Guiding Brazilian Travellers

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Anna, Joy, Alice, Zeke, Carlos

On Tuesday morning during breakfast Alice and Joy asked if they could take me to Pachar and all was accepted so we went over to the hostel a couple of doors over called Hostal Patacalle (we’re on calle Patacalle) and they asked the owner what the place he had mentioned was called and it turned out that it was actually Pumamarka that they had been talking about.

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Pumamarca from across the valley (different day, different hike).

So we took a taxi and at the turn off Alice said she wanted to go on to see some of the other towns so we went on through Pallata to Huilloq (also Huilloc, Willoq or Willoc) were we stopped and all the Huilloqueñas came over to us and lay out their blankets with all the textiles on them (llamas, bags, wallets, bracelets, things to put on your backpack, etc.) Alice bought me a thing to put on my backpack. After a while we turned around and went to Pumamarka. After a while at Pumamarka Joy and I headed to the trail that we would take back down on in a small drizzle and started down. In this I whole trip I started to learn some Portuguese like I was surprised that the Aymara word for popcorn is the same in Portuguese (pipoca).

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On the way down we did some yodeling (after this) but this photo is of the “Mil Terazas” and the staircases are los “Mil Escaleras” or the “thousand Terraces” and the “thousand stairs”.

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Patacancha to Chupani to Lares, on foot

IMG_0801IMG_0795In mid-February we spent two days walking up in the mountains above Ollantaytambo. We went with Wither (pronounced “Weeder”), a guide we met after he took a trip with Bruce and Kaytlin, who were volunteering here at Casa de Wow. These Andean parts of Peru are changing; as roads get improved or electric lines get strung, villages can seem to hurdle from a timeless, traditional lifestyle into one in which cars come and go and people have smartphones in a matter of a few years. Wither likes going up into the villages where these changes haven’t yet come, and at the same time fully aware that gringos passing through do have an effect.

IMG_0785And so we got a taxi out of town, up through Pallata and Markacocha and Huilloq, stopping in Patacancha. We immediately took a path that led away from the road, running parallel to it but higher up in the valley. Our packs were loaded with sleeping bags, clothes for a variety of situations, food (both for us and to share along the way), and, heaviest of all, water.
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We would pass folks from time to time, and Wither would often share greetings and a little bit of fruit or coca. A few hours in we stopped by a homestead where we spoke with a man and his daughter, sharing some bread (which is harder to get up there) and fruit. Toward the end of the conversation came the part that was to become familiar – the man returned with a blanket filled with textiles and crafts made by his wife. We did buy a little – these situations feel like the best way to be sure money goes directly to the maker – and headed on.
IMG_0791The views continued to be fantastic, but as we headed toward the pass the clouds lowered and a cold spitty rain started. We are staying at an altitude of 9300 feet in Ollantaytambo, the taxi ride to Patacancha got us above 12,000, and this pass is at about 14,100. It is colder there, and we hurried to get warmer and more waterproof layers on before we were shivering.

IMG_0804But that passed, and at the pass it was calm and dry. From there we headed down and down, rejoining the main road a few hours after leaving it. It turns out that carrying bread is also a good way to befriend-distract dogs that want to keep you away from their property. Finally, around 4pm we arrived in Chupani, our destination for the day. The house we were planning on staying in seemed deserted, though, which was a problem, since a cold rain had started again, and we were at a little over 13,000 feet. So Wither went off to figure things out while we bundled up again and had some snacks. The road ends in Chupani, and all the houses are connected by paths. (During our time there, we never saw a motorized vehicle.) There were cattle and sheep grazing here and there, kids playing a game with a stick and a hoop, women passing from one house to another every once in a while.

IMG_0793Wither came back a good while later, saying that the nieghbors had heard on the radio that he was coming there, but the family must be up at the other house (it is common to have a small house in town and another building up at the fields). We saw a woman go into a house nearby, and so Wither went down to talk to her.

