In Cusco, Adventure Awaits

Gasp! Cough! Try and get some air! Put your hand on your chest (hoping that will help). Bend at the waist and try to find Oxygen. Steady yourself – place your hand onto the giant stone walls and begin panting and almost laughing (but not too much, you don’t have much air in your lungs). Look around. You are are somewhere special. The navel of the world, as they say, is all around you. It just happens to be very high up.

11,172 feet to be exact.

Flying into Cusco, you start to see a valley come into view and your plane descends down between two ridges – the sun is bright and the land is all shades of brown, orange, and green. The clay-tile roofs everywhere. Unmistakably, you are about to enter the sacred valley of Cusco, Peru.

When we landed, the idea of finding such an interesting city was the farthest thing from our minds. Rather, we had a simple plan: get to our hotel, get some food, rest up.

Our adventure was calling. In 3 days, we’d pack everything we could imagine needing, and begin the famed four day trek along the Inca Trail. We would hike 10 to 11 hours per day, camp each night, and on the final day, ascend up to Machu Picchu and (hopefully) beat the hordes of tourists taking the bus. We were doing it the real way. We were doing it the way.

Our adventure crew had 3 principal members:

  • Tim, a pacific northwester, was the chief architect of the entire trip, he raised the idea for the trip nearly a year in advance – his continuous excitement turned real when he sent us a screenshot of a $900 PayPal deposit.
  • Tom, a Bay Area native, was our technology expert, he created a Whatsapp group for us all to stay in communication, and a Google Sheet for us to track our purchases and to-do’s
  • Paul, that’s me, and I suppose my role was to serve as partial travel agent and Spanish translator.

Now the night before arrival, we’d each only managed a few hours of sleep – flying from Seattle or San Francisco, stopping in Bogota, Colombia, and then flying out at 6am and arriving in Cusco.

After going through customs we found an ATM, stuffed our wallets with the local currency, Soles, and found our driver, waiting for us.

While we had decidedly chosen to go “no-frills” – I believe an email correspondence early in the planning phase clearly proclaimed: we aren’t bringing any girlfriends, we don’t need fancy – our Lonely Planet recommended hostel had warmly offered to send us a driver and fetch us from the airport. Not too bad for $8 bucks a night for a bed.

We drove through these new streets, inching along at times in traffic, admiring the architecture, watching locals stroll the streets, and taking it all in. The air was crisp and dry. Distinguishably, we were far from the coast. It felt like Denver or Yosemite. The sun warm on your skin, but the air cool.

Like a ski town – corner stores all had worn signs for Patagonia or North Face gear, sleeping bags and Nalgene bottles dangled all around the door frame like strings of garlic to keep a Vampire at bay.

After checking in, we were shown our four person dorm room. Bunkbeds! I lunged forward and hurled my backpack onto the bottom bunk. (You always take a bottom bunk).

Tim and Tom claimed theirs and we noticed one bed was already drowning in maps, notepads, flyers, and unpacked duffle bags. Clearly we had a seasoned traveler. I made a mental note to inquire later if our mystery bunkmate had any tips or suggestions for Cusco.

We sipped tea, unpacked, and eventually gathered ourselves and headed out to stroll around Cusco and get our bearings – see what was what.

Immediately, you start to notice the people, the buildings, and it all seems to give you a window back into history. I wasn’t able to fully appreciate it all until after the trip and I read, Last City of the Incas. As the author recounts the collision that took place, I felt like I could see hints at it, while taking it all in and looking onto the faces of the local people:

“Nearly five hundred years ago, roughly one hundred and sixty-eight Spaniards and a handful of their African and Indian slaves arrived in what is now Peru. They soon collided with an Inca empire ten million strong, smashing into it like a giant meteor and leaving remnants of that collision scattered all over the continent. The modern-day visitor to Peru, in fact, can still see the results of that collision almost everywhere…”  — Kim MacQuarrie

Feeling the cobblestone and cracked streets beneath our hiking shoes and the fresh Cusco air, we wandered about in a bit of a daze. Part sleep deprivation, part wanderlust, and most of all, the altitude!

We were so high up – when you compare to Seattle or San Francisco sitting down at sea-level.

The air just wasn’t getting into our lungs and up into our brains. I’m sure there is a far more scientific and technical description of what happens and how the process works. But in Lehman’s terms: we were walking up a staircase and our chests felt funny, we were gasping for air, and we almost all rolled back and tumbled down the steps. We laughed, or tried laughing, but no air could come out. Gasping and exhaling, bent over at the waist with hands on our knees, someone pointed at a sign that stated the restaurant served beer and food.

