Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Colombian Coast

Following our decision of sailing the Colombian coast en route to Panama we first made a leg from Aruba to an anchorage under the protection of Cabo de la Vela, which means Cape of Sail and it really deserves its name. The anchorage was indeed protected but against the waves only. The wind here is not just a feature but a natural resource! Interestingly the Colombians don’t exploit it as we didn’t see any wind generators around. We arrived in the middle of the night and left just after sunset the same day but I can tell you that we had all the wind we wanted to cool ourselves off! All day we sustained a good 20 knots of wind held by our reliable anchor that didn’t bulge. Another interesting point is on our way to Cabo de la Vela we set a speed record on Chocobo with an average speed of 7.5 knots hence the reason we arrived at 4:00am! Normally we average more 5.5 to 6.0 knots especially when we are loaded like we are right now.

Our next stop was a place called Five Bays and like its name says it, it is five bays laying side by side a bit like the holes between the toes of a giant foot with 6 toes that would be standing on the coast of Colombia. We set the anchor on the second bay from the west between two of the toes very well protected from the waves and the outside wind by the surrounding hills covered by the Colombian forest. I say the outside wind because this bay appears to be quite an amazing place and this includes a set of very strong gusts inside the bay created the winds flowing between and over the hills and taking the form of whirls moving in all directions inside the bay especially during the night. The gusts in question can often reach up to 35 knots in less than a second and last about 3 seconds. We would stand on the deck with barely any wind then see the black ripples on the water, created by the whirl, moving toward us from the side. Uh-ho! Then, as if someone turned on a giant fan, the wind would hit us with full strength creating a noise from hell. Two or three seconds later it is gone and the boat, most of the time, didn’t have the time to move. Then 5 or 15 minutes later it would come again. The first night we were sure the anchor would drag and we would hit the rocky shore or die or something like that but amazingly the anchor seems to be set in the concrete and the boat never went anywhere during the many days we stayed here waiting for a proper weather window to keep moving. But these gusts from hell are not the only amazing things down here. During the day when the wind is very calm we would see tens of white butterflies flying not too far from the surface. At night the bay becomes an amazing phosphorescent bay with billions of small planktons glowing when the water is disturbed. When the wind gets especially strong in the middle of the night we would stand at the bow and watch that the anchor is holding fine. This is relatively easy since the entire chain and the two lines of the bridle are glowing bright as the boat moves in response to the wind change. One evening with no moon I went in the water with Danielle watching over me, she just doesn’t like swimming in the dark, and like we experienced in the phosphorescent bay in Puerto Rico my limbs would just start glowing of thousands of green bright little lights as I moved them through the water. This is an experience very difficult to describe as you have to live it to fully appreciate the enchantment of the scene. I felt like a swimming light fairy but with short hairs, an unshaved beard and hairy legs!

Finally after a week of waiting we got a proper weather window to move forward and we made a last stop in the town of Rodadero, which is mainly a tourist attraction for Colombians. A nice beach with hotels lined up like the giant guards of the local economy. Having a well garnished local supermarket was a blessing that gave us the chance to replenish our fruits and vegetables and to give us the chance to relax and walk on the beach with an actual crowd around us. Being in an isolated place such as five bays is nice but after a while it is always good to have people around especially when they are all in bikinis!
For those of you who read this blog regularly please take note that we are heading to the San Blas Islands and plan to stay there for about three weeks. Those islands are very wild and the Kuna Indians who live there are very traditional and we just don’t think that high speed internet is part of the ancient tradition! So, chances are that we won’t be able to post anything for a while but you will still be able to follow our position by clicking on the “Where we are” button. Again remember that the map on the side of the page is not updated until we have internet while we update the other with our HF Radio after every move.

