Thursday, December 24, 2009


Before I go into any description of our final experiences in Bolivia, I must express my insane happiness at being in Chile again! In order to maintain composure during the 3 previous months of travel I must have somehow put out of my mind how much I have been anticipating my return to the country where I studied back in 2005. But now that I am here, I am psyched up for many weeks of travel south through the varied landscapes of this pencil thin country. It is also much easier to plan an itinerary in Chile because there is really only one direction in which to travel, south, and any east and west travel can be accomplished in a matter of a couple of hours at most. We crossed the Chilean border from Bolivia 2 days ago after finishing up a 3 day tour of the salt flats and other sights in southwestern Bolivia. After the almost 3 weeks of travel on rough Bolivian roads riddled with potholes and uneven surfaces, my first impression of Chile was as we eased away from the border crossing on a minibus. Almost immediately we pulled onto a beautifully paved, two-lane road marked with yellow and white lines. Even in the middle of the dusty, remote Atacama desert, the Chileans have managed to create amazing roads. And that is a major difference between the poorest and the richest countries in Latinamerica.

Bolivia was THE country for viewing some beautifully unique and otherworldly scenery. In the south, Brad and I spent 2 nights in Tupiza, a town with the feeling you get in rural Oregon, especially in places like Grants Pass. The streets were fronted with stores that could have been saloons and the leisurely pace was welcome, perfectly suited to sidling around the town´s plazas. Surrounding Tupiza on all sides are rainbow colored rocky hills cut with valleys and a small river. The scenery reminded me of the North American southwest, deserty and with a strong sunshine that can turn rapidly to dry lightning and thunder. From Tupiza, Brad and I worked on booking a tour to see the remote sections of southwestern Bolivia and ending at the Chilean border. But we had no luck finding other travellers who wanted to do the same tour and we were forced to take a bus north to Uyuni, a town made up mostly of tour agencies just waiting to provide us with our desired itinerary. The trouble with Uyuni is that with over 60 tour agencies, none of which have stellar reputations, we were thrown into the fray of deciding which tour operators were telling us the truth about their exceptional service and which ones were going to send us out onto the salar with drivers who drink or decide to somehow shirk their responsibilities as guides. Luckily, on our first outing to weed through the masses, we ran into our 4 friends from the NW who had just, that minute, returned from the tour and highly recommended their tour operator. Problem solved! We booked with Kantuta tours leaving on Sunday.

There were 6 of us and the driver who loaded into the Toyota "cuatro por cuatro" on the first day of the tour. Brad and me, Guido (Italian), Susana (Bolivian), Morgan (North Carolinian), Daniel (Chilean) and Adalit, our great driver who provided us with good information and super positive energy throughout the trip. We visited the cementerio de trenes (train cemetary) first where we got to climb around on trains that were used back in 1825 and which are now just rusting slowly into the desert sand. Then it was off to the real highlight, the Salar de Uyuni by way of a small village whose existance is determined by collecting mounds of salt from the salt flats and processing, packaging, and selling it (even though we noticed that the salt we used at all of the meals on the salt flats tour was imported from Chile....). Adalit drove us expertly past the mounds of salt and onto the white expanse of salt that extends out in all directions seemingly without boundaries or limits. The farther we drove away from Uyuni, the whiter the salt got and the sun reflected blindingly back at us from the ground. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world stretching 4,085 square miles. Also, it is really high above sea level at 3,656 meters and impressively it only varies in altitude at most by 1 meter across the entire area! That makes the salar a perfect place to goof around with a camera and create artistic perspective shots that depict tiny people standing on big people´s shoulders or tiny people karateing huge plastic dinosaurs! If you care to peek at the results of our hours long salt flats photography session you can find the best shots on our photo page! You will see we got very excited about jumping too. Also, there was an island (Intiwasi) made of coral in the middle of the salt flat that is home to thousands of giant cacti that have been around for many hundreds of years (there may be a picture of an Andean Emu that lives with the cacti on that island...who knew there was such a thing as an Andean Emu??).

