November 14, 2005 GMT
Copacabana-Cusco-Salta

"I have to fax your registration to Lima, 2000 Bolivianos please... No, no receipt - 1000 then, but there's no receipt." This was my first contact with Peruvian police right at the border with Bolivia. Just before, this man had raised the Peruvian Flag with all the pride and respect stuff - and now he wanted to be bribed by me. I had heard from other travellers as well as from Argentinos and Chilenos about the bad reputation of the Peruvian police, so I reacted in a rather relaxed way. I could have insisted on not paying without receipt but 1000 Bolivianos is around 1 Euro, so don't care too much and chose the easy way. However this stroke my mood badly and I told myself "If this happens again you'll leave the country immediately."
Well it did not and the amazing landscapes the helpful people and the very warm welcome in Cusco made up for this poor start.

Funnily a week later on my way back to Bolivia, the Bolivian border policeman also asked for money - but in a much friendlier, opener and more likeable way - he just asked me if I wanted to donate some money for office material etc. Who can say NO in such a situation? I could not. I gave him the equivalent of 1 EUR and he was really gateful and gave me an almost exuberant farewell.

The ride along the shores of lake Titicaca impresses by it's very specific smoothly rolling landscape in shades of green and yellow. Around Titicaca there are vast green-yellow highmoor-like flats, green-brown-yellow hills and some chains of snow-covered peaks. The area seems to be fertile since there are not few villages and you see cattle everywhere (black-and-white cows, goats, lamas, sheep, pigs, donkeys).

Cusco is actually the most beautiful place I have seen up to now in South America and the road there - let's say the last 200 km - is really marvellous. Great pavement and a gorgeous landscape that - again - cannot really be represented by 2D photographs - you must have seen it. Unfortunately millions of tourists share my opinion about Cusco, so this place is full of Gringos, i.e. Northamericans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Brits, French and even some Germans. Its closeness to Machu Picchu makes Cusco, the former Inca capital, a rich city. Compared to other south american cities it is clean, the buildings are well-maintained (at least in the center), it is safe (due to loads of private and harmless security officers) and it's rather calm (traffic-wise). Even the air pollution is not as bad as it is in other cities I visited. It's not too big, so you can visit all the interesting places in the city on foot. Cusco's traffic system mainly relies on taxis, which the city is full of. Mainly it's always the same tiny Hyundai cars, I think they are even smaller than a Fiat Panda. For those who carry luggage, there's also some Toyota Corolla station wagons and there's even a few huge US limos that serve as specific airport taxis. The best thing about the taxis is that you get anywhere within the city for 2 Soles, which is around 50 Eurocents. So why walk? The annoying aspect of the taxis is that their major means of communication is their horn. They use it to warn you when approaching (no matter whether or not you had already seen or heard it or not), they use it to tell you that they are free (no matter whether you need a taxi or not), they use it to indicate that they have (or want to have) preference, they use it to simply make the world know that they are there. Maybe the even have some kind of built-in automatism that honks the horn every 20-30 seconds or so - or is it a kind of inferiority complex since their tiny cars are real shit? (Sorry ;-))

So I got the sneaking suspicion that the people here are noise-addict. What fortified this suspicion are the omnipresent safety guards. Their main task is to blow a whistle every minute or so. I have asked several of them about the use of this behaviour. Their answer is that this scares crooks, so they just run away and do not even try to do their evil business. I decided not to bother them with my stupid germanic theories, i.e. that
a) by this means those "evildoers" know exactly where the safety guards are and therefore can calmly go ahead with their business without thinking too much about being caught - until the guard loudly and demonstratively approaches.
b) by this means the guard avoids any contact with any kind of evildoers, so the guards do not have to be afraid of any conflicts or any annoying crook-pursuits.
This whistling would not really annoy me, wouldn't they also do it at night - and right below my window in an otherwise really quiet suburb street. So the first night in Cusco I was close to assassinating one of them (poor guy, he was just trying his best). The next night my landlady made a special-gringo-arrangement, so they agreed upon a 100 m-whistle-ban-zone around my window. How well I slept! :-)

To my surprise, despite the heavy tourism people are very friendly and helpful here. This might also be due the fact that with my "huge" motorbike I am martian-like being here (Nobody believes me that it's actually the smallest and cheapest existing BMW). The first day I came to Cusco I stopped on a crowded street and tried to orientate. Immediately a young guy in his early 30s welcomed me with a handshake and asked how he could help. He described me the way and said goodbye with another cordial handshake and good wishes. Actually I expected him to ask me for money or rob me or something. Well, I have a bad imagination. He was just friendly.

