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Machu Picchu Basecamp, Inka Tours Campsite, Santa TeresaWednesday, 9th of May, after a sleepless night, listening to the kindergarten crowd shouting along to Gangnam Style, La Macarena and various blaring popular banalities, I emerged when the sun began to warm my tent to find a deserted campsite with the staff packing away the tents. Presumably, the hikers were now nursing a hangover through the Sacred Valley, Gangnam Style.

Today was the day to head to Machu Picchu. I had wanted to bike to Hydro Electrica where I could walk along the tracks. Two issues held me back. One: find a safe place for the bike with my worldly belongings packed on it. Two: packing everything away again. So I decided to leave the tent and bike where it was and walk the 10 Km to Hydro Electrica and maybe get the train from there.

Collectivo bus from Santa Teresa to Hydro ElectricaI packed the basics in the rucksack and stepped out of the campsite to follow the road that followed the river toward Machu Picchu. A car pulled up next to me and asked where I wanted to go. He wanted S/30, about £8. I declined the offer and the price dropped to S/20. No, I’ll walk. I crossed the river and the sun beat down on the pale shadeless track. After a kilometre, I rested under a solitary tree for a drink of water. Putting the bottle away, I noticed a bus coming round the corner. I watched it approach and stood up as it pulled up next to me. The driver asked “Hydro Electrica?” “Si, quanto es?” Six Soles! Result. I climbed aboard.

The road resembled the narrow track I travelled on to Santa Teresa on yesterday, narrow, dusty and twisty yet not so far above the valley.

Hydro Electrica Railway StationHydro Electrica was not what I expected: something like a mini Hoover dam in Nevada. It’s a car park at the end of a railway siding with a few buildings scattered along the valley and a railway siding lined by cafe and souvenir stalls. I could hear the horn of a train echoing around the mountains, followed five minutes later by the train itself.

Hydro Electrica Railway StationAfter watching the shunting and activity at this make-shift station, I headed down the track ignoring a sign next to a rail side hostel that pointed out a pathway up through the woods to Machu Picchu. I thought it easier along the tracks and continued around the bend following a pair of Swedes until we came to a dead end. It looked as if there had been a landslide some years ago and it was left here abandoned on the tracks.

The main line to Machu PicchuBacktracking the 200 metres or so to the footpath, the ascent through the trees emerged on the main line and I turned left to follow the sign to Machu Picchu. Passing another cafe, Inti Watana the menu caught my eye “Nachos con Guacamole” followed by soup and a main course. S/10 bargain. Not what I expected. Two nachos ‘con’ (being the operative word) guacamole… Still, there was plenty of soup and a decent main course.

Inti Watana Menu, Hydro ElectricaIt was gone 2pm by the time I set off. The 10km walk is reckoned to take 2 hours. It’s not a lonely trek, this one. The walk to Aguas Calientes is a popular one saving $33US each way for a 10km ride. There were a lot of people walking towards me. Presumably the Machu Picchu morning crowd on their way home.

Entrada Nachos con GuacamoleThe heat of the day was tempered by the valley’s forest canopy arching high over the tracks. The railway follows the river round in a horseshoe shape around Machu Picchu which remains invisible from the valley floor. It remains about 3Km away as the line circles it yet constantly out of sight. No wonder the Spaniards didn’t find it.

Vendprs along the Machu Picchu RailwayScattered along the railway are food shacks and vendors, campsites and hostels. Everything you’d expect along a roadside. It’s a bizarre arrangement but it works well to regulate tourism and preserve the site.

Rail Bridge between Hydro Electrica and Aguas CalientesA few trains passed me both ways on the single track. A delicate act of scheduling, I imagine, so as they cross at the very few passing places.

It was gone 5pm by the time I strode up the incline to Aguas Calientes past the surprisingly opulent hotels. The steep mountains enveloping the town seemed to bring on a premature twilight. I was glad of the earlier collectivo bus that stopped to pick me up else it would have been dark a couple of hours before my arrival and my stiff back would have been stiffer.

The road between Machu Picchu and Aguas CalientesI ducked into the first hostel I found to try my luck at finding a dorm. The young receptionist could not understand my Spanish or English but worked out I wanted somewhere to stay the night. Presumably, as I was standing at the reception of a hostel. “S/30?” I agreed and she beckoned me outside, leading me to the main square and up an alley to another hostel, Huillca Wasi. A private room with a view out to the mountains and ensuite. It was more than I hoped for and only about £8 a night.

Huillca Wasi Hostal, Machu PicchuThe girl helped me check in and led me to the bus station kiosk to buy tomorrow’s bus ticket up the hill to Machu Picchu and then to the ticket office to the attraction itself. Walking to Machu Picchu is a 400m scale up rocky stairs, taking about one and a half to two hours. I wanted to be fresh at the site so opted for the S/40 single; more expensive than the hotel.

There were three options for Machu Picchu:
1. Machu Picchu Citadel S/150 ($46)
2. Machu Picchu Citadel plus Machu Picchu Mountain S/200 ($61)
3. Machu Picchu Citadel plus Huayna Picchu S/250 ($77).

I’d heard of Huayna Picchu and that it was popular and often crowded despite limited ticket numbers so I opted for number 2 not knowing anything about Machu Picchu Mountain.

Schedules are tight and my ticket time was between 7 and 8am. Just to make sure, I’d be out of the Hotel by 6am for the half hour bus ride up to the entrance. I was set, ready and booked for the big day. I could relax and have something to eat before resting in a comfortable bed after two weeks of camping. I wasn’t even going to come here and had no interest when Debbie had told me Machu Picchu was her dream but I found myself in Cusco that I wanted to honour her memory more than any personal desire to see it. I thought of her a lot along the way; during the ride across the mountain pass of Abra Malaga, the narrow cliff road to Santa Teresa, the walk along the railway to Aguas Calientes. This was a pilgrimage in her memory and, already, I’m glad I came…

Debbie

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Ollantaytambo Plaza, PeruOver the next two weeks, I explore Ollantaytambo, mainly the coffee shops and tackle the rugged Pinkuylluna walk I chickened out of crossing the narrow, cliff path to the triple gabled granary to the south and instead explored the one on the northern promontory.

Pinkuylluna GranariesThe views are stunning, even as the dark clouds bring flecks of rain over the southern peaks and threaten a storm.

Saturday, 5th of May, Sitting at the Coffee Tree Cafe a few days later, I think about motorcycling to Machu Picchu but glance up at the Ruins on the walk. It bothers me that I didn’t cross to the triple gabled granary. This is unfinished business. I had the time, finished my coffee and set off once again to climb the Pinkuylluna walk. Tomorrow was Sunday and I decided I would be off to Santa Maria on the bike so this would be my last opportunity.

Pinkuylluna viewsOnce I had arrived at the point that my jellied knees convinced me to quit before, it didn’t seem quite as bad as I remembered. Looking straight ahead and filming with the phone, I strode ahead. At the ruin, I met Andrew from York, an ex-soldier enjoying a day off by climbing over rocky crags. He said he was going up to the ruin overlooking where we were, was I coming. How could I refuse? It was a challenge for completion.

At the ruin, there was red tape strewn over the rocks behind. A Path seemed to continue and the tape was easy enough to step over, so we explored further, discovering a cave tucked under the crags at the termination of the path. Somebody had built a fire pit and probably stayed the night there but no one else was here now.

Andrew left to explore another path but I spent 20 minutes admiring the view, relaxing and shrugging off early symptoms of a migraine, probably caused by coffee and exertion at high altitude.

Sunday, 6th of May, the sunrise warmed me out of bed and I prepped the bike but decided, “Nah, I’ll go tomorrow.” It’s been like this for the last 5 days but previous factors were poor weather forecasts that failed to deliver the storms they promised.

Monday, 7th of May, I packed up the Tent leaving a yellow rectangle in the green lawn – a sign of being here too long. Strapped the bags to the bike, and walked into Ollantaytambo Plaza for lunch, there was no rush.

