Run the equator: July 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

In steak heaven!

Salta's Franciscan church
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or here to access the set

"Travel days" are hallucinating tracts of time when for countless hours in a row we move from one point of our trip to the next. Getting from Tupiza, Bolivia to Salta, Argentina was one of those incredibly long days, during which the uncomfortable naps you take while being on board of a vehicle don't really count against the innumerable waking hours. It started when we woke up at a quarter to three to pack our bags and catch a southbound train that was supposed to leave at 4:10AM but in fact left with half hour of delay.

Three hours later we arrived in the freezing high-altitude (again...) town of Villazon and crossed the border to La Quiaca on foot, refusing all the transportation deals the touts at the railway station were offering us at overinflated prices (and we rightly did so; the prices on the other side were better). The Argentine border officer probably hadn't seen a Romanian passport in his life so he took a while trying to figure out what to do with it and whether I needed a visa or not, but in the end he stamped the 90 days stay and we moved on.

Interior of the cathedral

There are two things that strike the traveler after crossing the border between Argentina and Bolivia: on the Argentinian side there are newer cars, and the highways are paved. Going south on the slow downward slope of the Altiplano by bus was quite easy and comfortable and in 5 hours we made it to San Salvador de Jujuy, a larger town of which we only saw the bus terminal and the sandwich stand outside.

A mere one hour away in a very comfortable, bladder-friendly bus is Salta, a big old colonial town of 400,000 inhabitants. It was 6PM when we arrived, but once we did civilization struck us hard, and did so in the most favorable manner: by way of good food. Strolling on the Balcarce street we discovered the wonderful "La Leñita" restaurant which treated us with the best steaks I can honestly say I have ever had. The food was so good that after a less successful dinner attempt in a different restaurant the next night, we got back to La Leñita the third evening to revel in devouring tender, juicy beef cuts again. We have had steak for dinner every night since we got into this country...

We didn't do much for the rest of our time in Salta, besides strolling to the city center and back, lingering at sidewalk cafes, checking out some bookstores and eating well. Very well. So well... Ah!

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Friday, July 27, 2007

9 hours for 200km!

Hills around Tupiza
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or here to access the set
Posting this from Salta, Argentina. We made it!

Trying to get out of Uyuni was as plagued by uncertainty as our trying to get there. Rumors of miners blocking the rail tracks and all the access roads into Tupiza kept flying around in town. You would get different flavors of rumors depending on whom you would ask; by now we didn't believe anything anybody said, after being lied to too many times: about hotels having hot water, about bus rides only taking three hours, about tours leaving exactly at 10AM...

The best solution was to take the Sunday morning bus to Tupiza, rather than wait for the train that was leaving Uyuni on Monday at 2:30AM. Better by day than by night, knowing the temperature extremes we could expect... The bus was supposed to take 7 hours and, of course, it didn't have a bathroom, but the driver assured me he will stop every now and then. The problem was, there was nowhere to stop - the bus goes for hours through the desert and there's not even a tree in sight. The only real bathroom is in Atocha, 4 hours away from Uyuni.

Amazing carvings

There is no paved highway in the southern Bolivian Altiplano, and the stretch from Uyuni to Tupiza is no exception. At first the road is a pair of barely-visible tracks in the barren, sandy plain south of Uyuni; later it turns into a dusty ribbon carved in the steep sides of hills and canyons. At times, you find yourself praying for good brakes and for the driver's ability to take a dangerous turn. It took almost nine hours to get to Tupiza, but the drive ended without incident. Occasionally, the driver stopped to pick up or drop off people in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to me: no houses, no animals, no water. What were they doing there? I asked myself what would happen if a car breaks down on this road. There weren't many vehicles crossing in the other direction, and cell phones certainly didn't work. You would have to wait and have many blankets, in case you had to spend the night...

Tupiza is a small town in the southern Altiplano, and at 2900 meters altitude it's the smallest elevation we've been at in Bolivia. The area around it looks more like Arizona than the typical Altiplano landscape, and it's no wonder that Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid chose it for their last evil deeds: it must have reminded them of home...

