Myanmar (part 1)

Yangon

Yangon

More Yangon

More Yangon

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Myanmar was like nowhere we’ve ever been, and it’s tough to imagine finding somewhere like it in the future. Rarely in our past travels have we seen such beautiful places, and we’ve flat-out never before met people so genuinely friendly and welcoming as they were there.

cave near Hpa An

cave near Hpa An

 

Walking toward Shwedegan Pagoda

Walking toward Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Stepping off the plane in Yangon, we breathed in deep and found ourselves reunited with an old friend: warm, humid air scented liberally with cheap chemical cleaning fluids. It was like coming home. The only smell more evocative of travel for us is Trash Fire, which in developing countries is a universal smell spiked with burning plastic. I admit I’ve also intentionally breathed it in and smiled- then coughed.

 

cave stupa

cave stupa

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

We’d pre-booked a hotel for our first couple nights with a free airport pickup, and the kid holding the sign with our names took us outside, gave us the sign to hold and left. We uncertainly waited for the actual driver, who soon arrived sporting a smelly bottle labeled “Fashion Perfume” on his dashboard. At the hotel we sat on the terrace and from there Yangon looked like a Wes Anderson movie; the people and colors and action just too picturesque not to be artificial.

when the monkey reached for the food, the monk grabbed his hand and laughed while the monkey squealed and tried to escape

when the monkey reached for the food, the monk grabbed his hand and laughed while the monkey squealed and tried to escape

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Monks use technology too

Monks use technology too

Walking around the city felt crowded but friendly and very, very safe. The $2500 in cash we were carrying weight heavily in our pockets, but every tourist who comes to Myanmar has to carry all his money for the whole trip in crisp, unblemished and unfolded US dollars. Travelers checks are not accepted and ATM’s don’t work for international cards (this actually changed while we were there, in fact Myanmar just changed a lot while you were reading this paragraph). So every average tourist walking around is carrying at least a thousand dollars or so in cash, and everyone knows it, and yet no one is ever robbed.

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Even if we weren’t going to be robbed we had to be careful walking around town with all the erratic traffic, but even more dangerous were the unbelievably poor sidewalks. Assuming they weren’t occupied by parked cars, they always looked like they’d been hit by a terrible earthquake, and frequently had femur-breaking pits waiting to injure the unwary. Our guidebook warned that it wasn’t unheard of for people to fall into and disappear completely into these pits, sometimes filled with sewage! Carry a flashlight if you’re walking home at night…

 

rice fields around Hpa An

rice fields around Hpa An

Good food

Good food

 

good friends

good friends

Everywhere we looked we were reminded that we were in a very different place. Many people had sandalwood paste smeared onto their faces as a form of sunscreen. Both women and men mostly wore longyis which are basically simple skirts, but lots of the younger guys would jazz up their look with punk haircuts and loud fashionable looking deep v tee shirts. We passed a computer lab where a woman was photo-shopping a man’s head onto a body wearing a fancy three piece suit. Lines of monks walked by collecting food. At restaurants sometimes groups of waiters would surround us and watch us intently while we ate. We’d make motions implying how good the food was and they would look absurdly pleased. This was amazing.

 

Luxurious transport

Luxurious transport

A fine nutritious snack

A fine nutritious snack.  I tried my hardest but couldn’t figure out how to eat this..  even after the lady cut it up for me with a cleaver I couldn’t chew through it and gave up.

Incredible green colors in the rice fields

Incredible green colors in the rice fields

 

Seemingly every street corner was home to an outdoor teashop, consisting of tiny kindergarten sized plastic stools and tables gathered around a wood-fired stove. Teashops are ubiquitous throughout the country and were always a little mysterious to us in that the universal product on offer- Chinese style unsweetened green tea- is free. If we wanted some we’d sit down and be given a bottomless self-serve thermos of very good tea, and then have to figure out what to order that actually cost money. Typically this would be 30 cent packets of disgusting “three-in-one” (complete with sugar and creamer) instant coffee, which we eventually somehow came to enjoy. Usually snack style foods would also be available, but other times the workers would look at us like we were crazy when we asked them for food, saying “No, this is a tea shop!” Since the tea is free we’re not really sure how those places actually make money. Cups are not washed between customer uses but are instead kept in a bowl of water on the table, to better incubate hepatitis. One time a man sat down next to Denae and picked up her teacup- assuming it wasn’t being used currently- dumped out the contents on the ground and refilled it, drinking away.

fine dining at the bus station.  I sensibly opted for the squid

fine dining at the bus station. I sensibly opted for the squid

Mawlamyine

Mawlamyine

 

hundreds and hundreds were in these fields

hundreds and hundreds were in these fields

Myanmar is a devoutly Buddhist country and Yangon is home to its most important religious site: Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s an incredible place, with hundreds of shrines and buildings centered around a giant golden stupa. On the walk there some street urchin kids sold us some plastic bags to keep our shoes in, then started stroking Denae’s admirably porcelain-colored arms and furtively smelling her hair. Inside we watched a monk take photos of the stupa with his Ipad, while a horde of tourists took photos of a meditating monk. It felt circular. We strolled around, periodically sitting for a while and people watching, taking pictures and enjoying the changing light as the sun set… one of our best visits to a religious site ever.

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On a taxi ride we asked our driver what the giant empty looking building we’d just passed was, and he told us it was some kind of national volleyball stadium, and no volleyball was not a popular sport. By way of explanation he just shrugged, and grunted one word: “government.” I’m not going to write much anything about the craziness that is the Government of Myanmar, but it’s a military junta that over the past decades has been isolationist, abusive and totalitarian towards its citizens, oftentimes downright evil, and in general just kind of nuts. Like their decision some years ago to abruptly switch from driving on the left side of the road to the right, in order to distance themselves from the British colonial legacy. No matter that all the cars had steering wheels on the right side of the car, making passing- and kind of driving in general- an incredibly risky endeavor. On our first bus ride the driver sat, king-like, smoking a cigarette and keeping one eye on the road and one on the terrible locally produced movie playing on the TV above him. The spotter hanging out the left side of the bus would tell the driver when it was safe to pass and we’d barrel blindly around whatever oxcart or 1930’s looking vehicle we were currently stuck behind.

