Friday, September 11, 2009

Chocolat and the long way to Cusco


On June 12th we left Bolivia and headed towards Arequipa, Peru. We were thinking about leaving the night before but due to protests in Peru, the border was closed...
The bus trip from Copacabana to Arequipa via Puno was pretty smooth. We only had a bit of stress at the border when Miko had to switch passports again. Likely, the Peruvian border officer stamped his American passport even though the exit stamp from Bolivia was in his French passport. Easy, breezy.

We arrived to Arequipa at night and immediately looked for a micro to take us to the center. A nice woman gave us directions and welcomed us by saying: "Do not talk to anyone!"
When we got off the micro, the streets were so busy with people and traffic. It was very loud and disorienting. We hate arriving in new places at night, especially in a busy city, it is always stressful.

We did not like the small and overpriced room we stayed at the first night ("Home Sweet Home" rec. by Lonely Planet). So the next morning we moved to a much nicer and cheaper place "Hospedaje Samana Wasi". Following the Lonely Planet recommendation, we always end up in busy and expensive places, when there are often much nicer and cheaper options next door (not listed in any guide books).

The next morning we realized that the center of Arequipa, especially the main plaza, is really beautiful. All of the buildings are made of white volcanic stone called sillar. Hovering in the background, above the city, is the still active volcano Misty.

Arequipa was also our meeting point with Mr. Kevin Bell. We had such a good time traveling together in Laos, and were happy to have him with us again. Quickly, it felt like he had never left us, and with him, we enjoyed the pretty Arequipa and the good food they have there.
We visited the "Santuarios Andinos Museum" to see Juanita, the Ice Princess. Like the Maiden in Salta, she was an Inka child sacrificed to the mountain. She was discovered in 1995. The visit to the museum was not as impressive as in Salta, but it was very informative. The guide clarified that the children were killed by a blow in the head while they were unconscious. Also, the reason why some of the mummies were hit by lightning was due to the large amount of metal and gold objects buried with them.

The main attraction in Arequipa is the visit to Santa Catalina Monastery. This Dominican monastery was founded by a wealthy widow, Dona Mariade Guzman, in 1579. At that time, it was a custom among wealthy Spanish families, that the second daughter or son enter the religious service. The daughters from these rich families were sent to this monastery at the age of 13 or 14. First 1-3 years they were not allowed to speak to anyone and their family had to pay 100 gold coins to the convent. After, the girls had a choice either to become nuns and spend the rest of their lives here, or to get married. If they decided to stay (to save the honor of the family), the family had to pay 1000 cold coins, about $50,000 now. However, in this privileged convent each nun had her own house and between one and four servants, depending on the wealth of the family.

It was like a city inside the city. The nuns had no contact with the outside world and nobody was allowed in. This "lifestyle" remained for about 300 years with almost 400 women living in the monastery. In 1871, the Pope Pius IX sent astrict Dominican nun to straighten things out. Most of the nuns have left and some servants became nuns. The remaining nuns were stripped down of all the luxury, from then on, they had to prepare food, cook, clean and share sleeping quarters.
Finally in the 1970, the monastery became open to the public. After centuries of mystery, people were allowed to go inside and visit.
Only 30 nuns remain living there.


Everybody who visits Arequipa also hikes down to the Colca Canyon. Until recently it was considered the deepest canyon in the world. Twice deeper than the Grand Canyon.
After a 6 hour bumpy, but very scenic bus ride, we arrived in Cabanaconde, the starting point of our 2 day trek in the canyon. The hike was way better than expected. The landscape around was stunning and the locals we encountered very nice. except for this ass-hole farmer who tried to poke Miko's butt with a stick thinking that he was taking a photo of him when for once he was not.

*We crossed paths with some locals and Miko was able to take this photo because we gave them a bottle of water.

We have spent the night in a tiny village, San Juan de Chuccho, on the bottom of the canyon at Hospedaje Gloria. A pretty place which we had almost to ourselves (5 soles for the room, 5 soles for dinner, 5 soles for breakfast = $5 total...10 soles for beer :)
The next morning, we hiked 2 hours to the Oasis, the main tourist attraction in the canyon. It was a nice break to jump in the pool (and eat the worst spaghetti ever), before hiking up for another 3 hours. We had dinner in Cabanaconde and took the 9pm bus to return to Arequipa at 4:30am! Our schedule was tight because Hana was leaving in a week. Our plan was to leave the same evening by another night bus to Cusco, then go on a 4 day trek to Machu Pichu. Little did we know what awaited us...

So far, we felt like South America was very easy to travel. Everything was going smooth since we arrived in Buenos Aires. Border crossings have been fairly easy, no bad experiences with scammers or mafia.
As we were having these thoughts everything changed...

