Puno – a drunk boat captain on Lake Titicaca, a crazy carnival Parade, and sunny Isla Tequile

After Cusco and Machu Pichu Austin didn’t have much time left so he and I took a night bus down to Puno, a town on Peru’s border right next to Lake Titicaca, the biggest (8,400 square kilometers) high-altitude (3,812 meters above sea level) lake in the world.

Night buses are almost more common than day buses in South America.

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Because of the continent’s massive size the time between one city and another is often 8-14 hours, making overnight sleeper buses the norm rather than the exception.  I avoided night buses like the plague in Southeast Asia because the sleeper seats there are designed for men with an average height of 5’4”, which can make for some very uncomfortable riding.

While night buses in South America are more comfortable than their Southeast Asian counterparts, there is some significant variance between the quality of the rides in the different countries of South America.  For example, more developed Argentina and Colombia had more comfortable (and much more expensive) sleeper buses than less developed (and less expensive) Bolivia.

One common thing that I didn’t really appreciate or understand about bus stations in South America was the bus ride tax.  Generally, after purchasing your bus ticket in a South American bus station (though this did not happen in Colombia or Ecuador) you must then get in a second line to pay a tax for your use of the station (your use of the bus leaving the station).

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In Cusco, to take a bus from its station, you must pay a tax of 1.3 Soles (roughly 50 cents)

If you fail to do this they won’t even let you outside the station to get to your bus.  While the tax is always something nominal I don’t understand why each city can’t simply integrate this cost into the cost of the ticket and then have each bus company simply pass this cost onto the customer in the form of increased ticket cost.

Instead of this more efficient solution, riders in South America stand in two lines, a system which is not only less time-efficient, but less cost-efficient.  The integration and cost-passing solution described above requires one line (less time) and one person to sell you the ticket (less cost).  The current system requires two lines (more time) and three people to administrate the system (more cost) – one to actually sell you the bus ticket, one to validate your ticket to show you’ve paid the tax, and then one to check to make sure your ticket has been validated before letting you on the bus.

While the integration solution may require a steep up-front cost to design a system to make sure bus companies aren’t skirting the tax for some of their passengers the savings over time would be worth it.  I’m guessing the up-front cost might be the hold-up.   In other words, maybe this is just another example of short-sighted South American business practices.   It is also possible that these bus station tax stands have long outgrown their historical necessity (maybe started when the station started) but have just become a part of the system.

Either way, on to Puno.

After some decent sleep on our overnight bus Austin arrived early in the morning and saw lots of people in the streets setting up what would be a festive carnival parade later that night.

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Like every good South American celebration it would have a Catholic element to it.

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Unfortunately, the only flute I saw being played in Peru was in Puno and it was not a Puruvian flute band or a Peruvian flute, but a random jam band with a typical metal flute.

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Austin only had two days left so we made the most of our first day in Puno, heading straight towards the shore of Lake Titicaca and passing several traditionally dressed Peruvian women on the way.

Traditional garb for women is colorful multilayered dresses and bowler hats

Traditional garb for women in Puno (and in most parts of Bolivia) includes colorful multilayered dresses and (usually) bowler hats

At the shore we hastily boarded a boat headed for Isla Tequile, one of the older and more beautiful Islands on Lake Titicaca and one letter away from sharing a name with the popular Jose Cuervo beverage.  It was not until after we boarded that we realized that we were on a boat full of locals.  All the better.

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Austin and I were two of the few tourists on the boat – the rest were locals (of Isla Tequile) heading back from a supply trip to Puno.  Aside from the annoying local music that played for over three hours straight, the ride with the locals was pleasant.

We found out why we were riding the local boat through a pamphlet they handed us. The pamphlet explained that we were supporting a “traditional rotation system” which allows the locals on Isla Tequila to spread the revenue from tourism between the different boat operators.

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But it seemed to Austin and I that the main thing we were supporting was binge drinking before noon.

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The locals’ “traditional rotation system” turned out to involve pouring about 4 ounces of beer into a plastic cup with the top torn off, drinking it down, then rotating the cup to the amigo or amiga to their right and repeating.

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The captain and several of his co-pilots (friends) had brought two full crates of two liter beer bottles and time of the day be damned  – they were going to finish both crates of beers before noon.

