May 16, 2004

el camino del muerte

"I Survived The World's Most Dangerous Road" proudly proclaims the T-shirt I did not receive. Because they're out of shirts, not because I post from beyond the grave.

3600 vertical metres in 5 hours is quite a ride. We began in stark high-altitude where nothing grew but lichen and where the sides of the road were limned with ice, and, layered in many clothes, bombed down steep and exquisitely sinuous asphalt at speeds circa 70kph/40mph. Then, suddenly, two lanes shrank to one, asphalt turned to extremely rocky dirt, and the adrenaline began to seriously flow.

To our left, about a metre or two away, sheer drops of up to 1000 feet. To our right, equally sheer cliffs (at one point we rode behind a waterfall for about fifty feet). Before and behind us, enormous trucks oozing their slow way up and down incredibly twisted rocky road. When they stand off, which happens fairly often, the downhill vehicle has to back up to a passing bay, aka one of the little projections of road into emptiness every hundred or so metres.

It's actually less dangerous than it might sound, with the possible exception of the last hour, which is over road so dusty that if you're in the back of a train of bicycles a lot of your navigation becomes guesswork. Mostly it's just a matter of confidence. And it's not lack of confidence but overconfidence which is most dangerous: they've only lost one cyclist on this road (or so they claim), an Israeli girl who went straight over the edge a couple of years ago while trying to pass someone else. Many, many vehicle passengers, though, hundreds, though the drops are generally too far and too steep to see the wrecks.

And also five Martyrs of Democracy; a monument en route reports that in 1944, the Bolivian military took five leaders of the opposition party up onto this road, bound their arms and legs, shot them in the head, and threw them off the edge. A bit redundant if you ask me.

I am now in Coroico, in the Hotel Esmeralda, and there has been a bank error in my favour; I booked a cheap room, but they lost the booking, so I got an expensive one instead. Satellite TV, cushy bed, balcony with amazing mountainous view, and a choice of lime or orange soap, all for nine Yankee dollars. Tomorrow I take a bus back up TWMDR to La Paz; the following day, back to Lake Titicaca and Puno; the following day, to Lima; and late Thursday night, I fly away from South America, back to civilization, or at least what passes for civilization in Los Angeles.

Now they're playing Neil Young, "After The Gold Rush." Even the little details of this day have been very good indeed.

May 11, 2004


There is nothing quite so headclearing as four days of hard slogging through tranquil wilderness. The Inca Trail is a busy trail, far from remote, worn smooth by tens of thousands of boots a year, yes; but that doesn't detract even a little from its beauty. Am I glad I walked it. (For values of "I" that do not currently include my calf or quadricep muscles.)

Roughing It

DAY ONE. Stride up trail, manfully proud of carrying my own 12kg/25lb pack. Magnanimously make way for our stream of 18 sandal-clad porters, the largest of whom is six inches and forty pounds smaller than I, each weighed down by roughly 40 lbs each of food, water, tents, fuel, chairs, tools, pots, pans, plates, cups, etc etc.

A glorious day, surrounded by raw wilderness, as I desired, entirely untrammeled by civilization, making our way on foot down the magical Inca Trail, like the Incas themselves, as it should be! The rest of the world should throw down their shackles of cars and fixed-wall buildings.

Sampled coca leaves, which the porters chew. Results in a strange numbing feeling, not terribly appealing. Does take the edge off the uphills though, and only one sole a bag.

DAY TWO. A difficult day. First I scalded my fingers on one of the metal cups of mint tea the porters bring us in our sleeping bags to aid the waking process. Then, at dinner, had no dessert spoon. Ruggedly ate my chocolate pudding with a fork. After all, we're roughing it.

No TV in camp; will make suggestion to tour company. Perhaps two more porters, one with dish, one with television? Also, along with erecting our tents for us, cooking our food, carrying almost of our gear, bringing us tea in bed, etc., perhaps they could lay out our mattresses and sleeping bags, rather than forcing us to do so ourselves.

Coca leaves very useful in dulling ache from legs. Porter I am buying from has raised prices to nine soles a bag, explaining we are further from coca growing region. Still reasonably priced.

DAY THREE. Still not there yet. The road goes ever on. Does it bloody ever. Am sick of mint tea and my request for cappucino instead was met by unforgivable bemusement. Sole silver lining is my newly acquired taste for coca leaves. In fact, have decided to give up on food and chew coca instead. Pedro now charging eighty-one soles per bag but better that than the constant suffering of endless up-and-down trudgery.

Is now apparent that the Inca Empire fell for good reason. There is nothing here but rocks and trees and an infinity of steep leg-chewing hills. Prospect of another day unbearable. Oh, coca, sweet coca, only you can dull the pain.