Ollantaytambo Plaza looking toward PinkuyllunaI found a place full of locals the food, good and cheap, before heading back to the campsite. The bike was all set so I said farewell to the proprietors, Ed and Laura, and rattled along the giant cobbles out on to the highway. Maps.me indicated a Fuel station not far to the west but I couldn’t find it and did a U-turn at the hotel at Phiry. There was no way I could make Santa Maria with the fuel I had in my tank. I pulled into the plaza in Ollantaytambo intending to interrogate the tourist office. A guy approached with intention of getting me to move my bike which saved me getting off the bike. Either 20 minutes east or 5 minutes west. As it turned out, the fuel station was about half a kilometre further from the point I turned around.

Abra Malaga Mountain PasThe road was smooth and swept through the Andean valleys in and out of the shade of the afternoon sun. The gentle incline was peppered with hairpin turns as I climbed further towards Abra Malaga. I didn’t know it at the time but the road is quite well Biking Abra Malagaknown. You can read more about it here at Dangerous Roads.
Eventually, I reached cloud height and everything became cold and damp. I lifted my visor in order to see the edges of the road in the gloom only for my glasses to mist up. Looking over my glasses with natural but slightly blurred vision was the best I could see for the last ten minutes. The road became rough and pockmarked and I was riding over and around harsh potholes.

My water bottle bounced out of its restraining bands which gave me an excuse to stop. I was cold and damp, yet now over the peak of Abra Malaga and descending slowly out of the cloud.

Below the clouds, I began to dry out and see through my glasses. Sunny spells returned to the day. I found myself tailing the fuel truck I had passed earlier. I had no desire to overtake it now, I was admiring the scenery, I felt like a pilot descending, looping around the hairpins. Dusk was falling by the time I reached Santa Maria, It was a long haul to get here, in endurance rather than distance.

I found a hostel around the back streets and booked into what turned out to be a private room. Access was back out of reception onto the street and a walk around the block. I settled in and returned to reception to the intermittent WiFi. It seemed pretty quiet until a bus-load of white-water rafters invaded the reception for the WiFi. I was famished, Maurice, the proprietor, escorted me to a fine restaurant that served dinner for 10 Soles (£2.50).
I found out they did breakfast at “7 or 8 or whenever you want” were his words.

Cockerel headMy room had a small glassless window. Fine because it wasn’t cold or raining but useless for shielding the sound of the cockerel next door that started crowing at 3.15 and every hour after.

Tuesday, 8th of May: I laid in bed sleepless until about 8.30 and packed the single bag I’d taken off the bike and tottered around to reception. Closed. I tottered further up to the restaurant that served breakfast from ‘7 or 8 or whenever you want.’ It looked closed, at first glance, but a door was open enough to see all the chairs standing on the tables. “Abierto?” I called inside to someone I spotted out back in the kitchen. He went to ask the proprietor who I guess recognised me and beckoned me in: the only customer in the cafe, chairs being deployed around the table of my choice.

It was gone ten by the time I recovered the bike from the garage of the hostel and headed out to Santa Teresa. It was a good job I had passed the junction, last night, when curiosity foolishly tempted me to tackle the cliff road in the dark. This morning, a food vendor had set up in front of the sign, obscuring it with a beach brolly.

I was on my way, over the bridge and through the ghost town I explored yesterday’s twilight before finding the hostel. The high, shear ‘death road,’ someone called it on a forum, had been a worry but I was now distracted in keeping the bike straight on the rough marble like rocks and learning how to set up the Go Pro to record the experience.

Inka Tours, Santa TeresaThe campsite I noticed on maps.me is called Inka Tours and while it seemed a quiet corner of paradise, it later became a constant barrage of minibuses of hikers: hence the name, I guess. Hikers resting during their exclusive Inca Trail excursions over the Andes and through the Sacred Valley. S/10 a night felt a bargain. “Can you tell me the Wifi password?” “Si, five Soles…” “Is there anywhere to charge my laptop?” “Si, One Soles…” Took the shine off the place.

Machu Picchu Basecamp, Inka Tours Campsite, Santa TeresaThe weather is warmer here, what with being half the altitude of Ollantaytambo. Sandflies made their presence felt only after getting their fill of blood and escaping to bother others. Shorts and flip-flops were a poor choice for sitting at the bar watching my GoPro videos crawl up the narrowband internet pipe to Youtube

Once the tent was set, I spent the rest of the day wrestling with video editing. A new field for me, especially with Kdenlive on Linux that likes to crash the PC at random intervals. Patience seems to help: do nothing else while encoding.

As night fell and the last of the youtube videos were uploaded. Bus after bus of caucasian 20 somethings rolled in whooping, cheering and clapping. Shots of Inka Tequila piled high on the bar.

Something told me I’d rolled into the wrong paradise…

Read more about how to motorcycle to Machu Picchu here.

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Pununa Wasi, Arcopata, CuscoI’d been at the hostel so long that I felt at home and not that motivated to get moving. I’d been trying to mentally figure out optimal packing of the bike with my gear and the new stuff that came with the bike. I couldn’t do it without physically giving it a go and getting it wrong so that was the plan: experience was my best teacher. I packed the bags and pushed the bike out onto the street to start loading. The Motorcycle Diariessun was already high and hot and the effort of lugging and repacking the bike in the hot thin atmosphere was parching my throat. I had already packed away the water, mental note for next time. First stop? The store a hundred metres up the road to quench it my thirst.

Maps.me isn’t the best navigator out there but its better than nothing and works offline. I figured, once I’m on the road east out of the city then I’m set on my way. I push the starter button and the motor rumbles into life.

The road is smooth and fast and pretty soon I’m through Anta. The valley is wide and doesn’t give me the impression of the sacred valley. Pulling over, I discover that it’s not.

Zurite junction route 3SUp ahead is a right turn to Zurite, a track cuts across through Zurite to the road to Ollantaytambo. Packing my phone away and donning my gloves I turn along a shale track. Zurite isn’t too far off the main road but looks like a village from the third world. Laid out in a grid, the village is laced together with mud tracks and a suggestion of a central square.

The Yamaha bounces along the dirt track out of the top of Zurite and around the foot of the hills to the northeast.

Huarocondo is half a dozen kilometres up ahead and I can join route cu-110 to Ollantaytambo. Over the cobbles of Huarocondo and through the narrow streets brings me to an asphalt T junction and I confidently turn left and sweep down the hill. I use traffic a sign I am on the right route. There was none here, which subconsciously raises a doubt on whether I’m on the right track.

Three minutes later, it begins to rain, something I had been betting against since pulling on my jeans and jacket. I didn’t bother with the knee and elbow pads as I was keen to just get packed and going. The rain began to team down and I began to feel it penetrating my jacket. The terrain was rocky and mountainous. I was praying for some trees and I settled for some spindly specimens next to the river. Hurrying its way over the rocks down the valley.

The trees succeeded only into marshalling the raindrops into rivulets and poured them over me and the bike. Looking up and down the road, I decided I could get no wetter and head off onto the shiny black road surface peppered with rocks, fallen from the bordering cliff side.

Up ahead, the road turned grey which I took to be more shale. No this was bone dry asphalt with the edge of the shower painted as a sharp line across it. I was into dry, warm sun on a dry, smooth road.

A mile winding around the valley and I arrive at what looks like a construction site entrance. “Pare” means stop. The other signs I didn’t understand apart from closed but it had a list of times posted too. A car came past into the dusty entrance, disappearing around the corner.

It was early afternoon and it was sunny. I guessed this route was only closed at night and I slowly edged along the dirt track where the road used to be. This must have been a huge landslide as there was nothing but dirt and rock, harbouring the odd construction vehicle and shack for about a mile.

I follow an un-named river, that doesn’t even appear on Google Maps, crossing the railway between Cusco and Machu Picchu a couple of times and didn’t see any more asphalt until I arrived at the Urubamba river.

