Best Of Bolivia and Peru

A five-hour layover in Lima at the end of my five-week vacation has given me a final chance to reflect on my trip, so here on some final thoughts before getting back to the real world.

Favorite places: I loved La Paz more than any other big city that I visited. It has the best museums (particularly for contemporary art), the best vistas, exciting nightlife, friendly people, rich culture, and a vibe that was welcoming and laid back, a sharp contrast to the constant hussles of Cusco, although I enjoyed that and ever city I visited. I also love the varied countryside about La Paz, but nothing can beat Machupicchu for pure beauty and magic. It really lives up to and exceeds the hype, particuarly when seeing it at dawn at the culmination of a long journey. Other ruins that bowled me over were those around Pisac and Saqsaywaman just north of Cusco. They were just mind boggling markers of history and feats of engineering and architecture.

Favorite foods: The best meal I ate was at Mi Peru in La Paz, a decadent shrimp and crayfish dish with amazing rice and a complimentary appetizer of ceviche served in clam shells. But the best meals for the money were just about every set menu almuerzo that I ate in every city I visited, the best being an 8 boliviano (about a buck) spread at a sidewalk cafe on the Prado in Cochabamba. My favorite snack was the salteños in La Paz, which are tasty, cheap and fun to eat. The best surprise was a late night burger in Lima from a sidewalk shack, with great sauce and a crunch from shoestring potatoes.

Weirdest food: Eating cuy (wild guinea pig native to Peru) in Pisac right next to a cool little guinea pig farm crawling with the cute critters. On the night before leaving on my trek to Machupicchu, I had a huge Andean BBQ at a nice restaurant on Plaza de Armas in Cusco, which included a quarter cuy and lots of other critters, as well as several types of organ meat. By the end of my trip, I really came to love the skewers of cow heart that you can buy from sidewalk vendors in many cities in Bolivia and Peru. The alpaca meat was also good, but also a bit weird after seeign llamas everywhere I went.

Best deals: Full body massages in Cusco, which cost 20 to 30 soles ($7-$10) for a full hour. Despite the abundance of offers, cheap price, and seeming seediness of being aggressively propositioned in the streets by hot young Peruvian women, most of them really know what they´re doing. I think I had five of them during my stay, with most better than massages I´ve had back in the states for 10 times the price. Bus trips are also great deals, usually less than 10 bucks even for long journeys. Rooms in Bolivia are also a steal. My private room with gorgeous lake view on Isle del Sol was just 30 Bs, or less than four bucks. Shoe shines from the masked young men in La Paz. Fresh squeezed orange juice from street vendors.

Great moments: Learning folkloric dances and drinking jungeños til dawn at Peña Ojo de Agua in La Paz. Watching an amazing thunderstorm from a candlelit dinner table on Isle del Sol with fellow travelers that I´d just met but who I would randomly bump into throughout the rest of my trip. Swimming in the hot spring at Santa Theresa after three tough days of trekking. Drinking Cuba Libres until 1 a.m. by a raging river in Aguas Calientes then getting up a few hours later to catch a gorgeous dawn at Machupicchu. Singing `We Will Rock You`at a Cochabamba karoake bar during a date with a beautiful singer from there, then listening to her do some beautiful Spanish ballads. Dancing to the fantastic (if anti-gringo) band Atajo at Equinoccio in La Paz, then being awakened early by Dia del Mar celebrations in Plaza Avaroa in front of my apartment and watching President Evo Morales speak from my window. Eating trucha (complete with head full of teeth) at a lakeside stand in Copacabana. Dancing my ass off and getting beautiful smiles of appreciation for it at Mama Africa in Cusco. Relaxing as a supposedly haunted president palace after a fun, long Ghost Ride on a great full suspension mountain bike. Playing a Bolivian dice game on St. Patrick´s Day with a big group of locals and travelers on the deck of Irish Bar in La Paz. Standing next to epic Mt. Salkantay after making a strong climb to the 4500 meter pass on the second day of my trek to Machupicchu. An epic day of single track mountain biking that ended in a harrowing hike out in darkness after getting lost and hemmed in by cliffs. Lying in the grass at Saqsaywaman after a big night. Walking through the market in El Alto. Watching President Morales and the Bolivians play a benefit soccer game against Maradona and he Argentinians. Connecting with random people while speaking Spanish.