Of course the most important visit you have to do when staying in Cusco is Machu Picchu. For a guided visit on the same day you have to get up awfully early, shortly after 5 in the morning. My perfect host (Franco of the recommendable Tahuantinsuyo Hostal - www.suyohostal.net) brought me to the train at 6 something and handed me over to the guide. The train to Machu Picchu is painted in plain blue and looks nice - also from inside with the seats covered in blue with the colourful Inca rainbow stripes. At each wagon's entry there was a neatly uniformed clerk checking my ticket and ticking my name in the passenger list. The train started right on time and fighted to leave the city northbound, zig-zagging upwards through the steep and densely populated hills of the poor outskirts of Cusco. Climb forward. Stop. Climb backward. Stop. Climb forward.. and so on. I had only heard that the "train to the clouds", which crosses the Andean mountains from Salta (Argentina) to Antofagasta (Chile) uses this rare way of covering altitude. What really catches the eye on this extremely slow first part of the journey ist the amounts of garbage that covers the entire place, garbage whereever you are looking. The higher you get, the poorer the houses seem to be, more and more adobe houses dominate the landscape, asphalt roads are increasingly replaced by dirt paths. Apart from the garbage the houses are also surrounded by semi-wild dogs and pigs. I have especially fallen in love with those rovering small black and brown-black brindled piglets that you can find all over the place. The engine driver must be an ex-taxi-driver since he blows his powerful horn continuously, apparently just to make sure that nobody in this part of the city has a chance to remain sleeping. The horn is so loud that I am wondering how the adobe houses can resist and don't just collapse. After almost an hour we have reached the top of the hill and the city's boundaries (a 20 Minutes trip on motorbike) - and get a glimpse of a green valley in front of us before diving into it. The train accelerates immensely and - at the impressive speed of an estimated 40-50 kph - meanders in wide slopes along a small river that is the lifeline of this fertile green valley. Despite this rather modest speed, the passengers are wildly shaken, so you can hardly read, write or sleep. Now I understand why this journey of less than 100 km takes around 4 hours. It's a real jump back in time when you are used to have your cup of coffee peacefully placed on the table in a train that is running 250 kph.

However this gives you the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful and changing landscape. After a while of more or less gentle rattling and shaking through the wide and green valley, the train starts zig-zagging again and dives into another deeper and steeper canyon. Finally the gorge opens up and we arrive in the wide and green "sacred valley", surrounded by impressive mountains, some of them covered with snow all year. The valley slowly becomes narrower until there's no more space left for a road and the railway becomes the only lifeline for the tiny scattered farms and villages that we cross during the last hour of our trip. We also crossed the landslide, that blocked this vital arteria for a couple of days - huge masses of gravel, higher than the train and maybe a hundred meters along the railtrack. It seems a miracle how the Peruvians managed to reanimate the railtrack in just a few days. Finally we arrive in Aguas Calientes, at the foot of the Machu Picchu. Perfectly organized we hand over our luggage to the hotel employees and are guided by our "Guia" to the Buses that will carry us upwards to the entry of the village of Machu Picchu. It's hot and humid here - we are at the beginning of the rain forests. Machu Picchu was maybe the ultimate stronghold of the Incas before the rainforest - farther north the mountains become so steep, the the rainforest so dense, the climate so oppressive and the indigenous tribes so dangerous that any expansion of the Inca empire in this direction was extremely difficult. The river that we followed to come here, the Urubamba, will join the Amazon about 500 km northeast. So no wonder that we see the rarest plants, hear the rarest sounds (the cicada sounds like a transformer station), see the rarest anmimals.

