A Travellerspoint blog

The Nazca Lines

Strange shapes in the desert valley.

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Peru, 1939.Paul Kosock, an American professor from Long Island University arrives in Nazca, a small desert town near the coast in the south of the country.His mission: to investigate and survey the unique irrigation techniques reportedly developed by the ancient Nazca civilization that once flourished in the area.He is quite successful and finds many still functioning aqueducts in and around the town.His work ultimately helps establish the intricate underground system of Nazca as one of the most impressive feats of hydraulic engineering in South American pre-history.
But it isn't until his surveys bring him out into the dry Nazca desert that he will make what will be one of the most perplexing archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.Guided by a local, he travels out to a section of desert where he spies long, shallow furrows in the valley floor.His professional curiosity aroused, he hires a light aircraft from one of the local farmers and goes up to take a better look.What he sees from the air astounds him: hundreds of ruler straight lines criscossing the valley floor for miles around in an improbable network, and, even more unlikely, geometric shapes in the likeness of birds, fish and various other animals.Kosock had just discovered the remarkable and wholly unique remnants of a mostly forgotten civilization and had, in all probability, been the very first man to see these extraordinary images from the air.It was a discovery that has provoked much scholarly debate and many (often wild and outlandish) theories ever since.Yet to this day nobody has conclusively answered the question: what ARE the Nazca Lines?
The mystery that is the Nazca Lines remains one of the most enduring enigmas in South American history.Their allure is such that the once quiet frontier of Nazca has grown into a popular resort town cashing in on the curious tourists that arrive in their droves.It is almost exclusively geared towards backpackers eager to see the Lines, with a pristine and well maintained airport and a booming local economy in the construction and service industries.Many hotels in various stages of development are littered throughout Nazca and the modern day town centre is invariably awash with pizzerias and backpacker bars.It is an all too common occurence in developing countries but one that is sadly entirely understandable.
We arrived on an overnight bus from Arequipa at the ungodly hour of 3am, despite the fact we weren't expecting to get there until 7 or so.We were politely, but firmly, awakened from our crucial shuteye by the insistent stewardess who had us off the bus luggage in hand before we knew what was happening.Clearly, something was amiss.Indeed it was.We had somehow confused the traveling times and mistaken the arrival time in Lima, where the coach would continue on towards, with the arrival time in Nazca.This was not good.
Wandering around the deserted bus station in the dead of night still half asleep with all our worldy belongings was more than just a little disconcerting.However, we were serendipitously greeted with a miracle of the transport industry: a lone taxi driver who was somehow waiting for us with his inviting vehicle.We fell in, without even checking the fare beforehand (as is good practise) and gave the name of the hostel we were booked in at.After a quick ride around the deserted streets we pulled up in front of a featureless building that was still in total darkness.Of course it was.It was half three in the morning.A few rings of the bell later and the front door was eventually dragged open by an understandably surly porter who showed us to our tiny room.We collapsed into bed and fell back to sleep.
Morning came all too soon and we managed to drag ourselves up out of bed and down to the breakfast table.Talking to the owner in between bites of cereal we learned he operated a travel agency (they all do) that could take us to see the Lines that very afternoon.With nothing booked or even planned yet we readily agreed.To kill time we went into town and had a look 'round.The centre was a collection of shops on an excuse of a main street and the town had a distinct air of 'unfinishedness' about it.Nazca really is one giant construction site surrounded by endless, dry desert and slowly baking under a relentless sun.The heat really was something else.Bar the overall ugliness, the uncompromising heat was my overriding memory of the place.But then again, we hadn't really come to enjoy the ambience.

To understand the thinking behind the formation of images such as the Nazca Lines one must first look to understand the culture that made them.First identified as a civilization in the early 1900's, what little knowledge we have of the Nazca comes from the many colourful ceramics that survived in that region of Peru.The German archaeologist, Max Uhle was so impressed by some particularly beautiful pieces of pottery he had received that he travelled immediately to Peru in seach of their origin.His search took him to the valley of Ica where some local farmers recognised the relics he showed them and directed him to some ancient cemeteries nearby.A period of intense excavation yielded many more artefacts, identical to the ones he had in his possession.Uhle had pinpointed the origin of his ceramics and conclusively determined the existence of a new and prominent pre-Inca civilization.He named it the Nazca, after the valley in which they would have lived.
Pottery is such a wonderfully accurate and important method of dating cultures that civilizations are often classified according to whether or not they have mastered the art of firing up a kiln.Cultures lacking any obvious pottery making skills are generally assumed to be relatively undeveloped while the sophistication of others can be measured in terms of their specialized techniques.Generally, the more artistic the surviving ceramics the more advanced the culture can be said to be.In the case of the Nazca, the ceramics showed a high level of artistry: much of the pottery showed colourful images that realistically depicted everyday domestic scenes, while others bore stylised anthropomorphical and zoomorphic designs.Clearly theirs was an advanced and artistic culture, a feature that seems to have found its ultimate expression in the Nazca Lines.But what, exactly, are they?

The Nazca Lines is the name given to the extraordinary collection of lines, geometric figures (geoglyphs) and animal and plant drawings (biomorphs) that are spread out over a large area of rock strewn desert near Nazca.There are more than 300 figures and some 10,000 lines that cover an area of roughly 500 sq km.The most recognizable of the figures have their own titles, such as the Monkey and so forth.They were formed at least 1500 years ago (though many are older) by removing the sun darkened stones from the desert surface, exposing the lighter soil below.The truly remarkable feature of the Nazca Lines is the uniform symmetry found throughout and the fact that they can only be properly appreciated from the air, a fact that causes one to wonder how (and why) they were made in the first place.It is an intriguing mystery and one that is unlikely to ever be satisfactorily solved.
That hasn't stopped many people from guessing though.Over the years it has been variously theorised to be: an astronomical calender; ritual walkways connected to a water/fertility cult; giant running tracks (?); extraterrestrial landing sites; and hallucinogenic representations of shamanic rituals.The theory of an astronomical calender was first proposed by the German mathematician Maria Reiche, an assistant to Paul Kosock who continued on his research into the Lines after he left the area in 1948.She devoted her entire life to decoding the mysteries of the Lines and spent many years mapping and researching them.She became a celebrated though eccentric figure, so much so that when she died in 1998 she was buried with offical honours and her home was turned into a museum.Her theory was one of the more popular ones in her day and had some convincing evidence to back it up.
However, despite her complete conviction her theory had a few glaring faults and the prevailing theory accepted by archaeologists today is the one related to a water ritual.Since Nazca was a desert based civilization it stands to reason that they saw water as the source of all life and would thus worship it so, much like the later Incas worshipped their sun god, Inti.Many of the desert lines point in the direction which in times past would have been the source of rivers and rain.In times of exteme drought it is thought they would perform rituals by walking along the length of the glyphs, most probably dancing and singing, in order to appease their gods.It is likely they smashed many of their ceramics there as further offerings and there is evidence of this as shards of pottery and panpipes have been found at the end of some of the lines.
Whatever their function, it has at least been proven that the construction of the Lines wasn't something supernatural or out of this world, as some maintain.A series of simple experiments performed by a schoolteacher and his class demonstrated that with some rope, a few stakes and a little patience, it is relatively easy to replicate the giant glyphs that sprawl across the desert floor.Whether or not they were intended to be viewed by the gods above is, of course, open to speculation.
What is certain, however, is that they are a prime tourist attraction in an otherwise desolate stretch of desert beween Arequipa and Lima.Since being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the Nazca Lines have only increased in popularity year after year.We'd come solely to marvel at these striking examples of aboriginal art like everyone else.We were picked up and driven out to the small airport on the outskirts of town, a surprisingly modern construction that is towered over by the nearby Cerro Blanco, the world's highest sand dune at 2078m.It is a veritable mountain of sand that dominates the skyline and can be seen for miles around.It is possible to sandboard down or take a dune buggy across it but we were (as always) short on time and had to reluctantly decide against it.Not that it wouldn't been very cool.
We arrived at the strip, met our pilot and, after a short wait in the terminal were guided onto a small one engined Cessna along with four other backpackers.The seating was cramped but I somehow got the seat beside the pilot and had a birds eye view out of the cockpit.Nice!Just before take off I glanced back at Janelle who was wearing the most fearful look I'd ever seen on another person.It was somewhere between absolute terror and abject self pity and I again felt sorry for people the world over with a fear of flying.But there was nothing else for it.With a quick burst of speed and a stomach churning lurch we were suddenly airborne against the bright blue sky and sandy desert floor.From this height you could really appreciate how lush and fertile the Nazca valley is contrasted against the immediate desolation of the sprawling desert.Our pilot immediately corrected our heading and kept to an altitude of about 1,500 feet.Almost straight away we flew over our first glyph, the Whale.The pilot pulled the plane abruptly to the left at a 90 degree angle so we could all get a good look and then circled around for a second pass, this time turning to the right.Even so we had roughly eight seconds to catch a glimpse of it.Such jerking movements were pretty nerve wracking and I again pitied poor Janelle in the back, even though I was loving every minute of it.
The rough flying continued for the entire 30 minute flight.Even when the plane wasn't turned on its side the high winds buffeted against us and bounced the light aircraft around in a distinctly frightening manner.Two of our companions stopped taking photos and just plain hung on.But it was worth it nonetheless.We flew over all the major glyphs: the Whale, the Dog, the Spider, the Monkey, (with his spiraling tail), the Spaceman, the Hummingbird, the Trapezoid (aka the Landing Strip), and many of the others.Each of them were simply amazing; so symmetrical and stylish its hard to believe their creators never saw them this way.Each and every one is a wholly unique and dramatic work of art, a relic from a time and a people who we'll never truly understand.How mysterious and awe inspiring it is to view these strange symbols from a long dead civilization whose meaning is lost to us forever.A once in a lifetime opportunity for sure.

