pork and lamb parts hang from the ceilings. I usually hold my breath, close my eyes and walk as fast as I can through those sections hoping to not collide with anyone and cause a big scene. We have enjoyed the colors of the markets. The fabrics, trinkets, clothing and piles of stuff for sale is so abundant and comes in every color of the spectrum that when you're walking through the artisan markets it feels like you're lost in a technicolor dream world. Before long everything starts to look the same, you have no idea which stalls you've visited or how to get out of the craziness. It's mesmerizing and overstimulating, but beautiful at the same time. We have enjoyed the authenticity of the markets. There is generally no English spoken and it is where the locals eat and shop. It is their culture and it's fun to witness firsthand.
Scenes from the markets.
Lunch at the market...a ton of tasty food for very little money.
One of our more noteworthy excursions in Peru has been our backpacking trip in the Cordillera Blanca, outside of Huaraz. In this mountain range lies the tallest mountains in Peru and some of the tallest in the Andes. They are jagged, snow-capped and unbelievably beautiful. Although we didn't have all of the essential backpacking gear with us, like backpacks, we had the majority – a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, stove and warm clothes. We rented 2 backpacks, decided to hike the Santa Cruz route, which is supposedly one of the more beautiful treks within Huascaran National Park, did our grocery shopping and set out on our way. The first day we took a collectivo and then a taxi to Lake Llanganuco, a brilliant turquoise lake, surrounded by the red-orange barked quinoa trees, snow-topped mountains and on one side a massive black stone wall with green, purple, red and yellow plants growing out of it's vertical face. We weren't supposed to camp there, but it was too beautiful so we found a quiet nook on the far side of the lake to set up camp for a relaxing afternoon and evening of reading, taking in the views, hiking and acclimating to the 10,000 feet of elevation.
Huascaran Mountain as seen from the city of Huaraz.
Early the next morning we caught a bus that was passing by to take us to the start of the Santa Cruz trail. The bus was old, as most of them are here, with torn seat covers and seat cushions that had completely worn out decades ago and we took the last row of unoccupied seats in the very back of the bus. This ride wins hands down as the most intense, scary and perhaps most painful bus ride I've ever been on. Immediately after we boarded, the bus began to climb. The road was narrow, barely wide enough for a single bus. So what happens when we meet another vehicle coming the other direction, one must wonder. Well, we move over so that half of the tires on one side of the bus are hanging over the edge of the cliff. Then the two vehicles squeeze by each other, missing each other by mere millimeters. The road was steep. We thought we had been on some steep roads, but this takes the cake. The road was bumpy. It was covered in potholes and huge rocks and being in the back of the bus, we felt every single one of them, our spines compressing a little more each time as we flew into the air and then came crashing back down on the rock hard seats. We had sore backs even before our backpacking trip began. The road switch-backed its way up the side of the mountain, making unbelievably tight turns and I, who typically enjoy a thrilling ride, sat there white-knuckled, sweaty palmed, jaw clenched, with my heart racing, thinking we were for sure gonners. As I looked out the window I was unable to see an inch of road to the side of the bus, instead there was a drop of 1,000 feet, then 2,000 feet as we continued to climb. I sat there hoping for the ride to end soon so I could get off, whereas Mike was on a pure adrenaline rush, hopping from one side of the bus to the other so he could see out of the window.
We eventually made it over the continental divide to the trail head and I was able to relax and breath again. Sort of. Altitude always seems to get the best of me, giving me excruciating headaches, making it hard to breath and making me feel weak and tired. On top of that, the backpack I was wearing was garbage and hurt both my back and shoulders. As much as I was looking forward to trekking, it was very difficult to fully enjoy it because I was so uncomfortable.
Mike at the start of the Santa Cruz hike.