The guided visit was interesting and impressive but tiring due to the heat. The guide seemed to be quite knowledgable (or had a lot of imagination). Only the sandflies almost ate me up - my arms and hands were full of itching stiches. (And I got another invitation to Buenos Aires - it might be No 10 ;-)). I had booked a simple hotel in Aguas Calientes, so the next day I could climb the Wayna Picchu which should allow spectacular views of Machu Picchu and the suuroundings. Wayna Picchu means "young mountain" (while Machu Picchu means "old mountain") and is the "nose" of the Inca face that you might see with some imagination in the shape of the mountains on the usual Machu Picchu photographs. The guidebook sais that if you take the first bus in the morning (at 6), you have a good chance to enjoy the site without too many tourists. This is what I did - get up shortly after 5, have breakfast together with heaps of mid-aged scottish hikers - some of them dressed in kilt - and get to the bus stop. Suprise - the bus was already packed with tourists and obviously I wasn't the first one this morning. However in the mist of the early morning Machu Picchu had a very special atmosphere - and I managed to shake off all other gringos before reaching the control station for access of Wayna Picchu. Here you have to register with your name, passport number and the time you are entering. You are also given a time to return. The friendly woman at the control station let me in 15 minutes before official opening hours - and I was number one in her registration list of that day.

You have two possibilities on Wayna Picchu - either descend to the "Great Cavern" or ascend directly to the top and enjoy the spectacular views of the inca town and the surrounding mountains. Since it still was around seven in the morning and the morning fog usually does not lift before 9, I decided to descend to the cave first. This mainly means descending hundreds of steps carved into the exceptionally steep walls of the mountain, then following down a (still steep) path through dense pre-amazonian jungle - including the typical humidity that makes you bath in your own sweat (luckily I did not meet any snakes, giant spiders or pumas). Finally I found the not-so-great cavern, where I discovered a nest of bats, which compensated for the effort. Now I had to climb again what I had just descended and additionally ascend approx 300 meters to the top. The view from the top of Wayna Picchu is really spectacular. What made this moment specifically unforgettable for me it that I saw one of these extremely shy and beautiful tourquoise hummingbirds (Colibri) up there and - when I was sitting on one of the top rocks and absorbing the atmosphere a (probably italian) tenor somewhere below me started singing some classical (opera?) song out of joy - and received enthusiastic ovations from everybody who stayed on the hill after he had finished.
After having descended back to the village I had some force left, so I decided to also take the opposite view - to walk the "Inca Highway" up to the "Sun Gate" from where the travellers coming from the center of the Inca empire got their first view of the Machu Picchu Village. From there I walked down back to the railway station of Aguas Calientes, where I had my well-deserved lunch. It finshed with a cup of coffee, which was probably the stronges coffee I had ever tried. When adding milk the coffee just refused to change its colour. It was served by an native-indian-looking guy and I do suspect that his secret mission is to kill all pale-faces. He almost succeeded. Immediately after sipping part of the coffee, I felt bad and during the rattle-and-shake train journey back to Cusco I vomited and did so two or three times more back in Cusco and during the night. A few days longer I had stomach problems and completely stopped drinking coffee for a while (which is actually a great privation for me).

Apart from Machu Picchu there's a couple of other impressive archeological inca sites that I visited, all with difficult names like Saqsayuaman, Ollantaytambo, Quorikancha and so on, all with huge rocks (of up to 50 tons of weight) perfectly fit together in some symmetrical, symbolical and mathematical (astronomical) way. The names are all Quechua, since this was the officialy introduced nation-wide language in an empire that streched from today's Columbia to Chile and Argentina. In the Peruvian cities Quechua is still the second language after spanish, in the villages it's the first language - many Peruvians don't speak or understand Spanish. Luckily though I never had a communication problem.

Althogether I spent almost a week in Cusco and Peru before I decided to leave the northernmost point of my journey and return southwards to Bolivia. I rode in one day from Cusco to La Paz - and in another day (the stomach problems in the meantime were followed by a flu attack) from La Paz to Sucre.