Huarocondo to OllantaytamboCu-110 had degraded into a gravel track and I stop and remove my jacket to dry my jacket and me in my Tshirt, off in the sun. The satnav app tells me to turn right, parallel to the Urubamba river, the opposite direction from Ollantaytambo. The track takes me a quarter of a mile to a steel bridge and a T junction that was buzzing with tour buses and taxis: the main road between Cusco and Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu beyond. Turning left, I joined the flow and tried to keep up, watching the more aggressive vehicles gain in my mirrors so I could wave them pass without a battle.

Arriving in OllantaytamboAbout 10 minutes later I was bucking over Incan cobbles behind a Coach rumbling into Ollantaytambo. I coast through a quaint square bristling with souvenir shops, cafes and tourists. Just past the square I turn left into Estudiante and judder along the coarse cobbles to the Casa Quechua campsite. My moto and I are welcomed through the back gate into the garden and I set about unpacking the bike for the first time. I’ll need to do better since the whole load had shifted forward but not far enough to foul the moving parts of the bike or me.

Coleman Rainforest 2 Tent, Ollantaytambo, Casa Quechua CampsiteThe tent was still in its original packaging, mainly a cardboard box, wet where the rain had penetrated the stitching of its outer bag. It’s a Coleman Rainforest 2, and comes with instructions in English, although the diagrams are self-explanatory. The tent was up in ten minutes, a record that should now easily be broken.

Camping at Casa Quechua, OllantaytamboWhen I bought the tent, I was disappointed I couldn’t find a 2 man but now I was thankful as the luggage now took up quite a bit of room. I had the appetite of a Paris – Dakar competitor. I had skipped breakfast and lunch due to the packing earlier and was keen to shovel some food past my cracked lips and dry throat. Riding at altitude appears to be more dehydrating than normal, as well as exhausting.

Entering the square after tidying my bags away, you might call throwing them in the tent, I was ushered into a cosy looking Pizzeria with welcoming smiles of the family members but no customers. Once in, it’s hard for me to make excuses and leave. I was the only customer and had the feeling I was about to be fleeced and wanted the reassurance of the herd, other diners to validate the value.

I settled into my new sleeping bag and tent around 9pm.

I awoke to voices. They weren’t there when I went to sleep. The camping community, as few as they were socialising in the communal area about ten feet from my tent. It’s nice to here young people fully expressed and uninhibited, as long as it’s not too close to me. Another ninety feet might have done the trick.

Sleep is punctuated by bouts of waking up gasping for air. An internet search reveals that I’m not dying, not yet anyway. Carbon Dioxide in the blood controls breathing. At high altitude, the body senses both low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide to stimulate breathing. The breathing reduces the Carbon dioxide in the blood low enough to switch off the drive to breathe. When the Carbon dioxide rises again it switches the drive to breathe back on again, often with a gasp… and the cycle continues.

Sacred Valley of the IncasI emerge not long after dawn, grey formless clouds drape the Andean peaks. The morning air has a Celtic chill. No-one else stirs, all is quiet and there appears to be nothing to do, I retreat to the tent and scan for the absent WiFi signal while trying to keep warm.

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Sacred Valley of the Incas: Pisac

Pisac Butterfly PeruSun 15th April, 6 days after buying the Motorbike. It’s difficult to gain access to the passageway and wheeling the bike over a plank down the steps, so I’ve been reluctant to move it again until its time to leave. Cusco is a charming city and I have no time pressures so hanging around here is not a bad option. As I get to know my way around, it starts to feel like home.

Rosalie will arrive tomorrow and I’m just kicking back in the hostel dorm. I seek some solitude on the sunlit roof patio overlooking the Cusco rooftops. I’m disappointed to find two people already settled in both seats. Evan and Daniel an American and Argentinian on the patio were drinking Matte through a combined spoon straw, the like I’ve never seen before. They offered me some, breaking through my tacit resentment. The ornate cup is packed with leaves so I couldn’t see the liquid, I gave it a stir with a spoon and asked: “Do you eat it?” Apparently, it is a faux pas to touch the spoon and you simply drink the tea through the flattened handle that was also a straw and pass it around. Kind of a tea version of a bong. Offence may have been made but I noticed the sun was still out and the world was still spinning. There seemed to be no serious side effects.

JCs Cafe Cusco, PeruMon 16th April, JC’s Cafe is at the end of the street. One of the best cafes I’ve ever visited. Needless to say, It’s the first destination for the day for breakfast and coffee. Abierto 8:30. Which means opening time randomly between half eight and nine. This morning I delay my breakfast and order a coffee anticipating company, Engrossed online, I’m suddenly swamped by curly hair and a warm hug. I had my back to the door and hadn’t noticed Rosalie’s arrival.

This is a stark contrast to the time I voted against her joining Pantelisa back in Martinique. This is the third time fate has brought us together since then. Aloha Ke Akua, Nuevos Horizontes and now Cusco. For today, breakfast is a shared pleasure as we exchange our individual experiences since we’d last met.

Rosalie had booked an even cheaper hostal than mine in the heart of San Blas, a bohemian collection of narrow cobbled streets full of cafe’s restaurants and Peruvian souvenirs. I thought of relocating there but my motorcycle anchored me to Pununa Wasi. And, anyway, Rosalie was only here for 5 days and I’d also be on my way shortly after.

Wednesday Morning 18th April, I meet Rosalie at her hostel and we walk a few blocks down to the collectivos, shared people carriers and minibuses. We wait for a while for more passengers before a third joins us and we’re off, along the twisting road along the Sacred Valley of the Incas to Pisac, a small town east of Cusco in the sacred valley. I had skipped breakfast so first stop was something to eat and a coffee in a small square of sunlight in the courtyard of a coffee shop on the way to the Plaza de Armas.

Pisac has a relaxed and laid-backPisac, Sacred Valley of the Incas vibe. The market is huge, full of Peruvian colour, but apparently not many customers. Rosalie asks the Tourist Information official about the free options around Pisac. There are two: a Community Museum and a Botanical Garden. We walk up the hill along the cobbles until we get to the ticket office at the foot of the mountain path. 70 Soles for a 2 day ticket along the Sacred Valley. Rosalie emphasises we are only here for one day and, after a pause, the ticket clerk offers us a two for one deal, no one will check tickets on the trail, and we start to climb the path to the Inca ruins of Pisaq Old Town in the mountains.

Pisaq Old Town Guide, IntiA few minutes up the dusty path, we encounter a young Peruvian with his backpack sitting on a rock in the shade of an outcrop. If this were a movie, it would have been an implausible introduction to a new character. It was almost as if he was placed waiting for us. Inti speaks fluent Quechua, Spanish and English and happens to be a tour guide on his day off. He invites us along to Pisaq Old Town with him and points out places of interest along the mountain path. The Incas built their settlements high in the mountains, the Spanish built theirs in the Valley. The Pisac we see in the valley is a small town of Spanish origin.

Further east along the river is a small suburb, separate from the main town. Apparently, an expat community of Europeans. Expats being people we label back home as immigrants…

Inti gives us the option of ascending to the watchtowers and over the mountain peak above us or skirting the mountain to Pisaq Old Town. We take the easy route, the level path, east around the mountain. I have a fear of heights and the mountainsides become sheer and the path narrows. Rosalie and Inti are up ahead so I focus on them as we approach Pisaq Old Town. Inti is here for meditation and ceremony and invites us to share. We sit down for meditation and listen to the sweet sound of his flute.

Pisaq Old Town, Lost Valley of the IncasThe ceremony ends after about 10 minutes and we part company, promising to visit his shop on the way back to the collectivos. Rosalie and I climb the steps to Intihuatana and then further on to the peak and gazebo with the view of the terraces. Over the stream, behind the terraces in the cliff face there appear to be doorways in the cliff face with no pathway up or down to them. It looks like a vertical community but it turns out it’s an Inca cemetery.

This was the end of the walk, according to the map and we return, skirting the large peak, with its gazebo, and taking the route via the watchtowers overlooking the gridded streets of Pisac. We were both now hungry and dined at a vegetarian restaurant before cramming in a visit to the local community museum and then arriving at the Botanical Garden Gate just as the caretaker was closing it.

