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On April 13 I returned from my South American trip, 13 days in Peru, 2 days in Bolivia, and 2 days in Chile, having traveled by plane (jet and 6-seater), train, bus, taxi, motor boat, three-wheeler, and on foot (uphill, steep, sometimes with backpack). My nephew’s son John Malia (age 17) accompanied me for six days but had to return to Montana because of a family emergency. So after I saw him off on the Delta flight to Atlanta, I was on my own--not for the first time, but the first time in South America, my previous experience there being limited to a look at the Caracas airport from a plane on the way to Panama City and a two-hour tourist stop in Cartagena, Colombia, on a cruise through the Canal.
When my bonus SkyMiles had reached 35,000 last June, entitling me to a free round trip to Lima, I began to think about the trip to Peru, to brush up on my minimal Spanish, and to collect National Geographic articles on the Amazon and the Andes. E-mails with advice on travel and electronic photos of Machu Picchu whetted my desire to go there. More information came from ex-Peace Corps friends who had served in Ecuador and visited that ’lost city of the Incas.’. I had also looked into the Lonely Planet Guidebook (2 years old) but took the 1997 Rough Guide with me. Several travelers I met were carrying Lonely Planet. John used my free ticket, and I got senior citizen coupons and discounts, for about a thousand dollars, round trip Billings to Lima., thus acquiring more SkyMiles.
As we had decided to simplify our travel, we took only backpacks and fanny packs. I had reserved rooms at a good hotel (Andes de America) in Cuzco for the first night. We arrived at the airport in Lima at 5 a. m. and luckily got a plane from there two hours later. By 8 a. m. we were being greeted at the hotel in Cuzco with cups of hot coca tea. That evening we had an excellent ’birthday dinner.’ John had attended the junior prom the night before and made the 80-mile drive to the airport before our 6 a. m. departure from Billings on Sunday. So while he slept, I found my way to the train station, where scores of hikers, mostly Europeans, were waiting to buy tickets for the next day’s local train to Aguas Calientes, the town from which buses depart for Machu Picchu.
On Tuesday we left the hotel at 7 a. m. for the one-and a half-hour train ride, sitting across from two helpful Austrian backpackers, who spoke fluent English. We found Gringo Bill’s immediately, an attractive hostel at $20 for two (off season), left our backpacks, and looked around this tourist town a few hours before taking the bus on the winding spiral road up the mountain to the entrance to Machu Picchu. Then we hiked up as far as we could go for a good view of this amazing city, built possibly a thousand years ago (without the use of wheels!). Buildings and walls are made of huge, perfectly squared-off and matched stones. At an altitude of 6,000 feet, it is quite a climb. We explored for 2 1/2 hours that day before the bus left at 4 p.m. to return us to Aguas Calientes.
The next day we returned early for another 3 1/2 hours, locating each of the important sites shown in our tourist guide, including the Terraces, the Fountains, Room of the Punishments, Sun Calendar, Inca’s Palace, Princess’ Palace, the Condors’ Grotto, and the Principal Plaza. Exploring near the top, we happened on our first grazing llamas, two of them--and took pictures, of course.
When we returned to Cuzco, John became a skilled bargainer, returning home with miniature llamas, hemp necklaces, and other souvenirs for family and friends, as well as locally made trousers and sweater for himself. Cuzco is the best place to buy everything. We bought a Peruvian wool bag so I could unload a few extra clothes and my souvenirs for him to take home. . John toured the impressive cathedral and took more pictures there. We stayed overnight in a nice but more modest hostal, then left for the airport and the flight to Lima.
We had a good hotel in the Miraflores district, Sonesta Posada del Inca, for $78 (two rooms, two TVs with cable and HBO, as we did in Cuzco the first night). It was near the Delta office in Lima where we arranged for his emergency flight home. Since we were fairly near the beach; we walked there, looked into a modern cathedral, Notre Dame de Fatima, saw a marvelous sunset over the ocean, then walked around a very modern, brightly lighted, noisy shopping mall. John had seen a Pizza Hut on the way to the beach; so we stopped there for his best meal of the the trip. The next morning the maid brought us a fabulous breakfast (included with the room), and we took off at 5:30 a. m. for the $20 taxi ride to the airport again. I saw him off for Atlanta about 9:30, then got a local plane for Arequipa.
The hotel in Arequipa, La Samana (Best Western), was recommended at the airport and cost $36 for a nice single room. The place was full of French doctors who were having a conference there. That night I found my first cyber cafe. My local internet carrier, MCN, didn’t work there, and no one spoke English. The computer translated automatically from Spanish to English and back, but the keyboard and directional buttons were different. Finally, some high school girls came in, and they helped me TRY to get onto HOTMAIL. Tried to send some messages (especially wanted to hear that John got home o. k.). I had walked around the beautiful Plaza de Armas in the afternoon and talked with a nice nurse and her little boy as we sat by the fountain in the square. She helped me with my Spanish, and we had a good visit.
The next day, Saturday, I took a local plane for Juliaca, the airport nearest Lake Titicaca and Puno. A van brought me to the Gran Hostal de Puno, recommended by Carmen, a sort of guide who was in the van. She also took me to the nearby Maryknoll Mission, where I dropped off a packet. Twenty dollars included a hot shower, good sleep, and excellent breakfast Then I was headed for Lake Titicaca, a bus ride to Copacabana, and on to La Paz, Bolivia.
Sunday morning I hailed a ’gombi,’ a three-wheeler, to go to the bus depot and get a bus to the border, at Kasani, Peru. They stamped my exit card and in Bolivia my entrance pass (very important to have both). I got a bus to Copacabana, on the Lake. Inquired at the big Hostal Ambassador, near the plaza. Not very inviting. Walked on, met an American girl, who recommended the Cupola, where she was staying, and gave me directions, a steep walk up the hill to an attractive lodging that overlooked the beach area. The hostal was run by a German couple, with vegetarian restaurant, pleasant lobby, and lots of international hikers. I got the remaining single room for 36 bolivianos ($6), right next to the bathroom and the 24-hour hot shower, also next to the video where they showed movies every night at 7:30. I watched the second half of FORREST GUMP, with Spanish subtitles one night, and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, in German, no subtitles, the next night.
Several tourists were leaving the night I arrived, and I found out that a transportation strike was to begin at midnight; they said it might last a week, and there would be no buses, taxis, private cars, or even motorboats running, not even gombis. Well, I’d never make it to La Paz at that rate. Maybe I’d better just return to Peru and go into Chile instead. I talked to people from at least 30 countries during my two-week stay in South America. One, at the Cupola, was a young Swiss woman lawyer/diplomat who spoke several languages. She persuaded me I should stay and look around Copacabana. ’Americans are always in a hurry. There’s a lot to see here.’ So I stayed two nights.
Found Ricardo Maroquin’s cyber cafe, where his wife, Claudia, was able to explain that HOTMAIL had too many clients; it was easier to get on YAHOO. That worked, and I sent e-mails to several friends Monday evening. That morning I had climbed the high mountain overlooking Lake Titicaca (highest navigable lake in the world--and Dorothy Bohn said, ’the most beautiful.’.) The wide stone path has been carved into steps, each with a cross, representing the 13 stations of Christ’s climb to Golgotha, with markers telling what happened to him at each place. At the top is a huge colored statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a 90-minute climb but took only 15 minutes to come down. In the afternoon I took a boat tour (yes, a few motorboats were running) to the Island of the Sun, where legends say the original Inca came down to rule Peru. I got acquainted with several Europeans on that tour.