 

Golden rock

Golden rock

Golden rock

Golden rock

 

Stupas everywhere

Stupas everywhere

From Yangon we headed south to the Golden Rock, a giant boulder that by some geological quirk ended up perched in a gravity-defying spot on the top of a high ridge. It’s an important Buddhist holy site in Myanmar, and the faithful have covered the entire boulder with hammered gold leaf over the years. We reached the site on the back of a big truck crowded with other people, and were dropped off a 45 minute climb from the top of the ridge where we watched groups of four sweaty locals carrying up fat foreigners lounging in litters. We passed stands selling dried bear paws, goat heads and giant snake skins, sold for mysterious religious purposes.

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Traveling across the country on buses we’d constantly see golden pagoda tops poking out of the foliage in the distance- one guy scoffed when we mentioned this and said that they were just their churches, which I guess is true, but it still felt magical to us. In Mawlamyine we stayed at a 100 year old home made almost entirely of teak, taking our dinners at a restaurant called Help Grandmother Help Grandfather. Denae bought a longyi at the market from a group of tiny women who looked upset when they held the swatch of fabric up to her, obviously convinced it would never fit this pale behemoth despite the fact it was the size of a generous picnic blanket. They then took her downstairs to have an (entirely unnecessary) extra strip of fabric sewn on to lengthen it. When the desk clerk at our hotel saw her wearing it he shouted “congratulations!” from across the room, saying it was a Kayen (his ethnic group) design. Since then people from at least four other ethnic groups in Myanmar have claimed the design as their own, as have several Laotions. In Bangkok- where there must be lots of Burmese migrants- men kept grinning approvingly at Denae when she wore it and saying Mingalaba, the Burmese word for Hello. Amazing and fun reactions for a tube of patterned fabric.

 

Longyi seamstress

Longyi seamstress

the famous garment

the famous garment

 

Throughout our time in Myanmar groups of girls would look at Denae and turn to themselves, giggling and motioning at their noses. Then they’d turn to her and say “very beautiful.” Denae, who is gifted in the nasal department, thought they were making fun of her, but eventually someone told us that they really were complementing her. Whitening creams and the desire for Western features run strong here; she has an especially fine Western nose.

 

it ain't the Ritz...

it ain’t the Ritz…  $12 doesn’t buy you much of a room here

gas station

gas station

Every day we’d visit tea houses that always had a permanent patina of smoke on the walls, which came to seem like standard décor. We’d drink endless cups of tea and eat tea leaf salads made with fermented tea leaves, peanuts, chickpeas, garlic and god knows what else, apparently a popular snack for students looking for a caffeine pick-me-up. I wanted to try the local rum so I asked how much a shot cost, and was rather startled to learn it was about fifteen cents. Even more startling was that it was really good! A liter cost less than $2 and I suddenly liked Myanmar even more than before.

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rubber tree

rubber tree

rubber band factory

rubber band factory

 

As tourists we sometimes got the celebrity treatment. On a tour of Ogre Island near Mawlamyne we ended up at a Kayen New Year dance recital and were pushed through a huge crowd to the very front seats where we watched kids doing traditional dances and tried to look sufficiently dignified and appreciative for the dozens of people photographing and videotaping us, rather than the show. After lunch three men helped Denae wash her hands: no joke, one poured water from a bucket, one held the soap, and one held the towel. Which reminds me, in our experience Myanmar seemed entirely free of sexual harassment issues. Women were treated equally without any creepiness; if that hand-washing story were set in India I would have been looming over everyone threateningly to make sure no one got handsy.

rubber mats headed for sale

rubber mats headed for sale

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not our proudest moment

not our proudest moment

Thinking back on Myanmar what I remember most is this constant series of funny or bizarre occurrences. We bought a coconut and watched the most inept team of machete swingers ever try to cut it open sending coconut everywhere, then pick up the pieces from the dusty ground, rinse them off in greenish bucket water and hand them smilingly over to us, as happily expectant as Santa Claus delivering a pony. We were watching the sunset one evening and I looked over to see a dog with hideously swollen and bloody testicles had backed up and was nearly pressing them against Denae’s back. She was very unhappy.

Bamboo hats were $1 each

Bamboo hats were $1 each

don't ask me...

don’t ask me…

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Groups of ladies would see us and start laughing hysterically for no discernible reason other than our general appearance. This really happened all the time, almost every day, and thankfully always at least seemed good-natured. Everywhere were old ladies placidly smoking cigars like they were military generals. Betel nut vendors were on every corner, and both men and women would smile at us with their mouths oozing red juices through rotten teeth; a habit that makes chewing tobacco seem like high culture. Bus conductors handed out plastic bags before a journey, not as puke bags as we initially thought, but to spit betel juice into.

 

We walked 15 minutes through a cave and emerged here

We walked 15 minutes through a cave and emerged here

a 12 year old boy piloted us unsteadily through another water filled cave

a 12 year old boy piloted us unsteadily through another water filled cave

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Once a little girl ran up to us in a small village and gave us each a piece of candy, shook our hands and ran off. If you’ve never traveled in poor countries with their hordes of kids begging for pens and candy, you won’t be able to understand what a shockingly unusual experience that was.

 

To be continued…

Moray

Moray circular terrace

Moray circular terrace

Moray is another fun Sacred Valley archaeological site to visit.  We stopped here on our way back to Cusco from Ollantaytambo, which involved being dropped off our bus at a lonely intersection and hiring a taxi to take us ten or so miles to the ruins and back.

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clever step system between terrace levels

The scale of the place is bigger than it looks from above

The scale of the place is bigger than it looks from above

It’s believed that the concentric circle terraces at Moray were a kind of agricultural laboratory for the Incas, who used the incremental temperature variations that the depressions produced to study how seeds grew best under different conditions.  To us it felt like some kind of crazy amphitheater and we had a great time scampering  up and down the terrace levels.

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With the taxi driver waiting we only had an hour or so at the site, which ended up being just enough time to scramble down to the lowest level and entertain the group of people at the top by running around in a circle like a hamster.