The first day of the trek, we met up with a couple from Colorado, Zach and Heather and they became our hiking partners. They were much faster hikers than us, well mostly me, but it was fun having company along the trail and at camp. Our first day was pretty good as we wove our way up a narrow valley, through several small villages. Though it was mostly foggy and drizzly and we were unable to see the tops of the mountains, the clouds rushing up the valleys between the mountains gave the park a mysterious feeling and though it was difficult to capture with a picture, it was stunningly beautiful. That night we had a hard time finding a place to camp even though the park technically had designated camping areas with toilets. It turned out that the toilets were once upon a time nice facilities, as far as back country facilities go, but were now run down, roofless, door-less, shacks that you don't want to go within 50 feet of. It's hard to believe they couldn't afford to maintain these restrooms with the amount that each visitor to the park has to pay, which wasn't cheap. Anyway, we eventually settled on a semi-flat area next to a river in a cow pasture. In fact, pretty much all of Huascaran National Park is a cow, donkey, sheep or horse pasture. We spent much of our time dodging piles of various animal poo and camping was no different. It was a challenge finding a clean spot big enough for our tents and we were certain that we'd get sick drinking the water despite our triple purifying techniques of boiling, filtering through a bandana and adding iodine tablets. There was literally poo everywhere and we were frequently reminded that we were imposing on a herd of cows' territory by their loud mooing and constant snooping around our tents.
Cows in our camp.
The second day of our trek was summit day so we got an early start. I, of course, had a migraine so Mike opted to carry the uncomfortable backpack. We spent the first 5 hours of the day climbing. Again we knew we were surrounded by massive peaks, but only on a few rare occasions did the clouds part and were we able to catch a glimpse of their size. As we neared the pass, rain began to fall which quickly turned into hail and ultimately snow as we reached the top of almost 16,000 feet. We piled on a few more layers of clothes, snapped a quick picture and began descending down the other side to one of the most picturesque settings I've ever seen. We were standing on top of a mountain, looking to our right at a much bigger mountain covered with wicked looking glaciers and crevasses, it's peak surrounded by clouds and we listened to the rumble of avalanches rushing down its slopes. Down below was a brilliant teal colored lake and to our left was a narrow, green valley with spectacular mountains on either side of it and lakes dotting the valley as far as we could see. At that point we were dreaming of what this place would look like on a clear day. It would have been breath-taking.
Freezing on the summit - 15,617 feet.
Mike just past the summit.
That night we again camped in a cow pasture and the following morning I was so sick I couldn't eat or drink and we decided to hike the remaining 15 miles in one day rather than camp another night. We spent a large portion of the early morning navigating a flooded pasture, leaping over rivers and attempting to find any dry patches of grass we could. In the end, we both ended up with soaking wet, poo-water filled shoes, oh and we were wearing running shoes because we obviously aren't carrying heavy hiking boots on our bikes. It was disgusting. Then the major descending began on super steep, rocky trails. Although I was no longer sick and my headache had ceased, we were beat by the time we made it to the end. Our knees felt like we were 90 years old, Mike's back and shoulders were wrecked from that stupid backpack and I was puffed up like a giant marshmallow. My typically veiny hands were like loaves of leavened bread, my typically skinny fingers were like 10 massive sausages, unable to bend or come close to making a fist. My feet were so swollen they could barely fit into my shoes and my legs were the same size from my knees down to my feet. We were a mess and it took several days before we were finally back to normal. Thankfully, you can walk into any pharmacy here and order just about any drug you want without a prescription, so we got me a supply of diamox in hopes that all of this wouldn't happen again in a few days when we arrived in Cusco, another city nestled high in the Andes.
Huascaran National Park
Mike, Zach, Heather and Cari enjoying a celebratory drink after the hike while listening to the man, whose house we were at, play the harp.
Our second noteworthy excursion in Peru was our trip to Machu Picchu. We booked a simple tour through one of the agencies in Cusco, and though we would have liked arrange everything ourselves (being the control freak that I am), we did the math and it was actually cheaper to go through an agency. It doesn't make much sense, but that's the way it goes. We have been in South America now for a month and we've learned quite a bit about how things work down here. Tourists get ripped off on just about everything and we decided we had had enough. The night before we booked our tour, we wandered around Cusco getting quotes from several agencies. They were all offering more or less the same thing for about the same price. The following morning, we walked into our chosen agency and told them we were booking with them because they gave us the best quote. They asked us what price they told us last night and straight to their faces we lied to them and told them a good $50 less than what they had said. Ha. We were playing their game. They kind of shook their heads and asked if we were sure that was the price. Oh yes, that was the price, otherwise we wouldn't be here. They knew we were lying through our teeth but they wanted our money even if they weren't making a big profit. It's the low season and every agency is fighting for business. They gave us the tour for our stated price and the following morning we were on our way to Machu Picchu.
