Living with mountains

When I was living in a mini apartment in Cusco, I was lucky enough to have a panoramic view over mountains that would have exceeded 4000-metre altitudes. On bright days, I could even see at the end of the valley the almighty Ausangate – a significant peak in the area at a ginormous 6384 metres high. There is something about seeing mountains that makes the every-day special – each time I would look out the window, the scene would appear completely and utterly different with the changing light and cloud formations of the day.

Here are a few of my favourite shots of the same view from my apartment window:

Ausangate in full view on this bright sunny day

Ausangate (the snow-covered mountain) in full view on this bright sunny day

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded (and Ausangate disappeared)

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence for a few moments

After another unsettled day of weather, this cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

After another unsettled day of weather, this spectacular cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

Read about how I got to live in this cool apartment.

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A grand adventure part 8 – The home stretch

Puno is another town we never expected to return to – merely a stopping off point for visiting the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and apart from the views of the lake and mountains, the town itself is a little ugly and dull.

Puno's harbour on Lake Titicaca

Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca

However, it was still only early in the day yet and all the buses to Cusco didn’t leave until night, so we had time to kill in Puno. Our added challenge now was that we were down to our last few soles – how to make them stretch yet keep ourselves fed until we could access more money in Cusco tomorrow morning?

We bought S./1 (25p/38c) of bananas at the market, shared a market lunch (so half a soup, half a main course each) for S./7 (£1.70/40c) and then bought S./1 of bread and a S./1.50 packet of jam to have later. Now we were absolutely exhausted and large black clouds were rolling ominously in, so we headed back to the bus terminal and found a quiet spot upstairs to set up camp on the floor with our rucksacks as pillows and get some sleep. Even though I was lying on the cold hard floor of a bus station, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the rucksack. After a couple of hours though, the cold started to creep in, so we got up and went to sit with everyone else on the plastic seats downstairs and got out the laptop to watch a film.

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno

When the film finished, we still had three hours to wait, so went for a lakeside stroll. It was dark and there was no one else out and about. As we neared the artisans’ market by the harbour, a man who had been leaning up against the wall muttered something as we approached and then started walking alongside us. Suddenly aware that both of us were carrying all our wordly possessions – two laptops included – I became convinced we were going to get mugged. Then when he spoke to a dog who started barking in attack mode at us, I thought “This is it!”.

But no, the mysterious man was just the night-watchman for the market who in fact was quelling his dog. He wished us a good night and we continued with our lakeside stroll, my heart took a while to slow down though.

Somehow, eventually, we had made eight hours dissolve and it was time to board the Cusco bus in what was now a torrential downpour.

Four months ago, I remembered, the route from Cusco to Puno was quick and painless, giving me the confidence to take on the much longer bus journeys in the rest of the continent, but this time for some reason, the bus was bumping and swerving all night. It soon became the worst bus journey I had had so far in terms of travel sickness and I was never so glad to see Cusco again.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we auto-piloted through Cusco’s bus terminal pursued by a taxi driver. We agreed to his rate – our very last few coins – and let him sweep us up to a hostel high up in the San Blas neighbourhood, where we collapsed into bed.

Some hours later, I awoke to the sun glowing through the door, and stepped out in to the hostel’s garden. Sparrows and hummingbirds fluttered around the fuchsias, and beyond, lay the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco. I had been here before, but this time the city looked even more beautiful, and I knew there were many new adventures to come.

The rooftops of Cusco

The red rooftops of Cusco. Photo: Rachel Ricks

A grand adventure part 7 – Crossing borders again

We had gone round all the ticket booths at La Paz’s bus station to establish prices and routes to Cusco. Bs.170 (£16/US$25) was the average price for the 12-hour journey. We decided we could do it cheaper.

So on the morning of our departure we rose early to beat the marathon that was starting at 8am and would mean closures (and the resulting mayhem) of the city’s streets. After a fond farewell to our hostel, we backpacked to the corner where we caught one of La Paz’s funky Guatemalan public buses to the Cemetario – a district where not only do you go to get buried, but also to catch onward buses. Here, we could pick up a colectivo to Desaguadero – the border town with Peru.