Regrets: Just one: not taking advantage of the opportunity to tour the surreal San Pedro Prison in La Paz, which was the subject the book and soon-to-be movie Marching Powder. If I had more time, there are dozens more places I would loved to visit, from the galleries of Santa Cruz to wild Amazon jungle and mines of Potosi in Bolivia, and in Peru, the reed islands off Puno to the city of Ariquepa to the Burners Without Border encampment in coastal Pisco, where they’re doing earthquake rebuilding work. And that´s not even including all the other great South American countries that I heard exciting stories about from fellow travelers. So I suppose that leaves me many, many reasons to come back. Hasta luego, mis amigos y amigas.  

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Age and travel

Sitting in the bar at the Loki Hostel in Cusco, Peru, I can’t help but feel a little old. I’ll be 40 this year, almost twice the average age in this room. It was the same story on my trek to Machupicchu and in most of the bars and clubs where I’ve been partying in Peru and Bolivia.

I can definitely hang with the younger set just fine and most youngsters are shocked to hear by age, but the fact is that my oldest daughter is the exact same age, 18, as many of the women in this hostel.

Did I miss it? Ever since I had kids earlier than planned, I told myself that we get our freedoms on one end or the other. This trip was partly about trying on for size the freedom that I’m finally beginning to attain. I do believe it fits, although it’s a suit that I still need to grow into and make my own. Perhaps I am too old for Loki Hostel, but not for trekking to Machupicchu or dancing until dawn, both activities I performed with a vigor that put many of my younger compatriots to shame.

Being a journalist for almost 20 years has saddled me with a credit card debt that prevents the kind of luxury travel enjoyed by many people my age. But it has also given me opportunities, knowledge, and a perspective that enriches the travel experience.

Most travelers are remarkably ignorant about the sociopolitical conditions of the countries the visit, as I’ve learned from my conversations with travelers young and old and rich and poor. Most know nothing of the recent revolutionary cycle cycle that sent one Bolivian president into exile in Miami and brought Evo Morales into power, or of Peru’s long struggle with Shining Path rebels or the corrupt and controversial rule of Alberto Fujimori, except perhaps what they learned from the tour guides about why it wasn’t until recent years that tourism to Machupicchu has exploded. Most travelers to Peru and Bolivia know more about the customs of ancient Incas than about today’s inhabitants of this beautiful but largely impoverished land.

I’m not judging. It’s the same almost everywhere. I run into the same resistance to discussing politics with my fellow trekkers that I do with my family and many friends in California (although far less so in San Francisco). Engagement with the issues of the day — such as the legacy of my country’s long and disgraceful foreign policy toward South America — is avoided by people of all ages and backgrounds.

But at least they’re here, exposed to other cultures and broadening their worldview (although the ‘they’ I refer to seems to be mostly Europeans, Australians, Israelis, and Canadians, which greatly outnumber the Americans I’ve encountered).

Would I have gleaned as much nuanced meaning from this trip when I was as young man? Probably not. Age brings a knowledge base and perspective that adds depth to the travel experience, or at least that’s a thesis that I intend to test as I enter a new phase of my life.  

From Salkantay to Machupicchu

CUSCO, PERU __ I arrived at Machupicchu just before dawn on Friday, winning my race with the sun but tired and dripping with sweat. The steep stairs from Aguas Calientes capped an epic five day trek: we hiked 80 kilometers through a wide variety of conditions and terrain, over a cold and beautiful pass next to tower Salkantay mountain one day, through the rain on muddy jungle trails the next, finally ending the journey at this ancient Inca city that is one of the seven wonders of the world. And as I gazed at sprawling Machupicchu in the soft and fresh sunlight, I was even more awestruck than I anticipated. There really is something uniquely magical about this place.

I think that I’ll need more time to fully process the experience, so for now let me just describe the high points of the journey that brought me there. It began on Monday at 5 a.m. when Marc (my Belgian buddy that I met on Isle del Sol) and I were picked up at our hostel, about an hour later than we’d been told. Then came one of those crazy South American bus trips, with colorful people (including cholitas and a guy with a bag of live chickens) getting on and off in random remote spots and the bus flying along a rutty dirt road past hairpin turns on the sides of steep cliffs with no railing.

Arriving in Mollepata, I met our group over a sparse breakfast, the last meal we would have to pay for until Friday. The group of 11 of us included two young guys from Chicago and two from Southern California, an attractive 28-year-old single woman from New Jersey, Marc from Belgium, and couple from the Czech Republic (although we called them Germans all week, an initial mistake that later seemed to fit their personalities so it stuck) and one from Australia (although Leo lived in his native Bogota, Columbia until six years ago). Five horses carried our supplies and we were guided and cared for by four tough and knowledgable Peruvianos.