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He came back a few minutes later, saying we had a place to stay for the night. The house was made of stone, and had just one room, with a stone and mud stove – this means a place for the fire and stones above with pot-sized holes in them. The room had one single bed, a bench along one side, a few small stools, a ladder up to a loft, and another small part that seemed to be for storage and keeping the guinea pigs. The woman of the house was Juliana Yupanqui, who could have been my age or could have been 20 years older. She spoke only Quechua, and so Wither acted as translator. She set to work making tea from some roots and let us start peeling potatos and chuno. Peeling the chuno (freeze-dried potatos) was a little like whittling, and we were slow at it.
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The house felt a little like a cave, with the end wall including some huge stones. The walls were largely blackened by smoke – there was no chimney, and the smoke seeped its way slowly through the thatched roof. (From outside, it looks like the house is smouldering.) The room was cold, and so we took turns sitting close to the small fire, which was fueled with a little dry grass but mostly dried llama dung. Another woman arrived and helped with the cooking. It was now dark, and getting colder, but they kept the door open until much later. There was a single light bulb above, powered by a solar panel outside the house – the only real sign that we were in the 21st century. The food was ready one course at a time – potatos, then llama meat, then a soup with potatos, chuno, llama meat, and a few herbs. It tasted so good, though. By then it was after 8pm, and cold. Senora Yupanqui and her relatives got out a large pile of llama skins (fluffy!) and laid them on the dirt floor, followed by a few woven blankets. We put our sleeping bags on top of that, filling up most of the living room, and with the family still bustling about, lay down and went (eventually) to sleep, lullabied by the dying fire, the sound of the wind (and later, rain), and the “cwee, cwee” of the guinea pigs (which is why they’re called cuyes).
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In the morning Senora Yupanqui was up before us, making tea. It turns out that she is an aunt of the folks we had planned to stay with and has hosted trekkers before – not a surprise, considering how she seemed to take our unannounced arrival in stride and had everything she needed to feed and sleep us. We packed up and had breakfast up at the other house, the one we were originally planning to stay at. Breakfast was more potatos (with soft cheese) and more of the similar soup. I see why bringing fruit and bread is a welcome gift. Before we left there was the obligatory laying-out of weavings, and yes, we bought some. The one from the house we slept in still smells strongly of llama-dung smoke (not a bad smell, really).
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The second day of walking started hard – up the valley out of Chupani – and we were slow, though the packs were a bit lighter. We kept moving, stopping before the pass to talk with a woman weaving in a lean-to outside her house. After lunch at the pass, we went down and down (did I say that about the day before), into valleys that opened into other valleys. Eventually we came down to the community of Tambochaca and followed the Lares river valley down to the Lares hot springs.
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The hot springs are still above 11,000 feet, and it drizzled most of the time we were there. But the various pools of varying temperatures felt good, and we walked down the hill with Wither into the town of Lares for supper. The hot springs are mainly an attraction for Peruvians, and the town of Lares feels very un-touristed, even though it is probably the French Lick of the region.
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We slept well, boys in one room, girls in the other. We had a good breakfast and then a wild ride over the Lares pass on a typical twisting Andean road. To Calca, then a bus to Urubamba, and another bus to Ollantaytambo, in about 4 hours all told. Thsis was the first time we´ve trekked with a guide, and Wither definitely took us to places and people we couldn´t have experienced otherwise.

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Eleven

The day before his birthday Zeke had a tooth pulled; the day after he was stung by a bee in downtown Cusco (not mentioned in the “Dangers & Annoyances” section of the Lonely Planet Peru guide). Those were still good days, but March 9th was better.

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On Pinkuylluna, high above Ollantaytambo, with Mauro, son of our friend Wither (who took the picture).

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One of these kids looks different than all the rest. Wither, who took the picture above, is the ref in all black. The mountain that looms up out of the frame is the one we are on in that other picture.

We’re not really foodies, but after month in the small town of Ollantaytambo we have pretty well tried all the food options. A week spent in Cusco meant a chance for ethnic food. In the days leading up to Zeke’s birthday we had pizza (which, OK, you can get anywhere), huevos rancheros, udon noodles, and burritos.

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The view from Winn’s in Cusco

We are already heavily loaded, so gifts for Zeke were small, and we decided to celebrate mostly with good food.