The first night was spent at the edge of the Salar in a salt hotel, literally a building made of salt blocks harvested from the Salar. The ground was covered with a thick layer of loose salt crystals and the beds were supported by huge chunks of salt as well. It was a nice idea but we stayed at a non-salt hostel the next night that was, in reality, much nicer. On the second day of the tour, Adalit drove us to sight after sight of amazing scenery, each one differing starkly from the previous. We saw volcanos, deserty landscapes with Salvador Daliesque rocks, lagunas that changed colors from bright green to white to pink to blue depending on their mineral content, flocks of pink flamengos inhabiting the lagunas, and expanses of desert that ended in rainbow colored volcanic ridges. Through all of this, the roads were created in the moment by the drivers and we bumped along in our trusty Jeep oohing and ahhing and the incredible, surrealistic scenes.

The final night at the hotel next to the Laguna Colorada, a red lake teeming with flamengos, was full of merriment and I didn´t sleep much due to several Argentine rugby players and other partyers who decided that singing was better than sleep and the party continued well into the night before we woke up at 4:30am, primetime for geyser viewing. The high altitude geyser field is a free-for-all for tourists with no safety precautions surrounding the boiling pots of claylike mud that bubble and spurt randomly high into the air. Sulfery steam shot from vents in the ground and with the rising sun and the colorful volcanic mineral pools, the whole scene was wild and otherworldly. I could have spent much more time there but the next stop was a hot springs pool where Brad and I bathed in the healing steamy water before a lovely breakfast catered to us beside a large laguna surrounded by volcanos. And finally, we reached Laguna Verde, a white rimmed greenish lake, complete with flamingos, and a volcano guardian called Licancabur which stradles the Bolivian Chilean border. We departed from our tour there at the remote border crossing marking the edge of the Bolivian altiplano and as we entered Chile, we headed straight downhill (on that lovely paved road) all the way to the Atacama desert and the little touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama. We have plans to stay in San Pedro for Christmas tomorrow and to leave the next day probably for Calama or Antofagasta to commence our tour of Chile! It is very exciting to be in San Pedro because I have been here before and I am having a great time remembering what I did during that time. I found the hostel where I stayed and the benches in the beautiful plaza where I spent time reading and writing journal entries. This time in San Pedro we are camping. Brad took me out to a delicious dinner of salmon and steak the other night (probably the best food we´ve had on this trip). And tomorrow, on Christmas, I think we will rent bikes to cruise around to the valleys around town.

I´m thinking about everyone back home today on Christmas eve. I feel sad that I will be missing our traditional Swedish dinner because I´m sure it will be just as delicious and exciting as ever! But I also feel very lucky to be in this beautiful desert town with perfect, dry, hot, sunny weather for the holidays. I love and miss you all very much. Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Heart of Darkness

I had been looking forward to our arrival in Potosi and a tour of their historic mines. The mines captured my imagination and I read anything I could find relating to their history. Cerro Rico, the rich mountain, looms directly over Potosi, its excavation ravaged face a reminder that the town below would not exist at all except for the minerals hidden deep in its bowels.

The Spanish began mining the mountain in 1546, and it has been mined continuously for the following 463 years. The quality silver ore was depleted in the first 250 years of mining. During this time the mountain was producing more than half the world’s silver. Potosi grew to a city of over 200,000 people, larger than London or Paris. In this period, the Spanish removed 45,000 tons of silver from the ´rich mountain´. At today’s price of $17.41 per ounce, Spain’s total take was $25,070,400,000 in today’s dollars price for which some colonialists willing sold their humanity. An estimated 8 million forced labors died working the mines, most of them indigenous Americans. 8 millions lives, painfully lived and silently lost to satiate man’s endless desire for shiny metals.