THE DEATH MARCH: Robbery, Barricades and Losing Kevin

Still in Arequipa, on June 17th at 5 pm we found out that the bus to Cusco was canceled due to the road blocks.
The next morning the road was still blocked so we spent the day looking for alternative ways.
In the end we went to the bus station and heard of another option: take a bus to Secuani (where the road block was, 150 kms away from Cusco), cross it on foot (30 minutes), and on the other side there would be transportation to Cusco.
Few buses were leaving. At 7:15 pm we decided to go for it. The bus was leaving at 8pm! Kevin and Miko jumped in a taxi back to the hospedaje (in the middle of the rush hour) to pick up our backpacks, while Hana was buying tickets and waiting nervously for their return.

Somehow they made it back on time. To our surprise the bus was comfortable. It seemed to be a good start. We were excited and betting on the time when we would arrive in Cusco: 7am, 7:30am, 8am, the winner would get free beer in the evening.

We left Arequipa at 9pm and arrived in Sicuani at 6am. It was day light. There was a line of buses and trucks in front of us. The road block was up ahead and we started walking towards it. It was Hana, Kevin, Miko and Jonah (another US traveler we met on the bus).
After about 10 minutes we arrived at the road block - a pile of rocks in the middle of the road and 20-30 people standing around wrapped in blankets. We were a little nervous.
We passed around them and continued toward Secuani. The town looked deserted, no cars on the road, just a few tuc-tucs. We asked one guy how to get to Cusco and he didn't really know. It was clear that it was not going to be the way we were expecting it. They had lied to us in Arequipa.

Ultimately we got on one tuc-tuc who took us to the next village 10 km away, where we would walk for another kilometer and finaly find transportation to Cusco.
After 6-7 kms the driver suddenly stopped in the middle of the road and told us to get off. He looked scared and almost left without his pay.
Down the road was another road block, black smoke,... and a group of men running, then throwing rocks at the tuc-tuc!
WTF! What did we get ourselves into?!
We understood quickly that the anger wasn't directed at us but the drivers making money out of the situation.
At that point we had no choice, no turning back, so we kept going. We walked over the next barricade to the next village at the horizon, then another road block, another village, and on and on. No cars anywhere in sight. Sometimes we would find a motorbike for 2-3 kms, then another tuc-tuc, a kid pushing a tricycle... Everyone would give us a different answer when we asked about how to get to Cusco: 5 more kms and there is transportation, then 20 more kms, we even heard 60 kms which we simply didn't want to believe. We just kept walking, hours going by.
At about 1pm we arrived at yet another village, tired and hungry. At this point we were hearing the name "Chuki" a lot. That's where there was supposed to be transportation to Cusco. Two more hours they said, but after asking people coming from the opposite direction, we heard that Chuki wasn't the next village but the one after. There was no end to it.
One local lady was apologetic saying that not all Peruvians are crazy and stubborn.
Entering the last village felt a little like finishing a marathon. So many people were sitting on the side of the road, greeting us, offering food and telling us that we were almost done. Only 2 more hours to walk!

We couldn't do it anymore. We were determined to find a motorbike for this last stretch.
Soon this kid showed up, telling us he would take Hana and I to Chuki. We got on his bike (the driver, the 2 of us, our big backpacks plus 2 small ones) and left, assuming that Kevin and Jonah would find another bike.
But we didn't go very far. The kid stopped after a few minutes. He looked scared. Ahead a group of protesters had just arrived and started to run down the road, slashing tires of bikes, tricycles, everything. We were fucked! We only had 8 kms left and the road was completely blocked.
Miko left me by the road to go look for Kevin and Jonah back in the village. It was 5pm. The sun was going down, when Miko came back alone. We had no idea where they were.
We were stuck and we had lost Kevin. Resigned, we walked back to the village to spend the night and try to cross the last stretch of barricades at 4 the next morning. Then we saw 3 Australian guys we met earlier on the road, followed by 3 more tourists. We were just talking, figuring out what to do when a red pick-up showed up. The driver said he will take us all to Chuki. Six people in the cabin, six in the back sitting on a pile of backpacks.
We didn't believe we were going to get through the road blocks, but somehow our driver managed, sweet talked the protesters and even gave them a ride. We were all packed up in the back. The protesters holding on to what they could, with the tools for slashing tires in their hands.
We made it through to Chuki!
The bus to Cusco was ready to leave any minute, but we could not find Kevin and Jonah. It was pitch black, no place to stay, we had to keep going, hoping they were already in Cusco.
Two hours later we arrived in Cusco where an email from Kevin was waiting for us. They had made it through right before the protesters closed the road. The nightmare was over.
Except, in the middle of it all, we realized that Miko and I have been robbed on the bus while sleeping. They took our cell phone, $200, Miko's G-9 camera and I-pod.
This was by far the craziest and most difficult day of our trip. We started walking at 6am and arrived in Chuki at 6pm, about 40km (23 miles). Not what we had imagined for Hana's last week in Peru. At least we have a new story to tell :)