No matter, we noticed a quaint coffee bar and hostel on the way that had a balcony overlooking the gardens. We squeeze past some weathered hippies obstructing the balcony doors and enjoy a pretty ordinary coffee. The setting was the thing: birds in the trees, a hummingbird sipping nectar from the blossoms. A perfect break before heading back to Cusco.

We had promised to visit Inti’s shop and we headed to the collectivos, circling via the riverside where he said it was. We never found it. The sun was dipping below the horizon indicating an ideal time for abandoning the search and calling it a day.

“Cusco?” An eager Peruvian stepped across our path indicating a full collectivo ready to roll and pulled out into the street as soon as we squeezed ourselves aboard.

Cusco at Night, PeruDarkness had fallen on the sparkling cityscape of Cusco. The intention was to end the day with a craft beer at Eusebio & Manalo, except it was closed. Instead, we shared a litre of Cusqueno Trigo wheat beer back at Rosalie’s hostal.

 

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The Road to Cusco: Cusco

Plaza De Armas through the window of Paddy's Irish Bar.I chose the shortest route from Lima to Cusco via Nazca. Fear mongers related stories of bandits holding up coaches in the Andes where there is no cell signal available for calling for help. The last reported case I could find was in 2013, 5 years previous. Being held up looked extremely unlikely, to me, despite sensational internet reports.

Dusk fell by the time we made it out of Lima and not much could be seen out of the windows. It would be daylight before we reached the mountain passes and until then I tried to sleep as best I could.

The Road between Lima and CuscoWith the light of the dawn, the mountains presented themselves in their majestic beauty. The road lay like spaghetti dropped down mountainsides into the valleys. Pressing my head against the window, I could see traffic ahead and behind. the route is not as deserted as I expected. Any bandits would have a hard time remaining anonymous, at least at this time of day.

Flores bus break on the way to Cusco from LimaThe excitement of stopping for breakfast was brief. I wasn’t hungry and the coffee I looked forward to did not exist. Instead, I kicked over the car park gravel, warmed by the early morning sun until the bus driver was ready to thread us through the Andes again.

Pununa Wasi, Arcopata, CuscoThe bus rolled into Cusco Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm. Tour guides thrust leaflets into our hands. “Cheap Hotel 70 Soles?” I wanted cheaper. “40 Soles?” that was OK and I was escorted to an eager taxi and ferried to the hostel Pununa Wasi on Avenue Arcopata.

Pununa Wasi Dorm“Lo Siento,” no room. Dorm for “15 Soles?” Perfect, about £3 a night. The dorm was spacious but basic with painted creaky floorboards, 8 single beds and some ill-fitting raggedy curtains limp at the window failing at masking the daylight and the sound of tyres rattling along cobbles of Arcopata, and the random honking of taxis and buses. There appeared to be no more than 2 people currently staying. I later learned that that meant nothing since backpackers arrived at all hours by air and bus for Machu Picchu, stumbling around looking for mains sockets for phone chargers before settling down to sleep.

Plaza De Armas, CuscoI skate across the polished volcanic cobbles in treadless trainers toward Plaza de Armas, the main square, at noon the next day to meet Nikita. He didn’t recognise me since I hadn’t updated my facebook picture since I had opened my Facebook account 10 years previous. We walked to where the bike was parked and gave me a ride up to Temple de la Luna where his AirBnB overlooked Cusco. Anastasia made me muna tea and we talked about the motorbike before taking it for a test ride.

There was paperwork involved and we resolved to tackle that Monday. Until then, I had the weekend to myself.

Cusco, Capital of the Inca EmpireCusco lies in a long valley at 3,400 m (11,200 ft) elevation and has t shirt weather in the day with a British spring-like chill during the night.

 

Monday came and I waited at Migraciones at 10am for Nikita. He was fifteen minutes late due to queues at Sunarp where they register the owner of the bike.

Permission to SellNow we needed a stamp in the passport from Migraciones. The queue eventually delivered us to a Spanish speaking official that told us that a stamp was not necessario and pointed to a notice at the front of the office. We should go to the Nacional Bank and pay 16 Soles where they give us a ticket of code numbers for completing an online form.

The bank was heaving with multiple queues winding back and forth normally only seen at US airport immigration terminals. There were counters to the left and the right and aline at each. We split up to stand in each queue. Nikitas was far faster and I joined him before my queue rounded the bend into the third tier from the front. Within 20 minutes we were strolling down the road to the nearest internet cafe with paper slips in hand ready to complete the form and print out the paper.

The straightforward form only failed at the security ‘captcha’ script that asked to type in a series of distorted characters to make sure we were human and not hacker’s programs. It took several attempts to validate mine and print out the resulting document but Nikita’s was firmly refused. Eventually, we noticed that the bank clerk had missed three digits out of his passport number.

Nikita marched back to the bank but the clerk was unable to retrieve the data from the system. I returned to the Notary while Nikita walked back to Migraciones to try and sort it out. The notary insisted that we needed the passport stamp from the Migraciones so off I went back to Migraciones to double check. Twenty minutes queueing and happily finding an English speaking official confirmed that the notary was mistaken. The printed document was all we needed.

By now, the sun passed its noontime zenith and the Notary closed for lunch until 3. Anastasia had a class at three so she departed after we enjoyed a Peruvian lunch together while Nikita and I returned to the notary. We inherited a new clerk who accepted our documents without insisting on a stamp but told Nikita he needed another form from an office around the corner. I waited at the Notary while this new hurdle was overcome. 20 minutes later Nikita returned, fairly irritated. They told him that the document he was asking about was only required for cars. Motorcycles didn’t need it.

Fingerprints and signatures were submitted, indicating progress and all looked well until it came to light that Nikita had bought the motorcycle after his marriage date which necessitated his wife’s signature also, even though her name does not appear in any documents. Anastasia had been sitting here at the Notary for over an hour that morning and now she had gone to her class. We had reached a five-minute impasse. Eventually, we made it clear that the ‘M’ indicated in the passport meant gender ‘Male’ not marital status ‘Married’ and so the confused clerk overlooked the pointless marriage rule and completed the paperwork.

Motorcycle Diaries4pm, not a bad days work and now I was the owner of a Yamaha YB125 in Peru. I was set to go. After returning Nikita home, I rode back along the cobbles to the hostel and parked the bike along the passage next to reception.

Cusco RooftopsRosalie was coming to Cusco next week so I thought I’d hang around and enjoy a brief reunion. As it happened, I liked Cusco. There is a lot to see and it has a nice laid back vibe. Besides, the hostel was a quiet place to look into establishing an online income and between bouts of procrastination and idleness, I set about prodding around with that possibility. I soon found out that long periods online sap the spirit and whichever way I was going to go, creating an income without lapsing back into a slave existence was going to be a long haul.

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The Road to Cusco: Lima

Crossing the Ecuador border was straight forward after the half hour queue. “Occupation?” “Computer Engineer,” after reading a tip that saying writer or journalist can be problematic.

Straight on a bus to Tulcan bus terminal, after some language ping-pong with the ticket clerk, the bus I wanted was for Quitumbe, the South terminal in Quito, which was due in fifteen minutes. No breakfast for me then, and I bought a bottle of water while I had the opportunity.

The bus climbed into the mountains along wide smooth dual carriageways, something that Colombia lacked. The driver sped around the sweeping bends causing me to hold tight to the seat in front.

The landscape was mountainous but more barren than Colombia. The towns appeared more prosperous and reflected some influences of the United States with its currency and KFCs. Somewhere along the way, we crossed the equator, my first ever venture into the southern hemisphere. There was no fanfare or even sign that I noticed, and technically I went quietly from spring to autumn.

The bus pulled into Quitumbe shortly after 4.30pm and the hunt for the Cusco bus began. As was becoming the way of things, there wasn’t one. As usual, I was told I had to get to the border, cross in a taxi and get another bus. A ticket to Huaquillas, wherever that was, was $15 and due to depart in 10 minutes.