The thought of a cold beer and a salty snack heightened our spirits and propelled us onward. Yes, medicine was close.

After we tried various soups, plates of roasted meat, and a bit of salad, while fortifying with a few cold Cuzquena beers, we all felt better and waddled back out into the city.

A few minutes later, we turned a corner and found the main deal. We had found the central square and arguable crux of Cusco. Yes, the Plaza.

We were standing in the Plaza de Armas.

Gazing out across the square you would be mesmerized by the architecture. The two churches – the Compania and the Cathedral – require an unobstructed gaze and plenty of time just staring, looking around, people watching, and contemplating, what it must have been like during the clash between Spaniards and the Incas.

From our historical perspective we then decided to do what any good tourist will likely do on their first night in a new city: find the local watering hole and get rip-roaring drunk!

Tom had spotted an Irish Pub that claimed to be the highest Pub on the planet and that was all the selling we needed.

Later that night, we found ourselves seated at a table yelling across a mix of American Pop and classic rock tunes. We talked of past travels, imagined what we may find on the Inca Trail, and met a mix of Aussie travelers and local Peruvians that liked to hang with the english speakers.

The next couple of days were spent stocking up on snacks and supplies, sampling the local food, and going on two “warm-up” hikes, including the historic Saksaywaman.

Perhaps the best way to give you a feel for Cusco is with a few snapshots I took with my iPhone 6S. More to come on Cusco and the Inca Trail hike in the next blog post…

Until next time,

#keeptraveling

Photos from Cusco

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Back (when the trip comes to an end)!

It’s always a bit sad. After all that planning – the hours of searching and booking of tickets, the daydreaming, and the bubbling excitement – the trip must come to an end and you find yourself back home, where it all started.

Perhaps you even find yourself sat in the same cozy chair, staring out the same window. Only this time you can’t believe it. You actually did it! You went!

Yes, you have seen the sights, you have felt that foreign wind on your face and the soil beneath your boots. You have met the locals, you have sampled the cuisine, and you have become quite intoxicated on the tipple of choice.

When you return from a great trip it feels so very strange. It can feel as if you have been gone for years and you’ve just returned and everything is somehow very different (like an astronaut back from another planet) but at the same time, it can feel as if the whole trip flashed before your eyes and now it’s over. Just like that? It’s over.

I’m back from four weeks of backpacking and crossing my way from Cusco, Peru to Bolivia (and the salt flats), up to Colombia and the wonders of Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena. I’m back in the USA. Strange indeed.

Last you likely heard, we had a plan to take on South America and it had all been booked rather professionally.

Well that whirlwind trip was a blast! It’s been a few weeks since we returned and I’ve mostly unpacked, handed out trinkets to smiling friends upon my return, and stored my gear up in the closet where it will wait until summoned again, for the next journey.

Highlights of the trip include hiking Machu Picchu – and doing it right – with the four day Inca Trail excursion, touring the expansive Salt Flats, and kicking back with some rum and a cuban cigar in Colombia.

As my friends and I recollect on the trip and go sift through our many photos, I’ll leave you with this snapshot of our trip from the TakeYaThere instagram page:

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Stay tuned for the full stories and all the photos from South America 2016.

Dang, that was quite the trip!

Until next time,

#keeptraveling

 

How to Apply for a Bolivian Visa!

Travel is wildly fun. Applying for a visa is not. It’s the opposite. Frankly, it sucks and it will feel begin to feel like a homework assignment and you’ll keep putting it off and off…until the very last moment when you’ll realize – SHIT! IF I DON’T SEND THIS IN NOW, I WON’T BE GOING!

Ok relax.

If you follow these basic steps you can breeze through the process and have your shiny little visa stamp and you will be able to enter Bolivia and enjoy the scenic sights of La Paz or snap all kinds of crazy photos on the Salar de Uyuni like these…

These steps are assuming you will be applying for a tourist visa and you have an American (USA) passport. Furthermore, this set of steps is specific to the Los Angeles, CA consulate. (If you’re not on the West Coast double check which consulate you must send your information to or post questions as comments).

