Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Machu Picchu

So we finally made it to Machu Picchu. We couldn´t be arsed doing the Inka trail or one of its alternatives. Somehow, to my ears, the phrase "organised trek" is anathema. I don´t want anyone carrying my bags and telling me where to go; and I don´t want to head off with 30 other people.
So we opted to take the train and organise our own tickets and accomodation.
We were horrified that the shortest train journey with the cheapest fare was $30 one way! They must have been studying British Rail prices. And to make it even more infuriating all the train places were heavily booked up.
After queuing for ages at the train station in Cusco we eventually secured a "backpacker" ticket one way, and a more expensive "vistadome" fare to return. In all $77 each. On top of that our tickets to enter Machu Picchu cost $40 each.
It struck me that Peru is charging a lot more than Angkor Wat, the Pyramids, The Taj Mahal or temples in Kyoto. It is debatable whether the train fees and entrance fee represent comparative value for money.
So feeling ripped off before the journey began, we took a mini bus to the small town of Ollantaytambo. A fantastically picturesque place which has been continously inhabited for 800 years. On one slope it has a famous Inka fort where the Spanish were famously defeated. You need the touristo boleto ($40) to enter. Naturally we didn´t have the ticket but managed to sneak in through an exit. We stayed the night at Ollantaytambo and scored a massive plate of chicken and chips for dinner.
The next day we took the super-expensive train to the town at the bottom of the hill where Machu Picchu is situated. Strangely enough the place is called Aguas Calientes, which means "hot water". It was a lovely place made deplorable by crass commercialism and a surfeit of Americans and tossers with walking sticks.
After a few arguments we got a tiny double room for 50 soles, got something to eat and got stoned in our room for the rest of the day.
At 3.45am the next morning we got up, dumped our rucksack on the Peruvians sleeping in the cupboard next door, and headed off for the walk up to Machu Pichu.
Needless to say many others were trekking with us in the dark up the 1,700 steps to the summit. The reason being that only the first 400 visitors to Machu Picchu can do the steep climb up the neighbouring mountain, Wanapicchu.
When we reached the top at 6am there was already a big crowd of people waiting to enter the ruins. Just before they started letting people in, buses from Aguas Calientes started arriving and a few cheeky fuckers from the buses started to push to the front of the line. Needless to say I thoroughly enjoyed calling these rich folks "motherfuckers". You can´t beat a bit of righteous indignation.
Once in we made it straight to the Wanapicchu office. We were numbers 48 and 49. At 7am we started the one hour trek up Wanapicchu. It was hard going. At the summit the paths and steps were slippy and had no rails stopping you plummet 100s of metres to your doom. My wife and I found a secluded spot and had a piss and a joint and took in the epic view.
By the time we got back to Machu Picchu we had been walking for hours and felt exhausted. We strolled around the ruins trying to catch snippets of information from passing tour guides. Eventually we found a beautiful terrace over a sheer drop, had another smoke and lay around in the sun.
At 1.30pm we had seen pretty much the whole site (including a detour to see the Inka bridge) and so we started to slowly descend the mountain back to Aguas Calientes. When we got there we were exhausted and filthy. In such a state we hung around until 6.30pm for our train back to Ollantaytambo. For the extra $10 for the superior "vistadome" train we got nowhere to put our pack and a sandwich.
All bad value but what is beyond doubt is that Machu Picchu is a magical (possibly spiritual) place that didn´t disappoint. It was great getting stoned there, but even without the herb, the place would´ve spellbound me. It is a massive site (the lower terraces aren´t open to the public) and despite what the tour guides claim, it´s purpose and true significance remain shrouded in mystery, like the mountains are covered in clouds.
Hiram Bingham, the yank who paid an 11 year old boy to lead him to Machu Picchu in 1911 and thus became "the discoverer" of the World Heritage site stole several artifacts from the area, and to this day Yale University refuses to give them back. Which just goes to show that from the very beginning of the history of foreigners visiting Machu Picchu people have been on the make.
Wanapicchu (the mountain that looms over Machu Pichu)

