High Adventure in the Andes

posted in: Peru | 1

Last time I wrote, we had been serendipitously stopped by a Carnival Parade and decided to spend six days in Abancay. The van had some maintenance that needed to be done – change transmission fluid and an oil change. We had a small issue with the car not starting sometimes so Abancay seemed like the perfect place to explore the problem. Mark had the starter solenoid rebuilt and now we have a problem with the starter relay which has resulted in a Keelean-Start every time we turn the car on.

Abancay was a very nice place. A city of 50,000 in the Andes 5 hours from Cusco and 24 hours from Lima, it was isolated yet really happening! More restaurants than Fairbanks, people out walking around and sitting in the many town squares, music everywhere – and all winding and twisting up steep (very steep) streets. On Valentine’s Day, we went out for the traditional Peruvian meal of broasted chicken and all you can eat french fries.

Abancay, Peru


Broasted Chicken & All You Can Eat French Fries on Valentines Day

Mark & I even got a date night in – we took a taxi and walked around and got some food – and I got pick pocketed! which was kind of exciting as nothing like this has ever happened to me and I had these aspirations of bitch slapping any pickpocket, taking them down and retaining my pocket contents. But of course it did not happen that way. Someone pressed up against me and unzipped my Colombia fleece jacket pocket and made off with an ancient cell phone I got for free that we used to keep in touch when we are apart. We have a few more of these ancient cell phones so it was not a big deal.  Still, exciting.

We left on Saturday morning, heading to Cusco and Machu Picchu!!  Machu Picchu, one of the new (?) Seven Wonders of the World.  You can’t go to Peru and not visit Machu Picchu!

We were a little conflicted about Machu Picchu. First, it was prohibitively expensive and complicated. There are only three ways to get to Machu Picchu as you cannot drive there but must take a train:
1. Take the train from Cusco to Agua Caliente ($144 RT each), spend the night in an overpriced hotel ($65 per person), $24 for the RT bus ticket from Agua Caliente to MP, $40 to get into the park, overnight in Agua Caliente again and the train back to Cusco. Total cost for Team DeCorso: $2696
2. Hike the Inka Trail which costs $400 per person and is a difficult hike at over 12,000 feet, then pay $40 to go to MP, $12 to take the bus to Agua Caliente, spend the night in an overpriced hotel ($65 per person) and take the only train back for $72. Total cost for Team DeCorso: $4712. However the Inka Trail is closed in late February. We would have to wait until March.  And then hike for 4 days with a 5 year old at 13,000 ft.
3. The most awesome way: 12 hour overnight combi ride to Santa Tersa ($4), a taxi to the hydroelectric station ($3) and either wait for the 8am train to Agua Caliente ($24 RT) or walk the 2.5 miles, camp in the woods (or overpriced hotel), walk to MP (no bus 3 hours there because it is all uphill but shorter on the way down) and pay $40 to enter the park. Total cost for Team DeCorso $346 – $1800 + significant pain & suffering.

One thing that really irritated me about all of this is that Peru effectively priced all Peruvians from ever visiting their national heritage site. There used to be two trains but now there is only one and it owned by the British. On top of the Disney World feeling this was giving us, you cannot bring food or water into MP and lunch is $36USD per person. Water is $8USD per bottle.  And they search your bags.

I was irritated with Machu Picchu.

Here was our plan: get to Cusco which is reportedly an amazing city for exploring, find a way to have a smart phone shipped, eat ostrich steaks (non-vegetarians), do laundry, and see if we could negotiate a cheaper price for option #1. It seemed like we could maybe get it down to $2000.   Which is still way, way too much.  Makes me a little sick.

We spent Saturday morning shopping at the market in Abancay, where we bought a chicken (neck and feet removed), potatoes, water and bread.

At the market…

Mark said good bye to the guys who had been hanging around watching him fix the car. They gave him a Fresno Brake Pad t-shirt with Abancay on the back. One guy teared up. We headed out.