We hiked about six hours the first day on fairly easy terrain, except for the steep shortcuts that guide Jose Luis led us through. But it was cold and windy when we arrived at the exposed camp below towering, snow-covered Salkantay. We slept and ate in tents and endured a frigid night that ended mercifully at 5 a.m. to begin our longest and hardest day of trekking: more than 10 hours starting with a climb of about 3,000 vertical feet (which I powered despite being the oldest person — 39 — on the trek) and then a drop of about 6,000 vertical feet over rocky and unstable terrain. Our knees and bodies were worked by the time we arrived at the charming and remote campout, pitching our tents on the lawn of a riverside subsistence farm — albeit one with outdoor bar and snack shack for the visiting turistas. Our meals were always great (tea and soup followed by a complete main course, always with a meat and the two starches that are standard in South American meals) and always prepared by our cooks, whether we were in the middle of nowhere or coopting a room in a farmhouse or restaurant).

That night, we had our first rain, which continued into the next day, making the trail along a roaring river muddy and nearly impassable in some sections. We also had to contend with nearly a dozen creek crossing, some quite treacherous on rickety bridges or hopping along slippery rocks (I and two other fell into the creeks at different points). Yet Jose Luis and the other Peruvians took in all in stride, the porters wearing sandals evne in the cold or rain. But the experience was really fun, made all the more exciting by its difficulty.

After the hike, the horseman (who always had a big wad of coca in his cheek) took the animals all the back back to the start, doing in a day and a half what it took us three to complete. Tough hombres! Because we were pretty well worked by the time we arrived at the hostel in Santa Theresa where we camped on the lawn, quickly changes into our swim clothes for the much anticipated visit to a natural hot springs a short microbus trip away.

This place was fantastic, a must do for anyone visiting the area and better than any resort I’ve visited in the states. For just 10 soles, we soaked for hours in a series of pools of varying temperatures and went under two cool waterfalls. All the stresses and aches were washed away and we came together as a group before a late supper followed by campfire that were used to catalyze conversation and dry our shoes.

The next day’s hike began with a fun ride over the river in a two-person cart suspended by a cable. The six-hour hike was fairly easy by comparison of the previous three hikes, with the first part along a dirt road (where we encountered many other groups making the pilgrammage to Machupicchu), the second part along the railroad tracks that ended at Aguas Caliente.

Despite being panned in the guidebooks as a dumpy and expensive tourist town through which all Machupicchu visitors must pass, I liked how it was built along a section of river with raging whitewater. In fact, we all liked the river so much that most of the group stayed up until 1 a.m. drinking Cuba Libres on a balcony of the hostel (yes, we stayed in actual rooms and got our first showers of the week) despite needing to get up at 4:30 a.m.

But lack of sleep didn’t deter our enthusiasm, desire to hike the final leg of our journey rather than take the bus, or appreciation of Machupicchu and the higher Waynapicchu, both of which I’ll write more about later.

P.S. My trip ends on Wednesday, so at most I’ll do one more post from down here and some reflections when I get back. Thanks for reading.

Preparing for Machu Picchu

Sunday is traditionally a day for rest and reflection in South America. That sounds pretty good to me after an active and eventful three days in Cusco, Peru. But I also have to do some packing and psyching myself up for my five-day trek to Machu Picchu that begins at 4 a.m. tomorrow.

The hike over Salkantaya will include 10 hours of high-altitude hiking on Tuesday, followed by cold camping at the snow line. Three nights in a tent will be followed Thursday night by a hostel stay in Aquas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu, and another 4:30 a.m. start time to catch dawn at the legendary lost Inca city in the clouds. Then we catch the train back and should be back in Cusco by 9 p.m. Friday.

Yesterday, after dancing until dawn at Mama Africa on Plaza de las Armas, I hiked to the four Inca ruins closest to town with Marc from Belgium. The most impressive was the closest, a huge fortification pronounced like ¨Sexy Woman.¨It was a massive and mind-blowing, with huge carved pieces stacked using just the manual labor of the 1400s.

I was exhausted by the time we finally reached Tambomachay (maybe it´s good to get more than a few hours sleep before trekking almost 10 miles) and crashed hard once i got back to my homey hostel (thanks for todo, Jose and Nancy). I might have just kept sleeping if I didn´t have dinner plans with a group of vacationing Limeñas that have adopted me. 