A tour of the mines today provides a profound lesson in colonialism’s lasting impact in South America. Indigenous peoples, speaking their native Quechua, today chose to enter the same mines that were the tombs and torment of their ancestors. The rich veins of silver are gone and can be seen adorning Catholic churches throughout Europe. Modern miners remove an inferior ore, containing mainly zinc and lead, with trace amounts of silver. Potosi at 4090 meters (13,400 feet) has no agriculture and little other industry. The miners work in small groups each with their own claim, and each getting paid based on the quality and quantity of ore produced. They choose to work in the mines, and being independent they choose how many days to work and how many hours each day. But choice is a function of opportunity and in Potosi, the poorest district in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country there is little to choose between. 5000 men, and only men, work the mines. In any given year 25 men die from accidents inside the mines; cave ins, explosions, or toxic gases. That is one half percent, or one in every 200.

I met a man on the third level of the mine who had been working the mine for 30 years, rolling the dice each year. On the fourth level I met a 15 year old boy who had been working the mines for 2 years. He was shirtless in the stifling heat and worked with a hand chisel at a vein of ore. We gave him a gift which consisted of a stick of dynamite, detonator, fuse, and ammonium nitrate. No toy fireworks for this boy whose childhood was over years ago. I hope he avoids the myriad dangers that lie within that mountain, however if he comes out of the mines safely year after year he will take something equally as deadly with him. The mountain never leaves the miners, they carry it with them, particles of the Cerro Rico lodged in their lungs. They start young and die young usually around 40, main of silicosis pneumonia. The miners of Potosi knowingly sacrifice their bodies to wrest these minerals from the mountain. The Spaniards forced their ancestors to unwillingly make the same sacrifice. My mind wants there to be a difference, to believe that that things must have changed drastically for the better after so many years. However faced with the vivid reality, the difference it not enough.

The Mountain that Eats People

Two nights ago we arrived in Potosi, Bolivia, the highest city in the world. I am not quite sure what designations a city must have to be a city because I am certain there must be higher settlements somewhere in Nepal or elsewhere but regardless, Potosi is a hilly, windy, bustling mining city with a fascinating history. It was founded in 1546 by the Spanish because they had discovered silver in the veins of Cerro Rico, the reddish mountain that lies just beyond the boundaries of Potosi. Cerro Rico towers over the city in more ways than just being the dominant land feature of the 4,060 meter landscape. Although you can hardly lose sight of it while you walk through the town, the most important influence it has on the population of Potosi is that it provides thousands of men with dangerous mining jobs so that they can afford to feed and clothe their families. There are no other industries in this region so Cerro Rico lures many men to it's caves with the promise of a salary from it's mineral rich rocks. For hundreds of years Cerro Rico has been mined beginning with the Spanish who employed indiginous workers as well as imported African slaves to extract the silver that practically sustained the Spanish monarchy. There was so much silver that many workers were required to extract it so Potosi actually became one of the biggest cities in the world in the 1600's, bigger even than Paris and London. But as the 45,000 tons of silver were being extracted from the 150 mines that snake through the mountain, it is rumored that over 8 million lives have been lost. Lacking professional engineers and geologists to consult on how the tunnels are constructed, to be sure there are accidents that happen within the mines but the majority of the miners who have lost their lives have died because they have no protective equpiment to help prevent the inhalation of dust as they work. The life expectancy of the miners is short, about 40 years, and most die of silicosis in their lungs.

Cerro Rico has been continuously mined since the 1500's and the silver has been all but been depleted from it's veins, but the mines are still producing minerals like zinc and lead as well as the occasional silver. These 3 minerals are extracted from the waste rock in nearby factories but there is no further separation and the Bolivians export the 3 mixed together so the value of the product is pretty low. However, generations of men from Potosi have worked and continue to work in the mines, and often children as young as 13 begin their careers in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, and older brothers. Most miners work independently to earn their salaries which amount to between 30 and 50 Bolivianos per day, or about 3 to 5 US dollars after a long 10 hour shift in the mines. The working conditions are extremely harsh, with extreme temperature fluxuations and the presence of toxins in the air that prevent the miners from eating during their shifts. They drink soda and they chew massive amounts of coca leaves to combat not only the difficulties of working at altitude but also to keep them alert as they work. Another important aspect of the miner's work is their belief and worship of the Tio, or the devil. Each mine contains a statue of the Tio where the miners can leave offering of coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol to ask for protection during their shifts in the mine. They believe that they are so far underground beneath Cerro Rico that God's power cannot sufice so they reach out to Tio for that protection.