We drove through fabulous Peruvian mountain scenery. It looked exactly like the cover of Jack’s Anthropology book.

Text Book for Anthropology

We stopped and ate lunch at a waterfall and the kids and the dogs scrambled up the boulders – but the gnats were bad and they bit so we didn’t stay too long.

Here is another interesting thing about Latin American cities – there is no sprawl. We coast through the Andean Altiplano, past llamas and sheep and wide expanses with a few mud brick houses and the GPS will say there is a city of 500,000 people in 3.5 miles. Suddenly there it is, all packed into one spot.

We made it to Cusco just as it got dark. We needed a good place to park overnight and we did not want to navigate this city of half a million people in the dark with the camper. The van headlight went out as we pulled into town and Mark pulled into a gas station to check it out. Lightning was flashing across the sky and it began to rain. The gas station attendant told us to park right where we were for the night.

It was not the best situation. We were parallel with the highway, about 20 feet from the road. Usually there are all kinds of tucked away places where trucks spend the night but this one was more like pulling over off the highway. The rain made the ground very muddy and the mud was deep red. But it was better than driving through Cusco with the trailer in the dark with one headlight in a storm.

We piled into the camper and began to make dinner. Making rice and pasta is much more difficult than I thought it would be at 12,500 ft. Water boils at 194 degrees so it doesn’t get hot enough so you have to cook things longer and that makes pasta be mushy and crunchy at the same time which we have taken to calling Andean Surprise.  It kind of loafs up into a starchy mass that oddly requires chewing.

We share a prepaid modem for internet and Cusco had 3G so Ryan and Jack promptly plugged it in and checked email. We are registered with the State Department and they send out information by email so we always check. I commandeered the internet and checked email really quick – lots of messages, another overlander who passed us near Tena, Ecuador said hello and another overlander had found our blog and sent me a message wondering if we could meet up in Bolivia. I had a short message from a friend mentioning problems in Peru and a State Department warning.

You have no idea how many people send us warning messages. We are forewarned about every place and every country.  In fact, my favorite blog for traveling the Americas is called Life Remotely (liferemotely.com – they are great!) and they have a pdf file of information you can download called “Don’t Go There – You’ll Die”.

So I was somewhat unconcerned about the message. There were no State Department emails. I had just talked to the Lima Embassy last week. I checked the warnings – none. I checked the alerts – none. I checked the Peru page – nothing. I checked Peru – Messages from the Embassy and, under Emergency Notices, was this:

Security Message for U.S. Citizens – Potential Kidnapping Threat in Cusco

Security Message for U.S. Citizens – Potential Kidnapping Threat in Cusco

U.S. Embassy Lima, Peru

February 13, 2013

The U.S. Embassy warns U.S. citizens of a potential kidnapping threat in the Cusco area.  The Embassy has received information that members of a criminal organization may be planning to kidnap U.S. citizen tourists in the Cusco and Machu Picchu area.  Possible targets and methods are not known and the threat is credible at least through the end of February 2013. For the moment, personal travel by U.S. Embassy personnel to the Cusco region, including Machu Picchu, has been prohibited and official travel is severely restricted as a result of this threat.

Review your personal security plans; remain aware of your surroundings, including local events; and monitor local news stations for updates.  Maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security and follow instructions of local authorities.

Shining Path (not our photos!)

As you can imagine, this changed the mood in the camper quite a bit.   A little more research pulled up a few stories and the criminal organization was none other than Shining Path!

As you all know from previous blog posts, we spent an afternoon in Lima at a museum exhibit on Shining Path viewing photographs developed from the cameras of murdered journalists – gritty black & white photos taken quickly of executions, piles of bodies, mass graves, bloody people. In case you have no urge to read Shining Path’s Wikipedia page, let me sum up: Rural Peruvians were poor, Peru was poorly governed, a larger remote community in the Andes (similar to Abancay) had a new university that had a philosophy professor that was a communist and he rallied the students to be communist. At first, it seemed genuinely about social change but then cocaine got involved and Shining Path began using coca leaves to finance the revolution. A lot of atrocities occurred. Shining Path was more or less wiped out in the late 1990’s but they have emerged again as a cocaine cartel. Peru is the global producer of coca. They ship it to Colombia. (Sidenote: Coca is a different plant than cocoa. We did not know that).  Shining Path has replaced Lord Voldermort (El Senor here) as the Evil Force when Sylvia and Annabelle play.

