…continued from Rounding the Corner, December 14.
La Paz and el Camino de la Muerte
With the census day in Bolivia I’d had to plan things pretty tight to do both the salt flats and Death Road. That meant taking the overnight bus from Uyuni back to La Paz, scheduled to arrive at 06:30 “or 07:00” according to those tricky bus folks. My Death Road tour operator was to pick me up at my hostel at 07:30, so I should have time to spare, right?
Well, I entered into this little deal knowing full well that I might miss my bike ride, but the fact was I had no choice and I had to risk it. After a bus ride only slightly more comfortable than on the way to Uyuni, we strolled back into La Paz at 07:45, putting me by taxi at the Wild Rover at 07:56. My tour group? Far gone. Shit.
I learned that the two Irish girls who had been in my salt flats tour had also made the journey to La Paz, but on a bus that left Uyuni 30 minutes earlier. I’d been angry with myself for not finding the earlier bus – even though it was only 30 minutes – thinking I would have had a better chance at making it in time for Death Road.
There I was anyway, at Wild Rover with my group already en route to Death Road. So it came down to Operation: “Deploy Emergency Taxi” to head the tour bus off at the pass; and it was a success. I caught ‘em, and just in time for a sexy little juevo-papa-chorizo-breakfast-treat.
As it came to pass, the Irish gal’s bus had broken down twice, was further delayed by martians or some other business, and ended up in La Paz like four hours late. I would have never made it had I been on that bus.
Sometimes you just need a little luck. And you get it.
Despite the overnight bus ride I was in better shape than most everyone in our group, who had gotten very refreshed the night before.
We started the ride at over 15,000 feet, the highest point I’ve been in my life – narrowly edging out Mt. Whitney and Indrahar Pass. I won’t count it though, not having achieved it under my own power.
Early on I was clear with our group: “guys, in all fairness I should tell you that I’m probably going to crash, and will most likely take out at least two or three others with me.” The girls looked at me nervously.
We got briefed and geared up, full-face helmets, knee and elbow pads and racing jackets, along with super-legit full suspension bikes.
“ALRIGHT GUYS THIS IS WHAT WE TRAINED FOR, SO SUCK IT UP,” I remarked intensely, as is often my refrain. Admittedly, some people don’t like it, and are surely thinking this guy is a typical pompous obnoxious American asshole (perpetuated, perhaps, by the assaultingly loud voice, laser-beam-death-stare and American flag bandana, I don’t know). But on every tour this year, despite the few downers, most people get a kick out of it. It’s all fun.
We were off, the first two hours or so being on pure paved road, absolutely smashing in full-tuck formation. After that we reached the beginning of Camino de la Muerte: a steep, one-lane gravel road, the vegetation-covered mountain face rising above the rider’s right, with precipitously sheer drops on the rider’s left, in some cases as high as 2,000 feet. Clouds crept up the cliff face, rising over the trail and obscuring the depths below.
“Ok guys, if you do go off the cliff, you might as well do a backflip.”
With that said we started bombing. Well, some of us; others took a milder approach, which was great, but you can probably imagine how things went on the front-end. Much of the time was spent a reasonable pace, but even then we were moving at a good clip, me being right on our guide’s ass. And fairly often we were even able to hit the higher gears and crush. At the very bottom section our guide really opened it up, and we definitely went fast enough to make me scared, narrowly avoiding full-blown yard sale high speed wrecks more than once. After that section we were waiting at the bottom for a while.
I was a in a good group and we had a freakin blast. There were about four wrecks in total, two by one impressive chick who was really going for it. Creds to her. No serious injuries though, and we all survived Death Road.
We got back later that night and I made party for my last evening, up and out for my 08:30 bus the next morning.
Cuzco and Machu Picchu
My bus rolled into Cuzco at approximately 20:00, yet another new, foreign and crazy place to arrive in. I guess it wasn’t that crazy, there were just hundreds of people in a crowded terminal with lines to wait for things I didn’t know about, dogs jumping turnstiles while attendants glanced in other directions, the normal touts and taxi drivers and kiosks and tours and pay-per-play baños and people going about their business. I stood there in the center of it all for a moment, just looking, chuckling silently to myself. Having done this about a thousand times now, I don’t think when I arrive back in the states I’ll encounter many things that are really going to shock me. Some, surely, but not many.
Grinding down a few taxi drivers I came to terms with a fellow for six soles, delivering me without incident to Milhouse, a super-sick, really nice hostel built from a converted monastery. Maybe the cleanest hostel I’ve stayed in. I’d recommend it for your next trip to Cuzco. That night I settled in, chatting up my fellow dorm-mates from Virginia and Germany.
