Little Bear and I visited Machu Picchu

LB visits MP

I almost didn’t go to Machu Picchu. By the time I got to Cusco, off an 8-hour $5 local bus from Puno, I’d had it with cold and tourism and hostels. I accidentally ended up at a party hostel the first night in Cusco. I hate those but they usually have soft beds and warm water, so I took it and hid in a corner and went to bed at 9:00 the first night.

The next day was Thanksgiving. I walked around Cusco, too frustrated to enjoy the beautiful scenery, in search of a cafe with internet. I saw the first Starbucks I’ve seen since leaving the US and knowing it would be reliable for internet went for it. I opened the door and was so overwhelmed by familiarity and Christmas decorations I immediately lost it, and had to go cry in the street for about 15 minutes before going inside.

When I did make it inside with a coffee in hand, I signed onto Couchsurfing imediately, it had to be my lifeline. I found some other Americans who had posted in the Cusco group that they wanted to meet up for Thanksgiving. So I sent a nice-looking couple from New York, Laura and Eric, a frantic message, and by the grace of God they wrote back immediately and said they were staying at a nicer hostel, and that they would meet up with me. I didn’t care if it seemed desperate or creepy, I checked out of my terrible party hostel and into theirs, and upon check-in met them and breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to have Thanksgiving alone!

Peruvian Chicken and Vino Tinto. Happy Thanksgiving!

We went out that night for Peruvian chicken and red wine and had a grand old time. We even found apple pie at a bakery just closing for the night. But the following day I awoke to the same feeling I’d had the day before, a stress of knowing why I was there but not knowning at all what to do about it.

I haven’t planned ahead too much since leaving Cochabamba. Frankly its easier to travel loosely here. If you don’t book a hostel ahead of time and have a few in mind with addressess when you arrive, you can check them out and see what looks right for you. If you don’t book a bus ticket ahead of time and just go when you need to and get a seat for much cheaper, as I learned on the Puno-Cusco bus when I bought my ticket at 8:16 for the 8:00 bus. But with Cusco, I was only there to visit Machu Picchu. And I was visiting Machu Picchu because weeks before when I was trying to figure out what I was doing after the program, I thought I’d go to Lima to visit friends. And so I may as well head to Cuso first. But as it turns out, Lima is super far away, as are Santiago and Vaparaiso, and I’m not really in the right state to take any buses in the next couple of days, particularly ones that are 24-hours long.


But, there I was in Cusco. Pretty city. Super old. Inca stuff. Spanish stuff. Lots of tour guides. Lots of people selling you stuff. Decent weather. Cheap clothes can be found when needed to cover anxiety-induced excema on forearms. I hated it there so much.

But I made myself find a tour because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. Machu Picchu isn’t easy to get to, alone or with a tour, and it is so famous and hyped up that I didn’t even know where to start. So I went to the main tourist office, and then to others. Cusco is about 7 hours by road (and tracks) to Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley is in the middle. There are tons of different ways to get there, everybody has their own advice, and I really didn’t know what to do. The problem is that it’s expensive to take the train ($100 for a couple of hours on train, which is totally crazy) but the train doesn’t even connect straight to Cusco. You have to take a bus to another town first, then take the train, to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the bottom of the mountain from Cusco.

Eventually I found a tour that sounded alright, so I bought it, then fretted about it all afternoon. I went to the grocery store to find some food to take along and found Kraft Mac and Cheese.  There is nothing more comforting abroad than Mac and Cheese. I bought it and cooked it for myself and a British girl I was sharing my room at the hostel with.

The next morning the tour left at 8 or so, and took about 8 hours (with lunch and breaks) to get to the hidroelectric plant where the train to Aguas Calientes begins. Oh, and the drive was through mountains nearly the entire time, winding back and forth on one-way dirt roads over huge precipices. . . it was certainly scenic.

Walking along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes the evening before climbing Machu Picchu. You can see the two famous mountains in the distance. Stunning.

When the road (literally) ended at the hidroelectric plant the group hopped off the bus and proceeded to walk along the railroad tracks for the next 3 hours to get to Aguas Calientes. It was a fun time, and as it got to be dusk we came upon a scene of mountains above us that had the familiar shape of the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. Indeed, we were near.