On my ride back along the shore of lake Titicaca I had a very specific experience. Changing gears on a motorbike is done with the left foot via a small metal lever that is fixed to the gearbox. Rolling up and down the gentle slopes of the titicaca shore in 4th or 5th gear I wanted to switch to a lower gear - but my foot stepped into the emptiness. For a short moment I wondered if I had forgotten how to change gears - or where the gearshift lever was - or if I had just gone mad, then my brain accustomed to the obvious fact that I had lost my gearshift lever. This is actually a severe problem since without gearshift the bike is useless - unless you are able to continue your journey without stopping, slowing down etc. (like in SPEED ;-)). Since I actually had planned some stops (e.g. at gas stations and frontiers), I had to leave my bike on the roadside and walk back, praying to god (or "Viracocha" = "Source of Energy", since I was in Inca land) to let me find my gearshift lever and let me find it quickly. Well, he/she/it heard my prayers and even considered that I needed some exercise, so after walking back for some more than a kilometerI found the lever lying in the middle of the road, apparently undamaged and even the fixing screw was still there. My guardian angel has really deserved an extra holiday - but later please!

The first two thirds of the road south from La Paz to Sucre are extremely straight. There is a big lake indicated on the map, which turns out to be a vast flat covered by some kind of yellow-greenish grass. At a certain point the landscape just becomes unreal, the horizon vanishes in the looming of the strange air and light and you begin to fly at the speed of light. In that moment it's usually a good idea to find a roadside restaurant to make a long break and recover physical and mental forces.

There are some characteristics of this country and its people, that constantly remind your that it's still not a 1st world place. Apart from their relation to garbage (partly they give the empression to enjoy being surrounded by garbage) it's their relation to toilets. It's not at all abnormal (or even a kind of gay chat-up) if a guy approaches you e.g. in the plain countryside or near a archeological site, then stops, and while saying "Hello" and "How are you" opening his zipper, presenting his best parts and and peeing on the wayside. You will find these street-pissers anywhere in Peru or Bolivia, even in the streets of the capital. No wonder that it stinks. Bolivian authorities try to force people to use the public "Baños" that are available everywhere for a few centimos (around 2-3 eurocents), in order to at least keep the most important places in front of important churches clean.
The toilets themselves are a story of shock and awe. If you find a toilet in Bolivia or Peru (or even in Argentina) that has (1) water, (2) soap, (3) toilet paper and (4) paper towels, you are either in a 5-star-hotel or in delirium. Most filling stations don't even have a tap, let alone any other commodities of personal hygiene. Even in a well maintained and rather clean tourist place like Cusco I tried to use the toilet of a beautiful museum of modern art, where also official assemblies of the local politics took place - and did not even find a holder for paper - let alone any toilet paper itself. (But they had water!! ;-))

The dogs here are also very special. I like most of them, since they behave very peaceful and intelligently, just like most of the human beings. However some (of the dogs) try to chase motorbikes, some are even stupid enough to get run over while doing so - but these are very few (thanks to Mr. Darwin) and I did not experience this myself. In some mountain areas the dogs seem to have organized themselves in a kind of roadside assistance. For example when I rode through the beautiful hillside between Potosi and Sucre over a couple of kilometers there was every 500-1000 meters another dog lying on the roadside and watching you attentively but not moving or barking. This looks really odd.

Exactly in this area I also had my first mini-crash: Being weakened by a 600 km ride and a flu attack and slightly confused by the dog guard on the roadside I caught a glimpse of a beautiful tower-bridge-like building and made a u-turn on the road to take a photo. During the turn I lost balance and reacted too late to catch the falling bike. There it lay in the middle of the road. The guard dog came and looked if he could help. I thanked him and told him I should manage it on my own. He said it was all-right and I should just call him if I needed any help and trotted away. So I put together all my forces - and failed to lift it up. I gave it a rest, sustaining it in a 45 degree position on my knee. I symbolically removed one of the bags, took a deep breath and tried again. Here we go - I got it. The dog applauded, I parked the bike on the roadside, took the picture, said farewell to the dog and rode the final 50 kms to Sucre.

