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Saturday, 9 December 2017

Peru's Amazing Bus System

One very interesting aspect of traveling in Peru is its awesome bus system.

I've seen nice buses in places like Turkey. Bolivia also comes close, though is poorer, and has not invested quite as much in its infrastructure. But for this blog I'll focus on my experience in Peru.
An ice-capped stop on our 8 hour bus to Huaraz, Peru
Almost every bus ride to a new place, is filled with spectacular scenery - deserts of Bolivia

Peru is dominated by the Andes, always making for scenic bus rides

Peru has large central bus terminals in all of its major cities, such as Lima, Arequipa and Cusco, and these terminals look a lot like the airport terminals in, for example, Canada.

And like our airport terminals, Peru's bus terminals are crammed with booths from different bus companies clamoring for your business, their employees shouting out the names of cities you are heading to. This happens especially in Bolivia. It's a unique experience, though a bit annoying to hear the sounds of "Orurooo! Oruro-ruro-rurooo!" endlessly echoing through bus terminals.

A busy night in the La Paz, Bolivia bus terminal

On this chaotic night, my checked backpack nearly left on a different bus!
However, in this way, bus transportation here is competitive in the true sense of a free market. Prices are fair, many routes are offered, and on board services such as comfortable fully reclining seats are available.
A typical overnight bus
There are many reasons I've noticed that explain Peru's superior bus system to say, Canada and Europe.

First off, Peru doesn't have an extensive rail network. The automobile came on the scene before it had a chance to expand. Europe, by contrast, has fully integrated rail networks that move people quickly and cheaply, reducing the need for buses that are slower and shakier on busy, bumpy roads.

Secondly, Peru has a relatively poor economy, indicative of a low rate of private car ownership. Very few people, let alone families, own cars. In contrast, most adults I know in Canada have their own private cars just to themselves! I'm no exception. I have had the privilege and luxury of driving from Toronto to Calgary (a 3 to 4 day car trip) or back, four times - two round trips.

The accessibility for Canadians to drive literally anywhere quickly and smoothly in the country is precisely the reason the bus system is poor - low demand. Combine that with one of the lowest population densities in the world, and the bus system faces severe constraints. There is only one nationwide bus company - Greyhound - which means there is limited competition to drive pricing down and quality up.

Unfortunately, the low demand still indicates the presence of some demand. The poor bus system does rob passengers of cheaper options to travel within Canada - a bit of a chicken and egg issue.

Peru's intra-city bus system is also supported by an amazing local bus system. One of the advantages to the low car ownership rate is that the roads are not choked by commuters, and the local buses move with incredible efficiency.

Peru's local transportation is highly decentralized, with an offering of individually operated microbuses that look like large vans, all offering their own routes, and letting you hop on and off wherever you want, unlike Canada's municipally operated massive buses with set routes and stops. These are traits indicative of the strength of economies, and can be observed in many places beyond Peru and Canada.
One of the more uniquely designed microbuses in Sucre, Bolivia
Passenger quickly hopping on a microbus

The hop on and hop off anywhere system is probably the most unique and differentiating trait between Canada and Peru. As a passenger you can simply walk to the main road and stick out your thumb. Microbuses are on the lookout to pick you up before another one gets to you first. In this system, the passenger is king.

The local microbuses are supported by mototaxis, tiny three wheeled vehicles, and conventional car taxis. In the jungle town Rurrenabaque, mototaxis are motorcycles that let you ride on the back of the driver.
This motorcycle transports the whole family - Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Peru's mostly mountainous highway network hasn't hindered the success its bus system. Some of the more raw mountain roads are enough to make travelers dizzy and fear for their lives, as buses scream around blind, sharp turns.