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Machu Picchu – a scramble around one of the seven wonders of the world

Austin and I were in Peru in February during rainy season. In February the “Inca Trail” hike that leads to Machu Picchu is closed. During this part of the season the only option is to take the train that leads through the jungle to Aguas Calientes, the town next to Machu Picchu.

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PERURAIL has a monopoly on transport to Machu Pichu but ironically, PERURAIL is not actually owned by Peru.  It is half owned by Britain and Chile, meaning Peru got screwed out of a lot of money that goes into transporting people to and from Machu Picchu.  At the time it was getting set up Peru simply did not have the resources to fund development of the rails so they leased the project to Britain and Chile.  Whoops.

Aguas Calientes is set next to the Rio Urabamba and is named after the natural hot springs that bubble up in the town. The town is more well known for being the town next to Machu Picchu. The town has been overrun with (and basically ruined by) tourism, which I’m guessing accounts for roughly 90% of the town’s economy.

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Guesthouses, hostels, and hotels generally expect people to stay only one night. Check out times are absurdly early because they know everyone is getting up early to see the ruins.  The ticket office opens early next to this Inca statue.

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The bus ride to Machu Picchu follows a long winding road up the steep mountainside.

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We had foggy weather and rain that day, which may have been a blessing in disguise.

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It was a different way to see the famous site in the clouds in the early morning, before too many people had crowded into it.

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After taking some time to take it all in, Austin and I hiked away from Machu Picchu towards Intipunku, or the “Sun Gate.”  The Sun Gate is the point at which hikers coming to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail first see Machu Picchu – unfortunately from the Sun Gate all we could see was clouds.

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We continued on past Intipunku for about 30 minutes until Austin realized we were going the reverse direction on the Inca Trail. I wanted to keep going – after all, who had ever done the Inca trail…in reverse? Austin did not share enthusiasm for my record-breaking idea.

Heading back towards Intipunku we had to scale a steep staircase that was pretty slippery in the rain.

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“Yeah, he must work out” -Loyd

When we got back to Machu Picchu the fog had cleared a bit which gave us a chance to take some fantastic shots that I’m sure no one had ever taken before.

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“In 33 words, Brown and Winnifords’ photography can be described as: unique, innovative, novel, inventive, creative, new, unusual, and imaginative – basically every word that appears in the drop down list after you right-hand click on the word “original” and then select “Synonyms” in MSword” – National Geographic

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After our inspirational and award-winning photos we wandered down into the mini-city.

Cusco – a Carnival battle in Plaza de Armas, a rookie fireworks mistake, and the Sacred Valley

Austin and I flew from Lima to Cusco, the city which most people use as a base for their trip to Machu Picchu.

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Cusco used to be one of the Inca empire’s greatest cities.  Walls built by the Incas still remain standing in the city today.  The legend goes that the sun god told the first Inca, Manco Capac, to find the “navel of the earth” and when Manco found it, he founded Cusco in that very spot.

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At the center of Plaza de Armas, Pachachutec, the ninth Inca ruler

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The view is even better at night

Besides Machu Picchu there are lots of great sites with Inca ruins in and around Cusco.  By purchasing el “Boleto Turistico Del Cusco” (Cusco tourist ticket) you can gain access to all of them.

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One of the first sites Austin and I visted was Saqsaywaman (which many tourists not-so-secretly refer to as Sexywoman…) because of its convenient proximity to Cusco.

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The climb to Saqsaywaman starts with a steep walk up Resbalosa Street.  Halfway up there is a good view over Cusco and Plaza de Armas, complete with an Alpaca head poking up.

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If you look close enough at the hill across Cusco you can see the phrase “Viva El Peru Glorioso” has been carved into the grass and shrubbery.

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Saqsaywaman is only a small part of a much bigger scheme conceptualized by Inca Pachachutec, the ninth Inca, who imagined Cusco in the shape of a Puma with Saqsaywaman as the head with 22 zigzagged walls representing the teeth.

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Today only one fifth of the original Saqsaywaman remains because it was the site of a huge battle.

After the Spaniards had begun their conquest over the Incas the Spaniards had put a puppet Inca ruler named Manco in Cusco. In 1536 Manco led a revolt and laid siege to the Spaniards at Saqsaywaman, which led to a nasty battle.

