Travels in South America: It was the best of times….

This is where we went

If you find Lima on the map, that’s where our journey began.  From there we flew to Cusco for the excursion to Machu Picchu.  Travel by bus then took us to Puno on Lake Titicaca and the Altiplano; Copacabana, La Paz and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia; San Pedro de Atacama and Iquique in Chile; back up to Arequipa in Peru.  Then another flight to Lima.  Basically a big circle as locating Lima, Cusco, La Paz, Iquique and Arequipa on the map above shows.

We had a wonderful trip, met fascinating people, saw fabulous sites and found some great restaurants and enjoyed at least one bottle of Peruvian wine and we never even knew there was such a thing.  But it was also a very tough trip.

I’ve said almost exactly that to everybody who’s asked since our return.  Without exception, each immediately wanted to know:  “What made it tough?”   So I’ll start there.

The worst of times….

1.  We were sick for most of the journey.

As you might recall from my last post, I had a bad reaction to the shot for Yellow Fever.  10 days later, on the Sunday before departure, I was concerned enough to visit an emergency clinic.  They assured me that the reaction to the shot had passed and had simply morphed into a bit of a respiratory infection.  Which I promptly passed on to my wife.  A week later, she was on antibiotics courtesy of the clinic in Cusco.  We were never quite able to shake it because….

2.  Most of the trip was on the Altiplano between 12,000 and 13,000 feet (3700 – 4000 meters) of altitude.  Cusco itself is over 11,000 feet and there’s just not all that much air in the air at those elevations.  Adjusting when you can breathe normally is tough enough.  When your lungs aren’t fully functional….

3.  The Altiplano is a bone dry and dusty desert; and very, very cold at night.  Very tough on your respiratory passages.  Plus, there is no heat in the hotels.  At least not in the kind of hotels we stay in. Commonly it was colder inside than out.  More than once we slept wearing every stitch of clothing we owned buried under enough blankets that the very weight of them made it hard to breathe what little air there was.

Understand, I grew up in Chicago and live now in New Hampshire, both areas known for their intense winters.  But the difference is, the buildings have heat.  Where we were, with rare exception, the only heat available was that of the mid-day sun and whatever our own bodies generated.  Add to that the dust and lung drying air.  Tough for me, much tougher for my wife who grew up in a tropical paradise.  Not conducive to shaking respiratory infections.

4.  We were traveling with a third person.  No matter how charming and cheerful, and our friend was both, three is a tough number.  Couples can go off on their own, keep their own council.

But a third wheel….  Enough said.

5.  While of our own making, this was a tour and as such a violation of my own rules of travel.  We did this by design.  There were many places we wanted to visit and none we thought we would want to settle into, at least not before visiting first.  So being on the move served its purpose this time.

Certainly it was nothing like a “package tour” that hustles folks about in a relentless effort to leave no sight unseen.  We could, and did, adjust the plan as we went along.  Still, the longest we stayed in any one place was five days and, for us, that’s moving at light speed.

Could we have changed any of these, it would have been #1.  Had we been healthy, numbers 2-5 wouldn’t have mattered much.  But we were sick and that made everything tougher.   Truth be told, this is the first trip we’ve ever considered aborting.  But we’re glad we didn’t.  The highlights made it all worthwhile.

Here are a few:

The best of times….

1.  Machu Picchu.

One of the world’s foremost tourist destinations, getting here encompasses everything I hate about tourism and being a tourist.  And yet.  And yet, after you climb the narrow stone steps, break over the ridge and catch your first glimpse of the “hidden valley,” breathtaking is not word enough.  Were this simply a natural wonder the view alone would make the trip worthwhile.  That the Incas built a terraced stone city here that the Spanish never found (and therefore never destroyed to build yet another church) is simply stunning.

2  Lake Titicaca bus crossing.

bus on a barge.  how is this a good idea?

This is the highest navigable lake in the world and it is home to the Uros, artificial islands made of continuously replenished reeds.  Your visit there will be very cool and very touristy.  But for us the best part was the views of the lake as we left by bus for La Paz.  Climbing ever higher, the views got ever better until we descended back to the lake shore for a crossing.