After learning much of the history of Potosi I was quite interested to visit the city and to do one of the available tours to the mines inside of Cerro Rico. I was warned it is not an easy experience and that it is challenging both physically and mentally. The first stop on the tour was to acquire the necessary gear to enter the mines: large pants, a jacket, rubber boots and a hardhat complete with a headlamp powered by a waistbelt battery pack. From there, we stopped at the miner's market to purchase gifts to give to the miners we would meet in the mines. Brad and I bought dynamite, a liter of soda and some coca leaves to distribute. Since the miners work for themselves the gifts do help their individual chances for a successful workday. As we rode in the bus to the mine, it was hard to shake the thought that I had a whole stick of dynamite complete with fuse resting in my lap. We entered Mina Candalaria, which our guide, Efra, informed us was one of the oldest mines on Cerro Rico, dating back to when the Spanish mined the mountain. The walls were reinforced with rock that had been put in place hundreds of years ago. For 1.5 hours we toured the tunnels, walking down narrow passageways that were fixed with rails on which the hand powered mine carts could ride, full of mostly waste materials. We descended through openings just big enough to pass through on our hands and knees and we shimmied down rickety ladders to the 4th and last level in the mine. At each turn we met miners and we watched them work, shoveling waste materials, chipping away at the rocks with hand tools, separating potential minerals from walls, and creating 20 inch long cylindrical holes where at the end of the day, they would place dynamite and blast a new hole to hopefully follow or expose a lucrative mineral vein. Our guide facilitated conversations, often in Quechua, and we learned about several miners but their stories were mostly the same - they are in their mid 20's, they started working in the mines as young teenagers, their fathers and brothers all work nearby in the same mine, they are glad to be almost done with their 10 hour shift. We distributed our gifts, Brad got to try his hand at using a hammer, we shook hands with the miners and moved on. It was very hot inside of the mine especially at the 4th level. The dust was thick in the air and the chemical smells made me feel quite lightheaded. Even though I was using a t-shirt to cover my nose and mouth I found it was a chore to breath. After less than 2 hours inside the mine, the blue sky and fresh air outside were overwhelmingly blissful. It made me so grateful that I never have to go inside of the mine again and it was so hard to imagine how 5,000 brave men work day after day in those appallaing underground conditions chipping away at rocks and exploding holes into the base of that mountain. Our guide told us that you can visit Potosi, but unless you visit the mines, you cannot possibly understand the culture of the city. They say that Cerro Rico is the mountain that eats people because so many die there, but the miners also say that the people eat the mountain because it sustains them so much in life...a vicious cycle.

We are taking a relaxed day today before going south to Tupiza in the morning. I think Brad wrote a post about Potosi also so we'll see if we had different things to say about the experience in the mines! More pictures should be up now from way back at Machu Picchu. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bolivia and Halfway Blues