The next day marked the arrival of one of my best friends, Danny Castro. His father is Peruvian, but he was born in New York and although he’s wanted to his entire life, he had never been to Perú. So throughout the last year leading up to my trip, he promised to come and meet me when I finally made it there. Besides, as all his Peruvian family has told him, “you’re not really Peruvian until you’ve done Machu Picchu.”
Danny was really there for me during the months leading up to my departure from the United States, encouraging me at every opportunity, reminding me why I was doing what I was doing. The day I left Fresno – a day and a feeling I’ll never forget – Danny came over only a couple of hours before my departure, as I packed away the last of my boxes with a heavy heart. He burned sage, and buried it in my backyard, reminding me that I would always have a home in Fresno. Thinking back to those last two months, now a year ago, I almost can’t believe it was me; except those feelings come back to me like they were yesterday. But I’ll save more about that time for the book…
Danny is likewise a massive Green Bay Packers fan, and wouldn’t you know it but the Packers were playing on Monday Night Football. Too bad they got smoked by the NY Giants as we watched in Spanish, but sometimes you have to take a few tough losses before making a run to the Super Bowl.
Having just chilled out and caught up with each other on Danny’s arrival day, the next day we got out and about, doing an outstanding walking tour through Cuzco, which included food, drinks, chocolate, and excellent vistas. We also finally got our Machu Picchu trip booked for the next morning before going out for a night on the town. Important to note: the gal who booked our tour told us we could pay by credit card the next morning before departure.
Well, the next morning was pretty rough, having had a late night out and being out of the hostel by 07:30. Not helping was the dickhead organizing our tour who insisted we had to pay in cash, resulting in a 20-minute argument on the topic before we were finally allowed to leave. The late night was mitigated though by about four hours of driving time, mostly spent sleeping in various uncomfortable positions with mouths agape.
That first day of the “Machu Picchu Adventure Jungle Trail” we did about a five-hour downhill bike ride, all on pavement, beginning at over 12,000 feet. Having done Death Road a week earlier this was pretty tame, but still fun, albeit pretty chilly for about the first hour at high elevation shrouded in clouds. “Got a little nippy goin through the pass, eh Har?”
By the time we arrived at the bottom we were pretty tight with the rest of our crew of six.
Phase II of the day’s adventure was whitish-brown-water rafting that evening, a pretty spirited outing by all accounts. My battle cry across the river to the other non-English speaking vessel, “YOU GUYS ARE GOING DOWN – LITERALLY, WE’RE SINKING YOUR ASSES!!!” while waving my oar overhead like a war tomahawk, was mistaken for friendly merriment, eliciting only a cheerful “yay” in reply. I’m afraid only the Canadian on board understood the true nature of my taunt, but no one listens to them anyway.
Day two was the longest day, with about nine or ten hours of hiking. By the end of the day our team name was official: “Hostile Tribe,” but better-known to some as “Balls to the Wall.”
Day three was more trekking, but we were inbound with only six hours left. Unfortunately, despite all the trekking, only one small section out of the three days was actually on the “Inca Trail.” You see, the “real,” classic, historical section of the Inca trail must be booked several months in advance. Considering I was trying to figure out what I was going to eat for dinner three months ago, we did not book in time. Instead, most of our hiking was done on a dirt road, usually with cars driving by sending up clouds of dust, occasionally through industrial areas and even construction zones. So much for the ancient, sacred path of the Incas…I could just as easily hike down Shaw Ave. for three days, but oh well, it was still cool. Especially with Hostile Tribe.
Amusingly to some, Danny and I had the pleasure of simultaneous bouts with explosive diarrhea throughout the trek to Machu Picchu. The pretty much put us on a checkpoint-to-checkpoint routine for the first three days, gambling with each precarious step between urgent and highly-anticipated rest stops. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say it all sounds really funny until you are very realistically considering how you’re going to drop trow mid-trek on the sacred Inca trail to relieve the misery.
Ahem, so Machu Picchu, yes, among the more incredible things I’ve done in my life.
On day four we were out of our hostel at 04:15, walking the thirty minutes or so to the lower gate, where we would stand in line until 05:00. From there it was an intense, one-hour uphill climb to the gates of Machu Picchu, which opened at 06:00.
When we were finally let in, Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in clouds, the surrounding features only faintly visible through wisps of grey. Within 15 minutes the sky cleared, seemingly only for the sunrise, as cloud banks rolled back in shortly after.
It was stunning. Breathtaking. Incredible.
