A Non-Traditional Christmas in the Sacred Valley

Jorge and I are situated this year, both physically and financially, in such a way that going home to spend the holidays with either family was pretty much impossible.

But friends, family and food constitute the holidays, right? In light of the fact that we are new to Cusco, are still partially digesting the Thanksgiving explosion less than a month ago, and love to travel, we decided to have a non-traditional celebration in…you guessed it…MACHU PICCHU.

Due to Jorge’s work schedule, we booked a two-day tour. This option meant leaving Cusco at 8AM, driving for about six hours through perilous mountain roads, stopping once to pee, and then finally arriving at the hydroelectric dam — the last stop on the road toward the base city of Aguascalientes.

Off we go to on our extremely economical and totally

disorganized tour to Machu Picchu!

The tour company made mention of the fact that on the road to the hydroelectric dam, sometimes there are landslides. And sometimes, the roads have to close. And other times, people, you know, sorta die.

Okay. We thought about this for a while. These tour companies don’t want dead tourists because it would mean the death of their business, so we knew at least that this route has heavy traffic, albeit it being slightly dangerous. The only other way to get to our destination would be spend a couple hundred extra dollars to go by train. The Sacred Valley region is entering the rainy season, which puts these high-altitude mountain roads at a higher risk of landslides. Being that the rainy season is JUST starting, it’s not as dangerous as January or February, when these tours sometimes stop altogether.

So, being that it’s still being offered, we probably won’t die, I reasoned. And if we want to go the economical route, there is literally only one road connecting the Sacred Valley with the Machu Picchu area.

One.

In fact, this road starts in the valley area of Cusco — very dry air, pretty high altitude, lots of regular forests and agriculture. You go up, up, up for hours — at the tippy top, when we were most definitely traversing a cloud, I saw a sign that said we were at 4,300 meters. More than 14,000 feet. We were told by the driver that we would not be stopping at any part of this part of the mountain road, due to the altitude and potentiality for getting sick. Way up there, I felt the headache kick in, as well as drowsiness.

Once we crossed the tree line descending on the other side of the sierra, I noticed things looked a little different. Way more lush, much greener and…HUMID. The jungle side of the mountains had begun, and the further along we went, the more I felt like I’d suddenly transported to Costa Rica or somewhere similar. I loved it.

This winding mountain road was completely rife with danger, and I am being quite serious. It seemed to be really just a one-and-a-half lane highway, and we passed several areas where fallen rocks had blocked off one half of the road. Furthermore, the engineers were really working against nature, as the mountain had several outlets of (natural) GUSHING water that sometimes was diverted below the road, but oftentimes, just cascaded over top of the pavement. I honestly thought a few times that the gushing water would carry us away off the cliff.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. BUT IT WAS STILL SCARY!

During the final leg of our journey, right before we got to the dam, we encountered an interesting skirmish. When rounding a tight bend, our driver nearly crashed into an coming truck that had violated the rules of mountain road driving. The offending driver had approached the curve in the center of the road and hadn’t swung out wide, as you must do. So, we almost crashed head on. Our driver was understandably upset, so he called out to him something to the effect of “Hey, obey the rules, or we’re all gonna be in trouble here!”

Well, the other driver didn’t like being called out. Maybe it had to do with the 13 people piled in the back of his truck overhearing his honor being questioned. At any rate, Other Driver stopped the truck, and got out.

The Rules of Road Rage told me this was a very bad sign.

Other Driver then he came up to our driver’s window. They began a heated conversation that involved a lot of “you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I overheard them make an actual plan to meet later to physically fight about this.

And then someone punched someone. I’m not sure who it was, but our driver began fist-fighting with this man through the window. It was so ridiculous I laughed, but it didn’t stop. Luckily, people who are better at these situations stepped in to handle it — namely Jorge and two other guys on the bus, who began trying to intervene to get these men to calm down. Finally, our driver put up the window and we drove away like nothing had happened.

We arrived to the hydroelectric dam around 3:00 PM, where the road officially ends. From the dam, there’s only two ways to arrive to Aguascalientes (the base city to Machu Picchu): WALKING or the TRAIN.