Today is an errand day in La Paz, Bolivia. Brad and I were just walking from the bus station having bought tickets on tonight´s 12 hour overnight bus to Sucre when the menacing clouds opened up and a midday shower forced us into the nearest internet and phone cafe. Luckily, we have many internet tasks to accomplish and we could be here for the duration of the storm. We´ve actually had brilliant weather here in Bolivia since we arrived last Saturday to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Coming from Puno, Peru, we borded a minibus headed for the border town of Yuguyo around 2:30pm thinking we would have just enough time to get through the border formalities before it closed at 6pm (or 7pm Bolivia time since it is one hour later here). But of course, the minibus sat in the station for at least 3o minutes while the bus driver stood in front yelling the name of the bus´ destination until finally every last seat and several aisle positions were full. This departure delay put a bit of stress on our border crossing time frame and we spent a tense 2.5 hours watching Lake Titicaca on the left side of the bus and the setting sun on the right side. We made it to Yuguyo with 15 minutes to complete the whole border crossing but luckily it was not busy and we said goodbye to Peru, paid the required for Americans only $135 reciprocity fee and entered Bolivia. Since I didn´t have passport photos, they charged me an extra $5 to cross and our friends who had crossed several days earlier said that even after they had paid the $135 in cash, the border officials demanded photo copies of their ATM cards! I don´t believe there is any consistency in the requirements for crossing the Bolivian border except the common factor that all Americans must pay at least $135.

Copacabana was a beautifully tranquil, though touristy, little town right on the shores on Lake Titicaca. We arrived on Saturday night and were immediately informed that everything would be closed the following day, Sunday, due to the Bolivian national elections. Things are normally closed on Sundays in Latinamerican cities but on election day not even buses would run and we couldn´t get on a boat to the nearby Isla del Sol. So we spent a very relaxed day reading books in the plazas and by the lake and on our hostel rooftop. Many radios blared with election updates and by the evening, Evo Morales was projected to be reelected by a landslide. At 1am, on our way back to our hostel, Brad and I encountered about 15 Bolivian men parading and dancing around the main plaza with a bass drum, several other percussion instruments and many pan flutes!

Next stop, La Paz. To enter the highest capital city in the world, all transportation goes through the neighborhood of El Alto which begins on a plateau and spills over the side of the valley joining the rest of stunning La Paz as it runs down through a huge valley watched over by extremely tall snowy mountains. The traffic seemed impossibly thick with colectivo vans and taxis choking the roadways and asserting themselves on their horns. Somehow our bus wove it´s way through the madness and dropped us in the middle of the masses of people that perpetually crowd the streets of La Paz. There are market stalls on every street corner and some streets have both the normal shops in buildings as well as market stalls double wide on the sidewalks being fed by electrical wires hanging low over walkways. There is barely room for people to walk let alone the cars that also insist on plowing through. Brad and I and an American couple, Molly and Ryan, who we have been travelling with a bit, got dorm beds at the Adventure Brew hostel, which promised fun by including free beer and an all you can eat pancake breakfasts in the total cost of the room. We took full advantage of these things the first night and morning but we realized very soon that our travel philosophies differ quite a bit from those people who travel to party. I was often in bed hours before the rest of the people in our dorm room were back from the bars, especially if they had visited the notorious bar where you can buy cocaine all night long. My time in La Paz was a mix of wandering through the market streets including the witches market where you can buy herbs and spices as well as llama fetuses and spending some time feeling sick with an upset stomach (the first illness I have really experienced on this trip).

Now we are in the colonial city of Sucre, which is a lot less frenetic than La Paz and feels quite comfortable. There is a beautiful plaza and some fun shops and a central market that sells fruits, vegetables and meat. Last night, Brad and I, Molly and Ryan, and a couple from Portland, Justin and Julia, went out for dinner and drinks with the purpose of watching the Blazer game! It was very fun to experience such a Portland specific event even though the Blazers lost. I´m at an imaginary mid point in this trip (about 3 months in) and I am feeling a bit travel weary and I find that I am being affected negatively by each countries´ little quirks whereas at the start of the trip, those quirks were interesting and fun. I find that I often think about Portland and the Northwest and miss my friends, family and the structured life that I had while I was living and working in Portland. Brad and I often say we would fly back in a second if we could just have a burrito from the truck on 50th and Division in Portland! But even though I am feeling these things, I am still incredibly excited about the prospects for our travel in the near future. We have so many more amazing things to see and do, starting probably within the week with the Salt flats and the amazing scenery in southwestern Bolivia. Plus, we will be heading into Chile after that and I can´t wait to get back to that country where there will be some familiarity. No doubt this little bout of homesickness and nostalgia for the NW will pass with the holiday season!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Checking Off the Highlights