After 6 hours on one bus, there were to be 12 hours on this one. There was not much to see out of the window in Quito since the city was shrouded in grey drizzly cloud. ETA was 5am.

Taxies were waiting at the stop in Huaquillas. $5, I don’t if that was too much but I took it. Tired, you see. The taxi driver produced some Peruvian currency “Soles, Soles.” Typically they give an abysmal exchange rate and I had no dollars anyway so declined his optimistic offer.

Immigration was quiet and I was through in no time. Another day, another rubber stamp on a piece of paper. The next taxi was $10 which I thought was steep but I found the rate posted on a tariff board and it turned out a 20km journey and I only just managed to scrape the change together for it.

At the terminal, there was no bus to Cusco. Go to Lima and change. 90 Soles, departure at 8:30am. My visa card was rejected by the official and I walked about a mile to the ATM in the town. 6am and the Tumbes traffic was just honking its way to life. Drawing out the soles, I made my way safely back to the terminal and waited.
“Quanto Tiempo a Lima?” I ask. Twenty two hours journey time…

Tumbes seemed to be a purely commercial town like Ipiales was. I grabbed some street food for breakfast. Empanadas and a milky, porridgy drink, so nice I had another.

On the bus, through the Tumbes rush hour and we were soon zipping along the Panamerican highway. the land was flat and barren, reminding me of the Sinai, which led to thinking about Deb. Deb and I used to pick up cheap flights and go to her apartment in Sharm el Sheik for a month in the winters. She told me one of her dreams was to go to Machu Picchu. Cusco was the tourist springboard for that. Now she was dead there remained only memories and ‘shoulds’ and my attention resumed to the passing scenery.

The spindly bushes were adorned with discarded plastic bags that once drifted in the breeze. Scattered between were half buried plastic bottles resisting their decomposition by sun and sand.

It is warmer here near sea level and this bus, unlike the others, does not engage its air conditioning. And unusually had opening windows.

In the seat in front of me, there is a pleasant Peruvian lady sharing food and drink with her son, joyfully tossing plastic bags and wrappers out of the window. Ecological consciousness is not yet universal.

The Panamerican highway changes from dry shrubs to barren hills to flat plains and rice fields. The Pacific shore comes and goes in and out of view and the straight smooth asphalt degrades into gravel track and back again.

This is probably the oldest and most basic bus I’ve been on so far, with no power or wifi, but the journey seems less tiring without the constant sharp cornering and changes of altitude. The straighter roads make for faster speeds and there’s a real sense of making progress on the thousand kilometre journey to Lima.

People board and alight at stops along the way and I sometimes have the luxury of stretching out on a double seat. Even penned in, I still manage to sleep using a folded jacket as a pillow.

We arrive in Lima at 5am and we’re hustled bleary-eyed of the bus to claim our bags. The ticket desk officially opens at 6 but there is already someone at the ticket desk “Cusco Economico?” I ask. 5.30pm. The VIP service leaves at 1.30pm for a tenner extra. For that, I save four hours and gain a bit of luxury and perhaps some wifi. I say ‘perhaps’ as the route is the notorious Nazca route where bandits have been known to hijack buses while they are out of cell phone signal.

I devise a cunning plan, I notice a Hostel on the maps.me app on my phone not far from the terminal. It’s a 5 minute walk past the stadium and military barracks to an unassuming narrow entrance tucked behind a tree. I ring the bell and a short Peruvian appears rubbing his eyes and yawning. Normally, check in is not until the afternoon at these places but he shows me a double room with ensuite. Perfecto. It has a strong wifi signal as I’m right near the router.

The room looks like a prison cell. Looking up at the ceiling reveals daylight around the edges. This must have been an open courtyard at one time. It doesn’t matter, it’s not raining and I have the benefit of fresh air and the full volume of background city noise of horns, car alarms and the whistles of the traffic police. My single pair of socks are beginning to smell so I give them a wash in the sink and drape them over the electric fan, which also acts to mask the noise of the city and the audio from the Peruvian soap opera entertaining the receptionist in the foyer.

While charging my laptop and phone, I contemplate going to Cusco this afternoon, I’d still get nine hours rest but decide there’s no rush and decide to stay the night instead.

On my education in Amazonian plant medicines, I learned that Mambe and Ambil make a good combination for writing. Ambil, a tobacco paste used by the Witoto tribe for prayer to the spirit world, apparently provides the wisdom and Mambe provides ‘Sweet words.’ Discovering that the Ambil had gone missing wasn’t the best start to the day. It must have rolled out of the bag while it was under my seat. I now have sweet words but no wisdom. It could have been worse, it could have been wallet or passport.

The climate in Lima is not too hot and I take a walk across one of the parks to a shopping mall to get something to eat and withdraw some cash. I’m surprised to find Uncle Sam’s footholds: Pizza Hut, Popeye’s and Chili’s. I used to love going to Chili’s when my father and his wife were more receptive to my visits to Houston. Sitting down and browsing the menu was a stroll down memory lane.

Now, a Mango and Jalapeno Margarita doesn’t sound too appealing but it was one of the most delicious margaritas I’d tasted. A perfect accompaniment to the chicken tacos and watching Real Madrid beat Juventus on three flat screens hanging off the walls of the restaurant.

I wasn’t expecting to like Lima but it was more modern than I anticipated and there was everything anyone could ever want within five minutes walk of the hostel. The city seemed civilised but there was always a question mark on why some of the small stores were caged in with vendors serving and taking money between the bars. Less so in the centre but common in the suburbs.

Wednesday morning dawned through the spaces between the roof and the wall and the horns and whistles built up with the density of the morning traffic. I enjoyed my first piping hot shower for weeks. The on-demand appliances attached to the shower heads only seem to succeed in taking the chill off the meagre dribble needed to give the water a chance to snag some warmth on the way through. This was a proper immersion heater job. I kept the bathroom door open so that the draught from the sock drying fan kept the condensation off the mirror.

I was out of the hostel and into the cafe around the corner by 10:30.

I arrived early at the bus Terminal to make sure I got a seat as I noticed it was busy already yesterday when I arrived before dawn. The bus wasn’t until 5.30. It was 1.30 so I made myself comfortable in the cafeteria for the next four hours…

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The Road to Cusco: Ipiales

2pm. We pulled into a services for buses. Pulling out my phone and looking at the maps app, we had only covered a small portion of the distance in this 6 hour leg. My info had the journey as 10 hours total.

“Manana Manana,” The driver replied when I asked him when we would arrive. I spotted a couple that I had noticed before at the Bogota station boarding the bus in front of mine. That bus was going directly to Lima. I could have got that one if it had appeared on the options I found on the internet.

Meanwhile, I checked my wallet, I only had about $12000 cash which is about £4. If I were an extra day on the bus then I would have to make that last. I blew $3000 on an empanada and a coke. The internet access had been dire all the way from Bogota, although there must have been sporadic connection since messages would sneak through while I wasn’t paying attention. I’d booked the hostel in Ipiales on false travel information and I was kicking over the volcanic stones in the car park thinking how to alert them of my twelve hour delay when the driver returned to allow us to reboard.

At 8pm, the cabin lights flickered on as we pulled into another services. I had no plans for feasting on the high fat carnivorous menu with my remianing $9000 but I was glad of the stop as I didn’t want to go into the toilet on the bus. Despite the low temperature, the smell of overflowing urine began to pollute our breathable atmosphere.

Daybreak revealed a beautiful sunlit landscape as the road followed the gorge towards Ipiales. Reading lonely Planet about Ipiales told me that it was an uninspiring commercial town and Pasto was much better. We had already passed Pasto in the dark just before dawn.

Arriving in Ipiales wasn’t much to write about apart from being a relief to end the 23 hour bus journey. Small and dirty was my first impression, which I revised a little later. The town was bigger than I thought.

After collecting my bag and blowing another $3000 on breakfast at the bus station I marched up the hill toward the hostel. The air was pretty thin as I was at over 9000ft altitude. my lungs were clutching at the petrol fumes and scraping as much oxygen out of them as possible but not fast enough to prevent me having to stop to catch my breath.