We ate a quick lunch (included in our tour payment) after a brief scuffle with the tour guides who greeted us at the dam. Our names had been mysteriously lost from the list, and they had to make a series of languorous phone calls, accompanied by vigorous receipt-demonstrating on our end, before we were led to the restaurant.

After eating, our trek to Aguascalientes began. The trail follows the train tracks to Aguascalientes, so all the paying customers can look at us vagabonds hoofing it along the side. It takes two full hours, walking at a moderate pace. The trek was gorgeous, and the only real difficulty was that, at times, one had to walk close to the tracks, and therefore over unstable rocks which slows progress. We caught a random Jungle Rainbow along the way.

Random Jungle Rainbow Alert!

Two hours of hiking is perhaps tiring but not the end of the world. Though I definitely stressed a muscle behind my right knee from all the unsure rock balancing; nothing major. I was certainly ready to sit down once we got to Aguascalientes, though! We met a different guide in the main plaza, who then took us to our hostel and gave us instructions for where to meet for dinner.

We had roughly an hour and a half before we needed to meet at dinner, 8 PM. So Jorge and I headed to the famous HOT SPRINGS (which the city is named after — “Hot Waters”) where we rested our weary hiker bones in the medicinal waters for about a half hour.

At dinner, the guide explained to us how the next day would go. We could either take a bus at 6AM to arrive at the Machu gates by 6:30 AM, or we could wake up at 4 AM to begin a roughly 2 hour hike of pure vertical steps.

We chose the hike, for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer experience of it — what better way to experience the Picchu than trekking up the mountain like the ancient Incans? Another was physical prowess, as most of my readers know I like to challenge myself in specific ways just to know that I can DO it. And, lastly, there’s the money aspect. Though the bus wasn’t expensive by any means — a measly $10 — it’s extra things like that that add up.

So we got our butts out of bed at 4 AM, and started the hike to Macchu Pichu.

Sunrise occurred around 5:30 AM, once we were past the front gates where they checked our passports. The first leg of the walk to get to the control gate was easy — just getting out of the city. But once we crossed the entrance — across a huge bridge with the angry river roaring beneath — the STAIRS began.

I kid you not, I was out of breath after the equivalent of two flights. I paused. I continued. Then I paused again, after a shorter distance. And then, I began something I like to call “The Tour of Desperation.”

I don’t know how many steps there were in all, but let’s be clear on one thing: I’ve climbed the Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai, and I repented harder climbing to Machu Picchu. I began my Tour of Desperation once I realized that I had a full hour and a half of climbing these freaking steep stone steps ahead of me, and after only ten minutes I was ready to lay down.

The Tour of Desperation included highlights such as: the particular corner where I sat down for the first time and thought, “Well, damn, it can’t be that high.”; the variety of instances where plenty of athletic and probably bionic people breezed past us, barely panting; the particular stretch of steps where I began imagining all the other places I’d like to be instead of those stairs, including Hawaii, followed by vivid imaginations of receiving a lei upon arrival; the dense corner of vegetation where I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t actually make it to the top; the time I reached the road designed for the buses and I thought the trek was over, only to be followed by four more excruciating flights of damnable stairs; and, lastly, the time I heard voices above us on the path and my innards leapt with joy, only to realize we hadn’t reached the end, and the path would probably never end, and it was all a giant trap concocted by the ancient Incans to capture healthy humans from the future to use as sacrifices in the past.

A shot of Jorge climbing the stairs. The blur might suggest he was moving very fast, but trust me, he wasn’t.

We did finally make it to the top, only to begin a multiple hour tour of the complex. We found our tour guide and, after a quick snack, we began to meander through the ancient city.

The place was incredible. I forget entirely about the fact that I might have to amputate a thigh from overuse and instead, got completely lost in the guide’s explanations of the environs. They estimate the city was built in the 1400’s, and was one of multiple cities in the region commissioned by the then-leader of the Incans. It was primarily a religious center, and also had plenty of astronomical observation centers. One thing I especially liked was the naturally-irrigating agricultural steps, shown below.

They grew things like corn on the different levels.