At the intersection waiting for a ride back to Cusco

At the intersection waiting for a ride back to Cusco

Our driver dropped us off again at the highway intersection where we waited for a bus headed to Cusco, but we lucked out and a couple guys in a new minivan stopped and picked us up.  After all the crappy buses we’d been riding over the last couple of months the van felt like a limo, and we basked in the luxury all the way back to Cusco.

Ollantaytambo

At the Aguas Calientes train station

At the Aguas Calientes train station

From Aguas Calientes we caught a morning train to the small town of Ollantaytambo, which has been continuously occupied since Incan times and has some impressive and interesting ruins.  The town itself is pretty and mellow, and had quite a few nice looking cafes and tour agencies (several run by gringo expats) catering to the many tourists that come through here on the way to and from Machu Picchu.

Pretty deluxe by our standards

Pretty deluxe by our standards

Peaceful valley

Peaceful valley

Luckily we came through town at a quiet time and had fun walking through the back streets and checking out all the old buildings.  We ducked into a cave-like chicha bar in a side alley where two stoic local guys sat silently drinking and watching bizarre Andean music videos, notable for their low production values and lots of frolicking in pastures alongside handsome livestock.  The stern looking lady running the place barked that they only sold chicha here, obviously expecting us to leave, and only begrudgingly sold us chicha when we told her that was what we were after.  These are the kinds moments we love best when we travel.

Incan craftsmanship

Incan craftsmanship

The main archaeological site is at the edge of town and had some really cool water features and yet more fantastic Incan stonework.  We sat on one of the terraces for a long time and looked out on this beautiful, tranquil valley, surrounded by history and friendly people, and felt very lucky to be able to experience these types of places.

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These blocks are massive, many, many tons each

there were lots of water channels and fountains everywhere

there were lots of water channels and fountains everywhere

The town itself is really an archaeological site

The town itself is really an archaeological site; this is what most of the alleys looked like

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Machu Picchu

Our first look.

Waiting in line at the entrance to Machu Picchu.

It’s stunningly beautiful and immediately familiar; one of those places you’ve seen a thousand times in photos, which still don’t prepare you for how amazing the reality is. Words fail you when trying to describe it and you find yourself using a string of breathless adjectives: incredible, astonishing, gorgeous… It’s perched in the most impossibly rugged and uniquely picturesque setting imaginable, with thousand foot cliffs and rocky spires rising above a river gorge sitting far, far below. It’s not much of a riddle at this point- it’s Machu Picchu.

A steep terraced hillside.

Exploring

Like most people, we got to Machu Picchu from the access town of Aguas Calientes, which is only a kilometer or two away. The trip isn’t as easy as it sounds since most of that distance is vertical. It’s a long, exhausting climb up a seemingly never-ending series of stone steps and switchbacks from the town to the ruins, but it was a symbolic finish to the Salkantay Trek that we’d just completed and besides, the bus that most people take to avoid the climb costs US$8 per person. Spendthrifts! We woke up early enough to make it to the locked gate at the bottom of the trail by five in the morning where our tickets were checked and we elbowed our way into a large group of other travelers waiting to start the hike up. Once the gate opened the race was on and the faster hikers took off ahead of everyone else. We pushed ourselves but in the end it didn’t matter how quickly it took to hike to the top because once there we all ended up waiting in another line for the actual gates to Machu Picchu to open.

Amazing stonework.

Looking at Wayna Picchu.

It felt like ages before the entrance line started moving and once through we had to push past a bottle neck of people to even see anything, but finally we were rewarded with a perfect first view of Machu Picchu, empty except for the people around us. The houses and temples are made of a white granite that is cut so precisely that no mortar was used at all to fit the pieces together and an irrigation system of carved rock still works just as well today. All of this is set on a sharp mountain ridge sandwiched in between the two peaks of Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. On the other two sides of the ruins the bright green hillside falls off steeply down to the Urubamba river which meanders its way around a horseshoe bend far below.

The Temple of the Sun and the Urubamba River far below it.

We spent the next hour following our guide around while he gave us a general overview of the history and showed us a couple of the more important points. We were happy when our short tour was over and we could break off on our own and go exploring. One of the most fun aspects of a visit to Machu Picchu is that you can basically walk anywhere you want to; few areas are closed off and you can wander freely through most of the old structures and feel a little like Indiana Jones. One minute you are surrounded by hoards of people and the next you are alone in a 500 year old room without a person in sight.

View from Wayna Picchu of Machu Picchu and the road from Aguas Calientes.

The steep ruins at Wayna Picchu.

The previous long days of hiking and early mornings caught up with us pretty quick and before long we found a nice warm spot to take a twenty minute cat nap and absorb the scenery. We woke to a hum of background noise that was getting louder with each bus load of tourists that was dropped off. Purely by coincidence we had happened to reserve our spot to hike up Wayna Picchu at the same time that Machu Picchu started to feel a little crowded. Only a limited number of people are allowed to hike the trail each day so we reserved our spots when we booked our trek in Cusco. Compared to the hike from Aguas Calientes going up Wayna Picchu was a breeze. It only took us 45 minutes to reach the top and the views were amazing. It was the perfect place to unpack our lunch of homemade cheese, avocado, and tomato sandwiches. By the time we hiked back down the crowds seemed to have thinned out a little.

Balanced on a ridge.

We took our time exploring the buildings and temples and watching the spring water trickle down stone canals. It started to sprinkle on us a bit but we didn’t mind at all; we were having too much fun. When the sky cleared up we walked an easy trail to the Inca Bridge. The bridge is actually just a few logs spanning a twenty foot void of space purposefully left in the middle of an old Inca trail built against a sheer cliff face. The bridge could be removed to keep intruders from entering the Machu Picchu and put back when it was needed by the residents. It’s not possible to cross the bridge now since it was roped off after a tourist fell off and died a few years ago. Even if it was open to the public we probably would have passed on that thin trail where one little misstep would send you falling 1900 feet to the ground.

The Inca Bridge.

Clouds passing through.

When we returned to the main site it was about four in the afternoon and most of the people had cleared out. It was really peaceful and I think it was an even better time to enjoy the ruins than the early morning. We sat high up above the city watching the llamas mow the grass and the changing light of the afternoon playing off of the carved granite. We hated to go but finally had to start hiking down to Aguas Calientes before it got dark, a trip that was thankfully much easier on the return segment.