We landed soon enough without mishap, Janelle in particuler very glad to be back on solid ground and even tipped the pilot before being ferried back to the hostel.The feeling of almost religious awe lingered with us for the rest of the day and I could even appreciate the town of Nazca a little better than before.But not that much.We lazed around and caught up on some sleep before we left for the bus station and hopped on the coach bound for Lima.The entry point for many travellers, Lima as Peru's capital is often a backpackers first taste of South America and it is almost universally despised.The dirt, poverty and overall dangerous atmosphere ranks it somewhere near the very bottom of the list for most Gringos and the majority of them can't get out of the city fast enough.With such negative reports we'd budgeted only two days in the capital.It was a necessary pitstop before we could transfer on to the north of Peru and we intended on treating it as such.We prepared ourselves for the worst and hoped for the best.

Posted by Janelle_B 12:39 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

Kicking back in the White City

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Colca_Canyon-Peru.jpgOn arriving back to the busy streets of Cuzco after a diverting taxi ride, we found ourselves at our little hostel, where I slumped into bed for the remainder of the day.The days' hiking around the steep hillsides of Machu Picchu had robbed me of what energy I had possessed.I improved little in the following days, sleeping on and off and eating the bare minimum until I dragged myself to a private clinic and endured a battery of tests, all of them unpleasant.I was diagnosed with salmonella and giardia (nasty little buggers) and handed pills to consume and advice to follow.Thus we were forced to remain in Cuzco until I had recovered enough to travel, a period which lasted another three or four days.
Well behind on our travel itinerary, we made the tough decision to skip the visit to Lake Titicaca which we had promised ourselves after hiking the Inca Trail.Instead we hopped on board yet another night bus and took the 10 hour trip south to Arequipa, Peru's second biggest city after Lima.Arequipa resides in a region known as 'canyon country' in an area famous for its dry, rocky deserts and cavernous, deep canyons.Aswell as containing one of the worlds' deepest canyons, Colca (at 3191m deep), it is also home to several impressively high peaks including El Misti (5822m) and Chachani (6075m).In an area of such dramatic landscapes, Arequipa tends to attract those keen to do either serious hiking or serious climbing, both of which are well catered for.
We had other reasons for coming to Arequipa.While we both were very keen on doing some hiking, we'd decided even before we'd left Cuzco that we desperately needed a proper break from all the hurried sightseeing and extensive travelling.Backpacking may be an affordable way to see countless sights in a short space of time, but it can be hard going after a while and such constant moving from place to place only serves to increase the likelihood of a complete and utter breakdown.Two months of solid backpacking had us stretching our limit and my recent bout of sickness wasn't helping either.Time constraints usually forced us into unreasonably demanding schedules which we were desperate to esape from, at least temporarily.In short, what we needed was a holiday from the holiday.
Arequipa was to be that vacation.Janelle had already booked spanish lessons some time before which meant we would have no choice but to remain in the city for an entire week.With the decision made for us, it became easier to forget about schedules and itineraries and just relax.The days took on a nice, predictable rhythm; Janelle left for her classes early in the morning, while I awoke sometime later and had a leisurely breakfast before I set off for the town centre to catch up on some blogging and emails in one of the local internet cafes.I'd break for lunch after a few hours and eat tasty chicken fried rice in a cheap Chinese nearby.Then I'd spend the afternoon exploring the town and taking in some of the sights before leaving for the hostel and meeting up with Janelle for dinner.We'd squeeze in whatever activities we wanted to do in the time after eating and nightfall.It was a lazy, relaxing and glorious time.
I did, however, get to visit all the must see sights nevertheless.Arequipa is a city justifiably famous for its beauty and nowhere provides a better example of this than the main plaza with its stunning white brick cathedral.Many of the historic buildings downtown are built of the same volcanic white stone, called sillar, a feature that rightly earned the city its nickname of La Ciudad Blanca, or The White City.The plaza is a wide open space bordered by tall green palms and is constantly crowded with tourists and locals alike, all sunning themselves by the requisite fountain.Visible just beyond the tall spires are the twin peaks of Misti and Chachani, two mountains that are popular for novice climbers.I was on the verge of booking a climb up Chachani when I realised the trek started with a midnight pickup before a harsh pre-dawn climb in total darkness, a feat of serious endeavour that sadly conflicted with our original goal (that of taking it easy).
One sight that did fit in with our plans was a visit to the Santa Catalina monastary, a high walled citadel that virtually occupies an entire city block.Built in 1580 some 40 years after the city was first founded, the enclosure is a self contained structure that is still home to nuns, though they live in a seperate section to the one on display to the viewing public.It is a beautifully serene place, with narrow streets and sunny, fruit filled courtyards painted in bright primary colours.Its also home to some exquisite green gardens and lively fountains, as well as the cramped, ascetic cells once used to house the nuns.Walking down its cobbled streets is like walking back in time and nowhere in Peru will you find well maintained buildings of such simple design and function.
Another essential visit was to the Museo Santury, a university run museum that houses one of the most startling finds of recent times.Popularised by the documentary of the same name, the 'Ice Princess' is a frozen maiden who was sacrificed some 500 years ago by the Incas on the summit of the nearby volcano of Ampato.Nicknamed 'Juanita' by the American team of archeologists that found her remains in 1994, it appears the young girl (she was between 12 and 14) was killed in a ritual ceremony meant to appease the violent deities of the volcano.An interesting video coupled with a brief tour culminates in a respectful viewing of the mummy itself, her features still discernible after hundreds of years buried in ice.Indeed she still has a full head of long, dark hair.Such ceremonial sacrifices were only carried out in times of real catastrophe, the Incas apparently preferring to use livestock such as llamas or vicunas when possible.
Forgoing the high energy required for mountain climbing we did manage to have some adrenaline fuelled fun nonetheless.On our last day we booked a rafting trip on the Rio Chili, a river of moderate current that snakes its way through one of the nearby gorges that populate the region.Our guide was a twenty-somethinged American who was engaged to a local girl.He was all blonde surfer dude but seemed to know his stuff all the same.Due to the low season it was just the three of us and we navigated through some heart stopping and gut wrenching rapids along the way.One section in particular, the Waterfall, was a grade four drop that had us nearly tipping over into the icy water but we managed to right ourselves at the last minute.It was very wet and a lot of fun.
As with Cuzco, most visitors to Arequipa come with the intention of undertaking at least some of the many hiking opportunities that the rocky region affords.Two of the main expeditions on offer are the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, the latter being the deeper and more difficult of the two.We settled on the three day Colca trek and the next day were picked up by our guide along with a party of three Germans.After missing out on the Inca Trail we were keen to do some actual hiking but alas the entire first day was essentially a road trip through the dry desert of the canyon country.Fortunately it was extremely informative and we stopped off at some inspiring sites along the way.One of these was an odd collection of rock formations fashioned by years of exposure to the desert winds.They resembled various shapes including a face and a couch (?) but mostly looked like stone teeth set into a rocky jaw.
Another was a rare oasis where hardy famers take their hardier livestock and was crowded with all sorts of South American camelids; llamas, vicunas, alpacas and guanacos, all of them similar in appearance with long legs, hairy bodies and gentle faces.These animals have been used for centuries as pack animals by the Incas and still serve that purpose today.Their wool is highly coveted for clothing while their meat is commonly eaten as part of the Peruvian diet.Alpaca makes for pretty nice steaks, which taste somewhere between chicken and beef but contains less fat than either (so I'm told).