If anybody remembers back to when Brad and I started planning our South American trip, pretty much the only concrete item on the list of things to do was a visit to Machu Picchu, hopefully after hiking the 4 day, 3 night Inca trail to the ruins. Now, since we weren´t going to plan a single day of the trip, we adamantly refused to heed the recommended advice to reserve a spot on a trek at least 6 weeks in advance in order to snag 2 of the only 400 Inca trail passes that are handed out each day since the government started regulating access to the trail a few years ago. We decided that since we would be in Cuzco during the low tourist season, and since our schedule was so flexible, we could probably manage to tag along with a tour group even if we had to wait several days to do so.

We arrived in Cuzco at 5:30am after yet another overnight bus trip and we wandered, bleary eyed and sleepy through the early morning, rain soaked streets, not realizing that we were passing through the Plaza de Armas and many important historical landmarks. Finding the Hostel Samay Wasi in the hilly neighborhood of San Blas whose super friendly owers fed us breakfast and put us up in a lovely double room, we rested a bit before tackling the daunting task of visiting the multitude of tour companies that litter the streets and allies of Cuzco. We visited at least 5 different tour companies after the initial positive discovery that there were Inca trail passes still available starting on the 29th of November, just 4 days away. Getting different price quotes and a sense of the vibe of each company, we decided on one and that afternoon we had booked a trail trip with the ridiculously named X-treme Tourbulencia company. We learned from them that the same regulations that limit the number of tourists on the trail per day, also have strict guidelines for what gear the tourists can carry and also, fortunately, how much weight and what items the required porters can carry. Brad and I had hoped that by carrying our own tent, sleeping bags and mattresses, we could get a discount on the trail price, but the rules will not allow tourists to even carry tents. Since I am so used to backpacking with all of the necessary items strapped to my own back I had serious reservations at the prospect of using human pack animals to do my job. But setting those thoughts aside until the trip, Brad and I had several days in which to discover Cuzco and the Inca ruins that stand just outside of the city.

Walking through the streets of Cuzco, you have to avoid, or better yet, appear to ignore, the constant barrage of vendors peddling their goods directly in your path, women shoving flyers for massages in your face and then pursuing you with verbal solicitations, and little boys pouting on the street corners when you walk by without letting them shine your shoes. It is an overwhelming scene to say the least but despite these little annoyances, I thouroughly enjoyed the time I spent marvelling at the modern structures built directly on top of the original Inca stone foundations that have lasted impeccably for 500 years through invasions and earthquakes. Just outside of Cuzco, in the Sacred Valley, we visited 5 Incan ruin sights that are easily explored with the purchase of a Boleto Turistico, which is yet another expense that must be paid in order to do the important once in a lifetime historical tours of the area. Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman), Qénqo, Tambomachay, Pukapukara and Pisaq were important ceremonial, military fortresses, and residential communities that are wonderfully preserved. However, reading the brochures and listening to guides makes you realize how little historians really know about the Incan culture despite the fact that there are so many living descendents.