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Breakfast! Pancakes with fruit at Jack’s in San Blas, Cusco.

Lunch was cheese & avocado sandwiches with banana, recovering from a big breakfast and readying for supper.

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Supper! It looks like spaghetti there, but it’s really Maikhana, the Indian buffet close to the Plaza de Armas.

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Thanks to everyone who sent birthday cards all the way to Cusco. They were much appreciated.

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Dessert! Crepes at La Boheme.

Zeke has been doing well. A friend of ours invited him to be on a local soccer team, and so that is keeping us close to Ollantaytambo on Saturdays. He has been missing friends, but as I write this he and Anna are hanging out in the hostel with a friend from the team. There is much laughter from the living room. Still, he is looking forward to coming home – just three months from now.

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Back in Ollantaytambo

We left La Falda a month ago today, taking the reverse of the journey described here, with the difference that we spent a night on the bus, a night in Humahuaca (in northern Argentina), then a night on the train followed by a bus to La Paz from Oruro.

It was a bit surreal to be back in La Paz as tourists after having lived there for five months last year. We stayed at the Adventure Brew Hostel, where we had stayed for 10 days back in 2012, in part to see the city from a different center point. We did the things we needed to: stopping by the university for last logistics, dropping off a borrowed phone and saying thanks and so long for now to the good folks at the Bolivian Quaker Education Fund who helped us settle in and find a place for Anna and Zeke at the Los Amigos school. We didn’t manage to have api and bunuelo or say hello to Dona Marcela at our neighborhood store or ride the teleferico one more time. But we think we will be back in La Paz.

After two days, we headed for Copacabana and the Peruvian border.

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Duck boat at Copacabana on Lake Titicaca

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Lake Titicaca

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Walking into Peru

It was a familiar journey, having done the reverse in 2012. It is rarely bad for a bus to arrive early, but our overnight bus got into Cusco at 4:30am, an hour before we were told it would. We had just resigned ourselves to waiting at least for daylight before finding a taxi when a woman came up and told us about a hostel for 80 soles (about $25) a night. Now I wouldn’t normally recommend getting a hostel from a stranger in a bus station, but we didn’t commit to taking it, and she said we could go there and check in now, at 4:30am. So we did, and the Hostal Milenio was a bit rundown, but clean enough and it felt good to sleep horizontally for a few hours.

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Zeke with Wawa at Casa de Wow

We spent two nights there before heading to Ollantaytambo and the Casa de Wow, a sweet hostel we spend a few weeks at in 2012. Three and a half weeks later (with a 2-day gap), we are still here, and we think we will make it our base for the next few months. Ollantaytambo is known as the “Living Inca City”; on this street are many houses with the famous slanted doorways; inside, instead of a museum or shop, there is laundry hanging and chickens in the courtyard. In 2012 I wrote hereOllantaytambo is charmed; we still think so. We realize that in February 2012 we were still recovering from the car accident in January, and we didn’t explore outside of town all that much. This time around, we are. There are the famous Inca structures just above town (that cost lots of money to get into) but there are free things with hardly anyone else around all over. These last photos are from a recent hike to ruins above the famous ruins.

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A run from Ollantaytambo

Five years ago I wrote a post with this title, describing one of my first runs at altitude. Here’s another one; same town, different run.

At 7 this morning it was still cloudy and a cool-for-summer 60 degrees or so. I walked the block from our house to the creek, stretching my sleepy legs. I headed south, turned right, took, the one lane bridge across the creek, and wound past the school, the soccer field, and west out of town. A few dogs lifted their heads as I went by, and there was some barking, but none chased me this morning. Just before the little village west of town, I turned left on the dirt road and headed toward the river, but before reaching it I went left again along another dirt road, the one that parallels the railroad tracks. I had to wait for a short train at the crossing, but went on past the train station to where the road is squeezed between the hill and tracks on the left and the river on the right. The cars and trucks passing me threw up roostertails of dust, but thankfully there weren’t many this early. I passed another one-lane bridge, this one crossing the river, and continued east to where the dirt road along the river meets the main road. I crossed the tracks, a little ahead of another train, and made a hard left to take the main road back into town. Running a little past the house to warm down, I ran into my friend Ben and talked and walked back the other way with him for a few minutes before coming home. 4.3 miles, 39 minutes.