Our journey took us through some of the most desolate country we'd seen yet; dry, featureless desert with a bare minimum of brush and trees.We reached the edge of the canyon around noon and drove down the winding road that took us into the heart, arriving at the principal town of Chivay by lunchtime.This dusty town is in effect the capital of Colca, though we skipped through it to continue on to Yanque where we had lunch.The few towns that survive down here subsist mainly on the agriculture of the surrounding valley, where Inca built terraces can still be plainly seen.The Spanish built many churches in this area in an effort to convert the locals to Christianity, but many of them have suffered from the aftermath of the frequent earthquakes that periodically hit the region.Now there is a ghost town feel to them and any second you expect tumbleweeds to bounce across your path, blown about in the dusty climate by tendrils of dirty winds....It's that kind of place.
We continued on after lunch, driving through some rough terrain that surprisingly had its fair share of green surroundings.Indeed, at a glance the countryside was almost reminiscient of a blooming Tuscany landscape.Passing through small village after small village, we stopped to photograph each church that seemed to be the only buildings of any real note.Most of them were closed during the day, due to robberies of religious paintings and whatnot in the past.They did provide a nice distraction however, each of them with their own distinct design and character.We took our pics and drove on.
Passing by locals on over worked donkeys along the way, we continued on up the rocky road as it wound its way slowly upward.We stopped at various points, photographing the exquisite panoramic views on offer.This area has been inhabited by many differing cultures over the years, but its the indomitable Inca terraces that are the most visible remnants around now.They transformed what once was inhospitable mountain slopes into easily cultivated land and enabled the Incas to survive in what was otherwise an unlivable region.At one stop our gazes were directed upward to a crevice in the rocks overhead, a place the Incas had built many years before.These 'hanging tombs' were home to long deceased priests and other important figures, their function to obviously deter the pervasive grave robbers (huaqueros) with their difficult to reach location.The grave robbers were more than up to the task, however and had plundered these abandoned sites long ago.
Our final destination on our first day was Cruz del Condor, an outcropping of rock in Colca canyon that is famously home to many Andean condors.Most tours reach it in early morning, but we were here in the early hours of dusk to avoid the crowds.Since sightings aren't guaranteed we held our breaths, but we needn't have worried; several condors were circling overhead, gliding effortlessly on the thermals.They are elegant creatures that belong to more romantic times and somehow seem both out of place and at home here in the canyon.Whatever their own thoughts on the matter, they kept a clear distance from us and never ventured too near.Years of visiting tourist groups probably have that effect.
We ended the day at Cabanconde, another small village not far from Cruz del Condor.This was to be our home for the night and more luxurious lodgings we could not have imagined.Our room was a wide, circular cabin built of solid, painted adobe and enclosed in a roof of thick wooden beams.A double bed that could fit three (if only!) sat in centre and off to the side was an en suite with a sunken bathtub (!).Dinner was served in a restaurant of star quality that wouldn't have looked out of place in the more expensive parts of Cuzco and was predictably delicious.(fresh river salmon if I recall).All this in the depths of a dusty canyon miles from 'civilization'.It was good our first night was so comfortable for our next would be spent in the confined space of a cramped tent down at the real floor of the canyon.But for now we were in heaven.
The next day dawned bright and early.We'd be forgoing our van and hiking down into the real centre of the canyon, a drop of some thousand metres straight down.While our guide prepared the hired donkeys to carry the heavier tents and gear we busied ourselves with our own backpacks.Plenty of water was necessary for the hike down and we made sure we had enough.Once ready, we set off following our guide.An early start was essential for once the blazing afternoon sun hit us it 'd be next to impossible to do any hiking.We reached the edge, looked out once over the vast blue sky and dark mountainsides and began our descent.The path was extremely rocky and narrow,with a precarious edge always at our side.Slipping and stumbling downward we were soon sweating profusely.The steep angle of the path meant that our thighs took the brunt of the work and soon enough they were burning with the effort.Many, many stops and a full three hours later we finally reached the ground.
And what a sight!The small patch of ground we'd viewed from above was a veritable and literal oasis (sangalle), a brightly coloured lawn of green grass, palm trees and straw huts.Dotted all over were tiled swimming pools built into the natural stone of the area and as we explored further we even found a well stocked bar!The oasis was right beside the canyons river, whose low roar could be heard in the distance.But we were too hot and tired to care about that!Stripping off our sticky clothes we plunged straight into the clear, inviting pool.It was bliss!Afterwards we dried ourselves in the hot sun before being served a fine three course lunch under the nearby palm trees.Lomo saltado, a Peruvian favourite of shredded fried beef, chips and rice served on the same plate.We'd tried it many times before and were pretty fond of it.Lunch was followed by idle chatter and relaxed laughter and while some of the others caught a few z's I went off exploring the area, particulary the river and its raging current.The remainder of the day was spent much the same, with a minimum of physical activity.In the cool of the evening however, we did hike to see some more hanging tombs nearby as well as a suspension bridge farther upstream.Our guide showed us an interesting feature of some cactii that flourishes in the area; infecting the leaves was a small insect, that, when crushed, bleeds out an unnatural red colour.This is cochineal and the red dye is known as carmine.It has been used for centuries by the Incas as a dye for their clothing and costumes.The colour is so stark that the invading conquistadors were stunned by its quality and immediately began appropriating it for their own use.It is still in use today and fields of this same cactus are deliberately infected with this parasite to yield the dye as a commercial commodity.Carmine remains one of the most versatile dyes around and is used in everything from fabrics, cosmetics and foodstuffs.
Our night was spent in small comforable tents rather than the many huts on site due to the high likelihood of insect infestation (scorpions and spiders among them).We had to rise at the ungodly hour of 5am to begin the hike back, again to beat the scorching afternoon sun.As we stumbled around in the still dark yawning, we picked out torch beams on the mountain trail hgh above us, another tour group whose hike had started at 2am!We ate a quick breakfast and started out, picking our paths with our own torches.The cool of the pre dawn made it possible to hike in relative comfort, but the going was still rough and very physical.I can only imagine the hike in full sunshine!Myself and Janelle distanced ourselves from the others and began hiking at a quick pace, though we were still overtaken at times by locals who regularly make the trek in an hour and a half.We stopped halfway up and took a rest and some water and watched in silence as the sun rose over the mountains on the far side of the canyon.It was a beautiful, peaceful sight.The suns rays would reach us in another couple of hours so we hurried on, half climbing, half stumbling up the steep path.We unexpectedly reached the top an hour or so later, managing the climb in an impressive two hours when it had taken us three just to get down!We found our way back to the town and our driver, collapsed into the van and awaited the others.
An hour and a half later we were all enjoying hot coffee and fresh bread at a local cafe and afterwards piled into the van for the drive back.Along the way we stopped at one of the many hot spring resorts in the canyon and soaked our tired muscles in the tepid waters.An hour or so of this was enough to adequately soothe our bones and we gratefully made our way to Yanque for a buffet lunch, the final meal of our trip.It was fantastic, every type of Peruvian delicacy was on offer; lomo saltado, alpaca steaks, alpaca curry, aji de gallina (a type of spicy curry), rocoto relleno (spicy peppers stuffed with beef), grilled chicken breasts, rice, soups and everything in between.We were even served deep fried cuy (guinea pig), a dish I'd been keen to try.It wasn't exactly what I was expecting (very tough and chewy) but I guessed it was okay.
Suitably well fed, we made the long journey back to Arequipa, dropping the three Germans off at a bus stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere for a transfer onwards to Cuzco.Our driver left us right to our hostel, where we dutifully tipped both driver and guide as per backpacking custom.We had the remander of the day to rest before packing up all our belongings yet again for the long trip to our next destination.The desert town of Nazca, where we'd witness one of modern archeology's most perplexing mysteries; the ancient wonders that are the world famous Nazca Lines.

Posted by Janelle_B 15:31 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Machu Picchu and The Inca Trail

Hiking to the Lost City of the Incas.