Inca stonework.

 

Salkantay Trek

The town where we started hiking

We love trekking (that’s backcountry walking to you Americans), and planned from the beginning to do a trek to reach Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately the famous Inca Trail has become a victim of its own popularity, and prices are now $500 to $600 per person for the four day trek, and that’s if you can get a spot; the better times of the year book solid six or more months in advance.  With all the budget travelers swarming around this area it’s no surprise that local outfitters have come up with a variety of cheaper and more readily available alternative routes to the classic Inca Trail.  The Salkantay trek, named after the dramatic 20,500 ft mountain that the trail passes by, is one of the more popular of these alternative routes.  It came strongly recommended by some people we’d met earlier on our trip, so we decided to give it a try.

Headed for the mountains

The trek is normally a five day affair, but after getting stuck in Bolivia for a while we were short on time and arranged to complete the trip in four days.  After shopping around for a while we concluded that most of the cheaper agencies were probably just getting commissions selling spots on the same bundled trips, so we booked with a nice guy we knew through our hotel.  It was a bit over $200 US, which was actually quite a bargain when factoring in the included expensive entrance fees to Machu Picchu, the return train ride, a night in a hotel, transport, food, English speaking guide, etc.

First night’s camp

headed for the pass

We were picked up early in the morning the first day from our hotel and driven to a small town in the foothills where we ate breakfast, organized our group and received a quick orientation.  The mules would carry about 15 pounds of gear per person, so we only had to carry a light day pack.  Our guide was a nice younger guy who spoke good English and had been guiding in the area for something like seven years; between the classic Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek he said he preferred the Salkantay due to less crowds and more dramatic mountain scenery.

At the pass

Sunscreen and bug spray applied, we started walking.  The first few hours of the trek were a bit undramatic, with decent but uninspiring views and the route following a dusty vehicle road, thankfully without a lot of traffic.  It was hot and after a while turned into a bit of a slog, interrupted by a tasty lunch and a fun break at a chicha shack.  Later in the afternoon as we gained elevation the views improved and the temperatures dropped, and we started enjoying ourselves.  Worn out but happy we stopped for the night in a dramatic valley, sleeping in tents set up inside a tarp pavilion to provide some wind protection.

cairns

Day two was the highlight of the trek.  We got up early, had a quick breakfast, and started a long climb up to the pass near Salkantay mountain, which our guide told us had never been successfully climbed, despite numerous attempts.  As we gained elevation the views kept improving, rivaling scenery from the Himalayas.  We love this kind of high altitude country; the air is so crisp and clear, and I always feel a little bit giddy… maybe it’s oxygen deprivation.  After a few hours of hard climbing we reached the pass.  Denae and I both felt great and were pleased to have made it pretty easily, as we’d read some reports of this being a very tough hike.

Our group

Salkantay was a dramatic presence up there, looming hugely very close by. We watched an avalanche stream down one of the snow faces, apparently a very common occurrence. There were a bunch of rock cairns built by hikers over the years, and we took a bunch of photos. Our guide performed a hokey but fun little Incan ceremony.

Lunch break

Heading down the other side of the pass we passed steeply through a dramatic valley with lots of pasture for high altitude animal grazing, with a few little hamlets of people here and there. As we quickly lost elevation the temperatures increased and the vegetation became thick. The trail ran high above a river as we hiked on, finally stopping for the night at a little village where our tents were set up in a field.

Heading out of the high altitude area


Day three was a long one. We were tired from the day before and the scenery was much less dramatic, so the hours of hiking didn’t pass as easily. The trail dead-ended at a small village where we had lunch, then loaded into a van for a half hour or so ride to get to the town where our group was staying the night at a campground. There was a hotspring nearby which sounded amazing, but this was where we paid for making this a four day trip instead of five. Instead of being done for the day and going for a soak, we said goodbye to our group and loaded into a taxi with an assistant guide for a short drive to a hydroelectric project/train depot. Here we joined a throng of other hikers walking alongside the train tracks. It was getting late in the afternoon and we were losing daylight, and our new guide set a blistering pace to try and make it to Aguas Calientes before nightfall. We were pretty worn out, so two hours later we were very happy to finally reach our destination.

Rough section of the trail

Aguas Calientes (hot waters, named for local hotsprings) is small town that exists almost solely to cater to the hordes of tourists visiting Machu Picchu, which is just up the hill from town. It’s packed with hotels and restaurants and bars, and is a little expensive as the only way to reach it is on foot or by train, which is also very expensive, hence our walk along the train tracks. Our guide dropped us off at a restaurant, where another guy led us to our hotel for the night which turned out to be a very nice place. We turned in early for the night, for once actually excited to wake up at 4am the following day: we were going to Machu Picchu!

 

The train station where we started walking along the tracks. We had the option of paying for a ticket but it was fairly expensive.

So how would we rate the Salkantay trek? Well, the second day was incredible, and the rest of it was decent. I would say it was definitely worth doing, and as far as cost it was a good value. However, years ago Denae hiked the classic Inca Trail, and remembers the way it felt like an incredible journey, culminating in the arrival at Machu Picchu. They entered through the Sun Gate, an uncrowded entrance that only Inca Trail hikers were able to use, and only saw Aguas Calientes after visiting the ruins. In comparison, it felt to us like the Salkantay trek was basically unrelated to Machu Picchu; a nice hike that happened to finish near an access point. Hiking alongside railroad tracks to get to Aguas Calientes, a town which is reachable to anyone with a train ticket, then taking the morning bus or walking up the hill to the ruins, is just not the same level of experience that Denae had. We were totally fine with it, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re deciding between the two trips.

Pretty scenery

Made it!

 

Eating cuy in Tipón

What greeted us in Tipón.

Freshly baked cuy.

No trip to the Andes would be complete without trying cuy, a traditional Andean dish better known in the grade school classrooms across America as guinea pig. There are a few different ways cuy can be prepared, oven roasted and fried are the most popular ways, and it seems to be something that is eaten on special occasions like a Sunday afternoon out with the family. Where we have brunch in the US, Cusqueñas have cuy.

A view of the hills, corn field, and outdoor dome oven.

Looking down into the valley.