Walking along Calle 13, I stopped at the marker that indicated the hostel on the satnav. Nothing. Checking the email for the address, the numbers suggested it was further down the street – yes, there it was, a narrow doorway like an unread and forgotten book on a bookshelf squeezed between a closed down cafe and a sex shop.

Jose answered the door and welcomed me into reception. Jose spoke no English but I hammered away at my best Espanol and secured a room for four nights totalling £18. The room had no window but the door opened onto a balcony over a covered courtyard. It was perfect.

This week was Semana Santa hence the stopover for four days. For Colombia, a country with a Catholic population of 90%, this week-long Easter celebration is the most important religious festival of the year. The whole country mobilises for a national holiday. Shops closed, Churches opened and regular services thrown into uncertainty. Which was why I was here in Ipiales: to sit it out. Today was Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were the big days.

One of the other guests told me about Santuario de Las Lajas, about the only thing worth seeing in the area. It was getting late so I noted it for tomorrow, Thursday.

The mornings at this altitude are cool, like bright April mornings back in England. Full jacket and jeans was the dress for the day. Walking down Carrera 6, I dipped into an unusually large supermarket to stock up on peanuts, my emergency energy supply. The cashier said something and held out her hand, I gave her some money. “No, documento.” She wanted ID… for peanuts… so I fished out my passport and watch her type some details into her register. It may have been a membership deal but I didn’t know and wasn’t really interested. It was amusing and I complied only to get my nuts.

Not far down the road, I hopped on a passing collectivo. A collectivo is like a taxi that waits for a full load before moving off only this was a bus with the word ‘Collectivo’ written down the side.  It stopped about a mile and a half short of Las Lajas but I could see the sanctuary almost straight away from the road, way down below me in the gorge. The road gently descended the mountainside sweeping around the contours which made for an easy walk. A block paved path eventually forked away from the road and quickly got steeper, scaling down the side of the gorge.  I’d lost sight of the sanctuary but the increasing presence of more and more vendors selling nik naks from selfy sticks to plastic virgin marys and religious candles confirmed the route.

Local intel told me there is usually no-one here on a weekday but this was no ordinary week; this was a holiday, a religious one at that. Families milled and sauntered between vendors making progress difficult. They have a knack of walking both slowly and into you at the same time.

I had the usual meander around the attraction, buying nothing but an ice cream and climbed off the path to record a quick Youtube video before making my way to the cable car station I’d happily noticed on my arrival. Teleferico, they call it here. I was hauled high over the deep gorge up the mountain and returned to near where the bus drop-off was, relieving me of the thought of that long high altitude oxygen depleted climb back up the mountain nursed in the back of my mind all the way down.

Flagging down a collectivo outside the teleferico station, I asked for Charco, and with a nod from the driver, sat down and watched the scenery pass by out of the window.

Charco is on the outskirts of Ipiales. It had a mention in Lonely Planet and looked pretty and colourful from a distance with the multicoloured houses stretching up the hillside. But the centre was nothing special apart from restaurants having some kind of rat on a spit over charcoal. It was cuy, later revealed as guinea pig. There wasn’t much else available for lunch here apart for a chicken place around the corner.

Between leaving the spit and arriving at my table, The cuy appeared to have been opened up and hammered flat. Flipping it over revealed kidneys in tact below a rack of ribs and either side of a thin spine. The skin was tough with the texture of leather but the flavour of pork rind. I threw that to a dog and watched it struggle to chew it into small enough pieces to swallow.

Back in Ipiales, restaurants were uninspiring enough to avoid going out, battling with the holiday crowd and I stayed holed up in the hotel for the rest of the day, snacking on peanuts.

Friday was a disappointment as I ventured out. Almost everywhere was closed. reminiscent of how Sunday’s used to be in Britain in the days before commerce steamrollered the laws protecting the Sabbath.  I retreated to the WiFi at the hotel.

Night time was disturbed by lots of drumming and marching in the street and later, boisterous guests disturbed my sleep lumbering along the wooden balcony and unmoderated chatter and laughter.

Saturday, all the shops were open again and, after breakfast, I spent the day writing. Overdoing it to the point of feeling tired and fed up before turning in early.

Sunday, I awoke early due to the noise of early rising guests through paper thin walls and lay in until 7.30. The internet wasn’t working which prompted me up for an early shower and to pack for Quito and beyond. I packed and left the Hotel and headed for the frontier taxis via La Taverna for breakfast but, even though the door was ajar and there was activity in the kitchen, it was not yet open. Too impatient to wait, I decided to postpone breakfast until the bus station at Tulcan, just over the border in Ecuador and strode around the corner toward the frontier taxis.

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The Road to Cusco: Bogota

Helping build the cabana was hard work and it was highlighting my lack of fitness. Bending, lifting and climbing was physically draining although regular water intake and mambe helped fuel me for the workday.

Thursday saw the arrival of Vladimir and Daniel. Daniel was experienced in cob building, He arrived just after we had been talking about cobbing the walls. Luis said people magically appeared just as they are needed. What seemed like magic to me seems like hard reality for Luis and Miguel.

Though the work was hard, working with such a group of positive people was fun and fulfilling.

By the time Saturday arrived and there was to be no work to be done, I missed the physical activity and the camaraderie shared in working on a shared project. Tonight was to be an Ayahuasca ceremony held as a farewell to La Palmita. Miguel and Luis were ready to move permanently to Nuevos Horizontes.

Miguel asked me if I was drinking [ayahuasca] and I replied that I was in two minds as I didn’t feel the need. He told me that they hadn’t had a ceremony since I was last here and that I happened to have arrived at the right time, so reflecting on my philosophy of following signs and omens I accepted the invitation.

All of us would be staying at La Palmita but I would continue to San Gil the next day to embark on my journey to Cusco, so I packed all my things together with pillow and blanket and took them with me.

It was a long lead up to the ceremony as people arrived at La Palmita throughout the afternoon and into the evening. I gathered some firewood from down by the river. I felt hungry and thought about how close we were to San Gil and its restaurants. Did I really want to feel nauseated throughout a restless night camping out on ayahuasca when I could be tucking into a pizza and some wine followed by a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed?

I felt nothing this session apart from the laxative effects the lasted the following day. I slept a little but felt tired and a little nauseated. I enjoyed spending time with the people around the fire but felt disappointed that there were no messages or revelations. I awoke early but it was after dawn, maybe 7am. All was quiet and I thought everyone had left but discovered people tucked up sleeping all over the place.

It was lunchtime before we were ready to leave and we were all hungry so arranged to make our way to Gringo Mike’s for burritos. I dropped my bags at El Dorado and enjoyed the company of my Finca Family for the last time before heading south again. Tomorrow was to be a bus ride to Bogota with a connection of unknown time to Ipiales.

The food was plentiful and satisfying and we retired to El Dorado. Me for my last night, Bree, Connie and Daniel for a taxi back to Nuevos Horizontas.

I wanted some chocolate to take with me and the local supermarket was closed. Bree told me about the mall and huge supermarket across the bridge I had never seen before. There was no local chocolate but peanuts would keep me energised for the journey.

I awoke before 8am and spent some time online before packing. The plan was to catch an early bus to Bogota for making sure of arriving to open ticket offices there. It was gone lunchtime before I finished online and ready to head to the station. In fact, I thought maybe I could stay at El Dorado just one more night and go in the morning but decided to be proactive and just go. There’s a bus every hour to Bogota and I’d missed the 15:00 by four minutes but a fifty six minute wait isn’t too bad, even though it put the departure at 4pm. It’s six or seven hours to Bogota so it was looking like a midnight arrival.

The bus was late and we set off at 16:40. No use worrying about the connection. Just have to see what happens when we get there. My patience has been tested and been found to be resilient.

The ride was comfortable and not too crowded. It was too early to sleep so maybe a night bus might have been a better decision but then what about the mysterious connecting bus? Shut up, mind, relax and go with the flow.