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. The trail was magical, it really was. And it was a challenging hike. But it was not exactly a raw wilderness adventure. Nowadays you're required to go in a group with a guide, annoying but convenient. Most of me deplored, deplored! being waited on hand and foot by the 18 porters to the extent that pretty much all we had to do was walk. But part of't.

It is fifty horizontal kilometres, probably five vertical, from the trailhead to Macchu Picchu, three days of walking. (OK, so I have friends - paging MC Brown - who would do the whole thing at a dead run.) In that relatively short span you go from relatively sparse farmland and eucalyptus forest to full-on high jungle, hydrated not by rain but by clouds themselves.

The whole trail, start to finish, is fantabulously gorgeous. Day One, six hours of relatively easy walking, parallels the gorge of the raging Rio Urubamba (which eventually becomes the Amazon) on a trail clogged by mules and porters and local children on their three-hour walk back home from school, between enormous rocky ridges backdropped by snowcapped mountains, past little villages and a rebuilt Inca city, up slopes carved by burbling streams and terraced into cornfields.

Day Two kicks off with a pair of steep 500-metre climbs (actually, a 1000-metre climb divided into two by lunch in a llama-patrolled field) through cloudforest and past the treeline to Dead Woman's Pass, 4200m/14000ft high. Fuelled by coca leaves1, Snickers bars, and Audioslave, I soared nonstop up both of those. (My pack really wasn't heavy relative to my weight, and I've done a reasonable amount of higher-altitude trekking before) The views were astonishing; looking down, the trail we had just taken seemed to disappear into an enormous jagged wall of rock that swallowed half the sky, and the trail yet to come led down into a cloud-draped valley. A thousand feet down, in the saddle between two passes, we camped amid the cloud, romantic but also damply bone-chillingly cold. Sometimes the cloud retreated, and we could see all the way to the high snow-smeared peaks of the Andes, and Inca ruins perched above us. Once a new cloud rushed in, turned most of the world white, then lost momentum and fell back downslope, all within five minutes.

Day Three, past the stony (and largely rebuilt) ruins of Inca communications and religious centres, through rocky tunnels carved six hundred years ago, along the top of a ridge with an astonishing Tolkienesque panoramic view of white peaks above brown rock above furrowed folded green jungly hills to both sides, through cloudforest thickly draped with vines and orchids, nearly every tree covered with diaphanous moss. And then to the downhill. Ouch. For me, down is always far more murderous than up, and one thousand metres down in ninety minutes spelled Aargh. My bum knee was sending me warning twinges for the first time in months by the time we finally reached the campsite.

I think I've mentioned that this wasn't exactly remote wilderness. All the campsites had toilets (well, wooden thatched-roof long-drop squat toilets) and up until lunch on the first day you could buy Coke and Snickers and cigarettes(!) from trailside vendors. The third campsite had hot showers and cold beers, and my God, were we happy to see them. It also had fairly amazing Inca terraces right next door, three hundred feet of agricultural terraces with a carved-stone aqueduct irrigation system still trickling happily along six hundred years after construction.

Oh yes. "We." Four Americans, four Canadians, two Dutch, two English, average age thirty, half long-term and half short-term travellers, a fairly typical group for South America, and a very good one. The Americans were smart, funny, tough, hardworking, easygoing, and did all they could to dispel the myth of the ugly American traveller. Sadly, a few hours after we reached Macchu Picchu proper, several hundred of that species came up to the ruins by bus, and promptly undid all their good work.

Day four, we woke at 4 AM2 and made our way along a mountainside, looking down at thin tendrils of cloud, past the stupefying Andean landscape that we were all so accustomed to that we no longer bothered gaping, and up one last steep climb to Intipuku, the Sun Gate to Macchu Picchu.

1If you chew coca leaves by themselves you eventually develop a slight numbness in the mouth; but if you chew them with a little volcanic-ash catalyst, your mouth promptly goes numb like you've been injected with Novocaine, your aches and pains fade a little bit, and you get a slight adrenalinesque rush. Non-addictive, I swear, I'm not chewing them as I type this, nosirree.

2My waking times for the last six days have been 5:30, 6:00, 5:45, 4:00, 4:30, and 4:45, all times ante meridian. Oh, the irony. When not travelling I generally refuse to wake before 9.

The Dead City Of Gold

Macchu Picchu is breathtaking. Not so much the city itself - first, I'm more into wilderness than antiquities, and second, only the bones of the antiquities remain. A lot of bones, but still nothing more than walls and rock, and it takes a lot of imagination to picture it all brightly painted, the temples plated with shining gold sifted from the Urubamba far below, the stone altars darkly stained with blood (some of it human), mummies sitting ominously in temple niches, all of it lit by wall-sconce candles at night.