For us, it was just another stop on the way to Argentina and a place to relax, do some horseback riding and eat a lot of pizza - since there's not much else in the way of food here. Connections in Internet cafes were very slow - there's only one provider in town, everybody shared the same line, and people loved to video-chat; even writing email was an agonizing challenge. We stayed at a decent hotel - the "Mitru", took a nice horseback tour with "Tupiza tours" and moved on. Bye-bye Bolivia!

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Adventures on the Altiplano

Salt mounds near Colchani
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Getting from A to B in an unpredictable country like Bolivia is no easy business and we were just about to find out why. In our case “A” meant La Paz and “B” Uyuni, a little town at 3670 meters altitude, the tourist gateway to the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. The trip between La Paz and Uyuni consists of a 3½ hours bus ride to Oruro – a large, ugly mining town – and from then on, a seven-hour train ride on one of the few surviving Bolivian rail tracks, to our final destination. Like the good tourists we were we booked our tickets through a travel agency in La Paz, only to have our plans messed with by the favorite pastime of South Americans: social protest.

The miners in the south of the country - particularly in the department of Potosi - had gone on strike, and after a couple of days of unsuccessful negotiations with the government they had decided walk out and to block various railways and roads until they got their demands agreed to. I haven’t been exactly able to understand what they wanted from the newspapers, because the few articles I’ve read assumed inside knowledge of prior events on the side of the reader and didn’t make it clear what the strike was about. I was able, however, to get some information from a cab driver: in short, it’s about money, of course!

The man and his sweater

Miners or not, the agency wasn’t selling train tickets anymore (and we got our money back) and we decided to take a calculated risk: we reserved rooms both in Oruro and in Uyuni (our final destination) and took the bus. If the train wasn’t going to leave that day we were going to stay overnight in Oruro and make our way south some other way.

En route to Oruro, the most incredible of itinerant sellers joined us: he started talkin about the dangers of cholesterol, of drinking too much soda, eating fatty meats, of not eating fruits, vegetables or healthy foods like soy - of which Bolivia is a major producer but not a consumer - and so on, in a scientific yet comprehensible language. After talking health generalities for 30 minutes he started to extoll the virtues of the product he was selling: cod-oil, made in China! Very healthy! I don't know if anybody bought some, but people were asking questions...

We were lucky in Oruro: we caught the train just as it was about to leave, and it did leave because the government had brought in the army and the police to keep that part of the country free of miners. Sure enough, the ticket was much cheaper as we bought it on the train than what the agency was charging.

Water bubbling out of the ground

The train ride was seven hours and ended in Uyuni at 2:30AM on a freezing night. Within two minutes of getting off the train Angela and I couldn't feel our toes anymore. It must have been -15 or -20 degrees celsius... Luckily we had a hotel reservation, but the short walk to its door was the most excruciating three blocks I've ever walked.

We ended up spending 4 nights in this god-forsaken dusty, tree-less town and on the third day we finally took the Salar de Uyuni tour. We decided for a one-day tour only, because the night-time temperatures in this area and the perspective of being crammed in an SUV (everybody calls them jeeps here, although they are all Toyotas) for four days together with 6 other people had cut off our enthusiasm for three- or four-day tours.

Geometric patterns with car

The Uyuni salt flats and the southern Bolivian Altiplano (of which we didn't see much, except what got through the window of our bus going south the next day) are not to be missed by any traveler to Bolivia. It was absolutely stunning, walking on that immensity of white, seeing the reflecting mountains in the distance, smelling the salt in the wind, looking at the endless pattern of hexagons sculpted in the fake snow... The pictures of things we didn't see - the lagoons with colored waters south of the salt flats, the rocky deserts reminding one of Martian landscapes seen in National Geographic, the high-altitude flamingos - looked even more amazing. All I can say is "I'll be back!" You know whose accent to use when you say that out loud....