I somehow managed to stay out until after 1:30 again that night, but I really need to praise the Inca sun god or whatever divine power created the day of rest. I may just have to conjure up a few more of my own before my vacation ends on the 16th. Adios, amigos. Escribo mas en Sabado.  

What Bolivia needs from Barack Obama

I went to Bolivia partly for political and journalistic reasons. President Evo Morales seemed to me an exciting and romantic figure, a source of great hope for Bolivia and the rest of South America.

He came to power as part of a progressive trend that has swept the continent in recent years, fueled by a popular backlash against the imperialism and neoliberal economic policies of the United States, a country that has arrogantly and inappropriately been meddling in Latin American affairs since the Monroe Doctrine.

Evo even had something that other leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez didn´t. Evo is the first indigenous leader of a Latin American country and a former coca grower. And he has an undeniable charisma, which I saw first hand during a speech he gave in the plaza below my apartment window on Easter Sunday and in a soccer game benefitting Bolivian flood victims a few weeks ago, when he played center forward opposite legendary Argentinian player Maradona. 

Morales and his party, MAS or Movement Toward Socialism, was elected by an overwhelming margin in 2005 and seemed to represent a hopeful sign that perhaps our species was beginning to peacefully redress past grievances and more forward into a brighter and more equitable future.

But the reality is far more complicated in this and all countries struggling under the yoke of late capitalism and impatient democracy. The deck is stacked against would-be reformers, whether they be Evo Morales or Barack Obama.

Part of the problem is with the pueblos, or the people, and their understandably high expectations. Many Bolivians I met who voted for Evo and generally support his policies have lost confidence in him. They think he picks too many unnecessary fights and they no longer believe the slogan posted on signs throughout the country, Evo Cumple, which means he´s accomplishing what he promised to do.  

What Evo promised was a panoply of good things things for most Bolivians: greater indigenous rights, use of the country´s natural resources for the people´s needs, resistance to U.S. economic and drug war policies that hurt Bolivians, and a new constitution that is more equitable while expanding the economy, creating jobs, and raising the standard of living. It would already have been a tall order to fill, particularly give the ineffective and sometimes downright inept government that this outsider formed. But it´s made even more complicated by the resistance of the ruling class in this divided country, which is pushing for greater autonomy with which to resist Evo´s agenda.

It´s far easier to identify a country´s problems than to solve them. Does this sound familiar? The U.S. is a very different country from Bolivia in almost every way, but Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will face similar problems fixing the U.S. if one is elected in the fall (John McCain, who isn´t promising major reforms, isn´t in the same boat).

Like the indiginous Bolivians who have suffered generations worth of insults and unfulfilled promises, the U.S. anti-war, labor, and social justice movements that would form the base for a Democratic president are angry about losing ground for so long and will demand progress. Presidential timidity will quickly earn their scorn, while bold action in areas like socialized medicine, steeply increased taxes on the super-wealthy, or a drastically downsized military (you know, a Defense Department actually used just for defense) could create a crippling backlash from the U.S. center-right political spectrum.

Unlike in Bolivia, President Obama could have the benefit of a large, knowledgable, well-educated, and well-established stable of brilliant thinkers and experienced bureaucrats with which to put together a new government. And he seems to understand the importance of finding smart, driven people to fill top posts, unlike Clinton, who would likely turn to political loyalists and old hands from her husband´s administration, if her choice of campaign advisors is any indication.  

That has been part of Morale´s problems, the emphasis on symbolism over substance. He made his base happy by naming the first indigenous woman to be a top-level minister, a popular figure who went from maid to labor leader. But he named her to be the Justice Minister, a job for lawyers for which she wasn´t qualified, so she lasted less than a year and the episode weakened Morales.

But as long as we have a global economic system based on exploiting dwindling natural resources into an annual economic growth rate of at least 3 percent — rather than one that encourages sustainability — maybe politicians around the world can only achieve survival but not real success.  

Even with the overt emphasis in Evo´s party on moving toward socialism, Bolivia probably doesn´t have the power or resources to make that possible. Many of his critics told me that Evo needs more patience and that major transformation takes a long time, even if that´s not what Evo´s base wants to hear.

It might be easier and quicker for a U.S. president to affect the kind of reforms that would encourage a fundamental shift in the global economy. We have that kind of power. Unfortunately, we´re way behind Bolivia in terms of talking serious about these issues, and using words like socialism to talk about the answers to certain problems and sectors where capitalism is causing problems.

Maybe starting this kind of national dialogue would be the best thing a Democratic president could do for future generations. But that will take both political skills and the willingness to suffer bitter attacks and potential unpopularity before they can come out the other side.