No, if you ask me, it's the setting that makes the place. I cannot imagine a more beautiful location for a city. Though it wasn't a very practical location. There are conflicting theories about why Macchu Picchu was abandoned before construction was complete, but while the Spanish invasion was no doubt a factor, the fact the area didn't have enough available irrigation water to support even a small city had a lot do with it too. (It's estimated that only 500 people lived there.) There is a river right next door, horizontally, but about 300 metres down, which is a long way to carry water. A narrow stone aqueduct brought (and still brings) a trickle from ten kilometres away and a kilometre up, but not enough.

You can still see why they chose the place. Symbolic reasons, for one. The city is nestled in a huge bend in the Urubamba far below. At the end of that bend, north of Macchu Picchu, a huge mass of rock rears up a full 600 metres/2000 feet from the river, in the shape of a colossal resting puma. (OK, a little imagination is needed, but only a little.) Just south of the puma, Macchu Picchu was built in the shape of a condor with wings outstretched, across a wide ridge leading south and up. Serpent river, puma mountain, condor city; the Inca totem animals for the underworld, the earth, and the heavens, respectively.

All around are small mountains, gigantic knolls carved by the river, or enormous hill faces carved by little tributaries, all of it densely green with cloudforest, and above these the towering snow-painted Andes, and the roar of the silvery Urubamba below on both sides of the city is so loud it can be heard everywhere. As far as the eye can see, in every direction you turn, is the most dramatic jungle mountain landscape imaginable. Pictures don't do it justice, not even close, you'd need a 3D diorama, and even that wouldn't capture the sounds, or the clear cool mountain winds, or the feel.

Well now. "Next time I say, 'Let's go someplace like Bolivia', let's go someplace like Bolivia."

May 01, 2004


Am back in Lima, fighting off a 24-hour jungle bug. You'd think an evening spent in the grip of fever would spark Stokeresque visions and creativity, but in sad fact I feel all mundanely uninspired. So click if you dare, but I fear this travelogue will be less entertaining than usual.

At play in the fields of the Lord

Iquitos: a strange place. The largest city in the world (pop. circa 400,000) with no road or rail connections - everything and everyone must come or go by air or riverboat. This lends it a real frontier-town feel, which the DEA helicopters, downtown cafes dominated by a small crew of dissolute British expats, and gutted turtles and caimans (gators) for sale in the local market do nothing to dispel. Still, it's civilization; it has an international airport, banks, pharmacies, a cinema, cheap Internet cafes, a five-star hotel, and a thriving tourist industry, the last focused mostly on expeditions to lodges set in jungle proper.

It's not at all apparent when in the middle of Iquitos that you're surrounded by hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of raw primary rainforest, but it's very obvious when you fly in. From a window seat high above, much of the Amazon basin has only two colours: the swirling brown ribbon of the Amazon and its tributaries, and the endless sea of deep blank green that surrounds it. La Selva, the jungle.

But don't confuse the Amazon River with exotic remote wilderness. Exotic, maybe, but make no mistake, Earth's mightiest river is also a superhighway, dotted with corrugated-roof towns and thatched-roof villages, lined by banana and rubber plantations, plied by countless vessels ranging from handmade one-man wooden canoes through ancient riverboats carrying hundreds of passengers up to modern ocean-size merchant ships. The river waxes and wanes with the year, right now wide and thick and muddy. The main causeway is 30-plus metres deep, but sandbanks are frequent and unmarked save for the occasional deadhead log. Vegetative flotsam is everywhere, carried downstream by a current that is surprisingly strong given that the river drops all of 200 metres during its 6,500-kilometre journey to the Atlantic.

We - myself, a pair of Yanks, a pair of Brits - travelled upriver from Iquitos to Muyunas Lodge, on a small tributary called the Yanayuca River about 200km from Iquitos, surrounded by primary rainforest, next to a tiny village.

It was the atmosphere, more than anything else, that made the place. Oh, sure, we captured a baby caiman, we hacked our way through fire-ant-infested swamp to go piranha fishing1 in a remote lake, we trekked through primary rainforest past enormous trees and howler monkeys and ant nests the size of SUVs, we saw sloths and iguanas and tarantulas and blue-morpho butterflies and an amazing number of vultures and hawks and other birds of prey, we swam in the Amazon with gray (small) and pink (large) freshwater dolphins, and all that was very cool - but it was the feel, the cacophony of jungle noises that echoed all night, the towering trees and ferns, even the bazillions upon bazillions of biting flies and ants and mosquitos and spiders, the sense of being in a wild place, that I liked the most.

Which is pretty funny because it wasn't in fact all that wild. There exists untouched jungle in the Peruvian Amazon - and not just national parks, there are still tribes in the Madre de Dios region entirely uncontacted by the rest of the world other than the running blowguns-spears-and-arrows battle they wage against illegal loggers -but getting to real heart-of-darkness wilderness, as with everywhere else, while possible, is expensive, time-consuming, and difficult, as per my dilemma below.