As I reread this, it seems like it could take place in rural Indiana, but we’re in Ollantaytambo, Peru, in the sacred valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo was the town where Inka nobles and priests live, and unlike Machu Picchu and other places, people still live here. You can see the famous Inka stonework in slanted doorways, with chickens in the courtyard inside. The house is the Casa de Wow, one of the sweetest hostels we found on our 2012 trip. The run out of town passes beneath the archaeological site of Ollantaytambo, which is swarming with tourists most days. Along the road are a few piedras cansadas – tired stones, ones that didn’t make it to the site before the Spanish conquest. The train that goes by is the crazy-expensive tourist train to Machu Picchu. Several pass each day; oddly, their horns make me think of Shoals, the town in southern Indiana where my parents live.

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Night on the Mountain

The Banderita is the mountain above La Falda, and it is the mountain that the Weber-Loomis 4 have climbed more than any other (I can count at least seven times, the first few with Zeke in a backpack. You know, one of those kid carriers, not literally inside a backpack.).

What we write of today is something completely different – a bold post-supper ascent of the Banderita, a venture nearly unthinkable to most Argentines, who have supper between 9 and midnight. Our plan was to eat an early supper, then head up the mountain, summiting by sundown. We planned to go fast and light, leaving behind camp stove, tents, and board games (though this author, unbeknownst to other members of the team, did sneak David Halberstam’s 800-page history The Fifties into his pack), meaning that we would be forced to bivouac in the open overnight.

Our team had been chosen carefully, with each individual chosen for their particular skills as well as their ability to work well together. Leon, the eldest, was calm and steady, always prepared, and has spent more time on the Banderita than any native of Pennsylvania we know. Leticia was chosen for her logistical skills and her ability to keep the group together and on task. Anna and Zeke were along for their youthful energy, contribution to morale, and interest in nature. This author was added to the team by a sponsor for reasons unclear to the other team members.

Three members of the team set off at 6:30pm from Base Camp Francia (BCF), with two more following shortly after. The first part of the ascent is a mile and a half through the small village around BCF, during which the trail ascends from 3080 to 3500 feet. We joined forces at El Chorrito, where a small stream coming down the mountain meets the road. After a brief discussion, we decided the summit attempt was on. Over the next two miles we would gain another 1250 feet of altitude, reaching the summit at 4750 feet. Well-prepared by recent daytime ascents of the Banderita and Uritorco, we made good time. We passed two parties coming down from the summit, and though friendly greetings were exchanged, they were unfamiliar with our plans for an overnight bivouac and seemed concerned about our late start. But we forged on, enjoying the cool breezes and relatively mild evening sun.

As we neared the summit ridge, though, these cool breezes turned into a hard wind that blew us sideways when its gusts were strongest, making our goal of summit-by-sunset out of reach. As it was, we were high enough to enjoy sundown over La Falda, and we reached the summit about 15 minutes later. We had arrived in less than two hours, which would have been good pace even without sleeping bags on our backs.

The wind was blowing hard at the summit. We would later hear that at BCF the wind had also picked up significantly, causing consternation among those remaining at base. As we scouted a bivouac site, we were pushed around by 40mph winds which made much of the mountain untenable. We finally found a relatively level spot west of the summit slightly sheltered from the wind which also gave a view over La Falda and the valley. It was a clear night, and to the south we could see all the way to Lago San Roque and the lights of Carlos Paz.


We were happy with the choice not to bring tents; trying to erect them in this wind would be difficult. A few inches off the ground, though, the wind was calmer, while still enough to keep the mosquitos at bay. We lay under the night sky, watching the stars come out, though the lights of La Falda below meant that these were nothing like the stars at Condoriri, two months ago and almost 10,000 feet higher. I woke several times in the night, once to find Zeke had slid down the slight grade and was mostly into the grass at the edge of the precipice. I pulled him back up to our platform, which had the effect of pulling me down, but getting myself back up wasn’t difficult.