Are Obama or Clinton up for that kind of task? For the sake of people in Bolivian, the U.S., and around the world, they had better be.

Evolving impressions of Cusco, Peru

My first impression of Cusco was not a good one. After a 10 hour bus trip from Cocacabana on Wednesday, with fitful sleep over the last couple hours, I arrived here around 11 p.m.

In the bus station, I was pounced on by more than a half-dozen men with hostel and hotel flyers, some grabbing me by the arm and trying to lead me to their cars. I went with a taxi driver who flashed me the badge hanging around his neck, but one of interlockuters jumped in the front seat to join us, earning a kick in the leg from one of his competitors.

My preferred hostel, Loki, was full, so I took the passenger´s advice and went to Arco Iris Hostel because he said it was 25 soles (about eight bucks), it was close to Plaza de las Armas in the center of town, and because it was late and I was tired and hungry. It turned out to be 30 soles and a dump: the room stank like shit, there were puddles of water on the bathroom floor from a leaking pipe, and the shower didn´t work. The taxi driver charged me a steep 20 soles, the other guy tried to get me to pay him for the room and wouldn´t leave me alone, and it took 10 minutes of ringing the buzzer to get in that first time and them later. And it wasn´t much better when I ventured out. Flyer-wielding hustlers filled every block around the plaza, I was offered cocaine, marijuana, and a prostitute within the first half-hour (all offers I politely refused), a weird guy lingered too close as I used an ATM, and my late dinner sucked. After a warm and welcoming Bolivia, this city felt dark and dirty, with everyone working scams.

I didn´t sleep well and in the morning got the hard sell for tours and an extended stay from my hostel´s senora. When I used their touted free Internet service, the booking computer at the front desk, I learned that Loki was still full and I was on a waiting list. Then the 11 a.m. checkout time I´d been told of turned out to be 9 a.m., forcing me to do my search for a new hostel with full backpack on steep cobbled streets.

Hostal Mira Sol, my preferred choice from Lonely Planet, wasn´t too far away but it turned out to be full. The guy directed me to another hostel just down the uninviting street. It wasn´t in the guidebook and I had become skeptical of advice from people here, but I was desperate.

Hospedaje Turistico Cassana turned out to be clean and nice, with a private room with bathroom and panoramic view of Cusco for 35 soles. And the guy who ran it was friendly, helpful, and soothing of my frayed nerves. He even brought me a pot of hot coca mate. After showering, unpacking, breathing, and taking in my view, things started to seem OK. The steep stairway next to the hostel led to a wonderful boulevard, Saphi, that led straight into Plaza de las Armas, where I had breakfast on a quaint balcony overlooking a scenic square that was once the heart of the Inca empire.

Yes, things were looking better by the light of day and with a cozy and secure place to call home for awhile. Next, I ran into Marc, a new friend from Belgium that I met on Isle del Sol, and we sussed out the trekking trips and booked a five-day hike to Machu Picchu that begins on Monday.

In the late afternoon, I got a massage, which at just 25 soles I might just do everyday. And we partied until the wee hours at some great clubs as I once again turned happy and social and met interesting people from all over the world.

I suppose that without a few lows, we don´t truly appreciate our highs.

Leaving Bolivia

I´m going to keep this quick because my bus from Cocacabana, Bolivia to Cuzco, Peru leaves in just over an hour, but I feel like I´ve let the blogging lapse as Í´ve been busy experiencing this beautiful country, which is probably for the best. I intend to write some concluding thoughts on Bolivia on my bus ride and post them in the next couple days, but for now let me just tell the story of my crazy bike ride on Friday and get into my amazing experiences on and around Lake Titicaca later.

I wanted to do some more single track mountain biking around La Paz so I went with a company called Downhill Madness, which offered a super challenging ride on great full suspension bikes. It was just me and a couple Jehovah´s Witness missionaries from the states who are now living in the Dominican Republic, and our guides Santos and Rusty.

The ride would have three parts in different places and it was an epic day right up until we rode a spot called Ima, where the landscape included huge chasms and tall spires of earth. There were deep holes and cliffs all around us, which was quite fun until we got lost and kept trying to go further, hoping we could find our way to the path. Eventually, we were surrounded by cliffs with no way out and darkness approaching, so we ended up having to walk three hours uphill in treacherous terrain before we could reach the ridge and get a cell phone signal for the truck to come get us.

OK, that was a far shorter version than I intended to write, but I´m running out of time. Lo siento. Check back later for something a bit more intelligent and interesting.