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Monday, July 23, 2007

South is the way

We are finally in Tupiza, further south and closer to the Argentinian border. I have plenty of stories about our adventures trying to get from la Paz to Oruro, to Uyuni and then here, and many good pictures from the eerie Salar de Uyuni, but they may need to wait, since all the internet cafes in Tupiza are on dial-up. It took me 20 minutes to open the post window on and now I can only hope that pressing the "publish" button will be successful before the connection times out again!

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Our Lady of Peace

Downtown La Paz
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or here to access the set

I have never been to a city as geographically interesting as La Paz. Sure, I’ve seen pictures of it, but nothing prepared me for what I saw when I got here. To begin with, you read that the capital of Bolivia is at the bottom of a valley, but it isn’t a valley, it’s in fact a steep-walled canyon. The sprawling and dirt-poor suburb of El Alto sits on perfectly flat ground at the top of this canyon overlooking the real city below. If the residents of El Alto were to get pissed with their government they could walk to the edge of this ditch and throw rotten tomatoes at the presidential palace in Plaza Murillo…

The bottom of the canyon is the only flat ground available in town and it’s just enough for one large boulevard on whose sides the cross-streets rise sharply giving the city a terraced aspect. Besides all this, the bottom of this valley itself - the downtown - is “punctured” with smaller-scale ravines, so that between two main sections of the town one has to cross an elevated bridge which spans over a less-privileged neighborhood. “Nuestra Signora de La Paz”, by its old colonial name, is definitely an oddity among big cities and probably a tough nut to deal with for civil engineers.

Plaza San Francisco

As many guide-books say, the poor in this town enjoy better views than the rich and it is true: all but the steepest sides of the valley are covered with makeshift brick houses which can be usually reached just by stairs and sometimes by dirt alleys too steep for cars. God only knows how these multi-story shacks are erected, but the dominant theme seems to be “build until it’s habitable and don’t bother with the rest” – a principle which explains why the vast majority of houses outside the downtown, the colonial old town and the newer rich areas are never painted nor even covered in gypsum, and why the dominant color of this town, seen from any angle, is dark red: it’s all bare bricks.

Besides being the highest-altitude capital city in the world, La Paz could be famous for other things as well. If it were after me, I’d say it should be definitely known for its pastry shops: from the first day I noticed the many good-looking, clean cafes, having mouth-watering cakes and pastries on display. We didn’t try them all of course, but the ones we sampled were excellent and kept me going back for more.

Sagarnaga street

Shopping could be another reason to visit this town: not only there are western-quality malls, boutiques and department stores in La Paz – for the more snobbish of the visitors who wouldn’t buy anything in a place that doesn’t have air conditioning and elevator music – but the city itself is one giant, hyper-stocked market. The abundance of street sellers isn’t matched by anything I’ve seen so far – in fact, one day, walking on one of the narrow streets that was covered in makeshift booths selling all kinds of clothing, we spent so long without meeting a cross-street or any traffic, that we thought we would end in El Alto accidentally… I can’t vouch for the quality of the merchandise, but it certainly isn’t expensive by our standards. What I don’t understand is how these people can make a living – when there are three hundred booths selling T-shirts, how many of them can make a sale before the end of the day?

Angela did some shopping of course, but I don’t think we went over $150 with all the things we got. We didn’t get anything we didn’t really need (mostly stuff for the upcoming visit to the very cold salt flats of Uyuni) or could carry in our backpacks.

One thing we learned the hard way is that the rates for hotel rooms have climbed to almost double since our Lonely Planet guide-book authors have researched the place in 2005. We didn’t like our hotel very much ($16 for a reasonably large room with a shared bathroom in an old colonial house) so we went searching for alternatives, but everything we found in the under-$20 range was either very dirty or downright creepy: if you can imagine a dimly lit, strangely smelling corridor with doors opening into bunker-like rooms with windows only to the inside, you got a good mental picture – would you stay there? I came to appreciate our hostel much more after our day of bargain-hunting...