I woke at 3:40 to find the wind calmer and a few mosquitos buzzing around my ears. My default strategy was to wait until the buzzing seemed at its loudest, and then slap myself in the ear at maximum velocity. I’m not sure if this killed any mosquitos, but it passed the time until I fell asleep again.

I woke for good at 4:50 to predawn light and an increased wind. None of our team had been swept off the platform in the night. By six there was enough light for a few chapters of The Fifties concerning Werner von Braun and the American rocket program post-WW2. Soon Zeke and Leon were off to take pictures of the sunrise on the east side of the summit, and not long after that we were eating yogurt, granola, and bananas, as well as some very welcome cold coffee that Leon had thought to pack.

We headed down by an alternate route, following the Chorrito for much of its descent of the mountain. This route entails more rock-scrambling than the traditional ascent but offers opportunities to dip ones feet in the creek whilst snacking. By 11am we were back at BCF, a bit weary but delighted to have spent a night outside on the mountain.

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First Day, Parade Practice, and Parade

(Another old post: Zeke writing about the first few days at Los Amigos.)

The first day of school was a little overwhelming because everybody was asking “Que es tu nombre?”, “De donde eres ?”,”cuantos anyos tienes?”,”De que parte de los Estados Unidos eres?”….

Apart from one or two normal classes we went to the courtyard and marched around in circles “practicing” for the parade the next day . The parade practice wasn’t too interesting but I’ll say what I can about it. The only thing we really did was march in circles around the courtyard for about 50 minutes.

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7:30am at the cemetery, waiting for the 6 de Agosto (Independence Day) parade to begin.

At the school they said to get to the cemetery at ocho en punto (eight o’clock sharp). (Actually, it was 7:30 – ed.) We got there ten minutes early, and there was one kid there. Five minutes late the first group of kids got there. I forget which they were but I know who two of them were: Waldo and Limbert.

After a little talking Waldo led me through the crowd which was not a regular crowd where its not too hard to get around but one where you have to push to get anywhere.

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Pre-parade.

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Figuring out the lines.

When the first school started marching we were kind of panicked because we were planning to be the second school to leave, so we quickly got ourselves together and the first band left and then we went. The march was pretty tiring not because of the length of the walk (it was only about a mile) but because half the time we were marching in place. At one point it was hard to know which band to follow because one stopped while the other kept moving. It was easier at first because the stopped one was closer, but when the bands were next to each other it got harder.

When we got to the school kids were everywhere but when Anna came in I joined her and we went out and found Ticia and Paul.

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6 de Agosto

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Condoriri

(Here’s a post from a hike we did back in November.)

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The three peaks of Condoriri, as seen from lower in the valley.

On a clear day, the highway from Tiwanaku to La Paz gives beautiful views of the Cordillera Real (is it?), stretching north from La Paz and east of the road. One of the most striking peaks is Condoriri, which with the glaciers coming down the front looks like a condor with wings outstretched. We had brought sleeping bags and tents to La Paz, but it took a visit from Tony, Hernan, Riley and Remme to get us out there. They had found a trekking outfitter who would drive us out near there and pick us up two days later, wedged in between teaching days at the UMSA.

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Heading upriver and upvalley.

After a few days of logistical work by Leticia, Tony, and Hernan, we were up at 4 something Saturday morning, on the van at 5:30, and out at Estancia Tuni at 8:40. Even at 6am traffic in El Alto is bad, and most of that time was just to get out of the city. After that, Estancia Tuni – which feels like the middle of nowhere – isn’t too far. We spent most of the day walking gradually uphill to Lago Condoriri, the lake below the glaciers below the mountains. All this was above 14,000 feet, and we were heavily loaded with water and food. I was carrying 12 liters of water, in part to help me be patient with a slower pace. We could have given a few of those to Zeke, who repeatedly had to be pulled back to the group. We circled the Tuni reservoir, which looked low but was in the news a few weeks later as one of the better-off reservoirs supplying drinking water to La Paz during the water crisis.