It was dark some time before we reached Aguas Calientes, and after a quick dinner a few Argentine girls, a Chilean guy and Aussie and I shared a room, went to sleep, and awoke at 4 the next morning to ready for our early entrance at Machu Picchu.

Misty Machu Picchu.

The morning was misty and cool when we boarded  the bus up to the site. You could walk up the mountain, but frankly I have no idea why you would as it’s incredibly steep and horrible (I walked down it.) There really weren’t many people at the top of the mountain when we arrived. So when the Argentine girls and I walked in through the mist, it really did seem like we were the only ones in the ruins. I lost them after a few minutes and wandered around the incredible ruins alone for about an hour. It was stunning then, but as the morning proceeded and the fog lifted little by little, I became happier and happier that I’d come.

Machu Picchu is magnificent. Everything about the place, from the way it was built to the tragedy of it being abandoned, to the misty jungly mountains surrounding… it really took my breath away. I found my tour group eventually and got to hear some incredible history of the building of the place–which was 70-year precarious Inka experience.

Machu Picchu

I continued on throughout the morning hiking around the abandoned city in the mountains. As the fog faded more and more of it could be seen, and every direction I looked I found another absolutely stunning scene. When the time came that I had to climb down again I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to stop staring that the city and the mountains and the fog. Machu Picchu is a magical place. It is magical despite the tourists, despite the crooks in Cusco, despite it all. I really think its the most incredible place I’ve been able to visit.

Other places I’ve been since leaving Cbba:

Dried llama fetus found at the Witches market in La Paz.

La Paz: Biggest city in Bolivia, where Evo lives. Totally great. Wish so much I’d studied there instead of Coch. It’s a real city, it’s got such a great atmosphere. Hilly cobblestone, a witch market, altitude that gets you drunk REAL quick (uh, yikes…) and man, the drive down into the city is just stunning. Had a great time there. Oh and the Alpaca stuff there is the best by far I’ve seen anywhere. I have to stop shopping.

Bolivia/Peru border at Desaguadero.

Desaguadero: Passed through this border town. Totally bizarre border crossing experience. The bus from La Paz stopped and everyone got out, then went to the Bolivian side for an exit stamp. We then walked across a bridge to Peru, where nobody stopped to check our passports or anything, we just had to wander into another government building (and by wander I mean stand in line for 30 min) to get the Peru stamp. I mean, there were police around but it would be REALLY easy to run back and forth between Bolivia and Peru if you wanted to. No control at all. Funny time.

Floating Islands of the Uros.

Puno: on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Weird little touristy town filled with 3-wheeled taxis that look like they belong in India, and bicycle taxis (which I took a lot.) Lake Titicaca was beautiful. It was COLD there though, but I found a single room for $7 a night, and decided I’d wait until lower altitude to shower (I went 4 days without…). I went on a tour to the islands of Lake Titicaca my main day in Puno. We stopped at two main islands, one of which was incredibly cool and bizarre and quite possibly extremely exploitive (must start doing more research before going places…). The floating Isles of the Uros were the first stop. These are islands made out of reeds. I mean, man-made islands. Totally bizarre and beautiful. The tour was hoaky but we did get to talk to the people and ride in a reed boat. It was super cool and totally weird to walk on the squishy reed ground on the island. The next stop was at an island without any roads or electricty. The people there wear super interesting clothing, the men knit, and it was pretty cool. Again lots of tourists, but not so many that it was out of control. I am just always so stunned by the different ways people live. It was neat to see.

Reed boats of the Uros islands.

And after Puno was that killer 8-hour local bus to Cusco. I fled Cusco on the 26th, and passed the first hours of my 25th birthday on a night bus headed to Arequipa. I tried not to think about it then, and waited until the next day after finding gem of a B&B with INTERNET IN THE ROOMS to feel like it was my birthday.

Just drinking some wine on the roof of my B&B in sunny Arequipa on my 25th birthday!

I had a good 25th birthday. Arequipa is super cool, has a total Euro feel and I am content. I have been totally maxing out on being in a nice room with internet, having a nice hot shower… ahhhh its the little things, that I don’t let drive me crazy when I’m without but when I have them… heavens. It’s so good. And I found falafel here! Ate it two days in a row and plan to go back again today.