Shining Path Poster

One thing you have to remember is that we really stand out here. We are 54 feet long and have Alaska plates. We are pulled over right on the side of the road in Cusco.

Lightning flashes, rain hammers down, thunder rolls across the mountains and an unmarked white van with men in it pulls in front of us and parks. Vans like this are not common, I don’t think we have seen one. High adventure!!

I know Shining Path would most likely never kidnap 6 children (who would EVER want that? – but what if they did??) Being kidnapped by a terrorist cocaine drug cartel sounds unspeakably horrific. We decided to leave the next morning.

In the morning, the white van was gone, the sun was shining and we rolled out of Cusco, $2000  richer and having successfully evaded capture by Shining Path.

We drove along through the high altiplano, through very small towns and mostly wide expanses of wilderness.

High Altiplano driving along at 13,000 feet

It was Sunday so we stopped at the small town of Checacupa for the market. The little town had a bustling market and we bought a few kilos of pasta (so we could completely mess it up later cooking at 14,879 ft), some recycled shopping bags and presents for Soquel, Elsa and Jack S. We are so tall here, like giants. Ryan and Jack have to duck all the time.  Photos below are all taken by Jack!

Buying potatoes
We bought a wooden spoon here
Max buying kilos of pasta

I will never ever complain about shopping at Fred Myers or Sam’s Club again.  I know people romanticize the shopping / eating locally ideal but there are times I miss coconut milk, peanut butter and non-fresca cheese so much I could cry.  The kids are all whatever about the shopping – yep, someone’s butchering chickens right there next to the tomatoes, and is that a skinned dog or a llama?? and what is that squash thing being hacked apart by a machete?

Speaking of shopping, I am on a quest for fine Peruvian yarn, some wool or alpaca yarn like the kind I can buy in the US for so much money. No one here uses fine alpaca or wool yarn – why on earth would they? Acrylic yarn lasts much longer, doesn’t shrink, felt, pill or bleed, dries faster, isn’t itchy and is cheaper. Every time I ask, the women think I am crazy. They explain patiently to me the benefits of acrylic yarn and the woes of wool.  Plus, it comes dyed in neon colors.  They only export the wool and alpaca yarn because honestly who would ever knit with this but strange wealthy gringo women?  This has made me completely rethink my yarn priorities.  How hipster to knit in such an unpractical medium!

We left the market town after having lunch and continued to drive the high altiplano at 13,000 feet until we came to a place called Aguas Calientes – a lovely hot spring high in the Andes where we camped next to a stream and got a private hot spring to ourselves for 12 sols ($4.80 USD).  The hot springs cure everything! according to the sign and are infused with herbs and flowers.

However sitting in the hot springs at more than 14,000 feet makes you nearly pass out when you walk back.

In the morning, a small market was set up and several 55 gallon drums covered with mud that had been turned into ovens.  The Peru Rail train stopped at the tracks and offloaded people.  Sylvia and Annabelle bought stuffed alpacas.  We bought Uncle Eric a llama hat.  We can say that because Uncle Eric never, ever reads the blog so we are not ruining any surprise.

Ryan by the train
Great camping spot at the hot springs!


Llama hat for Uncle Eric modeled by Ryan
Annabelle & Sylvia bought two llamas from a little girl at the market

One Response

  1. Kay DeCorso

    Beautiful photos, amazing blog of Peru. So glad you followed the old
    adage …”when in doubt, err on the side of caution”!
    Take care and happy travels in the mountains. Love and hugs to all!

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