The world's most dangerous road, though in Bolivia, had for some years the highest death rate. While they are in the process of paving a new, safer road on the other side of this magnificent valley, tours can take travelers down the most dangerous road by mountain bike, a thrilling experience.
This bus is specially designed for the bumpy, windy ride on the world's most dangerous road

The World's Most Dangerous Tour bike tour

Spectacular scenery from the new road, which replaced the World's Most Dangerous Road

Canada has much to learn from the efficiency and organization of the bus system of Peru. At the same time it has geographical and population constraints that limit the effectiveness of its system.

And while the informal hop on, hop off system works great in Peru, as well as in India where I've seen it, I can see how it would wreak havoc in Canadian cities. Because so many Canadians individually commute, such as in Toronto where I live, the road network simply cannot handle the volume. Horrible traffic is one of the most heated issues in busy, fast paced Toronto. Throw in a system where buses can stop wherever they want, and commuters would be incensed.
Lima, a huge city of 10 million, with some rich districts, is, like Toronto, choked with traffic

Then again, if buses were allowed to stop anywhere, and passengers could get on buses anywhere, it could incentivize drivers to get out of their cars, which is exactly what municipalities in traffic choked cities like Toronto are trying to do these days.

Until I return home to Toronto and start complaining about traffic again, I'll enjoy my efficient yet bumpy local bus rides in Peru!

Whoa, I'm back to Canada soon!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

History Before My Eyes - Machu Picchu

After trekking almost 90 km over 5 days with a huge pack on the epic Salkantay Trek (click for previous blog and pics), I was finally exactly where I wanted to be - camping underneath the Machu Picchu - one of the most magnificent places in the world, the pinnacle of human archaeology set in unparalleled natural beauty.
Salkantay Trek - 2 days before Machu Picchu, and I can already see it!

Camping under the Machu Picchu

My legs were quite fatigued after logging massive kilometres from not only the Salkantay Trek, but also the grueling Alpamayo Trek that preceded it. But despite this, they were also stronger than ever from all that exercise. And now that I was without my backpack, I felt fast and free as a bird!

Hanga joined me by vehicle transportation, since she had fallen ill and couldn't do the Salkantay Trek with me. We got a very early start for Machu Picchu, leaving camp before 5 am! I was off and racing up the mountain with extra boost from my hiking poles.

We reached Machu Picchu just after 6 am, the opening time, joining a huge throng of excited tourists. It was still really cloudy and foggy out, like one of those Chinese style murals - really pretty, but we couldn't see anything in front of us! Still, it was really early and we were confident the fog would eventually burn up with the morning sun.

However, the fog persisted. And persisted... and then it started to rain. How frustrating... this was the only cloudy and rainy morning I experienced after 4 weeks of travelling in Peru - and it was on Machu Picchu day!
6 am - besides occasional glimpses, the fog and rain obscured the Machu Picchu all morning...
Our rain gear wasn't great, so we took refuge under a straw shelter, which soon got packed by other disappointed tourists. All I could do was stare angry and helplessly out from under the straw roof at the depressing rain.

Minutes turned to hours, and frustration snowballed inside me. Soon I was experiencing the worst first world problems of my life - I have been waiting to see Machu Picchu for what felt like all my life, and when the day finally came, I couldn't see a thing!

By 10 am, the rain was still falling and we still had seen nothing. And Hanga and I had an appointment we couldn't miss - we pre-booked access to climb Huayna Picchu Mountain. We felt we had nothing left to lose, so we forged out into the rain to the access gate for the mountain.

Fuelled by the frustration of 4 hours of hiding from the rain, I climbed furiously up the very steep mountain, passing by tired tourists. I summited in under an hour, and met what could be an amazing view, but was obscured by clouds.

11 am - at the summit of Huayna Picchu! But there's still nothing to see...
The fog is finally beginning to lift. We hold our breaths...
Suddenly though a patch of cloud lifted here, revealing a distant valley below. We decided to wait it out a bit. Slowly, patch by patch of the fog lifted, and the view came together slowly like a puzzle revealing itself. Hope began stirring within my loins...

Only a few fog patches are now obscuring Machu Picchu!