Kevin's great video diary:


When we arrived in Cusco, we were exhausted and sore. Miko carried easily over 20kg on his back.
We appreciated being here. The city is beautiful, even if it smells like pee! It appears, that for the local men, the streets are public toilets.
The festival of the sun (Inti Raimi) was happening on the 24th, but the week preceding it was full of events. Parades every day with colorful costumes, dance and giant figures.
Cusco might be the most beautiful city we have seen in South America. Built on hills and full of interesting architecture. It is very touristy, but we did not mind it. On the main plaza we were constantly approached by women yelling: "Massage, massage". After what we have been through, it was welcomed. Hana got us a deal at $5 an hour.
In Cusco we stayed at a simple, friendly and informative guest house "Estrellita".


After one day in Cusco, Machu Pichu was next. Our plan was "very simple". In order to reach Aguas Calientes (town below Machu Pichu), we would take a 5h bus to Santa Maria, then a mini-van to Hidroelectrica (Hydro Electric plant), and from there hike 2h to Aguas Calientes following the train tracks.
To make it in one day we had to leave early. So we bought tickets for the bus supposedly leaving at 7:30 am but at 8:45 am we still have not left Cusco. We were pissed off and tired of people lying to us.
Finally, we reached Santa Maria at 2pm, found a taxi to take us up a steep, windy, and unpaved road on the edge of a cliff. The taxi was supposed to take us all the way to Hidroelectrico. But midway, in Santa Teresa, because of territorial issues between the local drivers, we had to change to a mini-van. It can never be simple in Peru.
In the end, we arrived to Hydroelectrica early enough to walk to Aguas Calientes, before dark.
After the previous few days of crazy travel and frustration, this walk along the train tracks at sunset was like a gift from the gods. peaceful and beautiful.
We didn't know it as we walked through this valley, but the mountaintop ruins of Machu Picchu loomed directly above us the whole time.

The next day we would visit the the lost Inca city of Machu Pichu, discovered accidentally by the American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911.
There is not much more to say except that the Machu Pichu was one of the main highlights of our trip. A fantastic day. It was an adventure to get there but it was worth it. We were glad Hana could finish her 10 months adventure on such a high note.
We started at 4:30 am and walked up the 2 kms stair way to the entrance. Still wet from this pretty intense workout we entered Machu Pichu and headed straight to Wayna Pichu, the hill on the other side of the ruins. Only 400 people are allowed daily. We stayed up there enjoying the view for about 2 hours and almost had to kill Jonah who would not shut up.
We spent the rest of the day exploring Machu Pichu, taking millions of pictures, and hopping from one guided tour to another for free information :) It was 3 pm when we hiked back down to Aguas Calientes. We had spend 9 amazing hours in Machu Pichu!
More than the actual beauty of the ruins, it is this spectacular location (high up on top of a mountain), which makes the Machu Pichu such a special place.
We finished this amazing day by soaking in the natural hot springs, Aguas Termales.

Pepe au MachuPichu

Hana was leaving the next day. To be safe we returned by train to Ollantaytambo, then took the fastest taxi ever (110km/h through villages with a speed limit of 30km/h) back to Cusco. For the first time the driver was not lying when he told us that it would only take 1h 20 minutes to get back to Cusco.
1h16 minutes later we arrived in Cusco. The rest of the day was all about relaxing, last minute shopping, and goodbye clubbing.

Then on June 24th, we woke up at 5am, a little hangovered, to go to the airpport.
And even on the day of Hana's departure, things couldn't go smoothly. The plane was 5 hours delayed.
After a couple hours chatting, drinking coffee and joking around we kisses each other goodbye.
We had spent the last 10 months together, 24hours, 7 days a week. We had made it through without killing each other. I guess that says something :)

Bye, Bye Chocolat! See you in 3 weeks.

Hana's last thoughts:
I am not sad to leave because I got really tired during the past week. I don't want to make any more travel plans for a while. Don't want to read guid books, or look for places to sleep and eat. I am especially tired of transportation.

I realized that I became overly suspicious and mistrustful of everyone and everything in Peru, mainly because of the past few days.

I will miss the freedom we had on this trip. The time to do what we want, go where we want or just do nothing.

I will have to write about this whole experience and how it affected me later. It's too close right now. Need to wait for some time to pass, so the feelings and impression can settle down.

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