Popcorn seller in Plaza Murillo

After reading all the horror stories about tourists being tricked into following fake police officers into fake cabs to a fake police station and then forced at gunpoint to give away the PIN numbers for their bank cards and kept hostages until their accounts are emptied (gory details at at the beginning we were understandably very cautions while walking on the street or getting into taxis. Needless to say we were not approached by any scammers (and neither are the large majority of tourists in Bolivia), and basic common sense would prevent any such unhappy event from happening – they cannot trick you without some degree of cooperation from you; thus knowing that the real police never asks to see one’s passport and even less likely their wallet and credit cards should be enough of a hint.

To sum up, La Paz is a “must see” in my South America ranking and definitely a town I would return to, despite the lack of impressive architecture or famous museums. It seems that I’m not the only one holding this opinion: the place has already been invaded by hordes of young Israelis…

Addendum for those with inside knowledge: white people, stop wearing Andean striped pants, you look like you just got out of jail!

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Luxury in Bolivia?

Through the arch
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or here to access the set

As I mentioned before, we made it to Bolivia and spent some time in Copacabana on the shores of lake Titicaca doing... nothing. We even skipped that overrated bunch of rocks called "Isla Del Sol". We wanted to see it but various factors prevented us from taking that day-trip: either the weather was bad, or we had to change rooms, or again, I had I slight cold and preferred the coziness of our room to the great outdoors.

Speaking of rooms, the suite we had at "La Cupula" was without a doubt the best hotel room we had so far; kudos to the German owner and the management team. The best way to describe it would be to say that we actually enjoyed spending time in our room, which I cannot say about any other rooms we've had in the last three months. It was that good, yes, and cost us only $32 per night, price that got even lower since the first day there has been a power outage and the owner felt it was worth a discount to make the clients happy, and for the rest of the days we had a 10% discount for being South American Explorers members.

Copacabana is a tricky place though - food is dirt-cheap: you can get your belly full to burst for $5 but other things don't come in conveniently: there is no ATM so you're stuck changing money with the local exchange offices which give you a dismal value for your dollar, and even less if you want to change traveller's checks. There's one small bank on Avenida 6. de Agosto that has the best rates (but still bad) and where one can get cash advances on the credit cards - assuming one doesn't mind the hefty interest rates our banks at home usually charge for this service... In adittion, internet is very expensive, 12B/hour (about 1.5 dollars) - I know it doesn't sound like much, but for somebody like me who has to blog and upload pictures, it quickly adds up, and it doubles, since Angela is usually online as well at the same time. Compare that with the La Paz internet prices of 3B/hour...

Honestly, there's nothing to see in Copacabana proper, it's just a small, dirty town which happens to be on the tourist route between Peru and Bolivia and offers great views (but not necessarily the best) of Lake Titicaca. I'll have to see the lake again, there's something eerie and fascinating about this immensity of water situated so high up in the mountains...

We're now in La Paz, discovering the city street by street and trying to find deals on side-trips and hotels (since we don't like ours that much). Food is cheap as well - the first night we got here we rewarded ourselves with a gigantic Argentinian steak for dinner, with wine and all the good stuff, all for 180B - about $22 - for both of us. I know It's pointless to compare this with the prices in the United States but we wouldn't have gotten away without paying $150 for an equivalent dinner in Seattle. Leaving the understandably-overpriced US restaurant business aside, after seeing the price and the quality of fruits and vegetables in South America, Angela and I are already feeling outraged at the fact that grocery stores in our country charge insane prices for the same products (and double for the so-called "organics",) prices which cannot be explained economically except in terms of a fool's tax for a high living standard. Any opinions on this controversial topic?

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The heart of darkness

Posting from Copacabana, Bolivia, where I'm catching up with the events of the past days, blogger-wise!

A bird on the lake
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or here to access the set

Exploring the depths of the jungle was the last thing we wanted to do after the horrible ending of the Inca Trail, but we had already paid lots of money for it so we mustered all our energy, packed up and left for the airport at 7am only to find out that our flight has been changed to 12:30pm... we could have slept, at least...

