Magical Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

After discovering Machu Picchu was only an overnight bus ride from La Paz, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit.  I made a fleeting trip there with a friend last weekend, and it proved to be well worth it.  After previous excursions across the border, I surmise that of all Bolivia’s neighbours, Peruvians bear the most resemblance in terms of both physical appearance and accent, likely due to the large indigenous population.  

Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu means ‘Old Peak’ in Quechua and dates back to the 15th century.  It is thought to have escaped the Spanish Conquest, lying undiscovered for centuries, thanks to its hidden location amongst thick vegetation high up in the Andes.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu overlooks the Urubamba valley with majestic Huayna Picchu (“Young Peak”) towering above.  

Up until 2011, this legendary tourist attraction welcomed an astounding 4,000 visitors daily.  However, the number of visitors has since been limited to 2,500 per day, with a view to preventing erosion and preserving the ancient archaeological site.

With limited time, hiking the Inca Trail on foot over several days was sadly out of the question, thus my whirlwind visit included various modes of transport instead.  Having booked a tour that involved several transfers, I was instructed to look out for someone holding a sign with my name at the train station.  A novel concept for me, I was highly amused to spot a sign for “Juni Wats” on the outward journey and “Yoni” upon my return – two brilliantly original variations to add to a lifetime list of misspellings. (“Like Mitchell!” isn’t as effective an explanation around here.)

The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a picturesque journey, with breath-taking views of rolling hills, waterfalls and snow-capped peaks.  After so many lengthy and unpleasant bus rides, the train seemed positively luxurious in comparison, despite the pan-flute instrumental of Elton John’s ‘Sacrifice’ which played every 15 minutes.  A small town nestled in the mountains at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes caters to the constant crowds of tourists and boasts natural aguas thermales (hot springs) in a truly idyllic setting.

From Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu is an uphill hike or a shuttle bus ride away.  Waking before 4am, I made the steep, sweaty hike up to the entrance as soon as the gateway opened at 5am.  I quickly realised hiking up a mountain through rainforest in utter darkness is less than ideal, but with a steady stream of hikers it was easy enough to follow the flickering lights of torches.  A breathless 50 minute climb later, I emerged from the trees.

At dawn, the mountains were shrouded in thick fog and a steady rain was falling.  Gradually, as the sun rose and the mist lifted, the spectacular sight of Machu Picchu was slowly unveiled.  It was surreal to be confronted with the stunning postcard image in person, that I’d seen so many times on screens and in books.  Even with the throngs of tourists, somehow it did not feel remotely congested, but peaceful and awe-inspiring instead.  I spent a full day contentedly taking in the scenery before making the hike back down.

Cusco was only a brief stop before heading home to La Paz, but from what I glimpsed it struck me as a beautiful, captivating city.  With its colonial feel, the historical area is a maze of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets and a mass of terracotta roofs spreading for miles.  

Morning fog over Machu Picchu, 6am

Morning fog over Machu Picchu, 6am

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Incredible stonework from centuries past, somehow not involving machinery

Incredible stonework from centuries past, somehow not involving machinery

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View from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The morning hike began down at the river and cut through the forest

View from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The morning hike began down at the river and cut through the forest



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Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!

Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.



Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Hiking up Devil`s Tooth

La Muela del Diablo

La Muela del Diablo

I recently took a hike up La Muela del Diablo (Devil`s Tooth), the craggy peak that features to the far right of my home page image of La Paz.  An extinct volcano, La Muela sits at 3825m above sea level and is a foreboding sight.  Legend has it that La Muela del Diablo and Mount Illimani once fought against one another, sending bolts of lightning across the valley.

Located high above the city`s most affluent neighbourhood, la Zona Sur, La Muela is a pleasant, if slightly breathless from the altitude, half-day hike that begins with winding dusty trails to the grassy base and becomes a rocky scramble to the peak.  I made it to the V-shaped point between the two right-hand pinnacles, beyond which point technical climbing gear and nerves of steel are required.  The daunting climb up the rocky outcrop was well worth it, with magnificent views of the bowl-shaped city of La Paz and the surrounding valleys as a reward.

La Muela is known to attract brujería (witchcraft) and I was warned against touching any evidence of this, such as the small piles of rocks scattered at intervals along the trail, remains of campfires and especially the abundant knotted grasses closer to the peak.  It definitely adds an element of fear, when scrambling up a slope of scree, to know that any deliberate or accidental contact with knotted grass might have ominous consequences.  I was somewhat relieved to leave the witchcraft behind and be picking my way through potato fields and clusters of cacti on the descent.

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Unexpected outdoor restaurant

Unexpected outdoor mini-restaurant

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

Knotted grass

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

…evidence of witchcraft

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The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

With that, I wish you all happy and peaceful holidays!  ¡Feliz Navidad a todos!