Public city bus in La Paz

Public city bus in La Paz

I was feeling heavily nauseous with altitude, exertion and travel, so was not looking forward to the two-hour ride on a pull-down seat in the back of this minivan. After half an hour the driver stopped to try and pick up more passengers to fill the van. When people looked in and saw the only seats left were in the very tiny, very back row, they were reluctant to board, so the driver started shouting at Carlos, accusing him and his guitar of putting people off, “We can’t leave because of you!” Carlos demonstrated that he and his guitar weren’t taking up any more than one seat, but still the driver argued. Finally the couple sitting in the front got fed up and transferred to the back to get things moving.

We arrived at Desaguadero and I could see right away how it had acquired its name – translated into English: ‘drain’ – the effluent from Lake Titicaca all comes this way, and inbetween the usual unfinished houses and muddy roads of these parts, were big swamps floating with rubbish. We couldn’t move quick enough to the border post.

We crossed the Desaguadero river and entered Peru. Now I had a small worry – I had overstayed my Peruvian visa last time, and this time I wanted to request the longer, six-month one – how was that going to go down?

Some charming words from Carlos and a friendly immigration officer saw I got a six-month visa for Peru. Now first things first, some breakfast before progressing on to the next bus. We changed our bolivianos to soles with one of the senoras who sit along the road in a row under parasols and with six blankets wrapped around them, then moved on into the town. The market was right beside where the buses depart so we were able to check prices and schedules before grabbing avocado sandwiches for S./1 (25p/38c) each from a market senora. The colectivos to Puno run constantly, so as soon as one fills up, the next one pulls in to call “Puno! PunoPunoPunoPunoooo!” Always keen to get the front seat, I leapt up to the car, but a schoolgirl beat me to the best seat by the window. So I was stuck in the middle seat next to the gearstick, where there was nowhere for my legs. If I sat up straight, my head came above top of the windscreen so I couldn’t see out.

Two hours later, I had manoeuvred my aching legs into every position imaginable and all the time craning my head to try and see out, and was getting pretty desperate to get out of the car. The road follows the shores of Lake Titicaca the whole way, so I tried to distract myself with what I could see of the serene, glass-like waters of the lake. Then, like a mirage, Puno appeared on the horizon.

See how my epic voyage ends in part 8 coming soon!

A grand adventure part 6 – Lovely, lovely La Paz

Outside Oruro’s bus terminal, we asked a man with a heavy basket balanced on his shoulder whether there was a bus to La Paz. The answer was no – and indeed, the road we were on had already been blockaded – butcolectivos (private mini-vans) were able to go. “Do you know a reliable one?” We called after the man. “Yes – me – my car’s over there. 50 bolivianos.”

Done deal. We headed over to where all the colectivos were parked. A woman with a clipboard came to take our payment: “70 bolivianos”. No way. Luckily, we had a man from the army on our side and we told her 50 was the agreed price – take us or leave us. Thankfully, she didn’t leave us. Army Man explained the reason for the protests on the roads – the people are unhappy with the new name of the airport. He rolled his eyes.

We were glad we had this escape route out of funny Oruro. Eight of us and a baby squeezed into the car and I slumped low in the seat to try and get some sleep and make the three hours disappear. With our driver’s speedy progress, though, we were seeing the sprawling outskirts of La Paz within a couple of hours. He deposited us in a crazy street entirely dedicated to terminating or departing buses, colectivos and taxis. I sprinted to the baño (toilet) before we hailed a taxi into the centre.

I had left La Paz on this same road to the airport without an ounce of regret some three months previously. This time, however, as the road curled down the side of one of the mountains that surround the city centre, I couldn’t help admire its stunning location. The city fills a bowl-like canyon encircled by immense mountains of 4000m or more; there is little left of nature to see as red breeze-block houses cover every inch of ground from the lip of the bowl to the bottom on all sides, but for the occasional spur of unyielding rock that no amount of concrete can surmount.