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In 1572, nearly 40 years after the fall of Cuzco, there remained but one threat to the Spanish domination of the Inca Empire and Peru.The last surviving Incan Emperor, Tupac Amaru, had fled into hiding with a select few of his supporters to a remote outpost in the Peruvian jungle known as Vilcabamba.Its location was such that several attempts on behalf of the Spanish to find it had gone unsuccessful as it was rumoured to lie in an area of thick, impenetrable jungle that was nigh on impossible to reach.Tupac Amaru's existence was a constant reminder of the failure to successfully obliterate all traces of the old Inca Empire which the new viceroy of Peru, Francisco Toledo, found intolerable.He determined to capture Amaru and put an end to Incan resistance once and for all.On 14th April he declared war on the fugitive Inca and sent an army out from Cuzco to find the location of Vilcabamba.Surprisingly they were successful, although they found the refuge deserted, the Inca and his people having left only the day before. The soldiers gave chase through the jungle and managed to track down capture Amaru and bring him back to Cuzco for a summary trial.He was sentenced to death and hanged, thus bringing to a close the era of Inca rule for ever.

Vilcabamba was eventually forgotten in the mists of time.Its location once again became a mystery but it's role in the history of the Incas ensured it an importance in the eyes of scholars to whom pre Columbian history was a specialty.One such man was Hiram Bingham, an historian who lectured at Yale university.After some time spent in Chile and Peru, he returned in 1911 to man a more co-ordinated attempt to locate 'lost ' cities of the Incas, including Vilcabamba.He was incredibly fortuitous and with the help of several locals living in the area, discovered quite a few overgrown ruins of Incan origin.

But it wasn't until a local 11 year old Quechan boy led him up some steep steps to a certain ridge high above the Urubamba river that he made what was to be the discovery of his lifetime.Located in an incredibly scenic setting above the valley floor against a backdrop of the surrounding green mountain range was a complete stone city of incomparable beauty.Bingham had just discovered Machu Picchu, but at the time was convinced he had found Vilcabamba.Incredibly he didn't linger, taking only basic measurements as he had no formal archeological training.He left soon after though he returned in 1912 and again in 1915 with the support of the National Geographic Society to continue excavation and later published his findings in his book " The Lost Cities of the Incas".The publication made him famous and pushed Peru and Machu Picchu to the front of every adventurous travelers wishlist.

And there they stayed.To this day, Machu Picchu is Peru's number one tourist attraction and the acknowledged highpoint of the Gringo Trail.Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 along with Cuzco, its allure has only increased since its 'discovery' in 1911 (there are disputes over whether Bingham was actually the first to find it).In 2003 it attracted a record 400,000 visitors keen to walk in the footsteps of the Incas and there are no signs these numbers are dropping off.To limit damage to the site numbers are strictly controlled and visas to walk the Inca Trail are restricted to 500 per day, including guides and porters.Our visas had been booked months before and we were finally packed, paid up and ready to go.

Except that we weren't.My sudden fever the previous day hadn't abated at all during the night.If anything, it had intensified.I dragged myself out of bed at 5am and had serious doubts over my ability to walk to the front door, let alone hike the Inca Trail.I sucked it up and jumped into our transport driven by our guide, Jimmy (who swears he's no Irish in him) and drove the hour and a half journey to Ollantaytambo where we picked up some last minute supplies and the porters and cook.We drove on to the real start of the Trail, an area known as Kilometre 82.By this stage I was feeling a bit better after washing down antibiotics with some coca tea.

We had our passports and visas verified in the registration office while our porters went to check in the gear.Due to some unscrupulous companies overloading their staff in recent years, all porters are now legally required to weigh in their loads, 20 kgs being the individual limit.We crossed the raging Urubamba river on a short suspension bridge and climbed up some steep, rocky steps.We were now officially on the Inca Trail!The weather was hot and humid and the sun scorched our backs as we climbed steadily upward through thickets of dried cactii.The path Bingham had taken to reach Machu Picchu years before was no longer used; instead it was the grounds for a railway line that connected Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, the small town nearest the ruins.The first class train that carried rich tourists direct to Machu Picchu was named in his honour and even now it blasted out steam as it thundered past us on the far side of the valley.Normally we'd be taking this same route back but due to the proposed rail strike this was looking unlikely.

The classic Inca Trail covers a distance of 33kms from its beginning at KM82 to its final destination of Machu Picchu.The path follows a winding and circuitous route that climbs steeply up forested mountains, over clouded passes, through deep valleys and along cool riverbeds.Every step is an unforgettable experience among some of the finest scenery Peru has to offer.Along the way are numerous lesser known ruins that would be world class attractions anywhere else, but here are merely interesting preludes to the 'lost city'.Each night we would camp at pre designated spots along the trail, in tents set up for us beforehand by our accomodating porters, whilst our talented cook would prepare delicious spreads at every mealtime.It seemed ideal.

As we walked our guide Jimmy explained a bit about the history of the Incas.He was an excellent guide, spoke perfect English and had a good sense of humour.Every now and then porters from other companies would jog past us, overburdened with enormous baggage and sweating in the dry heat.It looked like a tough job and I didn't envy them.We stopped for lunch after a few hours hiking and enjoyed a three course prepared with professional efficiency.Moving on we picked out the first of the Inca ruins, Llactapata; an ancient stone city built right into the back of a mountain on the far side of the valley.Its an impressive first display of the well constructed stone terraces the Inca are famous for, simultaneously providing arable land in a mountainous region aswell as acting as an natural defense.The ruins seemto be in amazingly good repair, even from this distance.

I wasn't able to admire them too long however.By this stage I was beginning to feel seriously run down.The antibiotics had worn off long ago and I was definitely struggling.As the day wore on I became progressively weaker and by the time we reached camp I was completely and utterly exhausted.I slept right through the night and by morning it was clear I was in no fit shape to continue.Reluctantly we made the decision to go back in order to get me to a doctor.We pushed on back that way we'd just come, me stumbling along among the rocky trail and finding it harder and harder to continue in the burning sun.At one stage we considered hiring horses from the locals to carry me down.We made it back, eventually, though it took every last ounce of energy I had.Later in Cuzco I'd learn I had a serious case of salmonella aswell as being infected with Giardia parasites, a real nasty combination.

We reached civilisation in the form of Ollantaytambo and scoured around for a doctor, but this being sunday there was none available.Janelle went off to acquire drugs of any sort, while I checked into the nearest available hostel and crawled straight into bed.Luckily by that evening I was feeling marginally better and we decided to risk the train ride straight to Machu Picchu, seeing as hiking the Inca Trail was out.We still had our passes and damn it if we weren't going to use them!Fortune smiled on us and we managed to procure some of the last remaining train tickets for the next morning, although they cost us the proverbial arm and a leg.At this stage though, we probably would have paid any amount.To come to Peru and NOT see its most famous site was simply out of the question!

We left the next morning on the 6.45am train.The sun was bright, the weather was clear and I was feeling relatively energetic.The train ride was surprisingly pleasant, with onboard service and a semi transparent roof to provide better views of the valley.The line runs straight through several tunnels carved straight out of the rock and follows the Urubamba river closely for most of the journey.Several terraced ruins built into the valley walls were visible along the way providing some entertainment.Pulling into the station at Aguas Calientes, we hopped off and rushed to the queue for the minibuses that take you up the steep road to Machu Picchu.Our last minute tickets meant that we'd have to return sooner than we would've liked, so we had only four or so hours to enjoy the experience.We climbed into the packed minibus with all the other lazy tourists and set off.

Arriving at the top of the steep dirt road that leads to Machu Picchu is akin to going to Disneyland or the World Cup.The excitement at being near such a mystical and world famous site is tangible.We pulled into the small parking lot and leaped off the bus in our enthusiasm, ignoring the theme park atmosphere outsite and rushed through the gates.The drive up had teased us with maddening glimpses yet it was only once at the top could we truly appreciate the incredible scenery of such a location.Even if these Inca ruins had not been present the view alone surely would have generated visitors by the truckload.Surrounded by heavily forested mountains on every side and shrouded in a near constant veil of mist, the ridge that supports Machu Picchu looks like some celestial place of worship (and may well be).The Incas could hardly have chosen a more appropriate setting.