Headed to the Northern Coast of Chile this weekend and after will circle back around probably to La Paz before heading back to Cochabamba and then Santa Cruz before a wonderful week in Chicago, and then NAVIDAD in Nebraska. Peter, you have no idea how much I am going to squeeze your cute little baby cheeks.

Peter is super cute.

What we have known

Plaza Principal, Cochabamba

With a 15-year Lonley Planet South America from the library and lots of alpaca wear, I head North!

The days of Spanish classes and long walks to the centre, of snuggling with the family’s puppy Nana and an exhausting cloud of culture shock, are about to come to an end. I’ll travel to Peru and Chile starting Saturday, and return to Bolivia for my flight to the US, in about a month.

A new super cheapily made backpack now sits in my corner, loaded with Alpaca scarves, awaiting the trains and buses and Machu Picchu and Santiago and the coast. I don’t have an exact agenda, but for the first time traveling alone in a foreign country, I know the language. And that is COOL. And I am confident, that even if these months in Cochabamba were in a cloud, only broken by wild trips to exotic locations, that I will enjoy this trip.

And happily, I think I am coming back down to the tierra.

leaping over Cochabamba at the Cristo de Concordia

As I searched for new music tonight I found this song by Johanna Newsom, who is my soundtrack to Summer 2012, called What We Have Known. I was thinking about the title and how I talked with Molly a month or so ago after I wrote a scathing blog and then deleted it about Cochabamba and how awful I felt here. She made the astute point that there’s no one perfect way to travel.  You have to just adjust to the unknown, and sometimes its not pretty.  I had a really romantic view of what “South America” would be, which was definitely part of my problem.

This trip has been entirely different.  There’s no one way to travel, to do things right or wrong, and I think I wasted too much time feeling uncomfortable because it was so different, so difficult. Perhaps it is good to be humbled like this. Hopefully at least admitting how incredibly difficult it remains sometimes to travel, somebody else will feel a little less crazy about it. South Sudan and Ukraine and all that didn’t make me invincible.

But the last few weeks I’ve been able to get the bad vibes pretty much out of my system.  Positive thoughts, prayers while walking, and the arrival of some new, super cool friends have helped clear my head the last few weeks.

A few nights ago I went out with my Norwegian friend Maria and a American couple, Mike and Jill, who are riding their motorcycle through Latin America. We were eating at a Greek cafe when a British guy came in and sat by himself. Since Maria and I met each other in Cafe Paris in a similar manner, we invited him to come sit with us. We extranjeros have to look after each other. It was a fantastic rainy night in Cochabamba, with Huari beer and conversations about travel and work and life.

Mike and Jill at Cocafe

I found myself finally letting go of a part of me that wants to stay separate from Cochabamba. A part of me that was easily separate. But these extranjeros will be here awhile, and I remember how that feels. How it felt to meet the Krakow Post guys or Marcin in Poland. They were my people, and they were more important than they could ever know. When I go to Cocafe I remember a glimpse of how it felt then, when the owners Guido and Emma kiss my cheeks and ask if I’d like Singani again and who my new friends are. I love that aspect of being abroad, the local people and other travelers who make you feel like you were meant to be in that place, in that moment. That something is right with the world because you can speak together.


As I wrap this up so I can finish writing my final despedida at the institute, there’s one other thing I need to mention:

I met Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Aka the “Black Pope”.

Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (aka the Black Pope)

I went with a few others from the Institute to mass last week in the Jesuit Cathedral in Plaza Principal (which is by far the coolest block of Coch.) It was a rather small assembly, and we sat near the front. After mass I scooted over to where he was processing and amist a crowd of Bolivians, was given a blessing directly from Adolfo.

I lived by him, you know, when I was in Rome two years ago. That drama-filled month of sickness and stitches and deaths and anxiety. I wanted to meet him then, to say I was happy to serve the order. And I wanted to tell him last week, in Spanish, the same. But there was no time. It was what I needed though, to remember there’s a whole other spiritual world out there. Because as I’ve quoted before, when you’re away from home, it’s all you know:

Traveling is brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things-air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky–all things tending towards the eternal, or what we imagine of it.” –Cesare Pavse