We started the day with a two-hour tour lead by a very competent and knowledgable guide. We learned about the architecture, the agriculture and the different areas within Machu Picchu. But because all records were destroyed when the Incas were conquered, no one really knows what Machu Picchu actually was. Those who have studied speculate that it was actually a university, where students trekked each day from as far as three or five hours one way to become educated.
Shortly after the tour we did the hike up Wayna Picchu, the taller mountain you see in the background of the “classic” Machu Picchu picture. This was another intense one-hour uphill hike, the top of which overlooked all of Machu Picchu and the valley below.
By the time we tried for the Sun Gate it was closed, so we missed that, but instead we saw the Inca bridge and walked around the ancient ruins for hours.
From the gates opening at 06:00 to shut-down at 16:00, we were mesmerized. We lingered until the last moments, capturing a few more photos, taking it in for a few last moments. We just couldn’t leave. I can honestly say that Machu Picchu blew me away.
Reluctantly departed from the heights of Machu Picchu we made what seemed like an even longer descent back to Aguas Calientes, arriving only perhaps an hour and a half before our train would depart, but just enough time to pick up our gear and grab a quick shower at the hostel.
From there we took a two-hour train, sitting with two German girls from a rival tribe (in all likelihood they probably would have liked to jump ship for BALLS TO THE WALL), after which we connected to a two-hour bus, finally arriving back in Cuzco in a rain storm, at approximately 23:00, exhausted from the four-day journey.
As we walked through the dark and raining streets, I became conscious that my feet were wet, an uncomfortable feeling in flip-flops, and that shoes would have been much better suited for the walk back to our hostel. Only my shoes were still on the bus, which by now might as well be in Madagascar.
The moderate rain quickly became a downpour of f-bombs.
My size 10 North Face extreme trekking waterproof gortex all-terrain polycarbonate bullet-proof waffle-grip dual-mesh reflexive base-core bombers.
My hiking and trekking shoes; my casual shoes, running shoes, my cleats and dress shoes; they’d served all purposes. I’d laced em up over 300 consecutive days.They’d walked perhaps a thousand miles this year, over six continents, through all terrain; impenetrable, impervious to all elements, indomitable…and not to mention a stylish asphalt grey. Scheduled for bronzing immediately upon return to the land of liberty.
Unceremoniously left behind, like a cowering, unwanted feral dog in the street. It was unconscionable.
This year I’ve lost (or broken) five pairs of sunglasses, a very handy pocket notebook (with eight months of notes), iheadphones, a clip-on flashlight and a soap holder. I was pissed off about each; but all mere trifles.
My shoes? They were a part of me.
The following morning we were up and back at the travel agency where we’d booked our trek, still dealing with the nightmare of trying to settle our payments with a credit card. I won’t get into this but it’s a good thing Danny was there.
We finally got it done an hour later, after which we asked pleadingly if they could call the bus company and see if my shoes had been recovered. I gave it a 10% chance. He didn’t say so, but Danny had it pegged at 1%. So the lady takes off in one direction across the street and we talk with the guy for a couple of minutes.
Strike me down dead if seven minutes later this lady didn’t walk around a different corner, from a different direction, with my shoes in her hand.
And the light shone down. Miraculous.
Walking back we passed through a parade, with all sorts of folk dancing, and a chess tournament for kids, blue sky, sun shining, and everyone was happy. Especially me.
I made a promise that day, to myself and to the Supreme Regent of the Universe, with Daniel Castro as my witness, that I will not lose anything else for the remainder of my journey. And so far….
Shortly after the grace of travel sprits fell upon me we were at the Cuzco airport, where I promptly had my shoes cleaned and shined. And I have to say they’re looking pretty sharp right now.
The one-and-a-half hour flight back to Lima was much preferred over the 20+ hour bus ride, and once we got there we went to Danny’s aunt’s, or tia’s house. We stayed there for two nights, going around Lima a bit and relaxing after Machu Picchu. She might be the nicest person on earth, feeding us and taking us around to see cool stuff, letting us do laundry and whatever else we needed to do. It was a nice rest.
Leaving South America
The morning of the second day I said goodbye to Danny very early, and some hours later packed it up, thanked tia, and was back on my own. I wasn’t leaving until the next morning, so I opted to spend my last day in South America in relative solitude.
I did some writing, and posted pictures, and did a double day in my own gym to get back on track from the previous week in Machu Picchu (I skipped leg day after four days of trekking, is that cool? I think so). I met the guys in my hostel dorm, and made new friends, and stopped into a local restaurant for a top-shelf ceviche dinner. I gazed at the sea, and the waves rolling in, ceaselessly.
On December 4 I left Perú and South America behind me, and pressed onward, and crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere, with thoughts of my family and friends and the holiday season, and the remaining miles that lie ahead.