January 24, 2006

La Paz, Bolivia
Thirsty Llamas and Floating Adventists

I’m telling you up front, this is not a very interesting post. I’ve committed myself to covering all the beats of this trip, no matter how little it interests me or anyone liable to read this. So let’s just resign ourselves to the understanding that no one is having any fun here.

We got back to Quito and treated ourselves to a tapas dinner after four days of boat food.

The next day we got tear-gassed.

Here’s a thing: if you’re walking down the street and all the opposing foot-traffic is squinting and covering their mouths, best to do the same.

There was a student protest going on in old town. It had something to do with transportation costs. So naturally, machinegun-mounted armored personnel carriers were in order.


We saw many police in full riot gear, but didn’t know what to make of it until we rounded a corner and suddenly it hurt to breathe. We ran the other way, choking, tears gushing. No one bothered to warn us or anything.

Evidently, street protests are not an unusual occurrence in Quito. There’d been another the previous week over a new trade agreement with the US. Shame we missed that one.

Speaking of which, who wants to guess what the national currency of Ecuador is? Give up? It’s the US dollar. Their economy bottomed-out a while back, so in 2000 they adopted ours. Apparently you can do that!

It gives them a stable currency that’s a lot less likely to spiral into hyper-inflation. One of the big downsides is they lose out on seigniority, which I don’t entirely understand, but it has something to do with printing out a bunch of fancy paper, claiming it’s worth something, and thus creating wealth out of thin air.

Neat trick if you can pull it off, but you better be sitting on some oil reserves or have a major tourist draw to back it up. Otherwise, well…talk to Ecuador.

We entered the Spanish colonial church cluster, which is chock full of 500-year-old tributes to how whoop-dee-doo God is.

In the midst of it all, here’s a modest little shop selling CDs, DVDs…abortions.


The neighborhood goes something like this: Catholic church, casino, Catholic church, casino, Catholic church, abortion street doctor, Catholic church.

Despite all that – or maybe because of it – I found Quito to be a charming city. But after a couple days of recuperation, it was time to move on.

We got into Lima late at night, with a connecting flight before dawn the following morning. We took a cab into the city. The experience vividly recalled Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The city is completely unable to cope with the strain of its 8 million inhabitants. There are no rules of the road. There is no courtesy. If your car will fit in a space, you fill it.

Driving in Lima is pretty bad.

We checked into Hotel Espana. It's a charming old establishment with mummified skulls in the lobby and a certain Kubrickian flavor.

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The price of the room is $8. But the real cost is your eternal soul.

Awake before 4, on a plane before 6. Arrived at baggage claim in Cuzco with musical accompaniment.


Cuzco is the ancient capital of Incan civilization. Its modern existence is therefore dedicated to devouring every limb and tendon of that cash cow. Nothing goes to waste.

Cuzco is also Cusco. The names seem interchangeable. I prefer the underused ‘z’.

When the Spanish conquered it in the 16th century, they built their ubiquitous cathedrals literally on top of the Incan foundations. You can still see some of the original stone work.

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It reminded me a great deal of a town called San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Lovely place, affordable, with lots of great restaurants and an abundance of quality handcrafts. It's a tourist's delight. Good for a couple days, but not my favorite kind of place to hang around.

The clothing shops offer a chilling insight into what Peruvians think of us.

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Random cute kid.


The day after arriving in Cusco, we caught the wildly overpriced train to Maccu Picchu. It's pretty much the only way to get there, so they've got you by the huevos. At $68 each way for the lowest class of seat, it's basically an adjunct to the park entrance fee.


Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly known as Aguas Calientes, is a boomtown providing access to the nearby ruins. It sprouted out of the Sacred Valley a few years ago and is growing faster than anyone seems to be able to govern.

It is not difficult, in Machu Picchu Pueblo, to find handbags with the words “Machu Picchu” sewn into them. It is also not difficult to find restaurants serving vegetarian pizza to dreadlocked college students. What is difficult is finding anything else.

It would be very easy to make Machu Picchu accessible by day-trip from Cuzco. But by arranging the train arrival and departure times just so, they force visitors into staying overnight and paying the inflated prices for food and accomodation.

The town owes its existence to the very same principle behind the roach motel.

We dropped our bags in a square, concrete slab with a square, concrete bed that smelled like a combination of mold and fart, then caught the next bus zig-zagging up the valley to Machu Picchu proper.


On top of the $136 train, the bus ride costs $12, and the actual park entrance fee costs a little over $20. This is per person, mind you. By the end you feel like a walking piñata filled with money.

Do I complain about costs too much? Perhaps I should shut up about that.


Entering Machu Picchu lacked the overwhelming spectacle we’d anticipated, as everything was shrouded in thick fog.


Gradually, things cleared up…


Until at last we got the full view.


And one from a bit closer.


Closer still, with the ubiquitous Japanese tour group in the foreground...


Really really close...


And here’s a llama’s butt.


In visiting sites like this one, I’m often faced with the option of hiring a guide to answer questions. This is an option I decline. It’s much better to figure things out for one’s self.

It may interest you to know that Machu Picchu was actually built by llamas. Anthropologists hide this information from the public and pretend it was the built by the Incans. They do this because they hate llamas. The anthropologist is the sworn enemy of the llama.


Llamas built Machu Picchu because it gave them access to the great chocolate milk river that runs through the valley below.


There is nothing llamas love more than chocolate milk. They’re crazy for it. Everyone knows this.