It was past midnight as we rolled into Bogota Terminal. The arrivals building is long and narrow with vendor’s stalls along one side. On its own, it’s almost as big as some bus stations in the UK except that I knew from my previous visit there was another part somewhere else that was at least the size of Waterloo station. Although it looked like a dead end, zooming in on Google maps revealed the northern end of this part of the terminal turned left down a passageway and joined up to the bustling departure terminal. The passage was like a mall with vendors kiosks lining the edges. Emerging into the hall, most ticket offices appeared manned and cleaning staff were busy ferrying polishing machines up and down the tiled floor, while itinerant travellers lugged their bags between cafes, benches and toilets.

I picked a random Kiosk and asked “Autobus por Ipiales?”
“No, Bolivarteras!” She said pointing to the far end of the terminal. There were three large halls here, all bristling with ticket kiosks.
“Escribe?” I asked, and she wrote out the name and off I wandered to match the text on the paper to the text on the signs.

Bolivarteras was tucked in the corner next to the departure gates annexed to the last hall and there was a lonely looking official enclosed in the kiosk like an attraction at a zoo.
“Uno por Ipiales”
“No hasta las ocho y media.”
“Si, Uno por favor.” trying to make a sign for one-way resembling a nazi salute.

It was now 00:30 and the bus was due at 08:30. ‘This too shall pass’ came to mind and I sat down for an hour until my decreasing body temperature urged me to go and look for a coffee. It was a long night serenaded by cleaning machines and distorted announcements by the various transport companies.

I still nursed the laxative effects of the ayahuasca but fought the urge to visit the toilets at one thousand pesos a throw. I broke out the tablets that Thomas gave me that combats that sort of thing. It might not act that fast but I didn’t want to be vulnerable on the bus either. I managed to only piss away two thousand pesos…

It was a slow sleepless eight hours as I watched the daylight slowly chase the darkness away and crowds gather for the various buses pulling into the bays. The bus to Ipiales was packed and I was behind a family with three young kids. My fingers were crossed for a peaceful journey. I quickly visited the bus toilet, as I was intent on saving another thousand pesos by avoiding the services in the terminal, and then settled in my seat hoping I wouldn’t need to go again looking at the state of it.

Ten hours, according to rometorio.com, and I would be in Ipiales. That’s about 6.30pm. The Senorita to my right helped with the WiFi password as I had no clue what the driver was saying and I logged onto Hostelworld.com to look for hostels in Ipiales: nothing. Booking.com? Success. Hotels but at hostel prices and I booked a room for 5 nights for under a fiver a night. I estimated check-in about 9pm to give me some leeway and I sat back in my seat to while away the hours as the bus pulled out into the peak morning traffic under the low, grey Bogota sky.

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La Familia

I’ve been out of the company of good friends for a while so feel like some camaraderie. I like solitude but it can get too much sometimes. “Don’t go for comfort,” Ayahuasca told me. Solitude is often comfortable for me but not long term.

Now that Cartagena was out of the way, what are my options? Well, there is a motorbike for sale in Cusco, Peru. Peru has fewer restrictions on bike ownership than Colombia, so it would be easier to get one in Peru. I like the sound of biking around South America but I also want to return to the UK for the Summer. Where would the bike go in the meantime? Perhaps better postponing that one until Autumn but will I return? These are the ramblings in my mind at the moment. These savings aren’t going to last forever either but my new spiritual wisdom tells me not even to worry about that. Focus on the moment we have now.

The bus pulled out of the terminal at 17:45 with three of us aboard. Bonus, I could stretch out and scatter my laptop and cables across the seat next to me. I awoke in Barranquilla in darkness with crowds of families clambering aboard with flapping blankets and bulging bags. I gathered up my belongings allow space for a man and his rucksack and squeeze myself up against the window. Barranquilla, only 14 hours left to San Gil. I slept as best I could and read my kindle books between times while my knees began to ache with lack of space for movement. WiFi connection was strong to the router but internet wasn’t connected from the bus to the outside world. Read Kindle.

I awoke with my head resting on my shoulder, dribble on my jacket and a neck pain that warned me not to straighten up too quickly. It was daylight and I recognised the valley from the trip before. 7Am, we were just North of Bucaramanga. Gisela lived here, I should have checked whether she was back here or still at La Finca Nuevos Horizantes near San Gil. We get on well despite the language barrier, neither of us speak each other’s language. An opportunity for accelerated learning, perhaps.

The mountain ridge extends from a few hundred feet above sea level to over 6000ft and the smooth ribbon of asphalt winds along the mountainsides along the crest and down the other side. Bus drivers like overtaking, even on apparently blind bends and we power pass straining trucks and lycra clad cyclists pumping stringy legs up the endless inclines. I try not to look out at the sheer drops just over the other sides of the barriers but I’m compelled to check through squinted eyelids.

San Gil is familiar ground to me now and I catch the bus from the terminal into the centre. I needed internet for checking out hostel options so settled for a breakfast burrito at Gringo Mikes. I had been to El Dorado before and the phrase “Don’t go for comfort” echoed around my mind. All the hostel’s looked comfortable. I felt I should go somewhere new but I remembered I was hungry for Familia: community. El Dorado was the meeting point for the La Palmita/Nuevos Horizontes folks I had left behind so settled for that.

I walked in and Melina at the desk said “Paul, you’re back!” with a welcoming smile and I noticed Mitch and Steve catching up on Skype calls. Mitch had returned from the UK only yesterday and we enjoyed a mini-reunion at El Dorado. It was good to be back and absolutely the right choice to come back to El Dorado. It feels like home. Mitch asked if I was going to the farm. “We are drinking Ayahuasca tonight.” No, I didn’t feel the call and, anyway, I was still processing from the last experiences. I’d stay at El Dorado…

I shouldn’t have chocolate or coffee since they are migraine triggers. The coffee here is free and delicious. Bogota, Medellin or Cartegena do not seem to have decent chocolate like San Gil. Santander chocolate is world class and seems to be only available locally. I crossed the square to the minimarket and gave Melina some of my chocolate biscuits on the way back in. She said she had the same room for me, a 3-bed dorm with no other guests. I spread the contents of my bags out onto the neighbouring bunk intending to sort through the dead weight that I no longer needed but then left it until the morning. Last minute, as usual.

It’s warm enough to sleep without covers here so I laid on top of the bed in shorts and Tshirt. When I got up and tidied my things away, the room looked already made up. The laundry was in and I was packed and ready for a ride to La Finca. Mitch was due sometime today.

There was an email from Nikita in Cusco, Peru. He is selling a Yamaha YB125 cheaply since he has completed his South American adventure and ready to go to Africa. Riding around the Andes appeals to me and I investigate the journey to Cusco. Nearly 4000km and 4 days bus journey.

I settled into the hammock with my laptop and waited for Mitch. I had all day to catch up online so it didn’t matter when I was to be picked up.

Later, Luis and Miguel arrived at El Dorado: Sunday is their day off and they kicked back to watch a movie. Miguel told me there was a problem with the car so Mitch wouldn’t be picking me up. “Maybe Tuesday.” I booked another couple of nights at El Dorado and walked next door to Gringo Mike’s for a quiet dinner for one.

Monday. My schedule was clear, which usually invites overwhelm as to do lists start to condense into the empty space. Blogging; what was it going to be like retreading old ground? I thought to myself “If I’m going to become an interesting writer, I need to be doing interesting things to write about.” I emailed Nikita to say I was interested in his bike and I would leave San Gil Monday to travel down to travel down to Cusco by bus. Imagination filled in the uncertain future story with scenes of bandits chasing me through the jungle and landslides washing me off the sides of mountains. Yes, it would be exciting but not in the way my mind paints it.

Tuesday morning and there was a knock on the door. It was 8 am but I was already awake. It was Mitch “Are you ready, we are having breakfast at Betty’s on the corner if you want to join us then we’ll go to the Finca, yeah?” “Yeah.” I got up and dressed and walked down to the cafe on the corner…

We stopped at La Palmita on the way to pick up some things and noticed Michael from New Zealand was there. He was part of my Aloha Ke Akua family and had arrived in San Gil yesterday. Miguel was staying at La Palmita so there was plenty of space for the Finca supplies, Mike and me.

