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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