Our tour lasted about two hours then we had a few hours to wander around and take ample photos. We climbed up to the highest point of Machu, took plenty of selfies, visited with some alpacas, and basically enjoyed the insane views from the mountaintop city. We could see the river down below that marked our starting point — we think we climbed about a mile upward, all told.

Taking some shots around 7 AM, before the morning fog had cleared.

Behold the majesty of the lost Incan city! They call it ‘lost’ because it wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s — meaning the Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked this gem. And thankfully so!

See that river down there? That’s where we started.

Just enjoying the MAGICAL JUNGLE VIEWS.

Mister Machu. The Incans were most likely freaks, based on the manner of city construction. I’m sure they were 90% thigh, at least. Our guide mentioned that the next Incan city over is roughly 120 km away — a hike that for us nowadays would take 3 or 4 days, but for the Incans, took a matter of hours.

Money shot!

When there’s animals nearby, Jorge must meet them.

Merry Christmas from the tippy top point of Machu Picchu!

We all know what happens next, right? We have to get OFF the mountain. Thank GOD for physics — what goes up must come down. To be fair, we could have taken the bus, but again, chose not to. Besides, going down is always easier than going up. Though our knees were a little worse for the wear afterward, the 2 hour trek up became a 1 hour trek down. Practically a walk in the (extremely humid and steep) park.

But then came our return hike to the hydroelectric dam, where our return bus would be waiting for us. Two more hours walking after a full day of climbing, sweating, and desperate thoughts? Sure. Why not. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

We got to the dam around 2 PM, ate a quick lunch, and then went to the pick-up area for the return trip to Cusco. A lot of people milled around, and I overheard a heated conversation between a  tourist and a guide nearby.

Turns out, the disorganization of the tour company had reached another peak. I had mentioned to Jorge at one point of our trip that I didn’t really trust that this company was looking out for us. It seemed like in order for things to get done, we had to be exceptionally on our toes. Making sure we had receipts ready and knowing what came next ahead of time.

And this was the case here. When we arrived, we were told there were no spots for us on the return bus. We reminded the guide that we had paid, showed the receipt, demanded that we be provided with this service. He suggested we just buy our spots on the bus to Cusco AGAIN, which was laughable, considering we had proof of already paying this. He ignored us for a bit, made some phone calls, was approached by other angry tourists. I felt bad for the guy — I know it wasn’t his fault, but rather the whole company’s approach was just poor, and he was the guy on the front lines receiving the brunt of it.

After a tense half hour, another bus did arrive, and we were allowed to board. Most of the other tourists in limbo were also able to board — some had been waiting (and been ignored) for over three hours.

Our return drive didn’t include any fist-fights (unfortunately?), but it DID include an active landslide. Helloooo, rainy season! We watched as rocks tumbled from the mountainside and onto the road, some continuing off the cliff. They weren’t boulder by any means, but one of those to the side of the van would definitely break a window — and possibly a head. Our driver waited tensely until the frequency of the landslide slowed.

And then he freaking gunned it.

We made it through alive, some of us actively trying to avoid peeing our pants (me). Another several hours later, we made it back safely, and dead tired, to Cusco.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!!

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Bolivian Blockades: Part One

A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: “Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. ”

After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken.

From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation…and cheap as hell everything.

I don’t want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds — the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.

But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience:

SHANNON or JORGE: I’ll have the gnocchi.
WAITER: Oh, we’re out of that.
S or J: Okay, uh…*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?
WAITER: No, we don’t have that either.

Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.

This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we’d leave that night at 8:30PM.

So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don’t tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni.

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.

We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.

Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright — and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level — that’s about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it’s winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.
Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn’t say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze.

After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn’t pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren’t traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped.

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.
Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn’t think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.

On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we’d been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,

“The protesters are blocking our road back into the city,” he explains. “The one we took this morning can’t be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away.”

But they didn’t go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it.

With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city.

I didn’t know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.

The inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we’d been following. We were on our own.

The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren’t necessarily in danger…but we didn’t want an errant rock through the window, either.

Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.

To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders.

And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.

We’d been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it — we were in the city limits now, no turning back — and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.

This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we’d driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they’d take all our stuff first?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back.