But it all turned out all right, and our jungle trip was much more relaxing than expected. Of course, there was walking involved (but not up and down) there were mosquitoes and sand-flies, but a good concentration of deet on your skin would scare the hell out of any living bug. The jungle-style accommodations (rooms open to the forest, no doors - just curtains, etc) were more comfortable than we thought - great beds, clean bathrooms, and awesome food. The only thing I didn't like was that people who had nothing in common were seated at the same table and occasionally I had to listen to obnoxious conversations of the type "so what exactly do you do in the United States", and god forbid, answer such questions...

Without asking for such a privilege, we had a "personal" guide - Omar - just for the two of us, which made things much easier - we walked at our own pace, asked all the questions we needed and were right close to him when he spotted animals hidden between the branches. We had to wake up at 4am almost every morning (understandably, after all those early awakenings on the Inca trail we hated getting out of bed before the sun) but we went to bed at 8pm so it was OK.

A tapir coming out of the water

The rain forest is indeed like nothing I have seen so far. The tall green canopies, the abundance of strange-looking tree species, the thin trunks rising straight up to the sky, the monkeys jumping from branch to branch high above your head... it was worth the effort and the money. Seeing the macaws, parrots and parakeets feeding on clay by the hundreds early in the morning - allegedly to neutralize the toxins contained by some of the fruits they eat - was one of those experience one never quite forgets. As one of the ladies who was watching the clay lick with us said, "this experience has enhanced my whole being". I'm too cynical to make such a ridiculous statement, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Angela missed this event entirely, because she preferred to sleep late that morning, he he... no enhanced being for her!

One of the things I've learned was that it's really hard to get good pictures of wildlife in the jungle. On the forest floor there's never enough light and there are so many branches and leaves between you and the animals that taking shots of them is usually a futile endeavor. At the clay lick the birds were too far away, even for my 300mm lens. I tried though, and I even got some great shots of capibaras, a tapir, some birds, and even a piranha fished out of the water by Angela!

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Samay Wasi hostel - or the House of Thieves, in English

As we arrived at our Cuzco hostel that last day of the Inca trail, our thoughts were only to a warm bed (any mattress however broken was better than sleeping on the ground) and as many hours of sleep as we could catch. The next day we were going to relax, upload some pictures and prepare ourselves for our jungle trip. But things rarely go well once you’re in the gutter… as I counted the money in our money belts - which were inside the computer bag in the hostel’s safe box - I realized that two hundred dollars were missing.

What followed for the rest of the day and the next was a comedy of accusations and rebuttals and probably my best effort in speaking Spanish so far... (Follow the link below for the whole story)

The manager and the four employees who had access to the safe were quickly assembled at the reception. First they wouldn’t believe me, and tried to convince me that I counted the money wrong, since the employee I gave the pack to didn’t really count the money himself (but I had counted in front of him twice). Then they said that I may have taken some money out before handing the whole pack to the night watchman. Understandably, they tried to absolve themselves of responsibility any way they could. I hate to accuse anybody of theft, and before doing so I would doubt myself a hundred times, but there was no room for doubt here – there was no way I could have miscounted $200, and both Angela and I knew that we had one single $100 bill which was now missing.

The situation was made tougher for me by the fact that I had put a lock on the zipper of the computer bag. This was a three-digit lock with an asp, and it could not only be opened by trying every combination in a row, but the zipper could be moved far enough for a hand to get in the bag even with the lock. The lock on the bag was probably what the thief had counted upon in order to put the burden of doubt on me. How could anybody steal anything? You had a lock on it!

In an attempt to settle with me on the phone, the owner offered me to stay there for free the two nights that I had reserved. We’re talking $18 a night. Pfui!

So the next morning I went to the tourist police and came back with the “constable”. He explained to them that as things stood, the truth was on my side: there was the tag attached to the bag, that I had written before leaving, which had a certain sum that I had counted in front of the hostel employee. Even if I had been wrong, this was negligence on the side of the hotel for not checking and negligence comes at a cost. In all cases, if my complaint were to be registered, they would have to go through a trial, get a lawyer and in the end they would probably have to pay anyway. That perspective seemed to have scared the manager and she called the owner again. He made another offer that I refused (something about giving me $70 plus two nights) and finally he agreed to pay the whole sum, which the manager did later that afternoon. I was so paranoid by then that I immediately went to an exchange office and had the two hundred dollar bills checked to make sure they were real and replaced them with twenties.