Arrived in Colombia

We arrived in Colombia at 4 am on December 7, 2009 after an overnight sailing of 148nm from Aruba. With the current helping we set a new speed record on Chocobo with an average speed of 7.5 knots hence the reason we arrived at Cabo de la vela during the night. If you wonder what’s with the yellow flag, this is the flag representing the letter Q in the maritime flag alphabet. The Q flag represents the quarantine and must be hosted when entering a country until the customs and immigrations are cleared.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Aruba and change of plans.

The Island of Aruba is a popular tourist stop and the day we went in Oranjestad we could see four large cruise ships at the docs of the main harbor. The capital city of Oranjestad is called by some; Las-Vegas on the Beach and as soon as we set foot on the main street we understood why. Hotels, casinos and tourist shopping markets are all over the main street that runs along the waterfront. However, we don’t have a large interest in that kind of activities anymore and we just spent one day ashore walking and shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables. The rest of the week we just stayed quiet on the boat and relaxed waiting for the weather window to show up so we can continue our journey.
It seems that we now have a proper weather window to leave Aruba but unfortunately we won’t be able to stick to our original plans, which was to sail directly to the San Blas Islands in Panama. Instead we decided to follow the Colombian coast and either go to Cartegena or to cut directly to San Blas once we are far enough. To understand our decision you need to get your Atlas out and look at a map of Colombia. At the north- east end of the country there is a large peninsula that stretches into the Caribbean Sea called the Peninsula de la Guajira. In a nut shell the wind coming from the east hits this peninsula and the whole north part of Venezuela, which then creates a cape effect by accelerating the wind speed as the air is deflected by it. The result is a zone of almost permanent gale force winds on the west side of the peninsula making it very dangerous to cross. After talking with other sailors and reading on the subject we decided that it was safer to sail along the Colombian coast, even with its bad reputation, and stop at a couple of places instead of going through this offshore hell.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Arrived in Aruba

We arrived at the island of Aruba, which is part of the Netherland Antilles, on November 28th, 2009 after a smooth 55nm sail from Curacao. In Aruba we wait for our weather window to cross to the San Blas islands in Panama. According to the current weather forecasts it seems that we won’t have a good window for at least a week.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Back in the water

Well, you may have noticed that we don’t post much stuff on our blog lately but really there is not much to say. For the past month we’ve been intensively working on Chocobo to make her a beauty while the boat was on the ground. So here she is back in the water after sanding the old paint on the bottom hulls and applying one coat of primer and two coats of antifouling paint to prevent all the living organisms in the ocean from transforming our hulls into a moving reef. We also cleaned thoroughly the hulls over the water line and applied 6 coats of Poli-Glow a liquid polymer that protects the fiberglass against the sun and the water and makes the surface look shinny as if it’s been waxed. Just these two things may not seem a lot of work but trust me you wouldn’t believe how much surface a catamaran has. At one point I had the feeling of painting the exterior of my house with a tooth brush and with an average temperature of 45°C (113°F) during the day when considering the humidity factor we would drink and sweat up to 4 liters (1 gallon) of water per day! We went through 5 bottles of Poli-Glow, 1 gallon of primer paint and 4 gallons of Micron-66 antifouling paint. This last one cost $359.00 per gallon; ouch!!! But cleaning and shining the boat is not all we did. We also got a brand new jib sail (that’s the front sail covered with the yellow cover) since the old one started to rip itself apart probably in despair and to finish it once and for all with the unbearable heat of the south Caribbean. Danielle also resupplied the boat with food as we almost ate everything before we left for Peru, burp! She managed to buy for over $1600.00 worth of grocery going back and forth every day to the supermarket and the most extraordinary thing is that she also managed to fit all this on the boat. Well, who has never dreamed of sleeping next to a box of Corn Flakes after all? No, I’m just kidding we didn’t have to put food baskets in our bed to fit it all in but we’ve heard of sailors who actually did that as they couldn’t fit all their stuff in the storage areas of the boat. By the way, a storage area on a boat is basically any hole you can find that would fit the item you desperately need to store hence transforming the whole boat into a giant cabinet with stuff all over it. If you are lucky the items of the same kind will be grouped together in the same place but this is often not the case. This is why you can find our navigation binocular and our wine glasses in the same basket or the flour pales sitting beside the paint and spare parts bins!
But now that the boat is all set and we got food for the next 4 months we are ready to go sailing again. The hurricane season in the Caribbean is over and we will now head west first to the Island of Aruba for a quick stop and then to the San Blas archipelago on the North coast of Panama. But for this we are a bit nervous since the trip from Aruba to Porvenir in the San Blas will take us 4 days and 4 nights at sea making this trip the longest in our trip so far.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The boat elf