Lima – a reunion with AW, a counterfeit bill scammer, and hilarious times at the Point Hostel

I flew from Quito, Ecuador to Lima, Peru to meet Austin, a friend from high school who I had not seen in over 7 years.

Austin with Cerro San Cristobal in the background

Austin with Cerro San Cristobal in the background

Austin had just finished a job in NYC and while he was lamenting the fact he had to leave NYC, his place of residence for the past ten (I think) years, he was happy to have four weeks off before starting his next job.  He had decided to spend two of those weeks with me in Peru.  Our itinerary would include one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu, but we started in Lima, Peru’s capital.

Austin and I had been on a high-school-organized trip to Spain 13 years prior where we had mastered critical Spanish conversational pieces such as “un mas cerveza, por favor” (one more beer, please) and “I’ll have the … bacalao” (I’ll have the … cod).

Thirteen years later our Spanish tongues were put to the test again in Peru, where we quickly discovered that we were just as bad in Peru as we were in Spain.

Austin and I stayed in an area in Peru called “Barranco”, well known for its good nightlife.  Near our hostel was a public beach that was honestly pretty lousy but still made for a good spot to throw some frisbee around.

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Austin and I were staying at a hostel called “The Point”, a hostel chain in Peru (locations also in Cuzco, Mancora Beach and Arequipa) famous for its Partytime, Excellent! atmosphere.  The types of backpackers that stay at the Point Hostel are generally not interested in seeing the city or gaining any appreciation for the culture, the main reason they are there is to party.

These are exactly the types of hostels and backpackers that I usually try to avoid but having Austin there made it a riot.  To give you an example of the type of people that stay at the Point, we met two guys from Sweden who had been staying at Point Hostels for over six weeks.  When we met them they told us that they had spent four weeks at The Point in Cuzco and already two weeks at the Point in Lima.

I think part of the reason that they were unable to get out is that they were perpetually high, spending nearly all their waking time in the back courtyard smoking a joint.  Every day they kept telling us that they would be leaving “tomorrow”, just as soon as they were able to rent a car … without a license.  They were nice guys though and I think the day that Austin and I left they finally made it out.

We also met two interesting New Yorkers staying at the Point.  When they asked us where we were from, I said “Wisconsin” and Austin said “New York” but we mentioned that we were both originally from Iowa.  In response one of them wanted to argue with us that Austin was not “from” New York because he was not born there.

He was upset that someone that had moved to New York and lived there for 10 years would have the audacity to say he was from New York when introducing himself at an international hostel. In contrast, according to him these guys were “real” New Yorkers because they were born there.  They weren’t all bad though – I think they were just trying to be friendly, New York City style.

One of the two – a former sexiest man/firefighter in New York who I will call “Polo” (I can’t remember the exact title but he was the sexiest something in New York at one point) – perpetually had his shirt off, particularly if there were any females in the courtyard present.

We met Polo and his friend when we checked in around 2pm – the two were just finishing their night up and still quite drunk.  Two days later after finishing another all-nighter Polo walked in looking very upset.  We later found out that he had had his iPhone stolen that night.  As Austin pointed out, though we had only known him for 48 hours, we had never seen Polo look so distraught.

The characters we met at the Point Hostel may have been the most entertaining thing about Lima, Peru.  Sights/culture/character-wise, Lima was my least favorite South American capital city.  However, being with Austin made it the most enjoyable time I spent in any South American capital city.  And Lima was not without great cultural highlights.

For instance, there was a Pisco Sour tasting event going on in Barranco while we were there.

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Pisco Sour is a popular drink in Peru and South America and from the different stalls you could taste the different brands.

There was also some live music at the event, though my attempts to get the crowd get more involved fell quite flatly.

There were also some great food vendors at the event.   I’m not a sweet-tooth but these fried donut-type things, topped with a healthy drizzling of syrup, were awesome.  But not for my arteries.

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Austin and I also ventured in central Lima.  Our first stop was at the Monasterio de San Francisco, one of Lima’s best preserved churches.

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The monastery has massive underground catacombs which contain an incredible 70,000 burials of monks and other religious folk.  There are tons of bones to look at, if you’re into that sort of thing, the “highlight” (if I can call it that) being a well with hundreds of skulls stacked at the bottom.