Pictures don't do it justice and words can barely begin to describe it (though I'll try regardless).Beautiful is too lame.Breathtaking too obvious.Awe inspiring barely covers it.Majestic.Monumental.Stunning.Sublime.All these adjectives taken together and blended to create the ultimate accolade might give you an idea.Despite the overwhelming feeling of deja vu, Machu Picchu delivers on every level.It isn't just another humdrum ruin to visit and tick off your list.Nor is it a sight meant to be rushed with barely a cursory photograph.It is an experience to savour, a world wonder to behold.Just gazing upon the splendor of such a sight is enough to send you into a state of deep contemplation of the type of world that was, and is, possible.Staring over the precipice into the valley below you can just imagine the Incas who once lived out their lives here, convinced they shared the same hallowed space as the deities they worshipped.It is almost enough to turn one religous.

Built sometime around 1460 AD, Machu Picchu stands at an altitude of 2,430 metres in the Urubamba valley.Some 80 kilometres northwest of Cuzco, its name in the Inca language of Quechua (which is still spoken in parts of Peru) roughly translates as 'Old Peak'.Officially discovered in 1911 by Bingham, it was one of the few Inca settlements of any size that was never sacked by the Spanish and is thus still in excellent condition.Since its discovery its exact purpose has been the subject of academic debate and at various stages it has been described as a defensive fort, a religious centre, a prison, an astonomical device and an estate of an Incan Emperor Pachacuti, the latter being the most widely held belief today.It is likely it served more than just one purpose however.It occupies a position of natural defense and is served by the numerous terraces that the Incas used to grow crops on.

Machu Picchu is comprised of many stone buildings in classic Inca style architecture.The Incas were justifiably regarded as being master stonemasons (even by the invading Spanish) and used a style of building that fit cut stone blocks together in tightly fitting patterns without the need for mortar.Their mastery was such that their buildings survived earthquakes intact while Spanish built dwellings would crumble.This would seem to be one of the main reasons for the remarkable condition of Machu Picchu as Bingham found it.As they had yet to discover the arch they used a trapezoidal shape when constructing windows, a hallmark of their unique style.The Incas were also masters of irrigation and used ingenious stone channels to ferry water from local springs, many of which are still in working order.

As a settlement, Machu Picchu was divided into three main zones; Sacred District, the Popular District to the south, and the District of the Priests and the Nobility.The Sacred District contains the most impressive archeological sites.The Intihuatana stone was an important astronomical device that pointed directly at the sun during the winter solstice and allowed for precise calenderial measurements - an essential method for anticipating the seasons in a society that depended greatly on agriculture.The Temple of the Sun, used to worship the sun god, Inti, is a curved, tapering tower that contains some impressive stonework while the Temple of the Three Windows gives a splendid view over the main plaza below.There is also a huge rock that is carved in the likeness of a condors head, with the natural rock behind it resembling the bird's outstretched wings, apparently the site of occasional sacrifice.

Wandering around the stone buildings and temples of Machu Picchu is an overwhelming experience that is not spoiled one bit by the crowds of tourists.It is spread over such a wide area in such a unique setting that it is easy to find yourself alone among the many ruins and still enjoy the relative silence.Climbing up the steep steps to a lone thatched hut we caught our breath and stood in awe at the scene before us; the view that every single photographer simply has to capture and the one that is found in 90% of all postcards.An exquisite panoramic of the ruins, with the remarkably green plaza in centre surrounded by the stone huts, temples and stairways that climb off in every direction, with terraces on either side that just fall away into the abyss, all backed by the sheer green precipice of Wayna Picchu, itself covered in wisps of cloud.We dutifully took our own pics and continued on down into the ruins themselves, eavesdropping on the guides of other groups for lack of our own.

Before too long however, our time was up.Our train was due to leave soon and we had no choice but to leave with it.In all honesty I wasn't too pushed about leaving early as my fever was beginning to reassert itself and my energy levels were flagging.We took one last lingering look, bade our farewells and made our way back to Aguas Calientes.From there we hopped on the train and were soon in Ollantaytambo, where we caught a taxi that took us back to Cuzco.We may have missed the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hiking the Inca Trail, but seeing Machu Picchu with our own eyes was recompense enough.I'll take the memory of that any day.

Posted by Janelle_B 13:15 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Cuzco