We couldn’t believe it when we managed to take this picture of the boat elf that lives on Chocobo. Everybody knows they exist but nobody ever caught one on picture or even saw one! Let me explain a bit more here. You see every sailor knows that there are two elves living on a boat. The first one is the boat goblin and the preferred game of this little rascal is to break things on your boat. This little creature is evil and extremely good at hiding itself in the smallest spaces on your boat where you can’t catch him and throw him overboard. He would go during the night and gnaw on your electrical wire inside the electronic equipments so next time you use a device, which was perfectly working the day before, would just not work and this, of course, while you are trying to get the anchor out or rising a sail with the electrical which that one of a sudden becomes manual. We all know that things don’t break just like that! The only explanation is the boat goblin. But sometimes the boat goblin gets bored at breaking things and becomes more sophisticated. He will then play with the electrical wire so your refrigerator would stop working but as soon as you start looking at the problem it starts to work again! Or he would put salt on the gas knob of your BBQ so it doesn’t turn anymore. Sometimes, while on the way, he will get into the autopilot control box and spin the compass so your boat makes a 90° turn for no reasons. And I am not getting in telling you what he does when he gets into the engine room otherwise I will need two pages!But this picture is not one of the boat goblin but of the other elf living on a boat; the boat elf. This elf is the opposite of the boat goblin. This is the one that fixes everything the boat goblin broke. He’s a very busy elf and works probably as much as Santa’s elves. All the time, the boat elf would work at opening the walls of the boat to access the broken equipments and try to figure out what the hell the boat goblin did this time. He would cramp himself in the engine compartment or stand feet over head to access a piece of pluming that would never be in a convenient and accessible place! But to do his repair the boat elf needs money so without you realizing it or could do anything about it he would suck out of your wallet a couple of thousand dollars just like that, pouf, gone! One particularity about this is that the amounts of money he takes are always in thousands of dollars never $8.99 or $34.99 hell no! In this case we caught the boat elf in picture just before he was going to sand the old paint off the hull and because the paint is green and when you sand the dust gets all over you then at the end of the day he was little green elf!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Good Bye Peru.

For the last two weeks of our trip in Peru we decided to take it smooth and spend about a week in Arequipa, which we really liked on our way south, and the last week in Lima where we still need to see parts of the city and especially the Miraflores sector where this picture was taken. All in all this trip has been incredible as we saw things and scenery that we will probably never see elsewhere. The people in Peru are nice and peaceful. At no time, even in the not so recommended areas of the cities we went, have we felt unsafe or being bothered by more than the streets vendors just trying to make a living of some sort. We visited, at our speed, two large countries during 55 days during which we were sick 3 times, slept in 6 different buses and 13 different hostel rooms and this had cost us about $4600.00 plus $1300.00 for the plane tickets, which is less than a two week all inclusive trip in the Caribbean. This post is about the few last things we did and saw in this wonderful trip we had.

One thing we really wanted to try before leaving Peru was to try the famous “guy” (pronounced goowee), which is essentially a guinea pig! In Arequipa we chose a fancy and expensive restaurant where they serve this typical dish of Peru. Hey! If you have to eat a rat you may as well eat it with class don’t you think? As a matter of fact, after coming back to Peru we decided to spend a bit more on the food in order to have better quality and give our digesting system a rest after a month an half of hard beating. The guinea pig was not bad at all but the little rotten didn’t have much meat and I would have appreciated if they had cut the head before serving it. By the way it really tastes like chicken! As of Danielle smile it is not clear if she’s happy of having better food as she had a tender piece of veal, or just laughing at me with my rat!

Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes and one of them is the beautiful mount Misti. Danielle wanted to go climb it but the only problem is that going at the top of this peak about 5800m (19,000fts) high usually requires at least two days from the base and a good set of equipment. So, from our hotel in the center of Arequipa we walked toward Misti and would see how far we would go. Well, we made it as far as the base of the volcano and the trip back and forth took us 6½ hours with a share of good blisters on our toes in bonus!

On our way back from Misti Danielle saw that weird bug on the ground. She said “Oh my god Roger, look at this bug! What the hell is this?” We looked puzzled at the large beast until I flipped it just to realize it was …. a plastic toy! So good for the exotic ethnological experience ;-)

On another of our walking explorations of Arequipa we crossed that University department of biology where they seem to keep live specimens of their study right on the front yard! At least they found a very ecological way of mowing the lawn and fertilizing it at the same time

The bus ride from Arequipa to Lima takes over 15 hours and we decided to take the overnight trip in this incredibly comfortable bus where the seats can be inclined to a total straight horizontal position. You may think that we paid over $200.00 for this? Not at all, this trip in the executive class, offered by the company Flores, cost s/100.00 or $33.00 per person. Ask Greyhound to beat that!

By looking at the pictures of Peru and Bolivia on our web site one may think that everyone down here is poor, wears typical clothing and lives in a mud house. Well it is not like that at all. Peru is relatively well developed, a bit less for Bolivia, and there are large areas of the big cities where people live like anyone in developed countries with large and modern buildings, wearing jeans and t-shirts or suits and ties. At some points if it wasn’t of the unique architecture and the physical attributes we wouldn’t know we are in South America. But of course, like many places in the world we see a huge contrast between the wealthy ones and the less fortunate ones. What determines on what side of the fence a Peruvian will be is less than clear but there is a definite positive energy in the population of Peru that makes us think that they do have hope to get a better life and they are ready to work hard to achieve it. Unfortunately, in Bolivia we didn’t feel that energy in the population during the short two weeks we were there. We thought at first that we may have a false feeling due to our fatigue but as soon as we came back to Peru it struck us again. People in Peru are way more motivated than in Bolivia for reasons we don’t know yet as if the Bolivians had given up on hoping for better. At least this is the feeling we had and hopefully we are wrong about that.

This last picture of the cliffs in Lima tells more than we may think at first. It shows the magnificence of nature that prevails everywhere you go in Peru. Then the large buildings tell us that Peruvians belong here and are a great society strong and absolutely proud of what they are. Finally the canopy of clouds covering the city of Lima is just a fact of nature in the city capital. In Lima there is just no sun. For some meteorological reasons the city is almost permanently covered by clouds and the sun may show up only briefly during the day but not without being partially shaded by a thin layer of clouds. This, like the harsh desert environment of the south or the unbearable jungle showing no pity of the north, are probably reminders to these people that nothing will ever be easy for them in this country of the extremes.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Transportation in Puno, Peru

We are now on our way back to Lima where we have to catch our plane at the end of the month. Our original plan was to travel by bus from Potosi in Bolivia directly to Arequipa in Peru with a stop in La Paz to catch another bus, which represents almost 24 hours of travelling. But one thing about buses in Peru and especially in Bolivia is that things rarely happen the way they were planned. For instance, if you buy your tickets from company ABC for the 8:00 o’clock bus you may easily end up on a bus operated by the company XWZ and leaving at 10:00 with a transfer in a city you can barely pronounce the name. If you’re lucky this bus will go to the same city you wanted at first. So there was no direct route from La Paz to Arequipa and we booked a bus with a transfer in the small town of Puno in Peru on the shore of Lake Titicaca. But even that route wouldn’t work as planned as it took longer than expected to cross the border and we missed our transfer in Puno. At this point we were very exhausted and instead of taking the evening bus we decided to spend the night in Puno and catch the next bus to Arequipa in the morning. The beauty of all this messed up system is that they are so used that nothing goes as planned that they can change your tickets or rearranged your route in no time and no cost. This is what I called the institutionalized disorganization in a previous post! We just learned to use it to our advantage ;-)