At the bottom of the bowl is the commercial centre with its shops, offices, markets, hostels and more importantly – places to get breakfast. Yes, I was quite happy to see La Paz again.

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

We chose a different hostel to the one we stayed in before, this time one that the guidebook described as small and quiet. The Hospedaje Milenio was perfect – run by an incredibly friendly and helpful family, cosy little rooms surrounded an inside courtyard and everything felt very homely. We strolled out in the crisp, sunny climate and found great places to eat for minimal prices. We ended up feeling so glad to be in La Paz, we thought we’d give it a try for jobs, and proceeded to send our CVs to every hostel, hotel and bar in town.

Newsstands in La Paz

Newsstands in La Paz

Over the next week, the jobs we were offered were: 50 bolivianos (£5) per eight-hour shift in an English pub; 20% off accommodation to work eight-hour shifts five times a week in a hostel bar; and finally, our best offer was free accommodation to work in another hostel’s bar four shifts a week. Unimpressed and now panicking slightly about money, we decided it was time to leave La Paz – by now we had been hanging out there for two weeks. At least in Cusco, we thought, there’ll be more work options – and better pay…

See part 7 coming soon!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure part 3 – Buses from hell

I was high on my adventure travel buzz – either that or the newly acquired high altitude we were now in – and with a stiff upper lip accepted my fate. The steps into the bus began at chest level so it was with some feat of flexibility that I hoisted myself and my carry-on luggage into the creaking carriage. I tried not to look too closely at the rickety seats that had been all but stripped of their upholstery, and instead snuggled down as best I could to look out the window and enjoy views of Bolivia.

It was only an hour-and-a-half ride, so inbetween gazing out at gorgeous altiplano landscapes dotted with bizarre cacti, and some twitchy sleep, the Rustbucket Express wasn’t the bad experience I had anticipated.

Now we were in Tupiza – a more touristy town, with street-fulls of hostels, tour agencies and ‘Italian’ restaurants. Here, travellers come to go horseback riding in the badlands and relive where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly met their ends. It’s also another place where you can start or finish tours of the Uyuni salt flats, so it was weird to be back being offered tour packages everywhere we turned, when we had completed that adventure some months – and many miles – ago.

Tupiza's market for breakfast

Tupiza’s market for breakfast

We made our first stop the essential market hall and had another delicious, recuperative soup, before finding a hostel. A few hours of sleep later and we set out to explore Tupiza and get our bus ticket for Atocha the next day. Afterwards, we ended up walking way out past the bus station, beyond the last row of houses and out into the countryside where we followed the already overgrown railway track past corn fields, and horses grazing, with beautiful birdsong and stunning red rocky mountains all around.

Walking in the countryside outside Tupiza

Walking in the beautiful countryside outside Tupiza (note the overgrown rail tracks)

That night, our close relationship with thunderstorms continued. Holed up in a cosy ‘Italian’ restaurant, we enjoyed hearing the tremendous claps of thunder and watching through the window as the whole street was illuminated by lightning, until we realised we’d soon have to be splashing back to our hostel. The rainfall was so heavy, roads had turned into flowing rivers, with no hope of us crossing unless we wanted to be swept away down-current, so we took a long detour to the upper streets where the water ran shallower and we were able to hop across to our side of the town!

Day 5
We got on the 10am bus for Atocha, which is supposed to take two-and-a-half hours. If I had known what was to follow, I would probably never have set foot on the bus. After just a few metres of paved road out of Tupiza, we turned off onto what looked like a silt riverbed, and that was our road for the next what was to become four arduous hours.