There is no organization in this country and it drives me nuts. Our tour was chaos from the start. The first leg was supposed to be a bus trip from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Instead, when we showed up at the agency, a guy from the agency, the two of us and 2 other people who were definitely not going to Machu Picchu, but needed to go to Ollantaytambo stuffed ourselves into a taxi and we drove around the block in heavy traffic which took a good 15 minutes. Suddenly the guy from the agency jumped out of the taxi and took off running. He met us back at the taxi station a few minutes later, jumped in the car, gave us our train tickets, wrote down the name of our hostel and jumped back out. We drove to Ollantaytambo and then took the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Upon our arrival, there was supposed to be someone there to meet us. Of course, there was no one so we started searching for our hostel. Aguas Calientes is nothing more than a stopping place for everyone who visits Machu Picchu. There are about 500 hotels, 500 restaurants and 1,000 souvenir shops. We'd stop and ask for the Golden House Hotel and the person would send us up a street, which eventually dead ended with no sign of any such hostel. We'd ask another person and be sent to another part of town. And on and on and on. We finally found it, checked in and were told that our scheduled 7:30 meeting would instead be a 10:00 because our guide was tired and was sleeping.
No problem, we'll go check out the town and have some dinner. Just like the tour agencies in Cusco, the restaurants in Aguas Calientes are fighting for customers, each one of them with someone standing outside, pulling you aside to negotiate a deal. We finally chose a pizza place where we got a good deal, enjoyed our meal and then the check came and there was a “service tax” on it. That's just another one of those hidden tourist scams where they add a tax and we all pay it. Well, our bad-ass tourist attitude had been in full swing for a few days by now and knowing that there's no tax in Peru, we got into a big argument with the owner of the restaurant. It wasn't that the tax was all that much money and we likely would have left that for a tip, but the fact that they all try to weasel an extra dollar or two out of you everywhere you go is really annoying. We listened to her sob story about how they don't make any money and how we should pay her extra, Mike's reply of we're not stupid, we know what you're doing and just because we're tourists doesn't mean we're rich and my reply of we're paying you the cost of our meal or we're paying you nothing ended with me walking to another store, getting the exact change we needed (minus the service tax), slamming it down on the table and storming away. Sometimes travel can be so frustrating.
We returned to our hotel for the meeting with our guide and were pleased to find there was another couple in our group, Carla and Miguel from Ecuador. At this point we were hoping to be fully clued in to what was happening the following day, but given our record with organized tours, I don't know why we would possibly think such a thing could be possible. We needed our entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, but our guide didn't have them at the time. She told us she would put them under our bedroom door sometime in the middle of the night because she still had to go buy them. The next morning we were to get ourselves up at 3:30, eat our “good, healthy breakfast” and then start hiking at 4:30, without our guide. Our directions were to walk down the road and along the river. There would be lots of people and we couldn't get lost. Well, of course we can get lost; it's pitch black outside and none of us have a clue where we are. Whatever, we went to bed and woke up in the morning to find our entrance tickets on the floor. A promising sign. We headed downstairs for breakfast and our good, healthy breakfast was sitting on the table for us, consisting of tea, coffee, 2 slices of bread for each of us, butter and jam. I'm not sure how this was considered a good, healthy breakfast, but it had to do. We took off walking down the street. No one else was out. We eventually caught up with another group of 3 and we all walked together along the forested, dark riverside trail to the bridge leading into the National Park. There were many more people there, all of us wanting to be amongst the first 400 into the park so we would be allowed to climb the mountain Wyna-Picchu which overlooks the ruins. The only way to obtain one of the coveted tickets is to walk, as the buses don't run until a bit later and by the time they arrive, everyone who walks is already in line at the gate. It was a grueling hour and a half hike at 4:30 in the morning, but we got our stamp and entered the park.