The following are things you will need before sending in your packet of information:

  • Your USA Passport. (Make sure it’s valid for 6 months+)
  • Passport sized photos. (Many drugstores and groceries now offer this quick service. It’s about $12 for a set of photos. Here’s a $2 off coupon at your local CVS.)
  • Bank statement showing you have money in your account. (Next time you go to the bank just ask for a statement printout that shows you have more than $2,000 in your account. (The Bolivian government does not list a specific amount of money you need to have in the account. I believe they indicate you need to show you have $50.00 for each day you will be in the country. The point, for them, is to ensure you have enough to survive / won’t become a crazed delinquent and fuck up their lovely little country.
  • Yellow Fever vaccine. Have you had a yellow fever vaccine in the last ten years? If so, just show a printout of that yellow little booklet they give you. If no, then you likely should get one before your trip. According to the LA consulate website, it is a required piece of your application, however I did call them and was told it is NOT necessary in your application. Now the choice is yours. I’d suggest just getting it to be safe. You can get the vaccine from your local doctor or head to Walgreens and they even let you make an appointment online. 
  • Trip Itinerary and Flights. The website information is a bit vague – you could show your airline tickets, a guided tour itinerary, or your hotel reservations. From the Bolivian government’s side of things, you imagine they want to see how you will arrive their country, how you will leave their country, and where you will sleep in their country. Demonstrate those pieces and you’ll be fine. I sent an email I had from Expedia (showing my flights from Cusco to La Paz and then from La Paz to Bogota – this shows I’ll be leaving Bolivia) and then I sent a printout of my TripIt plans – just showing I will be on a tour of the Salt Flats. Then I sent a confirmation email from a hostel we booked for two nights in La Paz. I read somewhere in the application process that you just need to show where you will sleep for two nights.
  • Sworn Statement (online application on Bolivian gov. website) – takes about 30 minutes to complete. Print a few copies out when you are at the final screen.
  • Credit Card Authorization form. Aka the $$$. This whole visa process is all about you paying their Government. The fee is $160.00 USD. I know it seems high. It is high. But hey, that must be what’s keeping the tour buses and the Rick Steves’ Food Walks from Bolivia. Might as well get some airline miles while you pay so use their CC authorization form here.

When you do go onto the Bolivia government website for the Sworn Statement you’ll want to have a few sizes of your passport photos saved digitally. Something that is about 2 x 2 and you can save to be under 150KB. I suggest using Pixlr to re-size an image – https://pixlr.com/editor/

You can find detailed step by step instructions here on how to fill out the online form.

Now, to start the whole thing off, visit the official website here and best of luck!

You then head to your local USPS and acquire two white priority mail envelopes. On the first, write your home address in the FROM and the consulate address in the TO (below), and on the second envelope do the reverse (consulate back to your home address).

When you approach the USPS mail person at the little desk, ask them from two tracking numbers and then have them fold the second envelope inside the first envelope.

VERY IMPORTANT – make sure you slide your USA passport into the envelope! Don’t forget (that would really suck)

When I inserted all the paper forms and the small little 2 x 2 passport photo, I put them all inside my Passport on the page with my photo / information. Then I put the CC authorization form on the very top. (It’s all about the $$$ right?)

Ok, you’ve triple checked, you have everything in there, then ask the mail person for a receipt and mark the TWO tracking codes you will keep.

Be sure to send your packet to the Bolivian Consulate in Los Angeles, CA

Mail to:

CONSULATE GENERAL OF BOLIVIA
 3701 WILSHIRE BLVD., SUITE 1065
 LOS ANGELES, CA 90010
 ATT. VISA SECTION
I’ve just gone through this with a few friends. Hope this helps and once you’re done with all this paperwork….
#Keeptraveling

South America Trip: Hey We’ve Got A Plan

WHEN you embark on a trip you’ve really got two options, you can plan the whole thing out or you can accept a laissez faire approach and leave it up to the will of the travel gods.

Both have their benefits. The idea of rough and tumble, “local’s only”, style travel where you glide around like a nimble thief in Prince of Persia has an appeal and a rather romantic air to it. One imagines plenty of hopping in the back of pick up trucks and grabbing the final train car railing as the conductor let’s out the departing howl and the wheels shake free.

There is the other option though. The planned and booked sort of travel where each hotel, travel stop, tour, etc., are all planned out and ever so correctly plotted. The ease and effortlessness is easily imagined. A smartphone holds the answers to every question: a simple thumb tap and the itinerary “folds open” on your screen and a demure finger swipe checks you into the next accommodation or summons Le Uber driver. Of course, a true travel gentleman would never break a sweet and each departure would come and go without cause for a single grey hair.

Hmm perhaps such as:

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Or actually no, more like this (Yes Sir Michael Cain has it down):

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Now, I have always thought myself as one who would fancy the rustic and unplanned. The choice would be easy. I’d wing it. Grab a duffle and see where the wind decided to shift next.

This time around, I’ll be in a group of 3 and the fact that as I write I’m in San Francisco and my friends are up in Seattle, has started to force a bit more planning and a bit more precision. It has been hard to discuss or get questions going back and forth, or at least it is not as simple as talking it all over a beer. We’ve emailed quite a bit and have a Google Doc running to track who has bought what.