We decided that if we were going to eat cuy we wanted to do it up like the locals and go just outside of Cusco to a town called Tipón that is renowned for its wealth of cuy restaurants. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were bombarded by women in aprons asking us if we were hungry for lunch. We chose a random lady and followed her up a dirt road to her family’s house where she sat us in some plastic chairs under a shade umbrella and brought us bottles of Coke and beer. The table had an amazing view down into the valley on one side and up towards some rolling hills on the other and was situated next to the domed clay oven where dozens of little guinea pigs were to meet their maker that day. The little animals were stuffed with a special local herb called huaycatay, baked whole in the oven, and served alongside stuffed peppers, noodles, and potatoes. The only thing that was a little disconcerting about the dish was the way the cuy was actually presented on the plate. The crispy little rodent is laying hairless on its side with its paws curled, nails still attached, and its teeth showing through a maniacal smile that has been frozen onto its face in death. They don’t taste bad, they are a little greasier and gamier than chicken, and much more flavorful. It just seemed to me to be a lot of work to eat for what little meat can be picked off of its tiny carcass.

Andy digging in.

Cuy stuffed with huaycatay herbs ready to be cooked.

The family who served us was very nice and the grandma and grandson were proud to show us the guinea pig cage when we asked if we could see it. It was their responsibility to raise the animals and the mom and granddaughter did most of the prep work and cooking for the Sunday rush. By the time we were leaving, the front yard restaurant had filled up with hungry families. It was a great little excursion and a fun way to try cuy.

Looking at the guinea pig cages.

The cutest dinner ever.

Pisac

Walking down a street in Pisac

An hour outside of Cusco is Pisac, an Andean village set on the banks of the Urubamba River. The streets are cobblestone, a large pisonay tree provides shade for the town’s plaza, and perched high up on a nearby hill is a large complex of Inca ruins surrounded by agricultural terracing. It is a beautiful place to visit on any day of the week but even more so on Sunday, the biggest market day. Sunday is also the day that a Quechuan mass is held in the local church drawing in worshipers from all over the countryside dressed in their finest traditional clothing.

The little white church in Pisac

Colorful woven cloth and awesome felt hats.

We found ourselves outside the white-washed church just before the service ended and enjoyed sitting in sun listening to the sounds of prayer and music floating from the open doors. Peering over the heads of the short Quechua women were a group of geared out French tourists on a group tour, digital SLRs in hand. The sea of Ex-Officio parted to let out the church goers who filed out wearing the most beautifully woven wool ponchos. The younger boys lined up for a photo op while blowing into their conch shell horns; only asking for a small tip in exchange for photos. Eventually the crowd dispersed as everyone started walking to the market or back to their homes. We joined the group of Peruvians heading towards the market until Andy felt a rough tap on his shoulder and some French words came flying at our way. Unsure of what the old guy wanted we continued walking with the group. He came up to us again and this time loudly told us in broken English to move out of the way because we were ruining the picture. We thought this was hilarious and after an eye roll we continued to ruin his photo. It seems ridiculous that one person’s experience is more important than another. People can get pushy on vacation wanting to get the perfect photo or have the perfect experience, but I’ve come to realize that my favorite photos and memories are the crooked ones where everyone looks exhausted and the real feeling of the place shines through.

The boys lined up blowing into conch shells.

Being located so close to Cusco, Pisac gets bombarded by tourists on market days, us included. Despite this Pisac is a very charming place and the market, although full of knick knacks made especially for us tourists, is still a functional one with locals buying produce and other necessities. The people we encountered seemed remarkably un-jaded by tourism which is something we found to be true throughout Peru. Most people we met seemed happy to see us, or at least didn’t mind that we were there, especially in the hole in the wall restaurants or small bars that we usually found.

The Pisac Sunday market.

In the market the first thing we did was hunt out the chicha stall. This one specialized in strawberry chicha and sold it in larger and smaller sizes. We wanted to fit in and be cool like all of the other regulars so we each ordered the large size which turned out to be about the size of my head. The glass was so big my hands looked like a child’s trying to fit around it. As we drank we watched a couple of market vendors come up and throw a few coins down before chugging a small glass and continuing on their way. At my feet was a woman selling herbs laid out on a blanket in separate piles. Each herb had a different curative property and she would tell anyone who asked which ones the needed to cure which ailment. Following the lead of the other stool sitting drinkers we each ordered a second chicha. No matter that is was delicious, it was still a hard task to fit all of that fermented corn into our bellies. A woman passed behind me and gave me a huge pat on the back announcing that “this girl is a drinker.” We managed to finish the second glass and say thank you before the chicha maker gave us a free half glass pour for good measure. It’s hard to turn down such a nice gesture and somehow we fit the last of it in.

Yummy strawberry chicha.

There were a lot of good options for street food in the market, so we decided to do a short hike to work up an appetite for lunch. We started off straight up hill towards the Pisac ruins passing a lot of incredible stone terraces. It didn’t take us long to get pretty tired and after an hour we turned around. We found out later that to hike to the top, explore the ruins, and hike back down is a five hour trip! If we had realized we could take a taxi to the ruins we may have done it, but as it was we still got to see some neat stone work and a great view down into the valley.

The start of the hike to the Pisac ruins.

Evening came too quickly and we didn’t feel ready to go back to Cusco, but the market was over and the buses were leaving. If we find ourselves back in Pisac I think we may just take the time to spend a night.