The fog finally completely lifted - all is revealed!
At long last, nearly 5 aching hours after we got here, Machu Picchu finally revealed itself to us, and it was truly an amazing sight to see - a one of a kind place on earth!
Watch my time lapse from this spot - click here

There are truly no words to describe Machu Picchu. Despite being very touristy and relatively expensive (~$85 CAD) for the budget of a long term backpacker, it's one of those places everybody should see in their lifetime regardless of who they are and where they come from. I felt touched to have witnessed such a miracle on earth and gratitude for finally having this experience I've sought for years.

I also felt dramatic relief - this trip had already been quite the soap opera for Hanga and I, and the first half of the Machu Picchu visit was pure frustration and impatience, a reminder of the bad luck that seemed to shadow us - until the fog finally lifted. If it hadn't been for that, I might have left MP angry and disappointed.

Besides the ruins, I was completely and thoroughly humbled by the grandeur of the natural setting of Machu Picchu, and the will of the Inca people to build their civilization in such an isolated, difficult spot. Alas, they never finished building Machu Picchu, and had to abandon it for a reason I believe experts have yet to determine. This fact makes it all the more spectacular.
Please watch my insightful Barefoot Video Blog! - click here
It was difficult to have to leave Machu Picchu. I could have sat above its magical ruins and admired it all day. I at least had time to record my second videoblog!

But it was time to move on... my next adventure was waiting in mystifying and raw Bolivia!

Friday, 10 November 2017

Salkantay Trek - Redemption Trail to Machu Picchu

After getting seriously humbled by the Alpamayo Trek, aborting the trek halfway through, Hanga and I were taking our upcoming trek very seriously.

And there was no avoiding it - we booked Machu Picchu (MP) a month ago, and the Salkantay Trek ends at MP.

I spent quite a bit of time and energy gathering information and preparing my gear for the trek. Anticipation was running high, as well as confidence that we can pull through this time.

Unfortunately Hanga came down with the flu a few days before the trek. At this point I was too anxious to start, and Hanga understood. She lent me her tent, and I took off for Salkantay on my own.

From my hostel in Cusco, I found a bus to the village Mollepata. By some good fortune, from there a shared taxi took me to a camp further up the road for a local's price, giving me a significant head start for Day 1.
Morning of Day 1 - ascent from the village Mollepata

I slept sporadically, overcome by anxiety and anticipation. The next morning I woke to a vivid sunrise, and I was ready to go!

Because of Salkantay being a shorter trek than Alpamayo, the hope of more amenities on the way, and more frugal packing, my pack, despite being around 18 kg, was much lighter and easier to carry.

I got up at sun rise just before 5 am and was packed and flying out of the gate in an hour. Due to the head start of my campsite, I made it to my Day 1 destination, Soraypampa, by just 10 am! I couldn't believe it.
My first glimpse of snow capped mountains, just 3 hours into the trek!
I was so early, I went for a side trek to the amazing Lake Humantay, joining many one day bus tour groups.
Lake Humantay!

I packed enough food with me for my trek, but decided to purchase a hearty lunch in Soraypampa, then huffed it to a campsite further up the mountain to get a headstart for tomorrow, the toughest day of the trek.

Morning of Day 2 I was off bright and early, chasing the peak of dazzling Mt. Salkantay.
Click here for my time lapse of me putting up my tent under this mountain!
3 hours or so up from my campsite - up close and personal with Mt. Salkantay!

Mt. Salkantay at 4,600 m was a revered mountain by the Inca

The Salkantay Trek so far was all it's hyped up to be. But unlike Alpamayo, where I was too tired to enjoy the sights in front of me, I took my time to soak in Mt. Salkantay up close and personal!

After ascending to the high point of Salkantay Pass it was all downhill from there - and I mean all downhill! I spent the next 5 hours literally running down the mountain until my legs scorched with pain. By the end of the day I descended 2400 m!