From there we followed a dry aqueduct up the valley, past a number of dams and lakes, a few swampy mazes, past llamas and a friendly burro that came over to us to be rubbed on the head, all in increasingly narrowing valleys toward the head of the valley. There is a refugio – a no-frills place to spend the night – there, but we set up our tents a little ways away, over a hill and out of view, but close to a creek and in view of grazing llamas on the nearby hill. Here at the head of the valley we were surrounded by impressive glaciered peaks – Pico Austria to the left, the three peaks of Condoriri in the middle, and Aguja Negra to the right.

At 14,500 feet, it got cold quickly after the sun went behind the mountains, and after a good supper we were all in tents before too long. (Except Hernan, who erected a shelter with a tarp, rope and trekking pole. We woke up that night to hear him yelling Fuera! Fuera! (Out! Out!) at a dog that was trying to find its way in.) Leticia and I had two sleeping bags zipped together with Zeke in between us, which was plenty warm but somehow much tighter than when we had tried it out for 3 minutes at home.

It is a standard experience for me to have to get up to pee in the middle of the night when camping, and I always lie in the sleeping bag for a while delaying getting out in the cold (and in this case, delaying the challenge of merely exiting the bag), but once I am out, and if the night is clear, I would consider these some of the most clearly religious moments I experience. The night was completely calm, the sky clear, and the stars brilliant in the thin air.

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Once high enough, Huayna Potosi is visible to the south.

We were up slowly Saturday morning, eating oatmeal, enjoying the delicious arrival of the sun over the mountain. We were finally off at 8:45 with a plan to hike up Pico Austria, at an elevation of 17,500 feet, meaning a 3000 foot elevation gain. Really, our plan was to take it slowly, stick together, see how everyone dealt with the altitude, and then decide how far to go. It turns out there was a shorter (if steeper) way up, but we started by heading right around Lago Condoriri following a trail marked on the best map we could find. I had the same big pack (it’s the Lowe that I bought in 1997 to backpack around northern Scotland), but now with only 4 liters of water, food, and extra clothes. Either from the altitude or not enough caffeine, I had a mild heachache all day, but it never got worse. We were slow, but in general we all did reasonably well with the altitude. And so we went, up rocky slopes, across little creeks running down from the glaciers, across meadows and gravelly bits and rocky bands and then up a steep scree slope leading up to Paso Austria, where we arrived at 1:45pm.

Surprisingly, it was calm at the pass – a guide we met said the wind usually picks up around 3pm – and we ate lunch, enjoying amazing scenery across more glaciers, a hanging lake, and, far below, another lake and ground without snow. We had gained enough altitude that we now had good views of Huayna Potosi to the south. Two groups with guides went by, heading up to Pico Austria, which was clearly mismarked on our map, and wasn’t visible (and hence looked daunting) from our vantage point. I think that some of us could have made the rest of the trip, but we were happy to stay together, enjoy the views and the sandwiches, and feel pleased about getting above the 16,000 foot mark.

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At Paso Austria

Going down was, of course, much faster, but still not easy. Soup with quinoa for supper hit the spot, and we were visited by an old woman from the refugio who came to collect the 10 bolivianos per person (about $1.43 each) to spend the night. She was so warm and friendly and pleased we had come so far to see this place. It seems folks don’t often bring tents up there, and she asked why we hadn’t stayed in the refugio, but noted that we had “brought our houses with us.” Once again the nighttime bathroom break gave a chance to have my head in the stars, and I gave a little prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be out there.

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Somehow this happened on the way down.

There was some confusion about where the driver would pick us up Monday morning at 9, and so we were up at 5 and moving by 6:40. We packed up the tents with frost still on them and headed down the broadening valley. Tenaja tweaked her knee on the way down, and we spread her load out among us. She was a trooper, though, and walked out, even though it turned out she had torn an ACL and had to return to the States a few weeks early for surgery. The driver turned out to be in the right place, and he took a long detour around El Alto – the kind where you drive on tons of little unmarked roads, sometimes apparently driving in circles, until suddenly he pops out in El Alto near the road that plummets down to Sopocachi, where we lived. An hour and 55 minutes after being picked up, we were back in Pasaje Gasco. Really, Lago Condoriri is less than an hour from all the bustle of El Alto, which is amazing in its own right.
That meant I was home in plenty of time to teach math 634 and 381 from 2 to 6pm, to come home to supper with a house full of friends, and to go to bed hoping that the next day’s elections would turn out OK.