View of Machu Picchu from Wanapicchu

Behind the Watch Guard´s House

Llama drinking from the fountain

Monday, 13 July 2009

Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi at 4060m is the highest city in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was founded by the Spanish because of the vast silver deposits nearby. For 200 years Potosi bankrolled the Spanish Empire. It is estimated that over 8 million indigenous people and imported slaves have perished in the mine. Even today thousands of Bolivians work under ground in dangerous conditions hoping to strike it big. And the sickest joke of all is that tourists pay between 10 and 15 dollars to visit the mines, see the suffering of the miners and then blow something up. I was ashamed that I met only 2 people who missed out on the mine tours because they felt similarly to me. Travellers, the LP and organised tours seemed to have robbed people of their own sense of what is right and what is exploitation.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

4 Day Jeep Tour from Tupiza to Uyuni in Bolivia

Day 1

We paid $150 each (La Torre Tours) for a 4 day jeep tour of Southern Bolivia departing from Tupiza and finishing in Uyuni. The price was slightly cheaper than was originally quoted because another person joined our jeep at the last moment making 5 people. We also skipped the extra charge of paying for an English speaking guide. This, in hindsight, might have been a bad move because all our driver would say was "Over there, Chile!" and then go on chewing his coca leaves. Still despite his awful musica folklorico (think El Condor Pasa) and lack of factual commentary he was an amusing chap and I got to like him.

The first day was mostly driving to get somewhere. Driving through dry moonscapes over a road that wasn't really a road. The first night we stopped at a small settlement high in the mountains called San Antonio De Lipez. The whole economy of the place seemed to be based on two things - llama wool and tour groups.

While waiting for diner Tom (an Irish lad), Derrick (Polish) and I got the football out the back of the jeep. No longer was it flat. The lack of air pressure at this rarefied height made the ball fully inflated. We were soon joined by locals, our driver and some other tourists. It was a good laugh. Every few minutes one of us collapsed from lack of oxygen.

Day 2

After freezing night under a multitude of blankets we get up in the dark at 5.30am. Breakfast is waiting for us next door. It's the usual bread, jam, dolce selection with coca tea. The five of us pile in the back of the jeep and we're off driving in the dark. The driver probably knows where Chile is even in the pitch dark but he keeps the information to himself as he focuses on the non-road.

Our first stop was "Phantasmagoria Village." It's an abandoned mining village. Legend has it that discoveries of gold lead to murders in the village and consequent hauntings. The villagers couldn't stand it any more and moved out to San Antonio de Lipez (where we had stayed the previous night) and given up prospecting for gold and turned to the llama instead for economic survival. It was cold, snowy and slightly eerie. We had a quick look and a piss and got back in the jeep.

By about 11am we entered a National Park and made our way to a big lake. In front of the lake was a bricked off thermal hot pool. The tourists from the other jeep in our convey braved the cold weather and got in the pool. The 5 from our jeep waited in the cafe and dining area for our lunch. Some of the other groups coming through looked really rough - a combination of no sleep, altitude sickness and cold had taken the youthful pallor from several faces.

After lunch we stopped off at some thermal steams before arriving at Laguna Verde, the Green lake. It was indeed very green and very big and still. Surrounded by towering mountains at 5000 meters the place had an unreal, impossibly bleak beauty at the place. Like a painted backdrop for a Sci Fi movie. This was the highlight so far.

For the rest of the day we drove. The driver chewed and pointed out Chile and we enjoyed the vast scenery.

Late afternoon we arrived at a small town. I bought a pricey plastic bottle of coke to mix with my vodka and we drove a bit further to a long line of basic accommodations just a mile or so away from the famous Laguna Colorada (25kms east of the Chilean border).

Dinner was the usual stodgy, hearty fare. They had electricity and a wood burner which was a rare threat. Tom and I stayed up getting pissed before the pissed off locals told us to stop wasting electricity. We sat in the dark for a further 30 minutes drinking and smoking before retiring to ice cold beds.