Cusco

Cusco’s central plaza

After two long days and nights of bus journeying coming from Sucre, Bolivia, we found ourselves bleary-eyed and half awake at 4am at the bus station in Cusco, Peru. We quickly gave up any illusions of money-saving independence and asked one of the many touts in the bus station what he had available for cheap hotels. We knew we’d be paying a commission, and at that point didn’t care; we needed a room badly. After bitter negotiations with a taxi driver who acted like we were stealing his last cent by talking him down to a previously suggested price, the man drove us less than two minutes to our hotel, where I begrudgingly paid him his still-inflated fee and we finally got some sleep. Sounds fun, right? It is, kind of…

Central Plaza again

Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire and today is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Peru. Part of the attraction is that it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, but Cusco stands up as a wonderful place to visit on its own. It’s packed with history from a whole series of cultures, most notably the Incas and the colonial Spanish, both of whom considered it a very important city and whose architectural styles combined to make a very interesting place. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s Cusco was already a large and prosperous city, and the conquering Spaniards proceeded to demolish much of it and rebuild in their own style. The Inca were amazing architects and stone-workers, though, so many of the existing walls were left in place and reused as bases and foundations for the new buildings. Many have survived repeated earthquakes over the centuries and remain to this day, and it’s pretty cool to see such giant rocks fitted so precisely together, all somehow done without modern machinery.

this kind of incredible stonework is everywhere

Girls take out their llamas to pose for tourists pictures to make a little money; we were happy to oblige

Cusco’s historic center is downright beautiful, filled with stunning architecture and serene plazas. It’s so pretty it almost seems cliché, and is the kind of place you can wander randomly for days and still chance upon a little fountain or square you didn’t know existed. There’s tons of shopping for artisan goods, some of it at decent prices, good restaurants for all tastes and budgets, and a variety of neighborhoods that range from glitzy to bohemian to sketchy. It is very touristy some areas and there are plenty of dottering oldies that would make an REI salesman drool, but it’s a fairly large town and never felt overrun to us. With so many tourists it’s no surprise that Cusco is more expensive than most other towns we visited in Peru (other than Lima), but it wasn’t too bad and we liked it a lot. The hotel we ended up at was about $20 US per night with free breakfast, and came complete with the ugliest mostly hairless dog we’ve ever seen. It had a few tufts of hair in random places and we thought it had some kind of disease, but someone later told us this is a prized Peruvian breed and to never speak badly of them to a local. We were a twenty minute walk outside the center of town which was a little annoying sometimes, but right next to a local market where meals were cheap and Denae finally found the nice wool cowboy hat she’d been looking searching so long for.

Cusco is a pretty place

­We spent our time wandering through town checking out all the great architecture, sampling the food options and doing some shopping. Probably the most interesting food we ate was a simple boiled ear of corn, but this wasn’t the typical sweet corn you get where we’re from in the US. Here the kernels are giant, almost fingertip sized, and have an almost potato-like taste and texture. One ear of corn is a true meal, and it helped me better understand the way corn was such a cornerstone of the indigenous diet throughout the Americas. There are some interesting museums in town and we went to most of them, thanks to the “Tourist Ticket” that Cusco sells. This rather annoying system forces tourists to buy one ticket (pretty expensive at about $45 US each) good for a bunch of different attractions in Cusco and the surrounding area. To get the value out of it you really need to visit most of the places, which turned out okay for us as they were mostly worthwhile, but I still prefer to be able to pick and choose individually what I want to pay to see.

The giant-kerneled corn

Some kind of meeting was going on

One of the highlights of Cusco is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced similarly to and near-universally remembered as “sexy woman”), an old Incan walled fortress on a hill overlooking town. The walls are made using the Inca’s characteristic architectural style: rocks shaped and fitted together with incredible precision, stacked together without mortar in such a way that they’ve endured for hundreds of years. The largest blocks are estimated to weigh up to a mind-boggling 200 tons each. The history here and throughout Cusco is a big part of what makes it such an incredible place. You can really see and feel the presence of the old cultures in a way that’s more obvious than most other places.

Giant stone blocks

Cusco was designed in the shape of a Puma, Sacsayhuaman was the teeth

more Sacsayhuaman

Arguably the best part of visiting Cusco is the ability to use it as a base and bus around the surrounding area, checking out the many attractions nearby. We took full advantage of this, but in the interest of organization we’ll post these day trips separately.

Oh no, the hippies have reached the Andean Highlands! Nowhere is safe!

Sucre

Sucre, The White City

It was such a relief to be out of Potosi. On this trip we pre-booked all of our flights so every day trapped behind roadblocks in southern Bolivia was eating away from our time in Peru. We only had enough time to spend one night in Sucre and although it was out of the way to get back to La Paz any movement felt like progress.

Good food in the central market.

Sucre is a wealthy feeling city with European architectural touches and lots of white washed churches scattered throughout. It was originally built as a retreat for the wealthy who had connections to the Potosi mine but wanted warmer weather and more orderly streets. It was the lowest elevation we had been at in weeks and we enjoyed the warmer weather. The whole place had a very tranquil feel to it.

All sorts of blended juices, they even have alfalfa juice.

We passed our time walking the streets and enjoying the parks. One of the larger parks, Parque Bolivar, had replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Arc du Triomphe adding to the European flair. Most of our meals we ate in the large market in the heart of town. Multiple little restaurants were packed side by side into a large room where women would wave us over to sit and eat. The set meals were inexpensive and tasty and we ordered them with peanut soup. For an after meal treat we would either have tumbo juice (a fruit similar to passion fruit) or jello topped with whipped egg whites dotted with ice flecks and sweetened with sugar. Sucre was quickly growing on us. We made the decision right then that if we can, we will return to study Spanish at one of the many cheap language schools and spend some time exploring the smaller towns in the area.

Parque Bolivar

On our second day we went to the bus station to try and sort out a ticket to get us somewhere closer to Peru. Surprisingly we were able to talk the sales girls into giving us a refund on our ticket for the bus from Potosi that never made it to La Paz and use it towards a bus from Sucre to La Paz. We had to wait until six that evening before getting word that the bus was okay to leave later that night. There were a few other Potosi refugees with us on the bus and we all looked at each other hoping that this might finally be the one to get us farther north.

Church steeples poking out above the roof tops.

That night we got two flat tires, each one making our Bolivian bus mates more nervous. We had made it out of Sucre and past Potosi but the more time we spent on the road the less likely we were to make it into La Paz before their roadblocks went up. We lost two and a half hours to the tire changes and despite everyone’s skepticism we made it into La Paz without any further trouble. We bought tickets to Peru immediately before anything else could go wrong.

Our amazing hotel, the Hotel San Francisco, had a great roof top hang out.

Potosi

I am rich Potosi.  Treasure of the world.  The king of all mountains, and the envy of all kings.” –from the Potosi coat of arms

Potosi steet, with the Cerro Rico looming in the background

Potosi was one of those places that, upon visiting and learning about it for the first time, made me feel more than a little ignorant for not having known about it before.  Honestly before reading our Bolivia guidebook I don’t think I’d ever heard or read the city’s name, which is crazy- it’s flat out one of the most historically important places in the Americas.