They unloaded us from the bus and on to small boats.  Then, amazingly, they drove the bus on to a rickety old wooden barge.  The waves were such I was trying to figure just how cold the water was going to be and if I could make the swim to shore; and just how they were going to pull the bus off the bottom.  But we and it both made it.

As I’m sure countless buses and people are doing right now as I write.  All of whom are wondering, “Can I make the swim to shore and how are they going to pull our bus off the bottom?”

3.  Salar de Uyuni.

That white stuff?  Salt.

I’ve been to islands.  You’ve been to islands.  But until Salar I’d never been to one in covered in cactus in the middle of a great, unending brilliant white expanse of salt.  Largest in the world, they say.  Oh, and at some times in some years the salt is covered with water.  Laying down still more layers of salt.  20+ meters deep in places.

I’ve stayed in hotels.  You’ve stayed in hotels.  But until Salar I’d never stayed in one made completely of salt.  Walls of salt.  Floors of salt.  Tables, chairs and beds carved from blocks of salt.  No heat, but lots of salt.

4.  Arequipa.

El Misti.

What a volcano should look like.

Quite simply a stunningly beautiful city.  Spotlessly clean, gorgeous central plaza, fine old colonial buildings made from the area’s unique porous white lava stone and filled with interesting restaurants, clubs, churches and convents.  This is the place I’d return to for an extended stay.   Majestically overseeing it all is El Misti; what a volcano should look like!

5.  People.

dried llama fetuses

available only in your local Witches Market

Miguel, Carlos, Michael, Katerina, all in their twenties or thirties and on their multi month/multi year travel odysseys.  The crazy (even though he only spoke French I know because Katerina leaned over and whispered to me “He’s crazy!) old Venezuelan in the salt hotel, the South Chilean family in San Pedro de Atacama.  Patrick who abandoned his friend with the broken arm.

The little witch in La Paz.  Thankfully I bought a good luck charm from her, which is why I had the sweater that kept me from freezing to death on the slat flats of Salar de Uyuni.  Passed on the dried llama fetus however.  But Patrick had two.   He’s carrying them home to Spain.

There’s a bit of the adventure.  As the stories occur to me I’ll post a few more.

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  1. Posted September 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful account of your trip, Jim! Do you recommend Arequipa as a place to retire? If so, what’s the cost of living and how it compares with cost of living in a comparable city in the States?

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Shilpan!

      Arequipa is far and away our favorite city on this trip, and right at the top of my all time list. Really a drop dead gorgeous place. In fact I may do a longer post on it.

      Certainly I would love to return and spend more time there, and it may well be one of the places on our list if my “rolling retirement” plan comes to pass. (That is, living in a series of different places for 6-24 months before moving on.)

      We didn’t look at property or apartments, but based on hotels and restaurants I’d estimate living costs to be about 1/3 of what we spend in NH. For reference, NH is likely around the median of living costs in the USA. Less than NYC, more than Toledo, OH.

      As for buying a place and settling in for the long term, I’d hesitate. Not because of Arequipa, but because it is Peru. Everywhere we went we heard of, and saw, political unrest. Most Peruvians we met think it will get worse before it gets better.

      So if I were to retire there I’d rent, keep my passport close and my finger in the political winds.

      Remember though, we spent a grand total of five days in the place (and only about four weeks in Peru) so I’m no expert.

  2. kohlrabie
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I LOVE Peru! Although I’m German (living in Cape Town, South Africa) my great-grandmother was Peruvian and I have lots of family over there. A few years ago I went to visit them with my then-boyfriend and I loved every bit of our three week trip. Our route was similar to yours, but we didn’t fly so much (only from Cuzco back to Lima), used the bus mostly and walked the Inka Trail which made Machu Picchu even more magical than it is already (the reward after the hike PLUS having the site to ourselves before the hordes of tourists arrived). I can’t wait to go back – this time to show my children where their roots lie.

