To most, Machu Picchu is a bucket list destination, right up there with the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza. It is a destination that defines an entire continent. But what often comes with such a designation are the precise things one tries to avoid when traveling: crowds, inauthenticity and price gouging. If Jill and I were going to do this, and of course we were, we were going to have to get creative. This was nothing new to us. We were used to dealing with a bit of discomfort in order to stay on budget while visiting major tourist destinations. The tricky part, however, is that we would no longer be alone. My father would be joining us for two weeks as we made our way from Cuzco to Arequipa. While we were thrilled to have the company, our tight timeline and budget in South America meant we agreed to the visit under one condition: that we would continue to travel in the exact manner we would if it were just the two of us. And although his resources provided new options, we would continue to be frugal travelers, cutting corners wherever possible. We wanted to visit Machu Picchu on a shoestring, avoiding the tourism super highway. Or at least as much as that is possible.
We spent two days in and around the town of Salento just on the outskirts of the zona de café. The draw to Salento, aside from its charm, is the Valle de Cocora. The cocora are the world’s tallest wax palms and can crest over 200 feet. The valley is home to groves of these spindly trees that stand tall and proud compared to the short vegetation that surrounds them. After exploring some of the valley on foot we hopped back in the van and headed into the heart of coffee country. The plan was to find a coffee finca to park for the night, maybe on a hill with a view of the surrounding area, maybe with access to bathrooms, and maybe just maybe a place where we could buy a couple of pounds of fresh Colombian Arabica. It’s possible we were asking for a tall order, but if we didn’t set the bar high we would always end up settling in a gas station for the night and we have learned to love the fight. We have not only developed high expectations of where we camp but we have discovered that the act of finding that perfect place is itself a large part of our adventure.
When our trip was in its initial phases, as in still just a pipedream, we always agreed a layover for a few weeks of Spanish classes on our way down to Argentina would be an important part of it. We didn’t know where and we didn’t know when, but we were certain we would make it a priority. For one reason or another, perhaps because we began feeling pressure to speed up our pace, I noticed our language regarding classes begin to change; what started as a “Yes, definitely” was becoming a “Well, maybe..”
Border crossing days can be stressful ones. It’s a day full of unknown variables that no amount of research can entirely prepare you for. Procedures seem to change regularly, new taxes or fees can be attempted to be extracted, lunch breaks can be taken at all hours of the day leaving you stranded until the officer returns, and around every corner are unofficial porters pouncing on even a momentary lapse in confidence offering their services in the hopes of scoring a few bucks. Although porters can make the process easier, and surely cost less than a cheap lunch, have no doubt, it is a form of cheating. Up to this point we have had a few notches on our border crossing bed post but it was Guatemala that taught us some important lessons, lessons that we had to learn the hard way.
Disclaimer: This post is to assist fellow travelers who wish to hike to the summit of Santa Cruz on the outskirts of Guanajuato. If you are not of this category this post will provide little entertainment.
Every morning spent in Guanajuato began as we watched the sun crest over Santa Cruz. Being the highest peak within the town’s vicinity we could only imagine the view one must have looking down on the valley floor.
Our night on the TMC ferry was uneventful to say the least. It’s more a cargo ferry than a passenger ferry, so with the exception of a few other small vehicles, we spent the night surrounded by 18 wheelers and dozens of truck drivers. We hung out for a couple hours on deck, watching the sunset over the La Paz harbor, reading and attempting to converse with some Mexican teenagers.