Trying times in Peru

sunny -17 °C

SANY1392.jpgWith the experience of the Death Road still fresh in our minds we packed up and once more hit the road.Our destination was Peru, arguably the most popular country in South America for a myriad of reasons and the assured highlight of our entire trip.It is a travellers paradise that caters to every impulse within a landscape that is as varied as any in South America.From roaming the dessicated deserts of Nazca in search of its famous petroglyphs to hiking in the canyon country that is Arequipa; enjoying the many cosmopolitan delights of capital Lima to revelling in the sheer sublime beauty of Lake Titicaca; to climbing in the sheer mountain ranges of the Cordilleras or boating lazily downriver in the lowlands of the Peruvian Amazon; Peru really has it all.Nowhere in South America will you find such a diversity of landscapes, people or activities.
But it is its ancient capital of Cuzco that draws visitors first and foremost.Cuzco had been the seat of ancient Incan rule up until its sacking during the Spanish conquest and still contains many relics of its bloody and tumultuous history.These alone would have made Cuzco a must see for any self respecting backpacker but there is one reason above all that guarantees it an essential place on the Gringo Trail checklist: its proximity to Machu Picchu.The 'lost' city of the Incas and one of the most famous and well preserved archeological sites in the world.For many tourists a chance to wander among its many ruined buildings in such a famously scenic setting is reason enough to come to Peru. Every Gringo worth his salt was either setting off to see it or just getting back.
We, of course, were only setting out.La Paz, Bolivia to Cuzco, Peru is about a 14 hour bus ride but we were making a quick stopover in the large town of Puno, itself a popular backpacker destination.Its position on the main highway to Cuzco ensures it receives its fair share of visitors but Puno's popularity mainly stems from its setting on picturesque Lake Titicaca.At an altitude of 3,812 m Titicaca is South America's highest navigable lake and with an area of 8,372 km2 is also its largest.The lake is shared almost equally between Bolivia and Peru and can be visited from either side of the border, Puno being the preferred point of entry from the Peruvian side.
The reason for this are the incredible floating reed islands of Uros.The high point of any trip to Titicaca, these artificial islands are woven together from the totora reeds that grow in abundance in the lakes waters.The people who live there have done so for hundreds of years and originally built them as an original method of defense.Now they let the public come over and marvel at their unique way of life in exchange for small gifts of fruits and bread.Most of the tours to the islands leave from Puno and we planned to make a quick day trip to see them on the way to our eventual destination of Cuzco.
And so we left La Paz in high spirits, bidding a fond farewell to the lofty capital that had unexpectedly become our favourite city so far.The bus took us over some impressively high and rugged terrain and before too long we reached the border crossing at Desaguadero.After some confusing border formalities we finally had our passports stamped and entered the country.We were now in Peru!We found our connecting bus amidst the chaos and after another few hours reached Puno in late afternoon.During the journey we'd learned of an ongoing national dispute between farmers and the government that effectively closed the roads from Puno to Cuzco.It seems the government were trying to introduce reforms that would charge farmers for the water necessary for crop irrigation.The farmers were up in arms and reacted by erecting blockades on available routes to Cuzco and other major cities in the hope they could force a change of policy.This sort of thing went on all the time in Peru apparently.
This was bad news for us; we had no choice but to in Cuzco by that weekend.The world famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hiked by thousands each year is limited to 500 people per day, including guides and porters.This is done in an effort to maintain the Trail and not to let it become too overrun.What this translates to is that each hiker has to book his or her place on the Trail by way of a visa months in advance.We had booked ours before leaving Ireland and our start date was rapidly appraching.Miss it and we would lose our only chance to hike on one of the most famous trails on the planet, a trek that was said to be as impressive as its final destination.And since we'd already paid the expensive fee this was clearly not an option!
We quickly made a decision; skip Puno and Titicaca for now and head straight to Cuzco if possible.We'd be returning this way later anyhow and the priority was obviously seeing Cuzco and Machu Picchu.We checked every bus counter in the terminal before eventually finding one that sold us tickets.It was for a bus that night and due to the blockades it'd be taking a long circuitous route through the mountains that effectively doubled the journey time.However, we had second thoughts when I happened to read a horrific account of a bus accident that had occurrred only days before.A night bus traveling from Cuzco to Puno had veered off the road and crashed when the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.More than thirty people had been seriously injured and a young German backpacker had been killed.The article concluded with a severe warning against traveling at night when these sorts of incidents were more likely to occur.
Bus crashes in Peru are unfortunately not rare.In fact, they're very much a fact of life here and we'd already heard plenty of the horror stories.In a panic we cancelled our tickets and made arrangements for the next morning instead.After a fitful nights sleep we found our way back to the terminal and boarded our coach, very appreciative of the fact that we'd be travelling by day.Our coach took a winding path through small rural villages and over sparse mountain fields on a road that had long since ceased being paved.The journey was slow, boring and uncomfortable, with no tv or meal service, but we settled back into our seats just happy to on our way.
Just as we were enjoying a spectacular view of a lake filled mountain valley the coach shuddered to a stop.A huge tailback was right in front of us and from the look of it had been there some time.We got out and learned that the bridge ahead was blocked off and there was no way through.We spent a good two hours waiting around in frustration until the farmers finally relented and backed off.The road was cleared and the traffic started back up and continued on, only to be foiled once again by a much larger bridge that wasn't blocked off but completely burnt out!By this stage the Peruvian Army had come in to assist and erected a makeshift bridge that enabled vehicles to safely, but slowly, cross over.The scene was like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie, all spotlights and chaos!We waited another couple of hours for our coach to get its turn and by the time we were back on board the sun had well and truly set.We drove through the night and arrived in Cuzco well after 2 in the morning, waking our hostel manager up only to find out he had no record of our booking.After the long and tiring day we had just endured this didn't surprise us in the least but we convinced him to give us a room all the same.The traverse may have taken us more than 14 hours but we'd finally, thankfully, made it to Cuzco.
Cuzco was the capital of the once mighty Inca empire that ruled over much of Peru and even as far north as Ecuador and as far south as Bolivia and parts of Chile.Inspired by Cortez's recent success in Mexico, a Spanish expedition led by the tenacious Francisco Pizarro struck forth into the southern recesses of the Americas in search of fame and fortune.Their arrival happened to coincide with a civil war between the sons of the previous Incan Emperor, Huayna Capac, who were fighting for his title after his untimely death.Pizarro's small expedition took advantage of this state of civil unrest to penetrate deep inland where they were amazed by the Inca's advanced engineering skills they encountered, particulary their methods of crop irrigatation and their obvious mastery of stonemasonry.From interrogating the locals that they came across, the Spanish learned of the existence of the newly crowned Atahualpa and of his whereabouts in Cajamarca.Making contact with a messanger from the Inca, they arranged to meet in the town square.The Emperor arrived with some 7,000 unarmed soldiers in contrast to the 170 men that comprised the Spanish troop.In an audacious move probably brought about by sheer panic, the Spanish attacked and slaughtered many thousands of the Inca's soldiers before they could properly react and captured the Emperor.This unlikely outcome was due in part to the Spaniards' superior weaponry, including guns and cannons, near impenetrable armour and mounted horsemen (which the natives had never encountered before).
Holding the Emperor ransom the Spanish demanded unreasonable amounts of gold and silver, much of which was stripped from temples in the capital of Cuzco, some thousand miles away.Once the ransom was paid however, the Spanish saw Atahulapa as a dangerous liability and had him unceremoniously executed.They then marched on Cuzco, enlisting the service of Atahuapla's enemies and in a series of battles, took the city in 1533.Despite several spirited rebellions over the years, the Inca's never reclaimed their capital and with it, they lost their power and ultimately their way of life.Over the following years the Spanish systematically set about destroying any remnants of the Incan Empire, including any vestiges of their religion, which focused on worship of the sun god, Inti.Their conquest of Cuzco and eventually Peru virtually eradicated an entire Empire in less than a hundred years.
We put the lengthy journey behind us and spent the next day or two taking it easy and seeing the sights.Cuzco is quite a magnificent city to behold, once you ignore the constant hassle from the street vendors who throng the sidewalks.When Francisco Pizarro arrived he was stunned by the beauty and splendor all around him and wrote to the King that "it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain".
Cuzco's history and charm is such that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.Its archictecture is a bold mixture of Spanish style churches and narrow Incan streets that wind up into the hills surrounding it.The historic Plaza de Armas is the city's heart and its' picturesque setting is the home to the imposing Spanish built cathedral that dominates the area, while cafes and restaurants litter the remaining sides of the plaza.The cathedral was built on the site of an older Incan palace using blocks from nearby temples and forts.Much of the city was rebuilt by the Spanish in the same way, destroying in the process much of the original buildings although there are still some examples of the fine Incan stonework that remain intact, particulary the hugely impressive Inca walls along Loreta.We wandered through the narrow streets and up the many steep hills enjoying the sights; llamas being paraded around by girls in traditional costume; the artisans and painters working in the open air by their shopfronts; the many hidden niches that contain stall after stall selling the finest llama wool and ironic Peru T-shirts.Sure, its touristy, but its exciting nonetheless and we loved every minute of it.
Apart from the magnificent cathedral in the main square, Cuzco also boasts a wide array of historical buildings and museums that demand a visit.Among these are the Spanish built churches, including the adobe style Iglesia de San Blas whose pulpit is an astounding display of superior woodcarving; its creator's skull is said to reside in the top part.The museo Inka has great examples of Incan metal and gold work, pottery, textiles, mummies and more.They have a great replica of a Incan burial site complete with grisly bones and skulls that is more than a little creepy.
Also worth a view is the museo de Arte Religioso which contains an extensive collection of period paintings and fantastic woodcarvings from the colonial era, showcasing in particular the style of the Spanish conquistadors.
Our time spent exploring the city was pleasant enough, but, like every other Gringo that crowded into Cuzco, we had come primarily to see Machu Picchu and its a fact the locals are well aware of.Every second doorway you pass is draped in colourful advertisements for the Inca Trail while outside on the streets sellers push leaflets into your hands.But while the trip to Machu Picchu is the main event there are many other activities to spend your money on in and around the city.Rafting, mountain biking, horse riding and paragliding are all on offer while the surrounding countryside contains some splendid ruins that are also well worth visiting.We hired a taxi for the day to take us to the nearest few which included the sprawling fortess of Saqsaywaman (pronounced 'sexy woman'), an amazing example of the Inca's mastery of stonework with colossal walls made from gigantic interlocking stones.We also visited Q'enqo (zigzag) a large limestone rock riddled with niches and caves; Tambomachay, a ceremonial stone bath that still channels clear spring water; and Pukapukara, a commanding ruin with spectacular panoramic views of the valley.
As entertaining as these sights were we were eager to begin the trek.We'd met with the company rep that day to finalise the itinerary and pay off the remaining costs when she informed us apologetically that there was a small problem.While the Inca Trail is a tough four day hike from its starting point the return journey is a relaxing train ride from the small mountain town of Aguas Calientes (the town nearest MP) in the Sacred Valley back to Cuzco.This is included in the cost of the trek but yet again the Peruvians had scuppered our plans.Peru Rail, the company responsible for all rail travel in the country had just announced a strike in support of the farmers and it was due to start the day of our return.Typical!We discussed options and concluded the only choice was to go ahead with the trek and hope our guide could arrange some transport for the return.A little disheartened, we returned to our hostel to pack whereupon I began to feel suddenly feverish.Cursing my luck and my weakened immune system I popped some pills and crawled into bed to sweat it out, praying I'd have enough energy to begin the Inca Trail the next day.
Despite its charm and allure, Peru, I decided, was beginning to seriously piss me off.