Back during the Spanish conquest of the new world, treasure was the Spaniards’ primary goal and Potosi was where they found the majority of it.  This isolated, windswept, airless (elevation 13,420 ft) place, by some quirk of geology, sits under the shadow of a large hill that in colonial times was so rich in silver that it was popularly believed to be made entirely of the precious metal.  This one hill, called the Cerro Rico or Rich Hill, funded an empire for centuries and dramatically changed the course of history.  Along the way Potosi became fabulously wealthy and grew to a population of 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.

Potosi

By some accounts, over the course of three centuries 137 million pounds of silver were mined from the Cerro Rico, much of it carried by llamas and mules to the coast for transport to Europe via the Spanish Main.  This vast wealth was a big part of the economic rise of Spain, and Europe as a whole.

It should come as no surprise that working conditions for the miners doing all the heavy lifting were pretty bad, but just how bad they were is pretty shocking.  Because of the general dangers of working underground and especially the toxic chemicals involved in the mining process, workers had an average of one year life expectancy in the mines.  Indigenous laborers were used up by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually African slaves were imported to die in the mines under unbelievably hellish conditions.  Estimates vary wildly, but one expert wrote that 8 million African and indigenous slaves died in the mines under Spanish rule.

Obviously there was a lot of money floating around Potosi back in the day, and it was used to build hundreds of over the top mansions and more grand churches and cathedrals than you can shake a stick at.  The official Spanish mint was located here.  Potosi was a wealthy, important city, but by 1800 the silver had mostly run out and so began the inevitable decline.

Today Potosi is anything but a rich place.  It’s still a mining town, but the thousands of miners now are their own bosses, working in self-owned cooperatives.  Unfortunately there aren’t a lot valuable minerals left and no one is getting wealthy by first world standards, although today’s high commodity prices are helping things out and the miners can make a pretty good living.  The hellish and primitive conditions sadly remain, and the decent money gained from a life of hard labor in the mines is offset by a good chance of being killed in an accident or a painful death from lung disease.

in the market, with one of the many churches in the background

Tourism is a big part of the economy in Potosi now, and there are many tour agencies that will take you on a tour of the mines.  This is not the safest thing in the world.  You have to remember in countries like Bolivia that there are often no regulatory agencies keeping an eye on things, and you just never really know whats going to happen.  You do your research and choose carefully, but you’re placing a lot of faith in a random guide and a lot of it comes down to luck.  Tromping around unregulated, unreinforced mine shafts hacked out by random guys, in an environment filled with chemicals and dynamite and toxic dusts is just inherently not the smartest thing in the world to do.  But it is a hell of an opportunity to see something unique and we weren’t going to miss it.

We did some research and decided on an outfit called Real Deal Tours, which we eventually figured out had been renamed Big Deal Tours after a business dispute.  It’s run by some ex-miners who used to work for a rival tour agency, but got fed up with poor treatment and started their own company.  Big Deal turned out to be a good choice, and was a decent price at about $13 us.  Our guide, Efraim, spoke good English and was a charismatic guy who seemed to be a personal friend to everybody we saw that day.  He was cracking jokes nonstop, and was actually pretty informative too.

Dynamite for sale, cheap. Anyone with the cash is welcome to buy as much as he wants

Before going to the mines themselves we stopped at a kind of miner’s supply store, which was packed with various tools, helmets and clothing, lights, and all kinds of other stuff.  You could buy a stick of dynamite, a fuse and detonator for less than $2 US, completely unregulated.  Efraim, already throwing around jokes about potential terrorism, threw a stick of dynamite at us.  Apparently it’s totally stable without a detonator…

Next we all bought giant bags of coca leaves for next to nothing, and had a snack of saltenas (a tasty meat pie) for about .15 cents each.  Bolivia is cheap!  We also picked up some bottles of juice to give to the miners.  It’s a smart tradition they have going, the tourists give gifts of coca and juice and whatnot to the miners, who are then always happy to see tourists, who would otherwise just be a huge annoyance I imagine.  Efraim also purchased some of the miner’s preferred hooch, a nearly 100% (200 proof) alcohol that sold for a pittance.

Efraim on the left, and the coca vendor in the middle

We checked out a refinery where they used machinery and chemicals to separate whatever minerals they could from the rubble hauled out of the mines.  It was a pretty nasty, dangerous place, filled with enough hazards to give an OSHA inspector a lifetime of horrible nightmares.  We found ourselves inching past roaring machines that would take off your head or hand in an instant, then send you falling down a story or two into a vat of noxious chemicals.  We had bandanas wrapped tightly around our faces against the chemical smell, which had a rather cancerous bouquet

Finally we found ourselves at the mine entrance, one of hundreds entering into the Cerro Rico, at all different elevations.  Supposedly the hill is so riddled with excavations that there is a real chance that some time in the future the entire hill will just implode like a collapsing volcano.  I tried not to think about that as we hunched over and walked into the darkness.  We were wearing thin protective outer clothes supplied by our tour company, along with rubber boots, helmets and headlamps.  As we walked deeper underground we found ourselves sloshing through shin-deep water, as temperatures rose and ceilings dropped.  I was stooped and claustrophobic; Efraim was in his element, babbling about how much he loved the mines and how at home he felt with the proud, hard working, vulgar miners.

inside the mine

The miners are a hardy bunch, putting in long hours of incredibly hard physical labor, and passing the time telling each other the nastiest dirty jokes you can imagine.  Every time we met one we’d hive him a big handful of coca leaves, which they chew endlessly for energy.  These are some course dudes, and Denae won their undying love by learning some dirty words in Quechua and randomly spouting them off.  The miners would cheer and tell her to wait while the found their friends and have her say it again.  They told me my plumbing must be broken because we didn’t have any kids.

There were crazy minerals in all different colors everywhere, and at one point I reached up to feel some feathery white crystals growing out of the tunnel ceiling.  “What is this,” I asked Efraim, “Salt?”  I was feeling the soft mineral between my fingers, where it turned to powder.  “No that’s arsenic,” he said.  “Wash your hands after the tour.”

men at work

Just walking through the mines was hard work, and deep inside the heat was pretty intense.  At one point Denae looked at me and asked if I was OK, and I realized that in fact I wasn’t feeling so great.  I pulled out our water bottle and effortlessly drank an entire liter of water.