But the Yanayuca is all the more fascinating because it is inhabited and accessible. The village next door had wooden stilt houses and thatched roofs, used plastic buckets and metal pots, wore Western clothes, but hunted or fished or gathered pretty much all their food. Mostly a subsistence existence, but its inhabitants - as with the net fisherman we met on Lake Piranha - occasionally catch and salt canoeloads of fish, paddle the three days to Iquitos, sell their fish in the market, and pick up what modern equipment and/or decorations they can buy with the proceeds. There is a church, and a school, and a priest and teacher sent from Iquitos, although some months that month's teacher fails or refuses to come and the school is empty. And they play football. Everybody plays football, young and old, male and female, the village is literally built around the football field, and every Saturday everyone in the nearest dozen villages gathers in one place for a huge tournament, and the champion village wins a hundred US dollars. It's a thriving community, the little river and all the villages and individual houses on its banks, and there is a constant stream of canoe traffic up and downstream, and it's fascinating watching ancient and modern all mingled together.

We had a guide. Quite a guide. Octavio, an Indian, "born in the jungle, like a turtle," he said (and gave me a dirty look when I pointed out that turtles hatch from eggs.) Mid-fifties, small, pot-bellied, nicknamed "Burro" (Donkey), and completely extraordinary; seven-language linguist, village chief, occasional guide, near-superheroic master of the jungle. Can spear fish from five metres in water so brown it seems opaque to anyone else. Also expert with bow and blowgun. Can call nearby birds and monkeys to his side by eerily expert imitation of their calls. Can spot iguanas, sloths, snakes and anteaters in the thickest of brush. Can use jungle flora and fauna as pharmacy, arsenal, water source, pantry, construction material, and who knows what else. Knows everyone in a 100-km radius of the Yanayuca. He even whips up a mean chichuwawa sour (a much-better-than-it-sounds combination of fresh sugarcane rum, wild honey, egg whites, lime juice, and two types of tree bark.) He even plays guitar. The man is downright cinematic.

A speedboat took me from Muyuna Lodge and back to Iquitos, where for an hour I sat in Ari's Burger (central meeting place for the city), smoked (I've taken it up again, for travel purposes), drank beer (Pilsen, which is, eh, okay I guess) and pondered a traveller's dilemma.

1 Quite easy, albeit a little painful; just dip your toe in the water and it inevitably comes out with a dangling piranha attached. Surprisingly tasty. It is indeed better to eat than to be eaten.

Traveller's Dilemma

see, the thing is, I'm having lots of fun and all that, but the jungle lodge and the Inca Trail and all the other gringo-trail stuff, enjoyable as it is, seems kind of...well...tame. Corny as it sounds, I'd like some sense of adventure, forging new trails, or at least less-travelled-by ones. I was thinking about hopping a local-transit riverboat, slinging up a hammock, and riding it all the way down to Manaus, in Brazil. Now that would be a bit adventurous. It would also mean eight very dull days of sitting on a boat watching the shoreline drift past. (As a German woman I met at Iquitos airport, who had just done that journey in reverse, stressed at some length.)

The same is true wherever I look. I'd like to take the hard road - perverse, maybe, but true - but around here the hard road never seems to lead anywhere worthwhile, and doing it for its own sake just seems pointless. I guess that's part of what I liked about West Africa and PNG, that there was no easy road. Granted, I could have hired guides and gone on a far-more-intense jungle expedition, say carving an overland trail between two tributaries, hacking out campsites with machetes every night...but it would have been just me and a guide or two, and I'm quite sure that would have gotten old in a real hurry., in the end, I quailed away, back to the easy road, and while it's the sensible decision, I still kind of regret it. Sure, I'll be taking the occasional overcrowded chicken bus, but fun as it is, for me there's no longer any new-frontier thrill to be found in the well-worn backpacker route.

I guess what I'd really like is the hard road with good company. Which is feasible; it just demands advance planning and more money. In future, I think one of the main kinds of travel I'd like is well-prepared small-group expeditions into genuine remote wilderness - say, cycling the Karakoram Highway, a canoe trip down a river in Borneo, Land Rovers across the Sahara, Kinshasa to Kisangani by riverboat2, that sort of thing. Will cost lots of money and need much planning, but I think it'll be worth it. Ideally with a few capable interesting strangers and a few capable good friends. Possibly even a reader or two of this here entry. (...if, that is, anyone actually reads this far.)

2 OK, that one I could do myself, and would be genuine no-questions-asked adventure, and one of these years I'd love to give it a shot...if the Congo ever recovers from blood-drenched anarchy.

Anyway. I feel fully recovered from my jungle bug, and back to the soft-option gringo trail I go. Tomorrow, Cusco; in a few days, the Inca Trail.