But the beauty of this hiccup is that it gave us the chance to see Puno since we didn’t stop here on our way south to Bolivia. Puno has peculiar means of transportation we didn’t see elsewhere in Peru or Bolivia and we didn’t want to miss the chance to try them. The first one is this modified motorcycle with the back wheel removed and replaced by the seating cabin and a double wheeled axel. I don’t know the name of it but I call it a Put Put and the feeling inside is quite interesting and hard to describe. Although the back axel is the width of the cabin and sitting on two wheels the whole structure is a quite unstable and swings from one side to other at every turn under the sound of Danielle’s laugh, who is having quite a fun, and the puff puff of the underpowered motor trying to get some speed in the busy small streets of Puno. It is like going on ride at the amusement park but in a pea can. To our amazement we made it alive to the restaurant after a 15 minute ride that felt like half an hour!

After a good meal and a bottle of wine it was time to come back to the hostel and for this we jumped in the second type of mean of transportation peculiar to Puno, the man powered three-wheeler! You probably saw these bicycles in a tourist area somewhere in your travel but here it is an actual public transportation device used by anybody. We thought we’d seen everything with the Put Put but this was before getting a ride in this! At least, in the other one we had the psychological feeling of protection offered by the thin can covering the motorcycle. But here nothing just the crash bars surrounding us as we went through the now busier streets of Puno. Also it is good to remember that Puno is at about 4000m (13000ft) of altitude so for the poor driver this is not a lot of air to breath! For us, let’s say that the thin air combined with the exhaustion made the bottle of wine we drank during dinner hit our brain like an 8lb mace! Now Danielle is having a real good time and if you know Danielle you probably know her laugh, which is completely contagious to everyone around. Those pictures show the driver to be very serious but this is not how things were during the ride. He was laughing as well as the pedestrians and the passengers of this other tricycle which passed us on this three lane boulevard while Danielle was mimicking a race between us and them! Even though we were not going very fast, at every bump we had the feeling of being ejected out of our seats. This was a great ride and we sure recommend it to anyone visiting Puno.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A piece of the life in Bolivia

We spent less than two weeks in Bolivia and during that short period of time we saw many interesting things we’d like to share with you. Of course in such a short period of time we cannot claim to know how people live and think in Bolivia and what we present here is just a thin slice of the much larger and richer Bolivian society. This first picture speaks for itself; people here are clearly very religious and this shows not only in the many churches we see everywhere but also in the taxis, the stores or the Internet cafes where religious signs can be seen everywhere.

This lady wears a very typical dress that can be seen not only in the country but also in the middle of the city as show on this picture. Another interesting aspect we noticed is that women are the ones usually carrying stuff when walking in couples using these colorful blankets on their back. Very often babies are carried using this technique. Talking about men and women there is one thing we never explained but saw very often. In the restaurants, waitresses would mainly if not solely talk to Danielle even though in most cases I managed my way in Spanish a bit better than her. The girl would hear me and note what I say but would not look or answer back at me!

People in Bolivia are not the wealthiest on earth and in order to build their buildings they need to use very cost effective building materials. The most common way of building walls we saw, especially in the country, is using these bricks made of dirt and straw. Unless my memory is failing me they are using the same technique the Egyptians used about two thousand years ago to make their bricks. In some occasions we were able to see inside through an open door and what you see outside is what you see inside. Interior finish and matching paint color exist only on TV here!