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One more of Condoriri on the way out Monday morning.

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Oruro to La Falda in 52 hours

Oruro is a fairly nondescript altiplano town, but the roads are such that almost everyone travelling in Bolivia passes through. Our memories from 2012 are mostly of going to the market in the morning and having our first ever api and bunuelo. Oruro is also the town with a huge Carnival celebration in February, though, and it seems they also do it up big for Christmas. We got to Oruro around 7 after a 4 hour bus ride from La Paz, found a hotel at which to drop our mountain of bags, and wandered out into the streets. We found blocks and blocks of streets closed to traffic, and in the plazas, food, performers, lights, and a long long line to talk to Santa and have your picture taken with a stuffed polar bear.

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The 145-foot-tall Virgen de Socavon, built on a mountain overlooking Oruro in 2013.

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Walking through the market in Oruro, Leticia spied a fruit we had never seen before. Ocoro! (That white thing comes from inside the poky yellow outside; it has a big seed in it.)

The next day we had the morning to walk a bit before getting our truckload of stuff to the train station. They looked a little surprised when we checked in 6 huge bags, but they let it go. We lightened the load a little by eating more of the food from the UMSA Christmas basket, had our last tucumanas in Bolivia, and were on the train at 2.

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Guardaequipaje (luggage storage) at Oruro train station.

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Peaches, crackers, tuna at the Oruro train station. (Thanks, FEDSIDUMSA!)

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Waiting for the train to leave Oruro, we were treated to Spanish pop hits and ballads from the 70s and 80s. Unforgettable.

The train pulled out exactly at 2:30, the only transport we have found in Bolivia that leaves on schedule. We were in no hurry for that to happen, though, as we were entranced by a succession of vintage music videos. You owe it to yourself to spend a few minutes with Donde Estan Tus Ojos Negros?, which is like a message from a parallel universe. I still have it running through my head, and I’ve learned to play it on guitar. Look for it at every gig I play in 2017.

The train goes through lots of empty land, some of which used to be near Lake Poopo (pronounced POE-OH-POE), which was once the second largest lake in Bolivia but is now almost gone, a victim of water being diverted for irrigation and mining. Here are some views – one has flamingos.

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We had supper on the train (there was even a vegetarian option! OK, it was egg, rice, and fries, but still) and watched four movies with varying levels of interest before drifting off to sleep. A few of us woke up in Tupiza, where the train switched tracks, and where we bought such good humitas in 2012. (At 4am, the humita lady wasn’t in the station.) About an hour after sunrise we pulled into the station at Villazon, at the Argentine border.

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Villazon, the end of the line, just north of the Argentine border.

We got a station wagon cab that stuffed our wagonload of baggage into the back, leaving the hatch open, and drove the mile or so to the frontier. We hadn’t had breakfast, but figured it would make sense to try to get through before things got busy. Two hours later, Paul was still in line and the others were guarding our herd of backpacks. Two hours after that, Paul was in process of paying the fines for overstaying our time in Bolivia (it was worth it),Leticia was in another line, this one for entrance into Argentina, and Anna and Zeke were somewhere in between, protecting our pile of pertenencias. After that, it was one more line, in which our small army of bags was scanned. The trunk with the padlock attracted special attention, and they asked what was in it, but didn’t open it. For the nth time officials couldn’t understand why we had so much stuff, and for the nth time we explained that we were (more or less) moving house from Bolivia to Argentina.

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Anna and Zeke guarding our mountain of luggage at the border, where we spend 5 hours waiting in lines and paying fines.

Once across the border, it took our usual shuttling operation (which takes at least three people big enough to fight over a bag or scream bloody murder if necessary) to get the bags down to the taxi stand, where a succession of taxi drivers looked at our tired hungry faces and our small shipping-container sized load of stuff and decided they wanted nothing to do with us. Eventually we got to the bus station, where we got a bus for a few hours later to Jujuy, left the bags to fill the office of one bus company, and went to find some lunch. It was 2pm by the time food arrived, barely averting a meltdown into a puddle of low-blood-sugar induced misery.