    I only suffered from the altitude on the bus to Puno. Probably we had more time to adjust than if we had flown. YES, it is cold! But after 6 years in SA it will probably seem like a breeze. Winters in Germany (or US etc.) are a breeze in comparison to no heating when it’s 8 degrees Celsius outside or maybe less. But you get used to it. I sleep with two fleece jerseys 😛

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Hi Kohirabie….

      Very cool to have a German reader check in from South Africa. Welcome!

      We met a lot of German travelers in Peru and Bolivia closely followed in number by the French, Chileans, Brazilians and Argentinians. Very few Americans, but I get to see plenty of those around here. :)

      Referring to my reply to Shilpan, what do your Peruvian relatives say about the political situation there these days?

  3. Jan
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful…..indeed!!!! Glad you are doing this while you are still young, hehehehehe.

    I, myself, just a very few years ago, used to regularly hike well above 10,000 ft. because rattle snakes stop “hiking” once you get to that elevation. I used to stay in, or around, June Lake, CA several times a year with Fall being the BEST season. It has an elevation of about 7,700 ft. Part of the Mono Basin in the Eastern Sierra High Country, it was formed by glaciers back in dinosaur days, (If you ask the Republican Presidential nominee, or anyone with his same belief system firmly engrained, within the last 10,000 years.) Carson Peak looms picture-perfect like a canvas on a far away “wall”. We could hike for an entire day through gorgeous meadows and mountain strams teaming with wild trout and not see a single person. Paradise!

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

      I afraid it’s too late for me to be doing this “while I’m still young.” These days it’s more a race to do it before I’m too old. :)

      Despite our struggles with the altitude this time around, I actually prefer higher elevations and a drier climate. Sounds like you’ve found some beautiful spots! Did you get to taste any of those trout?

      Around Lake Titicaca trucha (trout) became my favorite dinner. Brilliant!

  4. kohlrabie
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Shilpan, why are you interested in retiring in a city you haven’t visited before?

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I wanted to know if it is much cheaper to live there with the assumption that it’s a fabulous place to retire, but I am not sure. That’s why Jim’s wisdom will be invaluable.

  5. Posted September 3, 2012 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    It does seem like you had a tumultuous vacation. I’ve read that a lot of people have problems with the altitude around Machu Picchu.

    • Posted September 3, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Hi Colleen…

      what was interesting to me, that I didn’t know, is Machu Picchu is actually at a lower elevation than Cuzco. It is both warmer and easier to breathe. Plus it has lush vegetation. All reasons the Inca selected the spot.

      Well, those and the drop dead gorgeous setting….

  6. Posted September 3, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Beautiful…..indeed!! Wish i could visit that place someday :) great blog!

  7. Posted September 3, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Great post. Love the shot of the boat on the bus – I would scout out the emergency exit to that vehicle pronto. I hiked to Machu Pichu about ten years ago and – blistered and bedraggeled – expected it to match all the photographs I had seen. No way. It was spiritually uplifting. Because these people built a city here for NO practical reasons – only to make visitors gasp at the vista. Your tales of the salt city makes me want to go – Big Time. Thanks for the enlightenment!

    • Posted September 3, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Thanks Tom….

      ..high praise from a fellow as well traveled as yourself!

      But, just to be clear, there is no city in the salt…..:)

  8. Posted September 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Crazy ups and downs! I’m so sorry you guys were so sick…and to deal with it in those conditions…I can’t even imagine. At those altitudes the humidity is so low that the cold is even more bone-chilling, too.

    You did see some beautiful things, though, and meet some amazing people. Despite the hardships it sounds like a great trip…and memorable for both the negative and positive!

    • Posted September 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      It was worth it. (easy to say now that we’re home) :)

      actually the sickness most more a nagging drag than anything severe.

  9. RW
    Posted September 3, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Brave man you are (wife also I might add), most would have packed up and went home. I loved Lima when I got a chance to visit, beautiful and friendly people. I’m sure there is a story behind the dried llama fetuses, can’t wait to hear it

    • Posted September 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Thanks RW….

      …but mostly it was just plodding along one foot after another. not much bravery.

      Yes, there is and it’s coming. :)

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