One of the main activities we have in this trip is to travel by bus between cities. Here you can see the main bus terminal in the city of La Paz. The transportation market in Bolivia, and in Peru as a matter of fact, is so developed that literally tens of companies compete for a share of the cake. They are gathered in these large terminals where you can hear the employees yelling the destinations offered by their employer. Sometime, a customer entering the terminal would get surrounded by ‘representatives’ of many companies offering their services at the same time!

Distances between the cities can be long and in many cases the roads are not even paved hence limiting the speed of the buses. We privileged travelling at night as most of the trips would last about 10 hours and cost about $5.00 per person.

We took that picture at the border between Bolivia and Peru. These peoples were sorting the broken eggs out of the trays and we assume that the eggs were destined to the Peruvian market on the other side of the fence. We never saw so many egss at once.

On our way from Copacabana to La Paz we had an interesting experience. The bus needed to cross one of the legs of Lake Titicaca and to do that they first asked all the passengers to leave the bus and take one of the many boat shuttles that pass the people from one side to the other. However, with our very limited Spanish all we could hear from him was about this ‘’Blah, bla terio es barque bla bla’’ we just couldn’t understand what he was telling us and he quickly gave up and simply left us on the bus for the crossing. The bus then got on one of these small barges powered by only a 50HP outboard engine. Thank God there was no wind that day otherwise we would have ended up in the middle of the lake!

This one really struck us. This little boy in the door of the bus is not a passenger but works on the bus by standing there and yelling the different destinations of the bus to attract the customers. This picture was taken in the middle of the morning when kids are definitively supposed to be at school and of course he was not the only one we saw. But don’t get us wrong here; we saw tons of kids walking down the streets at the end of the afternoon in school uniforms. Apparently, this is just not for everyone!

People are definitively amazing in Bolivia but it is not possible to travel in this country and not being struck by the beauty of its landscape. It is beautiful and it is high; most of the regions we visited in Bolivia were over 4000m (13,000 feet) and at this altitude only climbing a stair makes you breath heavily.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Salt Lake and the mines of Potosi.

A must see in Bolivia is the great Salar of Uyuni. This is the largest salt lake in the world and apparently covers over 7000 Km2. The place was simply amazing as we drove for over an hour through the never ending plane white surface of the desert. I don’t quite know how this place was created but this is not snow you see but real salt! Some locals living close to the salar actually are still harvesting the salt. We left to the salar from the little village of Uyuni in a 4X4 truck for the tour. The funny thing is that the salar itself is very flat and any car would be able to drive through. The 4X4 was, in my mind, more to get out of Uyuni where the roads are so bad that they can even compete with the roads in Montreal!

Close to the other end of the Salar we stopped at one of the “islands” that sit just there in the middle of the salt. This one in particular is a national park where we could see those amazing cactuses, which some were over 1000 years old. From the top of the island we had a splendid view of the immensity of the salar.

Then we travelled to the town of Potosi well known for its mining activity. For centuries this was the largest silver reserve in the world and the Spanish took everything. Today, the self employed miners are only extracting zinc. The custom is for visitors of the mines to bring some gifts to the miners for a value of about 20.00 bols (1 bol = $0.14). The thing is to buy stuff they need for their day to day operations namely drinks, cigarettes, coca leafs with catalysts, alcohol or dynamite. Yes I said dynamite! You see, dynamite is sold freely on the streets of Potosi so for 15.00 bols ($2.14) we were able to buy one stick of dynamite, a detonator, a 4 seconds fuse and a bag of Ammonium Nitrate to increase the power of the blast. Hey, when in your life do you have the chance to buy dynamite??? We couldn’t pass that one. We also bought a large bottle of soft drink for 5.00 bols.