By then, it was already time for dinner.

I’m sorry for them and their reputation but there’s one person who works there and who is not honest. All these explanations and negotiations took place in Spanish and the fact that I’ve been able to pull this off made me really proud of that my level of proficiency. I’m happy that Angela was sick in bed with her cough and fever for most of the day so I was able to deal with the problem without screaming and yelling. The lesson for me is not to ever leave anything in a hostel’s safe, or if I do, it will be in the presence of the manager and another employee, and they get to do the item counting themselves.


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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Trail of the Inca - or how I missed Machu Picchu altogether

A tree against the sky
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or here to access the set
Day 1 - the start of the Inca Trail

We woke up at 4:30am because the tour agency bus was supposed to arrive at 5am to pick us up. We left our big bags in the hostel storage and gave the hostel night attendant our computer bag with the money belts to put in the safe. I counted the money in front of him, put one of our wire locks on the zipper and gave him the whole. Before we could have some breakfast, our contacts arrived and we headed on a freezing cold bus to pick up 14 other passengers and drove to kilometer 82 of the valley road, where the trek begins. We stopped in Ollantaytambo to have breakfast and as soon as we got off the bus we were attacked by local vendors - walking poles, hats, gloves etc. I negotiated with them but they were tough nuts and keep saying “for my family”. After breakfast we headed off for another hour or so down a dirt road to the beginning of our hike.

The first hiking day wasn’t too hard, it’s sort of a warm-up day and there are water and candy sellers all along the trail. The longer you walk, the higher the water prices get. Basic economics, I guess… Our sleeping bags worked well that night; REI didn’t lie to us about the quality of their products...

The group was a fair mix, with a slightly higher ratio of males, ages between 20 and 36. The young people (Angela kept calling them “The Runners”) - about 6 of them, were always ahead going fast, including one Canadian girl who just couldn’t stop talking, whether she was walking up the hill, sitting down for dinner or having just woken up. There were 4 Norwegians who mostly stuck to themselves, fast goers as well, and a few other couples from the US, nice people, and usually as slow as us.

Our guides - Max and Gladys – proved quite helpful from the beginning and our porters, about 20 of them loved to play card games at night and were always first to the scene with their 40lb packs, literally running by you on the trail, smiling all the time. Don’t even think to compete with these people…

Dead woman's pass - 4200m
Day 2 - Inca Trail Hell

On the mountain waking up is always before dark, usually around 5am. There’s nothing wrong with this since we’ve been sleeping since 8:30pm the previous day, but Angela started to come down with a bad cold which only got worse during this day and the next and ruined her trip.

Day 2 is the toughest day of the trip: the trail ascends up to about 4200 meters and then goes down for 5 or 6 hundreds. Going up wasn’t easy on Angela with her cold in the frozen morning air; as for myself, I discovered that I was sufficiently in shape for this endeavor, but I took it easy nonetheless, knowing that I haven’t taken a serious hike in a long time. Of course, “the runners” made it to the top way ahead of us and had to wait there for a while until everybody made it for the group picture…

Finally we had to descend for hours on the ancient Inca stone stairs and Angela’s walking pole came in very handy but her knees started to hurt. I know very well the sudden pain jolts caused by long downhill walks and I have felt like that in the past, but surprisingly and luckily, this time my knees were just fine all the way. Maybe the many hours of walking I’ve added up during this trip and the short hikes up and down so many ruins have helped.

We made it to the tents around 2:30pm and almost immediately went to sleep until dinner time. In total we hiked 9 hours. 3am rolled around and Angela ran out of the tent and didn’t come back until 45 minutes later, having taken over the bathroom with terrible diarrhea. It just kept getting better...