Day 3

Day three started at the more reasonable time of 7.30ish. After breakfast we drove to the famous Red Lake which the Bolivians are pushing hard to be included in the new 7 wonders of the World. It was indeed impressive but I couldn't give a monkeys about the list. It is a salt lake with some odd chemicals that give it a distinctive red hue (either that or there's a Chinese factory nearby). What makes the lake special is the flamingos that feed there. Unfortunately it was winter and only a hardcore few who felt like our driver had refused to migrate to Chile.
Next up we drove through a desert and stopped off at a collection of massive rock formations that had been sculpted by the wind and sand into Dali dreams. 

As we made our way to our night's accommodation we saw a fox near the non-existent road. The driver chucked out a bit of bread for it to eat. The fact that the fox wasn't frightened by our presence suggests this was not the first time the fox had got an easy meal.

We arrived at our most salubrious accommodation, the salt hotel. The name was most appropriate as it was made of salt bricks. The beds were made of salt. The tables were made of salt. The only things to escape the salt treatment were the pre-historic one channel TV and the glass window to our room that I nearly broke (who would suspect such trappings of civilization at 4,000 plus meters in the back arse end of no where).

While waiting for dinner we got together another footie game with the drivers and some local lads. Tom was a star. As a consequence the foreigners came out on top. One of the local lads felt the defeat bad and refused to shake hands at the end.

That night after dinner the TV went on and we discovered that the King of Pop, Michael Jackson was dead. If only it had been Chile instead. That night our groups joined with another from a different company. We meet an ex-professional footballer and an Israeli who was heading up the security for some Bolivian magnate. This was a great night of boozing, playing cards and speculating on the death of MJ. And more importantly we ran into Mr. Football and Mr. Security in Cusco and they gave us a healthy bag of gear.

Day 4

Our last day of the tour. My wife and I were the only ones who hadn't taken the 10 Bolivianos hot shower. It was too cold to smell anything I figured. 

We got up really early before sun up and drove to the Salar de Uyuni,  the salt plains near Uyuni. They are the largest salt plains in the world.  They are at 3,653 meters and cover an area of 12,000 sq kms. Apparently it was a pre-historic salt lake that covered most of Southern Bolivia. It dried and left a white cracked desert. 

We drove to an island in the salt plains, had a potter around amongst the cactus and then had breakfast. After we got another game of footie together. All the groups from the previous night were present so we had two full teams. The nations were separated - Bolivia versus the rest of the World. I was the only gringo chosen for the home team. They put me in goal and forgot about me. Despite having the home advantage and being used to breathing air thinner than a silver rizla paper the locals conceded more goals than they scored. This was due to their complete indifference to defending and keeping positions. I tried my best but couldn't staunch the flow of goals going against the home team.
An hour or so of such hilarity and the groups parted again to drive off deep into the heart of white weirdness to enjoy some nothing but salt plains action. With the horizon nothing but salt plains perspective is altered. This makes for fun photos. 

Such a great day and sadly it was coming to an end. We said goodbye to isloation and drove to the illegal salt hotel and paid for a shit. Then drove into Uyuni, a dusty, mud shack place surrounded by millions of bits of plastic. Only the buildings in the center had any sense of permanence or importance. Our driver dropped us off at a cheap hotel. One of our number still hadn't paid for the tour - he was a beret clad archivist from Spain. Somehow he managed to persuade them he would pay at their office in Potosi. Honest folk.

The hotel had a pathetic shower that worked in a furiously unfair system of proportions whereby the more you increase the water pressure the colder the water becomes. I had a cold miserable shower and then ran back to the icebox room we had got for the night.


During the war of the Pacific (1879 -83) Chile went to war with Bolivia and Peru. Those motherfucking Chileans took 350kms of coastline in the war and left Bolivia landlocked and probably perpetually locked in its status as poorest country in South America. I am ashamed to say the Chileans won because of the economic and military assistance provided by Shell who were keen to get their grubbies on the nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert. Sad and wrong.