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.