Posted by Janelle_B 10:57 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Death Road

Biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road

all seasons in one day

Death_Road-Bolivia.jpgAfter all my concern regarding our journey back to La Paz it turned out to be quite a normal pleasant flight.Janelle for once seemed at ease and I was beginning to hope her fear of flying was going to become less of a problem from now on.We landed at El Alto airport in the late afternoon and quickly caught a cab back to the same downtown hostel we had stayed at prior to leaving for Rurrenabaque.It had only been a few short days but the culture shock of being back in the bustling and vibrant capital was still quite unexpected.Plus the rapid ascension from sea level to 3,660 metres was starting to have some noticeable side effects, at least in me anyway.I figured that having become acclimatised some three weeks before would somehow make me immune to it but apparently this was not the case.I soon began feeling dizzy and lightheaded with some nasuea thrown in for good measure and spent the next day or two confined to my bed eating little but toast and fruits.We had already fallen behind in our tightly planned schedule and this was certainly not helping.But, like so many other things there was nothing to do but ride it out.
Luckily I improved around the third day and we made the decision to stay one last day in La Paz in order to do the Death Road, a decision I was very pleased with as we came close to skipping it in order to regain some of the time we had lost.Ever since I'd read about it in the Lonely Planet back in Ireland I'd been determined to do it.But it was not my will that was in question unfortunately.Janelle had steadfastly refused to even entertain the idea once I had explained it to her (and in a lot of ways I couldn't blame her).The name alone put her off and ever since Brazil whenever I brought the subject up it had been quickly dismissed.
You see the Death Road is exactly that.From a geographical standpoint it is known as the North Yungas or Coroico Road, but the locals know it by a more sinister name: El Camino de la Muerte.It is a 68 km stretch of mountainous gravel road that runs from La Paz to a town called Coroico in the northeast and connects Bolivia's capital to the country's lower region of rainforest.Built in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners it is legendary for its extreme danger and earned the notorious title of the World's Most Dangerous Road from the inter American Bank in 1995, when estimates for annual fatalities exceeded 250.
There are many reasons for its absurdly high death rate.The mainly gravel road is carved into the mountainside in an area of high rainforest where rain and fog frequently combine to produce extremely poor visibility and dangerously low traction.The road's widest point is just over three metres across though is often considerably narrower and there is not one single guard rail along its' entire length protecting traffic from plunging the 600 metres over the side.Rockfalls from the hills above are a common occurrence and the numerous waterfalls that drop directly onto the roads pathway makes for a driving experience more akin to an obstacle course than a government highway.Buses and trucks have made up the majority of the unfortunate victims over the years.In 1983 a bus veered off the Yungas Road into a canyon, killing the more than 100 passengers aboard in what is said to be Bolivia's worst road accident.Accidents like this are a tragically common occurence and yet the Bolivian campesionos continue to use the road in an effort to get to and from La Paz cheaply, despite the fact that a newer, slightly safer road has opened in recent years.
Despite of (or more likely, because of) all this, many agencies in La Paz have opened their doors with the sole intention of biking down this treacherous road for the express pleasure of thrill seeking backpackers.In fact there's a whole industry in La Paz that caters to it.The very real risk inherent in such an activity drew me to it as much as it horrorfied Janelle.I had my hands full convincing her but in the end I shamefully resorted to guilting her into it by reminding her how we 'lost' three days in San Pedro due to her overreaction to altitude sickness.She had eventually relented and we'd booked it just before leaving for Rurrenabaque.Now that we were back in La Paz it was time to put our skills (and courage) to the test.
We met our guides and the other adrenaline junkies at a cafe the next morning.After breakfast we piled into a less than reliable looking tourbus whose loudspeakers were blaring out heavy metal.The company we'd booked with, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, were one of the more reputable of those offering treks.Since the Road had become a fully fledged tourist traps some years before there had been an inevitable number of fatalities among those looking for something a bit more riskier than skydiving or bungee jumping.Some thirteen official deaths had been recorded since 1998 though the number was likely higher.Our company had had only one fatality in their ten years which went some way toward reassuring us.Our guides were all professional or semi professional mountain bikers with years of experience between them.They were all dyed spiked hair and neon biker shorts but they were also a good bunch who obviously took their responsibilities seriously.The instructor assigned to us was a blonde Swede named Chris whose dubious claim to fame was that he went over the edge of the Death Road his first time down it and lived to tell the tale.Impressive!
We set off and reached the starting point about an hour later, a snowy pass between two rocky mountains known as Le Cumbre.At 4,800 metres it was nearly five kilometres above sea level; a kilometre above La Paz and roughly the same height as Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest mountain.At this altitude even light pedalling took the breath away.The guides unloaded the bikes from the tourbus and inspected them as we wrapped up in protective
clothing: gloves, helmets, weather proof pants, reflective vests and goggles.We were also each given a refillable canteen that attached to the back of our vest.The bikes were all state of the art porfessional models with high quality frames, tires, shocks and brakes.Each one cost the equivalent of $2,500 USD.Once suitably attired we were given our bikes and shown how to use them.How to brake properly using both front and back simultaneously to prevent skidding and also being thrown.How to turn into the corners in order to maximise traction.And how to position ourselves on the bike according to how fast we wanted to go.As over 90% of the Road is downhill we wouldn't be pedalling too much and would hopefully be able to concentrate solely on not going over the edge.
Just before we left Chris had us arrange in a semi circle around him as he did one last safety briefing.He first introduced us to his 19 and a 1/2 inch Pink Stiffy (his bike) before he explained in detail what to expect.The 68kms was divided into several sections and we would stop after each one to ensure everyone was doing okay and to do another briefing before we tackled the next part.To pacify the mountain spirits the Bolivians traditionally spilt blood from livestock but we made do with alcohol and christened the front tire of our bikes before having a swig ourselves.We then set off in single file, every biker giving the proceeding one a wide berth in case of crashes.There was one guide in front and one in back, all followed by the tourbus that was acting as a support vehicle in the event of an emergency.This was it!
The air at this altitude was cold, bitter and thin.The wind immediately began to assault us as we picked up speed, whipping around any loose clothing and biting into any parts of our face that wasn't covered.The first section or two was on solid tarmac, a nice easy start.The snow capped mountains in the distance looked on impassively as we wheeled along, everyone getting used to the feel of their bikes and the ground beneath them.As Bolivians drive on the right (like most South American countries) we were on the side closest to the edge and had a good view of the drop hundreds of feet below us.I was concentrating a bit too much on the scenery when a car roared right by me nearly knocking me off my bike.I had momentarily forgotten that while it may seem at times that we have the road to ourselves it is still in full use by hundreds of motorists every day.I decided to be a bit more attentive after that.
We soon stopped at a rocky ridge where there was a spectacular view of the road ahead as it snaked downwards into the distant mist.Chris checked everyone was settling in okay and gave a few more pieces of advice before we set off again.I was starting to warm to my bike, but otherwise the rest of my body was getting cold.Janelle was directly in front of me so my pace was determined by how fast or slow she felt safe going.And she was definitely not rushing anything, though I of course couldn't blame her for that.We passed through the first section or two with no problems whatsoever.We stopped at a drug checkpoint where there we were just waved through and continued on through tunnels cut directly through the mountain.I was starting to really enjoy myself when we came to another halt where half the bikers had already dismounted and were standing around Chris who was talking intently.Turns out we'd reached the one section of the Road that is uphill.Chris explained that most people preferred to secure their bikes on the roof of the bus while they rode inside but that if anyone was keen they could push ahead with him.Janelle was already on the bus when I decided, in an act of regrettable lunacy, that I could handle the hills ahead.
The few of us who decided to continue took off layers of clothing on Chris' advice and filled our canteens while the remaining blkers settled comfortably on the bus.Chris pushed off first followed by a couple of other bikers who, I later discovered, were ardent mountian bikers themselves.I was left behind with two others who, like me, were complete novices at this sort of thing but who were determined to test themselves regardless.The road instantly became steeper and we all switched up to the higher gears.Of the Road's 64km length, 8kms of it were uphill though I was (needless to say) unaware of this at the time.The air in my lungs began to burn with a fierce intensity and my legs pumped harder and harder.I broke out in a heavy sweat which further chilled me in the high misty air.Fortunately though each uphill had a corresponding downhill where we'd get our breath back and coast down.At this stage Chris and the two others had long since disappeared and the three of us left struggled to keep going, the bus driving patiently behind us all the while.