This is the entrance of the mine we visited and on the second picture you can see a miner pushing his wagon used to carry the mineral. When fully loaded this wagon will weigh about 1000Kg (2200lbs) and is pushed by 3 men. If you think you are a man and that the office environment is a harsh one, you need to talk to these guys you wimp! And this brings me to talk about the gift item I listed above as “coca leafs and catalysts” that you likely didn’t get completely. The coca leaf is widely grown in Peru and Bolivia and represents large revenues for the farmers. Of course you are thinking about the export of cocaine made out of the leaf, which is sure a good part of the revenues from the leaf but definitively not the main one. The coca leaf on itself is very harmless and when infused in hot water it basically has the pharmaceutical effect of the caffeine from tea or coffee and this is how the famous “mate de coca” is made. Just a simple tea made of coca leafs, which is pretty good by the way. To obtain cocaine apparently the leaf must be combined with a catalyst and an electrolyte, which are also freely sold in the streets of Potosi! The miners don’t really eat during their 12 hours working days but they always have a big chunk of coca leafs in one of their cheek and suck the juice out of them for a few hours. Mixed with the catalyst and their saliva playing the role of electrolyte they can go on without feeling pain, fatigue of hunger for the entire day!

When you spend your life in a shithole with no education you necessarily become very superstitious. Here is Tio (I hope the spelling is right) the god of the mines. Once a week the miners will gather in front of him for a special ceremonial. They offer Tio two cigarettes they put and lit in his mouth then coca leafs in his hands and on his head and finally some 96% alcohol on him and especially on his penis that you can see in erection between his legs. The rational here is very simple Tio has a wife; Patchamama who is the goddess of the earth and everything surrounding us. By putting pure alcohol on Tio’s stick the miners hope that when Tio go make love with Patchamama he will fertilize the earth with pure mineral. How come we nerve thought of something like that???

This miner here is presently digging the mineral out of the zinc vein he’s exploring. The day before he blasted this section of the gallery but the blast was not very good and he didn’t get much mineral out of it. He was actually very pleased when I gave him the dynamite stick, the detonator and the fuse because he had to blast again the next day. Knowing that a blast requires about 6 or 7 sticks of dynamite this means a blast cost roughly 100 bols ($14.00) but a miner makes about 50 bols ($7.00) per day and he has to pay for his own equipment! Again, you really think you have a miserable life? If we had known what we were going to see down there this is 10 sticks of dynamite we would have bought not one! Remember that the zinc those guys extract end up in our screws, our electrical wires and in the soldering use in every single electronic devices we use. With a life expectancy of 45 years these guys spend their lives in a hole so we can watch our TV, play our videogames and talk on our cell phones. You really think that the $2.00 dynamite stick we gave him was enough for what he does in return?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Arrived in Bolivia

We arrived in Bolivia on October 6th, 2009 after a 9 hour bus ride from Cuzco to the small village of Copacabana sitting on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ah! Finally the one and only Machu Picchu!

When we think of Egypt we think of the pyramids. When we think of Peru this is the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu that comes to mind. Well, lost until found again at the beginning of the last century and becomes now the main Peruvian tourist attraction. But before we tell you what Machu Picchu is today, let’s dream a little bit with these postal card pictures of this great Inca city lost for centuries on the top of a hill part the much larger mountain of Machu Picchu.

Who hasn’t dreamed of putting his backpack on and start walking in the virgin jungle of Peru to reach this legendary Inca city that was thought to be the last Inca city where the last Incas retrieved with all their riches after the invasion of conquistadors? Well no gold or any kind of treasure was found in that city but by its geographical location it was left unspoiled for probably for over three centuries and we can now still see the stone walls that were put in place with rudimental tools and untouched during all those years. You see, all other Inca sites in Peru are either half destroyed by the Spanish or disassembled by locals who needed the stones for newer buildings. Machu Picchu is how it was when abandoned by the Incas and the reason is still a mystery. The agricultural zone, the residential area and the temples can now be visited by adventurers who dare entering the lost city. Ok, let’s not push it too far. The city when found a century ago was all covered by trees and bushes but the entire site has been cleaned up by the Peruvians and the site, protected by the UNESCO, can be walked as long as we respect the assigned paths and areas. As we got there very early in the morning, we saw the sun rising over the mountain range and spread its yellow light on the stone walls sitting peacefully on the ledges of the deep canyon lying below the great city.