The 'road' (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

The ‘road’ (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

It got even worse when the ‘road’ started winding up mountainsides and our tall bus leaned and creaked as it seemingly impossibly negotiated hairpin bends, or started reversing on the edge of a precipice because a truck was coming in the other direction. Feeling hot and breathless, I reached to the air conditioning adjuster above my head, but all I found was a handful of wires hanging out of a hole. Somewhere behind me a baby was wailing. At regular intervals, I spotted memorial shrines set up on the edge of sheer drops by the side of the road.

The dusty road lined with cacti

The dusty road lined with cacti

These hours are probably among the most terrifying of my life. Thoughts of standing on solid ground once again and remembering Paddy in BA’s experience kept me going.

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

As the painful hours ticked by, and with the dust track visible as far as the eye could see across the desolate altiplano landscape in front of us, we began to question whether this was actually the bus for Atocha. Then finally, finally, joy of joys, after one last cliffhanging bend complete with memorial shrine, Atocha appeared.

First impressions of Atocha (not good, though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

First impressions of Atocha (not good; though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

I practically fell out of the bus and would’ve kissed the ground if I hadn’t needed to run so fast to get to the toilet.

Everyone else on the bus was continuing on to Uyuni, and even though we were to be left stranded in this bizarre and bleak mining town that doesn’t get tourists, I had no intention of stepping back on that bus. Please let the trains be running from here!

Now go to part 4! And did you see parts 1 and 2?

A grand adventure part 2 – Chasing trains

We hadn’t given up hope on the train just yet, as in these parts you can rarely get a straight story – tales ranged from that the train hadn’t been running for two years, to that a bridge was swept away in the recent rains. When we finally reached the station, nobody could be found, but opposite was a small guesthouse where the young woman owner gave the straight facts – the track had been damaged and so the train hasn’t been running for a month – but – there was hope! It was only the stretch between Villazon and Atocha – from the latter we should be able to pick up the train that leaves in two days time!

Full of optimism and the relief that we would at least be sleeping in a bed not a bus seat tonight, we checked into her guesthouse and I took a very long hot shower.

Villazon often gets a bad press from travel bloggers – described as dodgy and a place to hurry through quickly. But I felt nothing sinister about the women setting up their food and drink carts for the day, the uniformed children scurrying diligently to school, the hardworking men loading up cars and vans (yes, with what were probably illegally imported goods, but heh).

We headed to the Mercado (market hall) for breakfast, and I was so happy to be pushing my way through vibrant Andean stalls again, with plump, multi-skirted women seated among their wares of enormous fruits and vegetables, flame-red gladioli, unfathomable piles of eggs, and uncountable other useful products and nick-nacks.

Typical Andean market hall scene

Typical Andean market hall scene. Photo: Rachel Ricks

All these markets smell the same too – the air is pungent with fruit and vegetables as fresh as you can get them, along with raw meat. Comidas (food) was upstairs, and we joined a long row of tables to be served the most delicious meal I’d had in a long time – a big bowl of peanut soup with pasta, potato and a hunk of meat. Just what the doctor ordered, before we returned to the guesthouse and to bed for a few hours’ sleep catch-up.

Day 4
We rose early to get to the bus station for our 7am bus to Tupiza. Buses in Bolivia are of an entirely different calibre to their Argentinean counterparts we’d come to enjoy. No ultra-modern, high-luxury vehicles here. Most that we watched pull in and out of the terminal were weird and tall and 1970s-looking with ear-shattering engines. I spotted one pull in to beat them all – a bus that was riddled with rust and in fact had lost its entire rear undercarriage to the affliction. I nudged Carlos – “Look – I bet that’s ours! Check the ticket – I bet it says ‘Rustbucket Bus Lines’!” Again, I should have known better in Bolivia – it was our bus.

Rusty bus from Villazon

Rusty bus from Villazon

Did you see part 1? Go on to part 3!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

The not-so relaxing hot springs of Lares

While I was living in the Sacred Valley in Peru, I took a trip to the famous hot springs of Lares, however, it wasn’t quite as relaxing as would be expected…read my article on Stanfords’ website.

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

The walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me