Regardless, I felt great about being ahead of schedule, and decided to keep pushing my pace to hit my Day 4 campsite by Day 3. You'll see why...
Descending 2400 m from mountains to jungle

A beautiful sunrise, morning of Day 3

By Day 3, I was down from mountain cool and into jungle heat. I forged on with the sun on my face and sweat on my brow.

I had encountered many guided trekking groups along the way, but I also criss crossed an unguided and unique pair - a Frenchman and a young Argentinian. We ended up hiking together for the rest of the day and were able to complete the steep final ascent to our stunning campsite one day ahead of schedule.
Day 3 walking in the jungle with a Frenchman and an Argentinian

Cooling down in the river

Pumping water from the stream with my MSR Micro Works filter
Morning of Day 4 - a breathtaking view with Machu Picchu in the distance!
Click here for another awesome time lapse of me packing up my tent!

Day 4 involved an easy descent and hike along a smooth road into Santa Teresa for a rest day with time to regenerate at the Cocalmayo Hot Springs!

At this point of the trek, I was already satisfied. It was the complete opposite experience from the Alpamayo, which I now associate with pain and suffering... It was redemption.
After hiking 90 km in 4 days, I rewarded my muscles with a soak in the Cocalmayo Hot Springs!

On the Alpamayo, we consistently fell short of expectations; on the Salkantay I was blowing expectations off the mountains. And I even realized I could have packed lighter - the trek was more developed than I had researched, and there was camping and food along much of the trail.

The Salkantay Trek was so beautiful, it's difficult to put into words. But the best part, the crowning jewel of the trek - Machu Picchu - was still to come (blog coming out on this very soon)!

All my best photos are posted here on my Flickr link!

PS. I will be writing a serious blog for trekkers considering the Salkantay Trek.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Alpamayo Trek - How I Ruined My Legs (and my Morale)

When I realized our grueling adventure was all but over, all the adrenaline that fueled my surge to the finish line drained from my body, leaving me a shell of who I was. I suddenly became aware of the cold in my bones and the exhaustion in every single muscle.

On the contrary to my own dwindling condition, upon arriving in the remote mountain village of Jancapampa, my friend Hanga excitedly approached the Quechua people, communicating in Spanish, in search of some kindness. It didn't take long - the first home took us in.

The family of this Quechua lady took us in, gave us shelter from the rain
And so ended what felt like a never ending saga - six grueling days in the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) of Peru, where by the end of the day, every step felt like my last.

Flickr photo album here

In our post trek chat, Hanga and I still aren't completely sure what went wrong. What we do know is there was not a whole lot of information out there on the Alpamayo Trek. And what information was available wasn't extremely reliable. But somehow the trek felt doable to us anyway.

In the end, the difference maker was in the weight we carried. Hanga and I each carried somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 kg on our backs - tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, food and extras all.

Unfortunately, none of the blogs we read from people who did the trek suggested how much weight they carried, so it was hard to make comparisons. We underestimated the impact all that weight would have on our speed and endurance.

The first day on the itinerary we followed was supposed to be relatively short - 5 km distance with around 500 m elevation gain, and around 5 hours to complete the journey. It ended up taking us over 6 hours, and we arrived at camp completely gassed! And it was only Day 1!

Sunset on Day 1
Day 2 and Day 3 were even longer, more testing days, again arriving at camp completely gassed very late in the day after a 10+ hr grind with too much weight on my back. At the end of each subsequent day we arrived more baffled and confused - the information didn't seem to line up with how difficult it actually was for us.

At this point altitude was also becoming an issue. We reached as high as 4,800 m elevation, and here were starting to feel short of breath and a bit nauseous. We were finishing each day a little more tired and sore all over, and beginning to question if we would be able to finish the trek at all. We were too tired to even enjoy the increasingly awesome scenery. Fortunately, our sleeping bags were sufficiently warm - some nights dropped to below zero.
End of Day 3, we encountered a trek group with guide and donkeys. We were very jealous of their big tent
By the end of Day 4, I huffed and puffed my way into camp, feeling so worn down physically and emotionally, I didn't think I would be able to walk the next day. I was dealing with a variety of pains and dry or chaffing skin or bug bites, affecting my legs, feet, hips, shoulders, back, elbows, fingernails, lips and eyes.