Lunch at 3600m
Day 3 - Inca Trail and sick people

By the time 4:30am came around Angela’s cold has gotten worse, but the diarrhea was under control. Some other people were sick with stomach issues while others were perfectly fine. It must have been the food or the water they used to cook and make tea and juice with. The water was supposed to be purified with iodine and boiled but you never know how long they were boiling it…

At breakfast (and every other meal), the cook gave Angela a special plate omitting eggs and dairy products. This usually creates a little embarrassment at the first meal, when everybody around the table has to find out about her stomach issues. But there’s no shortage of people interested in hearing about this and ready to share their own digestive problems with you.

Within 1½ hour after departure we were at the “top” (meaning the highest altitude we were going to climb that day) happy to be done with the hardest part of the trek (we thought). Even Angela made it uphill like an Energizer bunny, taking sips of coca tea every few steps.

The next part of the trail was relatively easy, going a little way up and down through the cloud forest, but the day ended with a thousand-step descent toward the night camp which was very hard on Angela’s already weaken knees; she limped but nevertheless we made it safely together. Her bronchitis however didn’t seem to show signs of relief.

Day 3 was when we were supposed to tip. The instruction sheet given by the company was complicated and useless and I had to stop people from trying to find exact bills and coins to divide the money into 20 equal parts for all the porters, as they initially thought it had to be done. I tip - I don’t want to have to divide the money to make sure all recipients are happy. As I correctly anticipated, the head porter gets the money and divides it, but it gets it from us in front of the whole gang, so everybody knows what the sum is. If anybody feels cheated, they can always kill the head porter, their business, not mine.

There wasn’t too much money gathered and I’m sure some people tipped at the low end, but that’s a personal decision so I wasn’t going to try to change people’s minds. I’m usually not a very generous spender and I tip a little above the middle, but this time I felt quite guilty for the small total sum and added more money to the pot than I would have liked to. Thank god Angela was sick in bed and didn’t get up to insult who she may have thought tipped badly…

Dawn at the lost city
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or here to access the set
Day 4 - How it can always go worse than you thought

Because every group wants to be the first at the checkpoint and of course, at the ruins, we woke up even earlier than usual, around 3:30am. As soon as I got up I knew that my stomach had been taken over by a bug – the stomach chills, the cramps, the sulfurous burps… it had to be Giardia – sometime in the past days, or maybe even earlier in Cuzco I had some water that was infested (it has been all cured by now with a fair does of Flagyl, but I didn't have any at the time). It all went downhill from here.

We were the first group at the checkpoint and we had to wait for 45 minutes for it to open, so that “the runners” could be the first on the trail. Angela and I lagged behind and I didn’t care much about it; my concern wasn’t at all to be the first since there’s no joy in taking pictures while you still have to carry a flashlight to see the way.

I made it somehow to Machu Picchu and I even thought I would get better, but once I entered the “city” I realized that I’ll have to abandon the guided tour that Max was giving us, say goodbye to climbing Wayana Picchu and spend the rest of the day close to the bathrooms. I gave Angela the camera and didn’t look back. So I can’t tell you much about the lost city of the Incas just that seeing it from afar as you cross the Sun Gate is an unforgettable moment.

That evening we made our way back to Cuzco feeling awful, but the trail of surprises wasn’t over yet…

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South American Update

We made it to Bolivia where ATMs are scarce, Internet connections are slow, and electricity is sort of an occasional guest. Copacabana - not the famous beach, but a distant cousin - is a sleepy, scenic little town, but the weather is so bad now that we don't really care about nature's beauties. After all the stress of the last days, all we want is relax, so we got a room at the most expensive an famous hotel in town - La Cupula - and we're taking it easy, the South American way.

Pictures and stories of the Inca trail and the jungle coming soon.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Tough days...

Inca stones
Colorful stones
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or here to access the set.
We're back in Cuzco after the Inca trail and there are plenty of stories to tell and pictures to upload, but sadly not enough time, since we have to pack our bags again and fly to the Tambopata research center in the Amazon tomorrow morning. Until I get to write and put all our stories here, then here's a set of pictures from the couple of trips we took to the beautiful Sacred Valley - an organized tour of the inca ruins and a hiking day with our friends Michael and Mor.

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