Ok, you’ve dream enough now? Then let’s get back to some kind of reality regarding Machu Picchu. The lost city of Peru is visited every year by about 450,000 visitors and on some days it can be as much as 2000 visitors from all over the world making Machu Picchu the largest tourist site in Peru. Don’t get me wrong though, it is a really nice place to visit and is worth the travel. However, if you think you’ll end up in the middle of jungle with a guide to find the place you’ll be highly disappointed. Also, this is not cheap! The entrance to the site may be $50.00 per person but to get there and all the side expenses you’ll have to spend close to $200.00 per person if you’re careful. If you’re a bit looser you can always rent a room at the hotel that is built directly at the entrance of the site on old ruins and that cost only $2500.00 per night! Do the math and you’ll realize that the site brings easily over $100 millions to Peru every year in direct expenses and probably way more in indirect spending. Peru is poor and this is a hell a lot of money for them so you can imagine that they made everything they could to get as many tourists as they can up there and suck as much money out of their pockets as they can. This unfortunately takes a bit of the magic out of the experience!

For some reasons the government hasn’t build a road to get to Machu Picchu and there are a few options to get there. One is to take a 4 day trek along the 40 Km long famous Inca Trail through the mountains as long as you reserve your place three months in advance. Our legs not being in their Olympic shape of our early 20’s we did like almost everyone else and took a 2 hour train ride from the town of Ollantaytambo to the village of Aguas Calientes located at the bottom of Machu Picchu. The train is operated by Peru Rail who has the monopoly of the only path leading to Aguas Calientes. Kitching!!For the deeper wallets, you can buy a train ticket for $450.00 US dollars and they serve champagne during the 4 hour ride to Aguas Calientes but directly from Cuzco this time. For the entire Machu Picchu trip we got all our tickets booked by the other owner in Cuzco (not the ride with champagne of course) but the agency he uses for that was celebrating their 40th anniversary and everyone got drunk that day! As you can imagine, once we got in Aguas Calientes at 10:30pm the guide of the agency wasn’t there with our tickets and the hotel we had a room booked had no idea who we were. But don’t worry everything got sorted out and we got a room to sleep the 4 hours that we had left before leaving for Machu Picchu the next morning.

The Inca city of Machu Picchu is located at 7 Km from Aguas Calientes on the way up! At this point you can climb you way up but again, what most people do is they pay $7.00 and get on one of the 10 buses or so that shuttle between the town and the entrance of the site every 10 minutes. On the second picture you can see the path followed by the busses, this ride on itself is an interesting experience!
The pictures you saw at the beginning were taken around 6am when the herd of tourists was not arrived yet. At 11am the site is swamped by visitors and taking a clean picture of the site is virtually impossible. We got there very early in order to be able to get the pass to climb to Wayna Picchu; the steep hill you see behind Machu Picchu. The pass is given only to the first 400 visitors arriving on the site and they are all gone minutes after the opening of the site. Finally, we never went because we were not feeling very well that day. You see, the food in all the Inca Valley from Cuzco to Machu Picchu is terrible and our stomachs were just not happy. Nevertheless, this is a place that has to be seen and we are happy that did it.
One last note, to go back to Cuzco the guide told us to go to a certain restaurant to get our train tickets and so we did. To our surprise the tickets were there! Of course the seats were split apart but hey, don’t ask too much especially when you’re paying the big price. The train took us from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo where a company called “Bus Lucy” was supposed to wait for us with a sign and bring us back to Cuzco. At this point you guessed it already; Bus Lucy was there indeed but had never heard about us. But the most amazing thing is that everyone we dealt with didn’t seem surprised at all by all this and would take us in at no charge and would just sort this out later between themselves. This is what I call institutionalized disorganizations!