Day 4 camp

Somehow, almost miraculously, things started to change for me on Day 5.

We were slowly eating and reducing weight in our packs. Plus, that morning we threw out a bunch of this high density cake we made. It was packed with energy and nutrients, but it was so sugary we ate it half as quickly as planned. I immediately felt my pack getting lighter and easier to carry.

This sight on Day 5 gave us inspiration to move forward
Hanga was also feeling somehow energized, and both of us were suddenly hiking with vigour. We were making pretty good pace on Day 5 when we suddenly encountered a charming Quechua lady in a remote valley. She invited us to stay with her family in the valley and offered to cook us food. We had to think twice about it because we were finally hiking so well, but in the end, we took her up on her unique offer.

The Quechua lady's husband, son and daughter (half hiding)
Giving my body some much needed stretching, in front of the room the Quechua family gave us
That evening it rained and hailed like crazy, and we were grateful for the Quechua family's shelter. They cooked us fried pork innards, rice, and soup with pasta. It was revitalizing for the tired soul.

On the morning of Day 6 I took off with determination, feeling rested and inspired by our encounter with the Quechua family. But the day ahead would prove to put us back in our place.

The day started off with a difficult climb over a pass which looked like a big evil tooth. Once over the pass, a steep drop took us into a stunning valley. However, just when I was thinking we were getting over the hump, some new frustrations hit us.

We hit a forested patch in the trail filled with many different paths, obscuring the main trail. The steep terrain of the area combined with continuously losing the main trail really slowed progress and caused frustration to set in, causing me to curse like a sailor.

Then the rain hit. And it hit hard.

After a few hours, the rain was starting to soak through our jackets, and there was no sign of it stopping. We were worried that it would soon infiltrate our rain covers and soak into our backpacks.

It had already soaked into our consciousness, eroding our endurance and motivation. At some point during the rain, overcome by cold and exhaustion, we knew we were at the end of our rope. We knew there was a village ahead where we could exit the hike early. So we put our heads down and marched on through the relentless rain.
We eventually found the village

Hanga with the daughter of the Quechua family.
Guinea pigs the family keeps as pets and, later, dinner.
And so takes me back to the start of the blog. A shot of adrenaline surged me to the village where one family gave us refuge from the rain. By then I was shaking so much I thought I might be coming down with hypothermia. I was glad to have a shelter where I could change out of my drenched gear into dry clothes and sleep in a warm bed. The Quechua family even lent me one of their traditional wool ponchos to warm up in.

The next morning we found some local combis (micro buses) to take us out of the village, where we found a day bus back to the city and back to the warm safety of our hostel. We completed six days of hiking, and we took two days to complete one long day on the itinerary, so technically we only completed 5 out of 9 days of the Alpamayo trek.
A scenic pee break on the bus ride back to our hostel in Huaraz

While we definitely feel bad about not being able to finish the trek, we know we put in an amazing effort to get as far as we did. We pushed ourselves to our physical limits and learned not only how much pain and suffering our bodies are able to endure, but how able our bodies were able to adapt to the conditions. For example, our bodies eventually adapted to the high altitudes.

The Alpamayo Trek is filled with some truly beautiful and unique mountain views, and my encounters with the Quechua were also amazing. Despite this, I am honestly still not sure if it was worth the pain and suffering. I am still reeling and feeling quite traumatized by the experience, and surely do not want to go through such an experience again.

Moving forward, we have more treks planned, including an alternative trek to the Inca Trail to get to the Macchu Picchu. And we are taking steps to better prepare for it, specifically cutting as much weight as possible from our packs.

Flickr photo album here

PS. For readers who are actually thinking about doing this trek, I will write a technical version soon filled with detailed information and trek logistics.