The air at this altitude, which was about 3,500 now was still quite thin and made it extrememley difficult to pedal on level ground let alone up steep inclines.And considering that I had only recently recovered from a bout of altitude sickness myself I was starting to seriously reconsider my decision.The driver of the bus had made it clear that we could stop at any time and get back on but so far I had resisted the temptation.Until, that is, we crested another hill and saw the largest one yet up ahead.I fell of my bike, breathing furiously and sweating copiously despite the cold.No more!I'm done!!The driver had seen me dismount and had pulled the bus over and opened the door.The guide who had stayed with us frantically encouraged me on, promising us that this hill was the final one and that we were nearly there.So be it.I lifted my bike up off the ground, climbed on and put both feet back on the pedals.That last hill was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life!Each inch was a struggle and every breath was my last.But I finally, painfully made it to the top.And what did I see but more hills up ahead, many more.That sneaky Bolivian!Cursing his ancestry I kept going, the adrenaline from cresting the hill propelling me onwards.
Just at that moment the dark clouds overhead that had been threatening to break all day finally opened up in a downpour worthy of rainforests everywhere.We were all soaked through instantly.We grudgingly kept cycling, our actions no longer fully conscious but the result of a stubborness that knew no relief.Until eventually we spotted, far up ahead the outlines of Chris and the others leaning on their bikes and shivering in the rain.We fell off our bikes and into the bus, greeted by a round of applause from those who had stayed behind.It felt like we'd reached the end when it reality it was only the beginning.
The end of the uphill section also marked the beginning of the Death Road for real.The smooth tarmac we had been on all morning gave way to rough stony gravel which at this stage was already dangerously slippery.Any guidebook will tell you that The Death Road is only advisable in dry weather and that to attempt it in anything else was suicide.In fact they specifically warned against booking with agencies that brought backpackers out in the wet season.
While it was still technically the dry season this was the rainforest after all and getting wet was just a fact of life here.Chris gathered us around for another briefing, one that was much more sombre and serious than the others.He repeated his earlier warnings about the very real risk the Road posed, although this time he threw in some more unsettling facts to illustrate his point.In the event of a serious emergency the nearest hospital was in La Paz, some three hours away.They only responded to call outs in person and with cash payment up front.No phone calls, no credit.Helicopters were generally useless because of the mountainous terrain and the near constant mist.He then told us in a matter of fact tone the story of the single fatality the company had ever had, a French girl who had dismounted on the wrong side of her bike and had slipped hundreds of feet over the edge.She had fallen too far for ropes to reach her and lay screaming in agony as the group above could do nothing but wait for help to arrive.She died just as the ambulance got there, too little too late.
Suitably horrorfied and with the story still ringing in our ears we set off once again, the mist thick enough now to shroud the person ahead of you completely.The rain had settled to a fine drizzle and everyone was going slow.Suddenly the trail we were on opened up completely and the left side of the track just fell away in a white blanket of fog.Maybe it was just as well we couldn't see how high up we were.One last thing about the Death Road; while Bolivians generally drive on the right (which would keep us safely on the inside wall of the mountain) the rules for the Death Road were a bit different and it was the traffic coming UP the hill that had right of way.Which meant that for the entire journey down we'd be required by law to keep to the left, right at the mountain's edge!This seemed to me just one thing too far!
As we continued on we broke through the fog and the entire vista suddenly became visible to us for the first time.The road we were on was a combination of muddy soil and stony gravel and was pitted with deep rivulets that had formed over the years.The view on our left however was nothing short of spectacular; distant mountains loomed large in the mist, their entire surfaces covered with a thick layer of flourishing green trees and ferns while dark luminous clouds still gathered on the horizon.Ahead of us the road meandered ever down into the distance and contained a dizzying array of sharp turns and bends.Up ahead a small waterfall cascaded directly onto our path and would have seemed scenic had we not had to ride straight through it.But it was to the very edge of the road where our gazes were collectively drawn; the sheer drop into the green wilderness far below was now terriflyingly visible to us and in some ways I think I preferred it when we couldn't see it.
But we didn't have time to admire the view, perfect as it was.Each of us was busy concentrating on the piece of road directly ahead of us.We splashed through the waterfall in an instant, the freezing water finding its way down my back though truth be told I was still wet from the earlier soaking.The road became just the few feet directly in front of my front tire as I negotiated around rocks and over bumps, my fingers constantly pumping the brakes.My hands were starting to go numb through the gloves and I was finding it hard to maintain a decent grip.And to top it off the bike's suspension was taking an almighty pounding from the rocky terrain, so much so that I was painfully bouncing around on my saddle ever since we'd left the safety of the tarmac.
To my relief we stopped for lunch soon after.Chris and the other guide passed around pre wrapped sandwiches and soft drinks as the rest of us shared jokes and nervous laughter.The biking hadn't seemed too difficult but you could easily see how a moments loss of concentration or a mechanical failure could cost you your life.We had passed by numerous black crosses dug firmly into the edge of the road, each one marking the spot where some unlucky soul or another had lost their life.They were a constant reminder to remain alert, if one was needed.Chris was giving us some more advice on the next section as I was rubbing the feeling back into my numb fingers.Apparently there were some rocky outcrops up ahead that jutted out into the road and failing to spot one in time could shatter your shoulder and/or send you flying.Death wasn't the only thing to worry about up here it seemed; broken femurs, busted knees, shattered shoulder blades, torn cheeks.....Chris had unfortunately seen them all and he warned us again to remain cautious.
We set off once we'd eaten our fill, the ground becoming even rougher the further down we went.The mist and rain had dried up at this stage though the road remained slick.Most of us were becoming increasingly familiar with our bikes and had speeded up and were really starting to enjoy the biking, even pulling wheelies and skids.I took out my small camcorder at one stage to record some footage though it proved next to impossible to ride with one hand (not to mention dangerously stupid).The distances between the riders had increased substantially and at times it could feel like you were all alone up here.The longer we rode the more confident we became, but this was something we had been warned about.In reality we were only getting more and more tired and hence more liable to make a fatal mistake.The most dangerous part of the road wasn't particulary narrow or trickier than any other section, it just happened to be at a point where exhaustion kicked in and bikers let their concentration ebb.All it took was one small mistake and you'd fly over the edge.It was that simple.We had been biking for some four or five hours now and tiredness was beginning to set in.This was when we had to be the most vigilant.
We continued on through another two sections with no problems.The distant sun was lowering on the horizon and I prayed that the end was near.We were all tired, nearing that potentially fatal stage of exhaustion.It struck me suddenly that we hadn't run into any vehicles coming up the road and how strange that was.Chris seemed to think so too, though he seemed to take it as a good omen.He shared with us another of his colourful stories to illustrate a point about a tricky part of the road that lay ahead.There was a large rockpile just after a tight turn and you had to approach it very carefully.A cocky English biker had been riding far too fast when he reached this particular bit and slammed on his brakes too hard.He flipped over his bike's handlebars landing on the rough gravel and, as Chris put it so succinctly, "tore himself a new arsehole!'We all immediately slowed right down.
Finally, when it seemed we were all running on pure adrenaline and nothing else we reached the last obstacle, a freezing river that flowed directly over the path of the road and dropped down into the valley below.It wasn't particularly swift but it was a few feet deep and we had to build up a fair burst of speed before we could splash through it.Everyone got soaked, from their shoes right up to their shins.Luckily we could now see that the ending was in sight and upped our speed, spurred on by thoughts of a cold beer and a hot shower.We reached the small ramshackle town of Yolosa not long after and passed through it triumphantly to the gross indifference of the locals.We dropped our expensive bikes unceremoniously in the dirt and pulled off our sweaty dirty clothing, still wet from all the waterfalls, rivers and rain.Throwing them into a pile at the door of the bus we crossed over a small bridge into La Senda Verde, an animal refuge strangely located at the base of the road just before Coroico itself.Everyone collapsed into wooden chairs and with tired arms raised a toast to the Road, the Mountain, its Spirits and anyone else we could think of.Only after one of the monkeys had run off with an empty beer bottle did we find the energy to move.We trudged toward the changing rooms and had steaming hot showers and a change of clothes before being fed heaped plates of pasta from the kitchen.Afterward, those with the energy went off to explore the sanctuary and play with the animals including the monkeys who were notorious for stealing from tired backpackers.We left not long after and fell into our seats on the bus outside.
The bike ride down however only seemed to be half the experience.To me and Janelle the ride back up was far more terrifying.We'd sat at the back beside the window and had a birds eye view of the perilous drop directly below us.At times the road seemed to just disappear altogether and you could see right down the tumbling cliffside into the valley below.The bus shook and jerked with every turn and the gears squealed as the driver negotiated his way up the tricky inclines.It was far too apparent how dangerous this still was; at least biking down it we'd been too engrossed in staying on the path to let the fear really sink in.But on the bus with our lives in the hands of a small casual Bolivian at the wheel it was all too real.But, there was nothing for it but to sit back and hope he knew what he was doing and to trust in whatever gods you believed in.We made it back safely of course despite the crazy Bolivian at the wheel.You'd have to be crazy to do a job like that day in day out.It had been an exciting, exhilarating ride, one which we both thoroughly enjoyed despite the danger and would do again in an instant.We'd survived the World's Most Dangerous Road.Now all we had to do was survive getting to Peru.

Posted by Janelle_B 15:26 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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