Sucre calls itself the capital of Bolivia - but that's only theoretically (and historically) true. Politically the Capital is La Paz. However Sucre surprised me for it's being so un-Bolivian. Theres only few garbage, even the houses in the outskirts are usually made of real bricks (!) with real (red) pan tile roofs (!!) and painted (!!!) white walls. Virtually all buildings in the city are colonial style and painted white, the roads are (more or less) clean and all paved. The sourroundings are green-brown hills and the sky is blue (although it sometimes even rains). On one of the surrounding hills theres a curch (what else?) with a small archwalk and a small open air Café in front of it, from where you have a fantastic view and can enjoy the sunset over the roofs of Sucre. (Although sunsets are rather disappointing here - the air is usually so clean and dry that the sunsets are not as colourful as they tend to be in Europe).

After Sucre I headed further south to Tupiza, close to the border with Argentina. Tupiza itself is not a particularly nice city. However it is situated in a beautiful setting, the long and colourful green-red-blue Tupiza valley. It's extremely fertile and framed by fantastic bizarre red rocks. This and the blue skies make it unforgettable and a fantastic foto motive - as long as you visit it at daytime. Apart from that Tupiza is famous for being the place where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid died. You can make all kinds of horse, mountain bike or Jeep tours to all kinds of impressively beautiful places - including that where those yankees were killed.
My main objective in Tupiza was the Hotel Mitru (Tupiza Tours office), from where I started a 4-days Jeep tour through the most remote and beautiful parts of Bolivia: The Lagunas Colorada and Verde, the geysers and above all the Uyuni Salt Lake. I could safely park my bike in the hotel patio and store my luggage (all without extra charge), so I took only one bag on the tour. The tour costs 110 USD (per person when 5 participants) and includes a driver/guide, a cook, all meals, admission fees, water, tea/coffee, basic accomodation and of course the 4WD Jeep. So it's quite a cheap way to torture yourself, since your spend virtually the whole day in the car, rattling and shaking over the worst "roads" (or better: mule paths) ever experienced, through dusty desert, over cold mountain tops, through rivers and along sulfur-stinking volcanoes. Your major pass-time is actually inhaling dust, so no wonder that the awful cough, that haunts me since I left La Paz, did not improve at all.

Bolivian tour operators do not have a good reputation (they are notorious for not complying with what they promise to be included in the price). Most of them are based in an ugly place in the middle of nowhere, called Uyuni. So before joining Tupiza tours, I made a short internet research - which showed quite some positive critics and virtually nothing negative. Tupiza tours gave a very friendly and professional impression right from the start. The boss, Fabiola Mitru, a woman in her 40s, always remembered my name and pronounced it almost correctly, which is actually a kind of miracle, since it is almost impossible for a latin tongue to pronounce "Winfried" correctly, let alone remember it for more than 5 Minutes. (Even some Germans have problems with this name :-)). The tour was quite nice, although quite exhausting (4 days in a Jeep on really rough and dusty roads) and the service was very good. Especially Pedro the driver/guide was really keen on making the trip as comfortable as possible for us - later we found out that his job/future depends on the participant's evaluation of the trip. Also the meals were very good, even the breakfeasts were - for Bolivia - abundant.

We only had a little problem with a flat tyre, which turned out to be not so easy to repair: After the 3rd or 4th attempt and after nightfall (everybody was freezing) our poor driver Pedro finally succeeded in repairing it - he was really exhausted and desperate - later we knew why: His job was at risk if we gave him a bad evaluation because of this incident. Due to this delay we could not reach our destination of that day and Pedro organized an "emergency stay" in a mining camp - which was real adventure. The entire barracks were heated by geotermal energy, so outside it was bitterly cold (altitude 4300 m) and inside it was boiling hot and stuffy. The miners were very friendly, having dinner and playing pool. They did not go mad when they saw the girls ;-) The next morning (or better: in the middle of the night) we all woke up with a terrible headache (high altitude sickness / lack of oxygene), some were really bad, but we survived however and the sight of the geysers the next morning (just around the corner) compensated for the hassle.

From Tupiza I crossed the Argentinian border and now am back to Salta.
Tomorrow I will cross the great flatlands of the "Chaco" towards Resistencia and then go into Paraguay, heading for the Iguacu Falls.

Posted by Winfried Lichtblau at November 14, 2005 07:55 PM GMT
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