We had a free couple of hours to wander around before our guided tour began which was nice because the hordes of people had not yet arrived. It was a foggy morning with the clouds alternately socking in the entire mountain and then clearing for a few minutes so we could catch a view of the ruins. Although I had been to Machu Picchu before, I still found it to be a wondrous place. And even though Mike wasn't originally overly thrilled about the idea of visiting this commercialized tourist trap, he immediately discovered it really is an incredible place despite being touristy. The ruins themselves are unlike any of the other Inca ruins around Cusco. They are actually intact, massive and with only a little tiny bit of imagination you can visualize what this society looked like when it was a living, working civilization. The setting is spectacular with sheer cliffs surrounding the city and mountains and jungle in every direction you look. The Incas couldn't have chosen a more beautiful place to live.
The two hours of exploring passed quickly and as we were told, we met our guide at the front gate. As soon as she met us, she pawned us all off on another tour group and disappeared. Honestly we weren't too disappointed about that because we didn't really like her anyway and our new guide was fun, knowledgeable and hilarious. The tour was great and afterwards we opted out of climbing Wyna-Picchu because it was still foggy and we didn't feel like climbing all the way up there only to see fog. We spent a bit more time wandering around and talking to some people we'd met and then took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes.
Back in town, we were told we had to pick up our return train tickets from some restaurant. We showed up but there were no tickets in our names. Frustrated, we went back to the hotel to tell our guide, who replied that our tickets were being faxed to her and we could pick them up in an hour. Meanwhile, we decided to go get our luggage out of our room, but we opened the door to find someone elses stuff in the room and our stuff gone. Downstairs we found our guide in the kitchen and our bags were there. We reached to pick them up, but she grabbed them first, locked them in a closet and said we couldn't have them because the agency hadn't paid for our room yet. Oh boy, so now our luggage is being held hostage for something that was in no way our fault. We paid our money, this dilemma was between this woman and the agency and somehow we're stuck in the middle. We told her we wanted to go to the police and her reply was that we'd go in 20 minutes when she finished her lunch. At that point, I was raging mad and in utter disbelief. She told me to go wait outside, but I refused. I stood in the kitchen with her until she and the other hotel worker got pissed off at me and proceeded to lock themselves in the closet with our luggage and eat their lunch in there. I was ready to kick in the door but then Mike got up to peek through the crack to see what they were doing. And then the door opened. Mike boldly stated he was taking his luggage and going to the police as he grabbed it right out from under her. There was nothing she could do. We joined the other couple in the lobby and the 4 of us listened to her sob story about how she has to work so much, doesn't make any money and how we tourists just come into her country and don't show any respect. It went on for way too long and I eventually turned off my Spanish translators and heard nothing more than blah, blah, blah. I had had enough.
Sometime in the next half hour as Carla and Miguel were trying to straighten out their end of the mess, our guide got a phone call, the money had been transferred, and we all walked down to the train station to pick up our tickets. Finally, we were done dealing with this woman. The four of us went to a bar to decompress and laugh off the outrageousness of the past day's events. But, we weren't home yet. The train was uneventful, but when we arrived back in Ollantaytambo there was supposed to be someone from the agency waiting for us to take us back to Cusco. No one was there. We buddied up to a taxi driver and told him our dilemma, he called the agency, apparently we had been put on an earlier train than they had expected so we should wait for an hour until the next train and then someone would be there to pick us up. Okay fine, we started walking up the street to find a restaurant to sit in when someone approached us with a sign containing our names. She was from the agency and we were told we'd be on her bus. Communication, organization...they need some major help down here! We finally made it home around midnight that night. What a long, strange trip it had been!
Miguel, Carla, Cari and Mike after the whole Machu Picchu ordeal.
It was good to be back in Cusco and we spent our Thanksgiving visiting yet another market, which we're getting sick of at this point because they're always just a lot of the same old stuff, running errands and making phone calls. We had a reservation at a restaurant in town that was serving a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so we enjoyed our night out amongst many other US travelers. We stuffed ourselves in the typical Thanksgiving fashion with turkey (Mike only), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, stuffing and between the two of us an entire 9x13 baking dish full of veggies. Then to top it off we got apple pie and ice cream. It was delicious and though we weren't surrounded by the familiar love of family and friends, it was really nice to have a little taste of home!
Thanksgiving in Peru.
And really delicious pie and ice cream for dessert.
Well, we're almost to Chile where we'll be getting back on our bikes. The only thing left to endure before we start pedaling again is another 20-hour bus ride and a border crossing. Hopefully it will go smoothly. We're ready for some smooth sailing.