Almost passing out by just doing their commute made me appreciate the work the miners do, shoveling tons of ore into carts and pushing them by hand outside where the ore can be transported to refineries.  We helped push a cart up some slight uphill sections and that is some hard labor.  Next up, we crawled through a particularly tight tunnel to find our way to Tio.

Tio

Tio (Spanish for Uncle) is the Devil, but he’s a semi-benevolent combination Christian/indigenous god to the miners, who say that Tio lives underground and therefore owns the minerals they seek.   Each mine contains a statue of Tio, and the one we visited was a scary looking life size Devil, complete with a giant erect penis.  Efraim poured a couple shots of the overproof booze on the ground, one for Tio and one for Pachamama, and forced us to take a shot of the nasty eye-watering liquid out of respect.  He put a lit cigarette in Tio’s mouth (this was a lot like San Simon in Guatemala) and told us about growing up in a mining family, and in the mines.  He said miners don’t drink Cafe con Leche, because milk is for babies.  And he used to wonder why his father chewed coca like a llama, but after entering the mines and finding the camaraderie and traditions he understood.

None too soon the tour was over and we found ourselves squinting in the sunlight, relieved to be out and trying to clear our flehmy throats after breathing in so much nasty dust and who knows what else.  Anyone who wants to learn to appreciate his crummy job more would do well to take a Bolivian mine tour, and he’ll be employee of the month in no time.

Outside the refinery, looking down at Potosi

We headed back to our $17/night hotel, which was expensive for us but the only cheap accommodation we’d been able to track down was downright dungeon-like and sketchy, so we’d ponied up for the decent place.  The bathroom still smelled strongly of sulfur, and after visiting the chemical filled refinery we decided to buy bottled water rather than treating the tap water with our Steripen like we usually do.

Exploring Potosi was fun.  There are something like 80 colonial era churches scattered around, and the picturesque streets are lined with grand old faded mansions and lots of cool architecture, always with the Cerro Rico looming in the distance.  The town square was pretty and every night had a bunch of things going on, from protesting miners to horrible high school marching bands who managed to be both off-tempo and off-key at the same time, although it didn’t seem to bother the large and enthusiastic crowds of onlookers.  People were out in droves every night despite the freezing high altitude temperatures.  There were plenty of fireworks around also, and we watched one guy shoot off a hand-held roman candle type thing and hit a pigeon sitting on the church facade.  Good fun!

faded grandeur

We did feel like the center of town was a little under-served by reasonably priced restaurants, but we located a nice tea lady in the market for our daily coca teas.  We also visited the Casa de Moneda (house of money) museum, which is a grand old building taking up an entire city block.  Built in 1757, this was the Spanish Mint for many years, and the original hardwood coin-presses that were turned by teams of mules were very cool to see.

After a couple days in town we were ready to move on, so we caught a cab to the bus station.  Unfortunately when we got there we found out the miners were striking and had blockaded all the roads leading out from Potosi.  This is a common thing in Bolivia, where striking seems to be almost a national pastime and blocking transit a good way of getting attention.  Resigned to another night in town, we headed back in and found a hotel with cable.  We spent the evening watching a marathon of Criminal Minds and chewing our leftover coca leaves, like llamas.

The next day we tried to get to a nearby hot spring but the transit strike made it impossible.  Denae wanted a wool True Grit hat like some of the local ladies wore, so we spent a lot of time trolling markets looking for one, but only found bowler style hats.  The ladies would encourage Denae to try them hoping to make a sale, but couldn’t hold back the laughter when they saw how ridiculous the gringa looked in the local attire.  Things just weren’t going our way, but then we stumbled upon a chicha stand selling the drink out of large dried hollow gourds.  The locals were amazed and happy to see gringos drinking chicha, and even though it wasn’t as good as in Peru we felt cheered up.

Back at the hostel we sat in the lobby using wifi and listened to other travelers trying to figure out how to get out of town.  I googled Potosi transit strike and read about a group of tourists getting stuck in town for two weeks (!) the year before by a similar strike.  We had some time constraints with a flight coming up and were feeling pretty discouraged.  Finally word came that there was a bus leaving that night for La Paz, that would definitely be able to pass through the strike.

So that night we were back in the bus station, arriving an hour early to be safe.  Finally the 9pm departure time arrived and we boarded the bus, and proceeded to… wait….  for an hour and a half, during which time half the Bolivians gave up and left.  Finally though we headed out, but only drove for ten minutes before we came to a huge traffic jam ending at the roadblock.  Everyone got out of the bus and walked around, trying to pass the time.  Later an earnest group of Bolivians came by, recruiting people to go and try to talk some sense into the miners.  If enough people asked nicely, surely they would let us by?  Nothing seemed to come of it though, and after a while everyone was back on the bus, trying to sleep and waiting it out.

Suddenly a young woman burst into the bus, shouting in Spanish “there’s just no reasoning with them, it’s no use!”  She looked around and said “Oh, I’m on the wrong flota” and scurried out.  At one point we heard the luggage compartment beneath the bus open and a man climbed in and closed the door behind him.  Worried about theft, someone went below to check what was going on and the man yelled at him, telling him to go away and let him sleep.  It was a weird, surreal night that passed slowly.

Later one of the other tourists on our bus burst in and said he’d been at the roadblock and a bus had busted through!  Apparently the driver just got fed up and gunned it straight at the protesters, who’d had to get out of the way and then thrown things at the bus as it sped away.  Potentially dangerous stuff.

Finally around 3am we turned around in defeat and headed back to the bus station.  We got in a taxi to head back to town, but on the way I thought to ask the driver if there were any collectivos or anything that were leaving for Sucre that night, a possibility we’d heard about earlier.  He said there were, and even though we were tired and discouraged we decided to give it a try.  The driver dropped us off a the right place, and we got lucky and were the last two people to fill a waiting minivan, and a few minutes later were on our way out of town on some kind of back route.   Three hours later we were in Sucre, searching for a hostel to finally get some damn sleep as the sun came up.