The chocolate milk from the great chocolate milk river is incredibly tasty. This is because it moves very quickly and gets churned up in the rocks.

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No one knows how the llamas got the chocolate milk out of the river, but it probably had something to do with this.


These days, llamas are oppressed by humans. We almost never left them drink chocolate milk. So whatever you do, don’t bring chocolate milk to Machu Picchu. This will stir the llamas up and cause what is known as a “llamapede.”


If you get caught in a llamapede, it’s your own dumb fault. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We left the ruins and walked along a couple of the ancient llama roads leading to other llama cities. They were narrow and treacherous and insane.


There’s a four day hike called the Inca Trail (named by anthropologists) that leads into Machu Picchu along one of these ancient roads. We didn’t have time for it, but we wandered down the tail end. Looked like fun.

Before leaving town the next day, we paid a visit to the Aguas Calientes that once gave Machu Picchu Pueblo its name.


The agua was fairly caliente, but not really caliente enough to be worth naming a town after.

Afternoon train back to Cuzco, settled back into the same hotel room to plan and regroup. We had a flight scheduled in a few days to our next destination of La Paz. Looking at a map, we realized the distance wasn’t too great, and directly between the two points lay Lake Titicaca, at 3900 meters “the highest navigable lake in the world.” The “navigable” part is an odd qualifier, but I’m a fully acknowledged sucker for world’s most anythings.

We bought train tickets to Puno, a sleepy town on the shores of Titicaca, close to the border with Bolivia.

The train took us across much of the Peruvian altiplano, a vast expanse of semi-fertile land that looks, for the most part, like this.


The rails took us to a peak elevation of about 4300 meters, which is high enough to knock you off your feet if you’re not careful. We took some of my acetozolomide left over from Kilimanjaro and it helped.

We had a middle-aged, pony-tailed guy from Massachusetts sitting near us on the train. He was a professor at the University of Mexico – the result, I can’t help but speculate, of hitting on one too many students back in the states. He fancied himself an Indiana Jones-type.

He took it upon himself to give us advice on our journey. He spoke in strained, weary tones, as if the experiences we were forcing him to recall were too painful, even for one so rugged as himself: “Be very careful…on the road ahead…the altitude…it’s very dangerous…you must…prepare yourself.”

Finding an insufficient level of awe and respect in our responses, he moved on to a single German lady who was more willing to humor him.


The train stopped halfway through the journey so we could buy handcrafts from local women.


The women were suitably adorable and they seemed better recipients of our tourist dollars than the shop owners back in Cuzco.

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My 3-year-old niece got some alpaca slippers.


Puno seemed dodgy at first, offering spooky, unlit streets and another assortment of concrete slabs for accommodation, but we eventually determined the town to be peacable and harmless.

It was here that we faced up to a scheduling dilemma that had been dogging us for some time: we needed to be in La Paz within 48 hours if we were going to have enough time to see our prime destination in Bolivia; the salt flats outside Uyuni. That meant we had to move quickly and would have no time to get out on the lake and visit the floating villages of the Uros people.

Melissa solved the problem with an ingenious idea: throw money at the problem. We took a boat out to the Uros villages the next morning and hired a driver to take us to the border in his car for $50.

It's a funny thing about money. I could blow that much in my day-to-day life without thinking twice about it. But you get used to the scales of things quickly in different countries, and it can really start to seem like an unreasonable amount.

...there I go about money again.

The Uros people lived in the region around Lake Titicaca until around 500 years ago, when the encroaching Incan empire led them to the unusual decision of fleeing out onto the water. They created floating islands out of enormous piles of dead, dried reeds and tethered them by rope so they wouldn't drift off.


There are hundreds of these islands, easily visited by boat from Puno. The residents have deals with the tour companies, earning what are no doubt very small cuts of our ticket fees, augmented by whatever handcrafts they can sell during each visit.


We were cheerfully welcomed on each island we stopped at. They fed us their food and showed us their huts. It's an interesting lifestyle, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot to it. It takes about five minutes to inspect every inch of an island, and they're all pretty much the same.

The Uros have been infected with an interesting splinter of Christianity, which they call Floating Adventist.

"Say Jim, what's your denomination?"
"I'm a Floating Adventist, Tom. How 'bout yourself?"
"Well I was raised Crouching Methodist, but I've recently converted to Hovering Mormon."

We inspected the Floating Adventist school, which had a map of France, a picture of a human skeleton, and little else. It struck me how difficult it must be to teach without any real resources at hand.

In the corner, a symbolically arranged diorama defines the dilemma Peruvians have faced for hundreds of years: if you wanna learn anything, you've gotta go through Jesus.


For a little bit extra, a couple Uros guys will take you out on one of their ornate boats, made from the same dried reeds as the islands.

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Having failed to sell any of his drawings, a little boy hopped on and serenaded us with his rough approximations of English and Japanese children's songs.


This proved far more lucrative.

...I'm not made of stone, ya know.

In the afternoon, we caught our ride to the border. Napping happened.

We got to the Bolivian border town of Copacabana just in time for the last bus to La Paz. The bus took us up and up and up along the narrow peninsula, then back down to the shore for a short but incredibly frigid ferry crossing to the eastern side of Titicaca.

A few hours more by bus and here we are in La Paz.

It would be nice to take a break, but we've got less than four days to get to Uyuni and back, which doesn't seem like it's going to be enough time.