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This is the station in La Quiaca, on the Argentine side of the border. Once upon a time you could take the train all the way to Cordoba (and then on to Buenos Aires).

And after that it was better. We got to Jujuy around 9pm, after a bus ride that included two or three stops by customs officials. Only once did I have to get off the bus and explain what was in the trunk with the padlock (dishes, clothes, books). We figured that after a night of sleeping on the train, we’d all be tired enough that we’d sleep soundly during a night on the bus. And that mostly happened, and as day broke we bore on southward toward Cordoba. For the first time, they weren’t happy about our epic stack of luggage and charged us extra (about $4 total). We got to Cordoba around 3, found some food in the bus station, and within an hour were on the bus to La Falda. I was looking forward to this part of the trip – I still remember well the ride from the airport with Felipe in 2007 when we came to spend a year here – but I fell asleep and missed most of it.

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Exciting times around midnight at the shiny new Jujuy bus station.

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Before too long we were in La Falda, where I went and found two taxis willing to take our mule-train worth of stuff to the corner lot were Pat and Hector’s new house is, and where Leon and Louisa live in the old house. We got in around 6:30pm on December 18th, 52 hours after the train left Oruro, and 75 hours after pulling away from the apartment in Pasaje Gasco. It felt good.

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Leaving La Paz

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The last few days in La Paz were bittersweet, as we tried to do various things one last time  and tried to soak up as much as we could. In my number theory class, my students took me completely by surprise by having a small party immediately after the last exam and giving me a backpack. The whole experience of teaching at the UMSA (while having its hard moments, and with my usual doubts of how well I’m teaching) has been all I could have hoped for.
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We made the most of the last few days. We covered 13 miles on foot on Saturday, ten of it out of town from Chasquipampa toward Ventilla, then a few more walking down to the Christmas parade on the Prado. On Monday we went to the big stadium in La Paz for a football game, and saw Strongest beat Nacional Potosi 7-2, making the home fans happy. (Nine goals in a game!) Tuesday we had supper with my colleague Oscar and his wife Mercedes, the only time we were invited to eat at someone’s house in our 5 months in La Paz. After being told by the whole world not to forget to pick up my Christmas basket, we made the trip down to Cota Cota to get it. It turned out to be not a basket but a wheeled cart, filled with groceries, snacks, treats, and a bottle each of wine and rum. On Wednesday we had a last supper at Marrakech, our favorite Moroccan restaurant (and perhaps our favorite in general) in La Paz.
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Mixed with all of this was the last of my grading and logistical work of the end of the semester, plenty of goodbyes at the university, and cleaning and packing on the home front. We had originally planned to send one checked bag home with Tenaja, but when she had to leave early on crutches and with an injured knee, we didn’t really feel we could in good conscience send an extra bag with her. So there was everything we came with plus all we had accumulated minus what we managed to give away in the last week.
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December 15 was moving day. We were up early to work on the last of the cleaning and packing. We worked hard and fast, checking time every half hour or so. At times I felt I could hardly breathe. Leticia was the mastermind, and somehow got everything packed by noon. We had, though, 5 large bags and 8 small bags, more than we could pick up and carry in one trip. This went down to 5 and 7 after eating lunch, but it was still a ton. Ivonne, our landlord, was nice enough to let us finish up on our own time after settling up, and we got the last of the stuff out and I went to get two taxis (4 of us, plus all the stuff, doesn’t fit in one.) We said farewell to Primo the security guard, Alina the building’s cleaning lady, and our neighbor Ramiro, who pulled up as we were loading. I would have liked it to be a little calmer, but we needed to be off. The taxis took us to the bus station, and helpfully parked right at the correct bus stall, meaning we didn’t have to shuttle our mound of baggage across the station. At 3:30 in the afternoon we were off to Oruro.
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Looking northeast from our bedroom window on Pasaje Gasco.

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