Walking down the track from the entrance, I could see the guys had been busy. there were a number of new structures and the tents were now under cover since the ultraviolet rays cause them to leak after a time in the sun.

Connie was there laid out in the Maloka. She was reacting badly to the Kambo treatment and returned to San Gil with lack of energy and swollen lymph nodes. It seemed like a viral infection but she wasn’t sure. As the days past, her energy returned and she made a steady recovery.

There was steady activity in one of the new structures with new bamboo uprights being erected under a plastic roof. I helped Mitch with some cross members and retired to the Maloka after lunch while it rained. At the end of the day, there were 2 new sturdy bunk beds assembled and ready for guests, not realising that this was for me and Mike.

I felt very grateful but a little guilty that I didn’t put a little more effort into the assembly. All in all, I felt like I was home again.

Over in the trees, I noticed a bamboo framework of a new structure. This was going to be a permanent cabana for guests. This looked like an interesting project and I decided to commit myself to help with the construction while I was here. After all, it would only be three or four days work before I have to leave for Peru…

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Medellin: City of Eternal Spring

After the third day of rehydration, I felt strong enough to get moving although the headache was still with me. I ate an early breakfast but then made the mistake of going back to bed. It was approaching 11 when I awoke again. I had made up my mind to go to Medellin.

What’s there? Warm weather, that’s what. I wanted recuperation without the need for insulation. I could call myself a climate tourist now I guess.

Monserrate had been on my itinerary for Bogata for a while but today, I couldn’t be bothered only for a nice view. An extra 1500 ft elevation on top of this headache? No, I can google it later.

I packed my bag and arranged for an Uber ride to the bus terminal. I was out of here. The bus was due at 15.30 and I had no idea how long it would take to get to Medellin. It didn’t matter. I had a couple of hours at the bus station, long enough to down a couple of empanadas and a coke. Surprisingly, my headache had disappeared sometime before the arrival of the bus. Remembering a previous experience on a freezing bus I picked up a fleece blanket from one of the stores in the terminal. I felt better already.

The bus crawled its way through the Bogota traffic and into the countryside. The daylight was fading and we ascended into low cloud shrouding the Andean peaks. It was a grey-green Tolkien-like scene as we wound our way around the contours, westward toward Medellin behind groaning trucks hauling their load uphill or restraining it from running away downhill. The scenery was beautiful. Palm trees in a misty Welsh landscape would be the best way to describe it. I managed to get some sleep between the same old boring Vin Diesel movies dubbed in Spanish.

We arrived at the Medellin terminal shortly after 2am. It was warm enough outside just to bed down on a bench in the terminal for the night but the Cattleya hostel I had booked online during the journey was only a few km away. A cheap Uber trip later found me resting on cool white sheets over a soft bunk.

The proprietor had cheerfully put me in with a British couple that had only just gone out for food (at 3am). It would be a relief for easy conversation without grasping for foreign words and phrases for a change.

My roommates arrived with their takeaways and drinks seemingly less than impressed to find a new companion sharing their space. These Brits turned out to be a pretty glum couple and were not interested in introductions or social interaction and so I drifted off to sleep under the smell of cold pizza and muted youtube soundtracks on iPhones.

There’s nothing special about Brits. Personality has no affiliation to nationality. The cool atmosphere was enough to get me up and out of the hostel as soon as possible. I was up at first light for a good warm shower as it had been a few days since I had either the energy and the pleasure. It was still too early to hit the street so I went back to bed for a bonus nap.

Awaking with the sun shining more insistently through the curtains, I quietly packed my bag and left my slumbering companions with a quiet click of the door latch. The morning was like a perfect Spring day in England, warm and bright with the dappled shade from the trees lining the Colombian avenues and I soon settled on a corner table on the patio of a street cafe a block away.

I was up too late for the breakfast menu so opted for a long brunch of chicken and rice plus a couple of thick Mango juices. I actually felt hungry for the first time in days.

After a short walk, I was at Enso hostel, cheap but roomy with a large common area. It looked like a party hostel but didn’t seem too noisy. Mike was the gregarious proprietor, an ex-construction worker from Britain who had been here 9 years and taken over Enso in the last few months. He pointed to the Metro map painted on the wall and told me about the cable cars and Comuna 13, the site of the bloody “Operation Orion” drug offensive of 2002, basically a two-day war on the streets.

Enso was cheap, in a good location with a free breakfast. The communal area was a bright covered patio area ideal for catching up on my online work.

I already felt better in this climate. I didn’t do much the first few days apart from catch up on some blogging and revive the book I had started after the collapse of my marriage all those years ago. What was ahead of me? Mainly Thomas’s boat move from Martinique to Sardinia. I needed to get there for him next month so it was time to look into sorting that out.

The original agreement with Pantelisa was all flights paid so I contacted Toni to talk about a flight to Martinique. He felt offended I should ask and argued that I had decided to stay in Colombia. Apparently, ‘it doesn’t work like that.’ I guess it works how whoever says it does. An agreement is an agreement. They are either honoured or broken.

It doesn’t matter, I would have done the voyage anyway.

I contacted Thomas to ask what his arrangements were and he told me that work and home commitments now prevented the voyage. So the trip homeward bound was off. Like any unmet expectation, a gaping hole in my schedule had suddenly opened up. What was I going to do now? It is still cold back in the UK so I wouldn’t be going back before the April. There is time to think. Colombia is a cheap place to live while making plans. It would be easy to think “I’m stuck here.” But I’m not really. I simply found myself at a junction in time, with Medellin being not a bad junction to be. “What else is possible?” my friend Greg asks; a trick question since any answer becomes a limitation. That door remains open to see what opportunities roll by.

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ Alice speaks to Cheshire Cat               
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`–so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

The world is my oyster and I know not what I want. “Your path is infinitely long and wide,” Ayahuasca had told me “Do what you want.” Good, I’ll hang around the hostel for a few days then. There is no need for haste.

Enso hostel was proving to be annoyingly noisy. Not volume wise but quantity. How can anyone watch a movie and listen to rap at the same time? Hence the move to Samarian.

Samarian is a smaller and quieter hostel and promoted as a digital co-working venue with good WiFi and plenty of workspace. Just what I wanted. While there was a TV no-one used it while I was there and there was no music either. I indulged myself in reading, editing and writing.

Tanya, an attractive, petite and competent Colombian receptionist welcomed me with a smile and functional English. She ran the place almost single-handed every morning, cooked a nice breakfast and made really thick Mango juices. I ate eggs and avocado with Mango juice every morning.

I stayed at Samarian a week. The Atlantic voyage was off which left opportunities for the future but there were a few loose ends in Cartagena: bits and pieces I had left behind that Michael had kindly offered to take care of for me while I was away.These odds and ends were the only reason left for returning and, in hindsight, a mistake to leave behind.

Looking at the Metro map, Caribe station was right next to the bus terminal and Floresta was a short walk from Samarian Hostel. Trip advisor indicated the bus at 20:30 but I thought I’d get there early.

“16:30” said the ticket vendor. It was already 16:15 I boarded straight away. Fifteen hours later I was pulling into Cartagena in the morning rush hour.  The traffic was busy past the bus stop outside the Transport Terminal. Through the noise, I overheard a bus conductor say ‘Manga’ on a passing bus and I hopped on as it crawled by. Pantelisa was moored at Manga. I could find my way to the marina easy enough from there.

Michael was already aboard and Toni arrived a few minutes later Greetings were cordial but I didn’t feel particularly welcome. Pantelisa looked good and had some nice interior restyling. Toni and Michael went about their business while I gathered my things and returned to the bus terminal.

I bought a ticket to San Gil, it will be good to be amongst friends after this period of solitude. Now that these ties to Cartagena were tidied up, I relaxed back into the orange plastic seat at the bus station feeling a new level of freedom.

 

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