At 6am on November 29th, our Inca trail guides, Russell and Freud, picked us up at our hostel, loaded us onto a bus with 7 other tourists and 10 porters and drove us 3 hours to the starting point of the Inca trail, km 82 in the Sacred Valley. After getting our passports stamped, we headed off on a relatively flat trail for several kilometers in a sprinkling of raindrops that I feared would be a constant during the full 4 day trip since it is the rainy season in the mountains of Peru. My unease at having porters to carry much of my gear was brought out when we stopped for lunch only to discover the porters were already there having set up a giant dining tent inside of which was a cloth covered table, plastic stools, and a 4-piece silverwear set for each person. This was followed by a 4-course lunch of stuffed avocado, a vegetable soup, a meat, onion and rice dish for the main plate, and hot coca tea to finish. Such luxury is unheard of when I hike by myself and being catered to was uncomfortable. The rest of the hiking day was a gradual uphill to a campsite (of course already established by the porters so that all of us lazy tourists had to do was choose a tent) in a beautiful valley at the end of which, when the clouds finally cleared, we could see a snowy mountain and an almost full moon. On day 2, we hiked in sunshine to Dead Woman´s pass at just over 4,200 meters. It was a challenging but exciting hike up many Inca made stone stairs and then down the other side into a waterfall fed river valley where we found our campsite and sat down to 2 elaborate meals seperated by a tea time. In the middle of that night, the rain started and didn´t stop until we reached the third campsite at 1pm. Day 3 is supposed to be the most scenic hike as you climb over 2 passes, walk along a sharp ridgeline, explore several Incan ruins, and crawl through a couple of tunnels. We couldn´t see the snowy mountain views and we got completely soaked but it was still an enjoyable day and the misty scenery that we could see was beautiful. The last campsite on the trail is pretty silly to most hikers who are used to roughing it a bit more. See, there´s a restaurant on the site that plays club music and offers hot showers for a fee. You can also buy candy bars, beer, toilet paper and many other items. I do admit, a beer was pretty refreshing especially after the rain stopped and the sun came out in this edge of the Amazon rainforest section of the route to Machu Picchu.

The final day on the trail starts with a jolt at 3:45am as the porters literally start taking the stakes out of the tents while you scramble to pack your gear, eat a pancake and rush onto the trail only to be stopped in line at the control station and a locked gate that doesn´t open until 5:30am. Brad and I and a Canadian member of our group named Peter, scrambled to arrive at control as early as possible to establish our place in line. There were 3 groups ahead of us and as we waited at least 200 people lined up behind us. There was a lot of anticipation mounting as we waited, almost like the start of a road race. And when the gate opened, people literally started running down the narrow, rocky stairsteps that make up the majority of the trail. Brad, Peter and I are strong hikers and we soon passed every other person on the trail as we sped the 35 minutes to arrive at the Sun gate, the original official entrance to Machu Picchu. All of this rushing was only necessary on that morning because we wanted to acquire a ticket to climb the famous mountain, Huayna Picchu, that appears in almost every picture of Machu Picchu. There are a limited number of passes available to climb this mountain due to the fact that 3-5 people disappear each year while summiting. As we skidded to a halt at the sun gate to regroup, 3 dudes without backpacks sprinted past us onto the traverse that leads to the city of Machu Picchu making us the 2nd group from the Inca trail to appear at the ruin. Even with this mad dash, none of us procured tickets because they had been given out to the tourists who had come on the buses early in the morning. We were disappointed but only for a moment because we had before us the stunning city of Machu Picchu to explore. Early in the morning, there were some sprinkles and the mist obscured much of the view of the city but as the day progressed, the sun made an appearance and it got quite warm and we enjoyed fantastic views of the Incan stonework, the many temples, the famous sun dial, and some llamas that live at the sight! And in the end, we were able to climb Huayna Picchu, a hike that took us up the steep, slippery stone stairs of the mountain to the ruins at the top from which we had an incredible birds eye view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding hills that make up the impossible site where the ruins are located.

Even though there were hundreds of other people on the Inca trail, it was still a stunning introduction to Machu Picchu and I´m thrilled that it worked out so well for us to obtain a pass even without making reservations months in advance! We spent a day recovering back in Cuzco after taking the train back into town from Aguas Calientes in the Sacred Valley. And today I am in Puno, Peru, on the edge of the high altitude Lake Titicaca, yet another highlight of South America. We are on the verge of hopping over into Bolivia where, after spending way too much money in Cuzco, we will be able to live very cheaply for as long as we want! I´ll put pictures up soon.
Happy December everyone!