Last you heard, I was planning a trip with friends to hit Machu Picchu and embark on the touristy Top 10 thing to do. 

This time around I’ve decided to piece mail a trip together using all tools at my disposal. Starting with the known dates: September 28th until October 22nd. I then focused on the major event – the hike – and made sure to reserve from October 3rd through the 6th.

Then we did various flight searches on United, Avianca, American, etc., and tried to understand the best deals, the flights with the fewest connections, the best time to arrive each new city (Pro Tip: Don’t fly into a new city late at night. It’s dark, you don’t know where you’re going…best to arrive during the day).

We ended up piecing together the flights and then bought on Expedia as a multi-destination route.

Our flights will leave from Seattle and San Francisco and transfer in Houston, TX, then arrive in Bogota, Colombia.

I know what you’re thinking….wait…Colombia? When did that get added to the plan.

When did this become the plan?

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Ok so that’s not the plan!

But all sorts of Travel magazines are calling Bogota a big hit and a must see for it’s history, art, coffee and culture. So naturally, a few history buffs like us, felt it made sense to fly into Bogota then fly to Cusco, Peru (near the Machu Picchu hike and Sacred Valley). That flight was more direct (less time waiting in airports) and cheaper, than flying from the USA to Lima, Peru, and then flying from Lima to Cusco.

So while we are very excited to check out Colombia we feel very sorry to miss Lima, Peru. (Although I’ve heard good and bad about the fine colonial city and I hope to visit another time).

To make sense of all these flights, as well as our modest hostel accommodations, I have been using TripIt, an app by SAP / Concur, that can lay out your plans as you forward the confirmation emails from airlines, hotels, etc., www.tripit.com

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So as the planning continues, we’ve folded in a stopover in Bolivia to visit the Salt Flats. We have some more research to do about our time in the capital city in Bolivia, La Paz. But if Bolivia seems strange, remember it was listed as the #8 place to go last year!

But in the coming weeks I’ll be filling in the rest of the trip and making sure we are in for smooth sailing.

Got any ideas? Or feel missing out on Lima will be life shattering? Please let us know.

#Keeptraveling

Machu Picchu: An Idea, Nothing Else

It started as a simple idea. More of a joke, really. Nothing else.

Then slowly, but surely a conversation started to pick up and include a few texts, an email with a few articles, (we looked at the calendar), and then the excitement kicked in.

We were talking about a trip to Machu Picchu and now we have very little planned, but this much we do know. We’ll be trekking along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu from October 3rd to October 6th.

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TakeYathere on Instagram

The group we’ve got going is a bit random. But it could be the perfect pairing. My old childhood friend Tim, his good friend Tom, and me – the traveler and part time travel writer.

Three seems like the right number. We’ll be agile enough – able to hop along, swoop into a last minute hotel or hostel – but with three, we can keep the conversations going and avoid a disastrous feud or girly hiss fit. (If it was just two, a week would be the likely boiling point)

So what have we planned so far? The most important item was selecting the tour group we will entrust on our trek and make the proper reservations to secure our passes from the Peruvian government. There are plenty of horror stories on the web and in travel forums that detail how a group waited too long and tried to do the Inca Trail without realizing that passes can sell out up to 6 months before your desired date.

To give you an idea, we originally were brainstorming of doing the hike in September to join a few other British friends I know will be down there, but by April, the month of September was clean sold out.

So we grabbed the first week of October and put down a deposit of $300 per person. (Hey, nobody said this trek was going to be cheap)

When it came to selecting the tour group we could have used any one of a myriad of options to pick correctly:

1.) Ask friends and relatives who have gone before

2.) Search Google and TripAdvisor for the highest quality and cross with reviews

3.) Turn to Travel Books, Guides, and Websites

4.) Pick the funniest sounding name

Of course, no one with a functioning head mounted on their shoulders would go with option #4 right? Well we did. And we went with Llamapath! Yes Llamapath! You can check out their high quality website here.

Once we got the confirmation emails we then turned to planning what else we may do while down in South America.

To date, all we’ve added is a trip to Bolivia to drive through the dessert to see some salt flats and a trip to Colombia with the promise of coffee plantations, cigars, and of course, wild nights!

While the planning continues we have all been texting each other and checking items off our packing list. Thus far the group has been half jokingly going off an incredibly detailed packing list  but we can get serious once we book our flights and solidify where we will be going.

Alright, back to the planning. In the meantime:

#keeptraveling