Friday, August 8, 2008

The end of the end

Today our trip is over. After catching a short flight back from Salta, I find myself back in the city I’ve learned to love over the past two months. The end of our cracked-out, mad-hatter dash across Bolivia and Peru means that the end of my 6.5 months as an ex-pat is fast approaching. In three days I’ll be in Boston, surrounded by immediate and extended family members. Nat and I covered a lot of ground over the past two weeks, in more ways than one. The best way I can think of to sum up our trip (without getting too corny or bogged down in desultory details) is to write a list. So, here it is. The grand tally, as it were:

Number of:

Flights taken: 3
Bus rides: 11
Long cab rides (excluding to and from airports and bus stations): 3
Train rides: 3
Border crossings: 4
Times we ate alpaca: 2
Times we were hit on by ‘a real life Inca!’: 1
Llamas seen: not enough
Warmer pieces of clothing purchased: 7 (mittens count as 1)
Volcanoes climbed: 1
Bad sunburns: 2
Mummies seen: 4
Love-tokens purchased: 1 (by Natalie, but in her defense she just wanted a picture with the love-token seller…)
New friends/ people we can stay with when we keep traveling: many
Times we got kicked out of a cab: 1
Andean music videos we were subjected to: too many (and yet, never enough)
Times we got fed-up with other traveling Americans: a lot
Times Nat and I got fed-up with each other: never (at least to my knowledge)
Sunrises witnessed: 4-5
Pictures taken: over 400 (collectively)
Times we got food poisoning: none
Times I spoke Arabic: 1
Pisco sours drunk: 4
Traditional tribal dances watched: 2
Times we tried not to think about the trip ending: many

And there you have it. That was our trip, in a nutshell. The two things I can say for certain are that it was wonderful, and that I will be back (hopefully soon), to this wonderful continent. To the llamas, the Incas, the quinoa, and the mountains: hasta luego.

The summit of the trip: Machu Picchu

Geographically it made sense for us to save the best for last. Our anticipation had been building since we’d started planning the trip, and after a relaxing day exploring museums and shops in Cuzco, we were off to Machu Picchu. We took a long cab ride and a train to a town called Aguas Calientes, which is at the base of Machu Picchu. We only had one day at Machu Picchu and were poised to wake up at an ungodly hour the next morning, so we went to bed early.

At 4:00 AM, it was time to get up. The bus to the mountain didn’t leave until 5:30 or 6:00, but we were told that people lined up really early to catch the buses since they only let in 200 people for the first shift every day. We arrived at the bus stop at exactly 4:21 to find that apart from six other hearty souls… no one else was there. Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves and generally hard-core and badass, we sat down to wait, ingesting some battery acid (otherwise known as coffee), and bananas with peanut butter. We almost felt as though we should have lit some incense and mashed some acai berries with woodchips or something, but on our student budget, bananas and coffee were the go-to fuel for Inca-trekking and any spiritual ancient-god communiqu├ęs that might transpire.

After some initial confusion with bus tickets, we boarded a bus and rode up the hairpin turns of the mountain to…Machu Picchu! The whole mountain was shrouded in mist, and it was very easy to imagine an Incan religious ceremony taking place on the site hundreds of years before, or bare Incan footsteps treading between walls of stone. The main site of ruins that most people are familiar with lies at the base of another mountain called Wayna Picchu. There are ruins on top of Wayna Picchu as well, and it takes about an hour to climb up. Natalie and I scampered quickly across the main ruins to the other side, hoping to get in line for when Wayna Picchu would open at 7:00. The plan was to see the top, then explore Machu Picchu when we came down.

Going up was not easy and the altitude certainly wasn’t doing our lungs any favors, but at least we got our exercise for the day. The top of Wayna Picchu was absolutely spectacular. We took a ridiculous number of photos, but they don’t do the site justice. We sat on top of giant boulders and gazed out land dipping and sliding dramatically, like a child of the gods had pinched the earth over and over again like playdough. Soon encroaching visitors prompted us to leave the top of the mountain and make way for others, and we started the steep and slow trek down.

The sun was already hot by the time we were back at the ruins, and I was fading fast from all our lack of sleep starting to catch up with me. However Natalie had procured a map, and insisted we go find every officially-named part of the ruins. She traipsed around, proudly proclaiming, “This is the condor temple!” “This is a real sundial!” with the enthusiasm of a kindergarten teacher who has just discovered her entire class can read and understand Plato. I was amused, and went along for the ride.

After our afternoon at the ruins, we got right back on a bus and thus began the long trek back through Peru, Bolivia and upper Argentina to Buenos Aires. It took a few days, mostly because for some odd reason one cannot go straight from Peru back to Argentina. Our return trip involved many buses, trains, taxis, planes, and cars, but finally we arrived back in BA, safe and sound and quite satisfied with our whirlwind cross-country adventures.

A land of plenty

From La Paz we set out on, yes, another bus journey, this time to Copacabana. This one was short enough to travel during the day instead of overnight. Natalie passed out right away, but I was too excited to sleep. I just couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery rolling past us. It was late afternoon, and the sun turned the wide fields the color of burned honey. The fields probably would have stretched on forever if they hadn’t been corralled unwillingly by towering, blue mountains whose jagged teeth clawed at the sky, anxious to reach deeper and deeper into the powder blue cap to the world. Craning my neck upwards, I wished I could be on top of the mountains at that moment. I am addicted to the sky here; I just can’t get enough of it. It almost seems oversaturated, too blue, and I can’t help thinking that if I keep reaching out to it and turning my face towards the heavens, those extra drops of saturation might be squeezed out and fall down over me, illuminating me in a blueberry halo.

We’d been riding for a few hours when we finally stopped at a lake. “Great, we’re there!” I thought. Turns out we were just taking a ferry. The bus driver drove the bus onto a very shaky looking, barge-like contraption, and the rest of us squeezed into small skiffs. We ferried across the lake, got out (completely dry and intact) on the other side, and drove for a little ways more to Copacabana. Copacabana is a cute little tourist trap on the edge of Lake Titicaca (haha, yes, let’s all be culturally insensitive and laugh at the funny name). We had heard the lake was famous for fresh trout, and we were not disappointed that night. Nat, a brood of Irishmen and I dined on the first seafood I’d had in months. Nat and I could barely chew, we were so tired, and after our delicious meal we headed straight to bed.

The next morning after some frantic travel itinerary-revising, we caught a boat to Isla del Sol. The island was beautiful, and after our very brisk (read: frigid) 1.5 hour ferry ride to get there, we were anxious to scramble up the terraces and run around the pre-Incan ruins. The ferry back to Copacabana was late (of course), so we just had time to grab some snacks before catching our 6:00 PM bus to Cuzco, PERU!

After changing buses twice and crossing one border, we found ourselves in Cuzco. The bus was supposed to get there around 7:00 AM, but it was only 4:30 when we rolled in. For some reason, we had an inordinate amount of energy, and headed off to a highly-recommended hostel, which thankfully had just enough beds available for Nat, our two Irish friends, and me. Sleep took awhile to come, but the comfy beds eventually encouraged our adrenaline to simmer down, and we set off to the land of nod.